word craft


I’m Considered One of Those Writers

Read­ers often have favorite authors or gen­res, in part because those writ­ers or types of books pro­vide the same kind of read­ing sat­is­fac­tion in a reg­u­lar fash­ion. They will often return to the same author. Noth­ing wrong with that. By and large, you know what you will be get­ting if you pick up a Dr. Seuss book, or one by John Le Car­ré. Indeed, I know some­one (an adult) who end­less­ly reads and rereads the Har­ry Pot­ter books. 

But what of those writ­ers who write many dif­fer­ent kinds of books? 

As an occa­sion­al read­er of mys­tery books, I was intrigued when I recent­ly read an arti­cle in the New York Times, about a 1920’s detec­tive nov­el called The Red House Mys­tery that was being rec­om­mend­ed as a for­got­ten clas­sic. What attract­ed me to the book was the author, A.A. Milne. He was the guy who wrote the Win­nie-the-Pooh books. 

The Red House Mystery
A.A. Milne Shadowland Emil Otto Hoppe 1922

A.A. Milne, Shad­ow­land, Emil Otto Hop­pé, 1922 (pub­lic domain)

What was he doing writ­ing a mystery? 

I read the book. Turns out it is one of those “cozy” British 1920s mys­ter­ies set among upper-class folks (no known source of income) in a fan­cy house some­where in Eng­land, not far from Lon­don. It fea­tures an ama­teur detec­tive and his dumb side­kick, with a very elab­o­rate (and rather unbe­liev­able) mur­der decep­tion. It was fair­ly well writ­ten, but all-in-all not very interesting.

But why did Milne write such a book? 

It seems that Alan Alexan­der Milne (1882–1956) was a pro­lif­ic writer for the stage (eigh­teen of them) as well as screen­plays. He also wrote humor­ous pieces for the peri­od­i­cal Punch, as well as oth­er nov­els, and essays. Active in both world wars, he was also con­sid­ered a good crick­et play­er, and had a team called “Authors Eleven,” with a group of fel­low authors that includ­ed Bar­rie (Peter Pan), Conan Doyle (Sher­lock Holmes), and P.G. Wode­house (Jeeves), the squad sound­ing rather like a Mon­ty Python sketch. 

Milne has been quot­ed as say­ing “The only excuse which I have yet dis­cov­ered for writ­ing any­thing is that I want to write it.” 

It has also been not­ed that Milne came to resent the enor­mous fame and suc­cess that the Pooh books brought him, at the expense of the neglect of his oth­er work. That in the face of the claim that Milne and his wife exploit­ed their child Christo­pher Robin for the mon­ey the Pooh books brought it. 

But what inter­est­ed me here is the spec­tac­u­lar range of Milne’s writ­ing. How do read­ers respond to the writer of dif­fer­ent kinds of work? 

This caught me because I’m con­sid­ered one of those writ­ers. There is my True Con­fes­sions of Char­lotte Doyle (his­tor­i­cal fic­tion), The Pop­py Books (ani­mal sto­ries), The Most Impor­tant Thing (real­is­tic short sto­ries), School of the Dead (ghost sto­ry). And so on. 

Some­times read­ers com­plain that I am not writ­ing the kind of book they like, but anoth­er kind. I recall a Goodreads review by a read­er who picked up City of Orphans, think­ing it was a dystopi­an fan­ta­sy. Then, to her dis­ap­point­ment, she dis­cov­ered it was real­is­tic his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. “It was not what I expect­ed,” she wrote and there­fore gave it a very neg­a­tive review. 

At the moment I am try­ing to decide which of four ideas I wish to pur­sue as my next nov­el. Each one is very dif­fer­ent from the other. 

All I know is that if I fol­low Milne’s thought: “The only excuse which I have yet dis­cov­ered for writ­ing any­thing is that I want to write it,” I will write my best book.

So be it. 

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