“I did not, in the course of my response to the matter in April, 1861, consider within the limits of credibility that these heretofore stalwart men—many of whom were well-known to me—could be anything but misguided or deceived by the machinations of others. I did not and could not conceive of the authors of such actions as reasoning, civilized members of an otherwise flourishing country.”
Abraham Lincoln, A War Remembered, 1875
See what I did there?
That’s actually a passage from The Year the Cloud Fell, wherein I quote from Lincoln’s memoir, a memoir he had time to write because (in my alternate course of events) he survived the assassination attempt of 1865. But if you’ve read any of Lincoln’s writings, it sounds like him.
I read a lot of Lincoln’s letters and memos in preparation for that quote. I wanted it to have his cadence, his type of syntax. I didn’t want it to be a wild-ass guess. This was, obviously, a conscious decision, but it can also happen without our knowledge.
In the introduction to Harlan Ellison’s Stalking the Nightmare, Stephen King once compared himself to a carton of milk. “Milk always takes the flavor of what’s next to it in the icebox,” he tells us, and when we read another author’s work, we’re the milk.
And so it is that the opening line of one chapter in the Ploughman Chronicles is in iambic pentameter. Why? Because I was reading The Iliad at the time (a great translation, but all in iambic pentameter). I recognized this well after the fact, but it was instructive. We’re all milk in the fridge, and we have to be careful our historical fantasy doesn’t suddenly sound like a Chandler novel, or our Regency romance doesn’t suddenly “go all Hemingway” on us.
Reading other authors is important. It’s immensely educational as I see how other writers create action, tension, structure, dialog, etc. But I have to be super-careful when I read fiction while writing fiction. If a book has a distinctive style, I have to take a break before I return to my writing. I may re-read some earlier chapters in the work-in-progress, just to reset my internal voice so, when I start composing again, I don’t disrupt the narrative flow.