Reading Who You Are And Who You Would Like To Be

By Anne-Mhairi Simpson

One of the prime pieces of advice given to writers is “Write what you know”. This inevitably causes deep sighs and wails of “but I don’t KNOW anything!”. Especially when it comes to fantasy, people say, but I’ve never seen a dragon. How am I supposed to write about it if I can only write what I know about?

I’m sure I’ve spoken about this before, so I’ll just reiterate, that piece of advice relates to emotions, not actual situations. If you’ve been so scared your knees locked and you wanted to vomit, who cares if it was because you saw your mother faint in the middle of a shop or because a dragon landed right in front of you and you realised you were standing on its treasure pile? No one, that’s who. The emotion is what counts.
BUT, that’s not what I’m talking about today.

The thing is, just as writers should write about what is familiar to them in some way, things they have experienced, so do readers tend to gravitate to things that strike a chord with them. This may sound blindingly obvious, and indeed, I’m sure it’s the crux of most publishers’ marketing departments, but how often do you, as a reader, really think about why you read what you read?

I recently bought several epic fantasy novels, including books by Joe Abercrombie and China Miéville. The shame I mentioned in last week’s post had simply grown too much to bear. However, while I was in the shop (evil shop), I decided to look for Suzanne McLeod’s urban fantasy Spellcrackers series.

I found it but they only had The Cold Kiss Of Death, which is book #2. So I had to go and buy book #1 from Amazon (evil shop).

While I was waiting for the Amazon delivery to arrive, I started reading The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie. It’s good. It’s got barbarians, big ole meanies, and cripples. The cripple’s bits, in particular, make me wince. I remember when walking was a somewhat similar experience.

But I’m not sucked in. Because I’m not really relating. As it turns out, The Blade Itself is a great book, but it’s not really me. I’ll read it, but for the same reason I read Lord Of The Rings. Because there are some things you just should read if you want to call yourself a fantasy geek. And I am a fantasy geek. Unfortunately, other fantasy geeks don’t respect me. I have to amass more evidence of my geekiness. Hence, The Blade Itself.

Yesterday, The Sweet Scent Of Blood (Spellcrackers #1) arrived. I’m third of the way through it and I had to force myself to put it down mid-sentence to write this blog post in time for it to go up today. The Cold Kiss Of Death is about three feet away, ready to be snatched up as soon as I finish SSB. You know it’s going to happen.

I’m relating more to McLeod’s writing. Do I know why? Not entirely sure. Firstly, it’s set in London, a city I know because I lived there for five years. I particularly like stories involving the fae and McLeod has put a new spin on the idea for me, with the idea that the fae aren’t all-powerful. I love that.
Personally, when I read a book I want to escape from the downside of life. I know about being cold. I know about being hungry. I know about looking around and thinking “Great. What the hell do I do now?” and not having any easy answers. Epic fantasy has a lot of that in it. I don’t need a book to tell me what that’s like. I’ve been there. It’s also got a lot of men in positions of power and a lot of women… not. As in, not in positions of power. I have nothing against a strong male lead (The Dresden Files are among my FAVOURITE stories, as are all of Terry Pratchett’s books) but in my experience epic fantasy tends to run to a more patriarchal system, shall we say?

I also like some of this world in my reading. Like the London setting. And the position of women in society. I like strong women. I’m a woman. I would like to be strong. This probably isn’t surprising. Maybe that’s what puts epic fantasy, for me, into the “should read” category and not the “can’t put it down” category. The Dresden Files centre around a male lead, but there are a LOT of very powerful women there. The faery queens, while you can’t exactly call them ‘women’, are female and the most powerful individuals in that world. Pratchett’s books vary between male and female leads, but there are always strong women there too. I aspire to be that kind of woman.

(I should add right now that I’m only on page 68 of The Blade Itself. If a tremendously powerful woman makes an appearance later on that I haven’t got to yet, I do apologise.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am categorically NOT saying that one is better than the other. Just that I prefer one to the other. That’s my personal taste. I’m sure there are a lot of women who also love Abercrombie’s books and that’s fine too. I’m not debating the worth of anyone else’s work. Just saying, we naturally seem to gravitate towards things we like to read.

The reasons why people read are no doubt as numerous as the readers, but in the end, we want to experience something that takes us out of our everyday lives as well as something amazing, something we wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. Why else would you read?


Real life is just too real, which is why Anne-Mhairi writes fantasy, preferably for teenagers because they’re closer to her mental age. This can, and often does, involve griffins, unicorns, werewolves and/or vampires. And because she likes a laugh, there are also pink mice and gods with faulty moral compasses. But whatever she’s writing, there’ll be a lot of blood and a LOT of magic, because that’s what makes her worlds go round.

She’s been to six schools (seven if you include university) and lived in five countries on two continents. She speaks three languages and bits and pieces of three more. She once galloped a horse into a cow (by accident) while at work and she’s been to Machu Picchu three times. Apart from writing, she likes pretty shoes, making jewellery, films, dancing, reading and chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate.

Her first book, For The Love Of Gods, will be available on 27th October 2011.

4 thoughts on “Reading Who You Are And Who You Would Like To Be”

  1. I think my reasoning is along the same lines as yours. I’ve always been stubborn, and in my stories, even when I was a kid, I was always the one doing the rescuing, not the one being rescued!

  2. Beautifully put. My first book falls into the epic fantasy category, which I love, and I wanted a powerful female in that world (Turned out I got several.) Urban fantasy does tend to have more strong female characters than the epic stuff, which seems to have powerful females only if they’re the big bad, in my reading experience so far. I have no idea why, and there are a whole bunch of traditional epic fantasy tales out there that I haven’t read yet, but as Lee put it – escapism is everything. I saw no reason why I couldn’t be the one swinging the sword, performing magic and rescuing some poor, quivering guy held hostage by the evil king. Being fairly stubborn even as a kid helped – I had no problem putting myself in those roles. *grin*

  3. Thank you Anne-Mhairi, an excellent article that I really enjoyed reading. (Yes, I run this site and you might think I have to say that but this is not the case at all – if I don’t like something, I say nothing at all (it is the English male way).)

    Escapism. That is always my stock answer to the “Why do you read fantasy” question. When I was young there was the Faraway Tree and Narnia and then, as a teenager, David Gemmell made so many long, long journeys on public transport seem very, very short and this was all because I was able to slide away into a fantasy realm. Only recently I have also begun to understand that “wish-fulfilment” plays a large part too and it was the success of the Harry Potter books that brought this home to me. People didn’t just want to read about Hogwarts, they wanted to live there (as many – like me – also once wanted to live in Hobbiton).

    And yes, you are quite right, personal taste plays a massive role – you can love fantasy books but not love The Lord of the Rings. Many urban/contemporary fantasy fans are left cold by the epic/sword and sorcery sub-genre and it is easy to understand why, they are very different from each other, one keeps a large dose of realism while the other very little.

    And finally I would like to back up you comment about how location can also be important. Joseph Delaney’s Spook’s series is set where I live in the North West and it makes it just that little bit special.

    And that is quite enough random mumbling from me for now,

    Keep up the good work!

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