Stephen King says, "If you haven't got time to read, you haven't got time to write."
I always have my nose in a couple books--non-fiction research materials, novels within the romance genre, and novels outside it. Right now, I'm reading a historical novel from one of my favorite non-romance writers, Wilbur Smith.
Mr. Smith sets his historicals in Africa, a place I admittedly know very little about. He explores issues of tribalism and colonialism all from a historical perspective. In Assegai, his hero is a big game hunter, who also gets caught up in the pre-WWI political machinations of his well-heeled European clients.
Like the best historicals, it's a slice of life from another time. The sensibilities of the characters are not ours and that can be jarring. But part of why I read is to be exposed to ideas that are different from mine. Not so my ideas will necessarily change (thought that's happened too) but so I'll understand the way other people think.
I'll admit that slaughtering animals for sport holds little appeal for me. I cringe at hunting species that are now on the endangered list. But, the bond that develops between those who track and take the game, the dogmatic, almost religious insistence on a "clean" kill so the animal doesn't suffer, and most of all, the courage it takes to stand before a charging lion without having a laundry emergency is riveting.
I'm still working my way through Assegai, but so far my take-away from a writer's perspective is that we find absolutes in the particulars. By giving me a detailed, nuanced immersion in this other culture, Mr. Smith invites me to find points of commonality with my own life. The setting and reaching of goals, the willingness to take risks, the courage to stretch myself in new ways, as his hero does.
Then there's the big canvas he's used as a backdrop for his story. What could be bigger than a continent full of exotic animals? And when the political intrigue angle is added, the whole story's stakes are raised. It matters more.
I think this is one area where we romance authors tend to fall short. In focusing so much on the romance relationship, we forget that the world is still revolving around our little circle of two and unless they are shipwrecked on a deserted isle, it will impact our characters.
Jo Beverley does a good job of bringing the world around her characters to vibrant life. Her Lord Rothgar has his adroit fingers in a dozen political pots. Sherry Thomas' Not Quite a Husband was set in British India during a time of great upheaval and her His at Night featured a "Scarlet Pimpernel-type" hero who played the buffoon in public and solved crimes in private. Mary Jo Putney's characters frequently grapple with larger issues than whether someone is in or out of favor with the ton.
Have you read an author who showed you not just what their characters wore and how they decorated their houses, but how they thought about themselves and the world around them? Which authors have given you a "sense of place" so vibrantly, you feel you've lived their story?