That night I picked up my bedtime reading, Wings of a Dove, by Henry James, and had my answer. Subconsciously I’d been trying to imitate James all day. Not only had I failed to equal James, I’d lost touch with my own voice. I remembered another time, long ago, as I was writing a Dr. Fenimore mystery, suddenly the doctor began to sound like Sam Spade. Why? I’d been reading The Big Sleep, by Dashiell Hammett.
I’m not alone with this affliction. A writer-friend, Stephanie Patterson, was working on a novel and had the same problem. She was writing along at a merry pace until one day she slowed down to a crawl. The cause? Villette, by Charlotte Bronte – a wonderful novel, but not Stephanie’s natural style. She put it aside and all was well once more.
You can’t be too careful what you read while writing. To be on the safe side, stick to non-fiction – articles and light essays, or even poetry. Otherwise your mystery may turn into a poor imitation of Swann’s Way or The Brothers Karamazov.