Yes. You have to read a lot. Or listen to a lot of stories on southern porches on slow, afternoons that don't rush the teller. And, never rush the teller if you want to get a good story. We often take the slow way home in the south and the story is the better for it.
What do used book stores have to do with this you might ask. Everything.
Let's face it most writers or those longing to write do not have the deep pockets required to rotate their reading liturgy to the degree they are diversified in the word. And to write well one must be diversified.
If you lived in the middle of the outback of a strange planet and you wanted to learn to write, if that was your hearts desire, and you couldn't get to a writing class, a college, an on-line course, a conference, and all those great things I would simply tell you to read. Then to read some more. To do that you must read outside your boundary lines. I have ten author friends who come to mind immediately who live in Nashville. Each of them writes completely different. Different genres. Different styles. All amazingly, good. Your style will most likely be as set aside as theirs. Or, you'll find yourself leaning into a certain writers voice and identifying with that type of book to a deeper degree. This is your song. While your words will be different and unique you will find that you belong to a certain sub-group. The Raymond Chandler's, the Danielle Steel's, the Stephen Kings, the Charles Dickens's, the J.K. Rowling's, the John Grisham's, the Alice Hoffman's - and so forth.
Somewhere along the way the actual type of story-teller you are will become familiar. But do not let your reading become so familiar that you lose track of the fact that stories have many elements and all the best have a taste and shadow of the strong history of style and substance. To discover and explore those examples at length requires a lot of money, a library card with a hole worn it it, or used bookstores.
My husband, a strong and logical man, does not highly approve of used bookstores. Not highly. But he is wanting authors to be paid and paid well (see full price) for their books because his wife is one. He once pulled me aside and told me to stop telling people in the grocery store that they could just find my books at the library. OK - I do love and support libraries, but he had a point.
On a recent visit to such stores I have procured the adorable series The #1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. I adore these books. They are a simple, pleasure in the middle of my sometimes stormy life. They help me hit the pause button and stop thinking about my deadlines and to-do lists and to go to sleep after reading them with a kind of Peace that I love and need. I've also been able to share the books and introduce the author to other readers.
Likewise, another recent visit had me coming home with an armful. My husband saw me and said, "Like we don't have enough books already." Then he looked at the price of a few of them and made a comment about that. But what I've tried to explain is discovering a new author, and the magic of their words never fails to enrich the ones I write. It allows me to taste their stories the way I might a fine wine at a dinner party and go out the next day with a point to purchase my own bottle. I can also pick up a slightly, rough or dog-eared copy of something and mark it up, use a highlighter, make notes on passages without feeling guilty.
I am able to read the backlist of authors I love. Little books that might not have garnered enough publicity to make the lasting run on the marketing stage but that nevertheless are an excellent read. And, yes, I won't kid myself, I occasionally nab a few hardback jewels that are to live for. I have a big, beautiful copy of something waited that I bought and brought home because it was a big, beautiful hardback and I just could not resist at that price. I've never heard of the author but the heft of the book, the beautiful cover, the title, all pull me toward it and I've set it aside for summer reading. As if my summer's are slower. (They are not.)
So I encourage you to get your list on. To wander the isles of bookstores with an open mind. To discover new writers and joy in the ones you haven't read in a while. (I picked up a hard copy of one of Ann Tyler's books that I had missed years ago when I read her everything.)
You don't have to pick and choose with budgeted care. You can push a cart, hold a basket, stretch out your arms and purchase with abandon. OK, almost. But you get the picture.
Last thing. Turn off the TV. Silence the phone. Step away from your twitter feed. And, pick up a book. Sit down somewhere. Set a timer. And, read. If you have become so distracted by social media and email pings so that you have something like the mind of monkey on crack cocaine - set the timer for five or ten minutes. Push it to fifteen. And add five minutes a day until you at least get to forty minutes. Your brain deserves you. You deserve it. Life deserves it.
And, if you truly want to be a writer with all your heart, or just write a better letter, it's all in the name of professional, and artistic research and development.
So, when people ask you what you are doing tell them you'll be deeply involved in research and development. (People like that kind of talk. Even when they don't know what you're talking about. It sounds important.)Then lock a door, pull up a chair, prop up your feet and pluck a tasty book from that pile and begin.
(We have more than one used bookstore in Nashville but I will highlight two that I happen to love and frequent.
Bookman/Bookwoman in the Village and McKay's in my old Neighborhood of Bellevue)
River Jordan is a real writer in the real world whose imagination can take her to far away places where room service never ends and the hotel bookstore is always open.