I know writers of novels who say they don't read fiction at all while working on a book, out of fear of "being influenced" by what they read. I am struck by horror at the thought of going years without being able to read fiction (though perhaps these people write faster than I do, and take long vacations between books?)—but more struck by the sheer silliness of this.
Everything writers see, think, and experience influences their work. How could it not? Now, it's true that people do ask writers, "Where do you get your ideas?" and that writers--out of facetiousness or desperation--give answers like, "From the Sears catalog" (or "From Ideas.com," depending on the writer's vintage). But the truth is that writers get ideas from every damn thing they see, hear, smell, touch, taste, think, feel, or do—including the books they read.
Naturally, one wants to develop a unique voice, but do kids learn to talk without ever being talked to? You have an individual voice, by virtue of being an individual. And your individuality is composed of your essential God-given spark of personality and of the sum total of the things you encounter in life. Now, whether each encounter is a bruising collision or a fruitful act of love…who knows? But all of it is grist to a writer's mill; so much should be obvious, if one reads at all widely.
Personally, I learned to read at the age of three, and have read non-stop ever since. I'm 58 now; you can read a lot of books in fifty-five years. I'm sure that every single book I've ever read has had some influence on me as a writer, whether negative (I've read a lot of books with the mounting conviction that I would never in my life do something like that) or positive.
When I first began to write fiction, though, I was deliberately looking for positive influences, and luckily had quite a few to hand. During the writing of my first novel (OUTLANDER/CROSS STITCH, which I wrote for practice, not intending to ever show it to anyone), I consciously considered the art and techniques of these five writers in particular:
Charles Dickens – Nobody does characters like Dickens did, and that's why his books endure. He told excellent stories and painted a vivid portrait of Victorian society, but that society consists of people who live, breathe, and speak on the page. I learned from him the art of evoking a character: naming and describing people in such vivid detail as to make them live.
Robert Louis Stevenson – One of the earliest and best of the romance writers—back when "romance" meant adventure and excitement, escape from daily life. TREASURE ISLAND? KIDNAPPED? THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE? The titles alone are enough to transport you, but the clean prose and vivid characters bring you back again and again.
Dorothy L. Sayers – Mistress of dialogue, character, humor and social nuance. From her, I learned that dialogue is the single most defining trait of character, and just how much you can do with accent, idiom, and dialect. Also, that a character is embedded in his or her social matrix, and that matrix is as important as the individual's personal characteristics.
John D. MacDonald – John D. was a prolific writer, with more than five hundred novels to his credit, in more than one genre, but was best known for his Travis McGee mystery/thrillers. From him, I learned how to sustain characters over the course of a long series, how to maintain a narrative drive, how to write action, and how to pace a story.
P.G. Wodehouse – one of the most popular humorists ever. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse taught me how much sheer amusement you can derive from the English language—and the art of constructing a plot that works so seamlessly that it doesn't matter how absurd it is. And no one who's ever had the pleasure of meeting Bertie Wooster and his gentleman's personal gentleman, Jeeves—let alone his bevy of friends and nemeses (Gussie Fink-Nottle and his Aunt Agatha, to mention only two)—will ever forget them.
I learned a great deal from all these writers—and from hundreds more. What every
writer on this list of personal muses has in common, though, is great skill in the matter of creating characters. And character, I think, is the single most important thing in fiction. You might read a book once for its interesting plot—but not twice. When you meet a fascinating person in the pages of a book, though, you come back, discovering new relevance, seeing new depths—or just enjoying the renewal of a long and lasting friendship.