I have recently finished the excellent book Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose (appropriately enough!) It shows how reading closely can inform and improve your own writing. This is something I have always known instinctively, but Prose’s book takes you stage by stage through different aspects of writing, such as how to write good dialogue, how to develop character, how to describe gestures to a reader and so on.

I think I have perhaps subconsciously always been taking lessons learned from other writers and trying to apply them to my own work. I am certainly constantly telling students, ‘You cannot be a writer unless you are a reader first and foremost’. When I was younger and dreaming of being published, I would keep a ‘quotes’ book where I would copy out my favourite passages from books as I read them.

In writing Summer’s Shadow, I was definitely directly influenced by many great writers. I was recently asked to come up with a list of favourite books which informed my own story, and this is the list I chose.

Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

I read this haunting story after visiting Cornwall for the first time. I had just been to stay in the house which provided the inspiration for Summer’s Shadow – a house which belongs to my husband’s family. I loved the place so much, my husband said, ‘You have to read Rebecca – it’s almost as if it were written about my family’s house.’ He was right! The setting of the Manderley estate, and in particular the description of the drive, complete with hydrangeas lining the way, could have been written about my husband’s family’s home. The narrator is a girl cast adrift, alone and scared, too – rather like Summer in my story. It is a book written for adults, but fans of YA fiction will love it.

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

This is another story of a girl, left alone for much of the time in a strange, tumbledown house. Her family are chaotic, her father is a writer and her step-mother is a painter. It is the kind of story that makes me yearn to meet the characters in real life and to be part of their bohemian world. It is a lighter read than Rebecca, but still there is much about this story that enchanted me and fed into the writing in my own book. Any keen reader of family sagas will be as captivated as I was by this story.

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

I have read and re-read this book so many times, to myself and also to my children. As a consequence it probably had more influence on Summer’s Shadow than any other book I have readMary Lennox, the main character, is rather like Summer although she is only ten. Mary, too, is orphaned and is very resentful that she has been sent from India where she had been brought up, to live with her cantankerous uncle in a rambling house in England. She meets a boy called Dickon who helps her out of her misery with his friendship and his gift to her of a love of nature. I certainly had him in mind when I created Zach. I would recommend this book to young teens, for although the main characters are young, the language and plot of this book is rich enough to hold a young teenager’s interest.

Moondial – Helen Cresswell

I adored Helen Cresswell’s books when I was a child. I was a member of the Puffin Club, and Cresswell’s books were always on the recommended reading lists that the club sent out. I read Moondial, however, as a parent, because my daughter picked it up in a bookshop one day and asked me to buy it for her. It concerns a girl whose mother is in a coma after a terrible accident. The girl has to go and live with a relative she does not know very well while her mother is in hospital, and during her stay she has some ghostly experiences which teach her a lot about herself and her family. I drew on this when I was thinking about the ghostly passages in Summer’s Shadow.

Tom’s Midnight Garden – Philippa Pearce

This ranks alongside The Secret Garden as one of my all-time favourite children’s classics. When Tom’s brother falls ill with measles, Tom is sent to stay with his aunt and uncle. (You can see how useful aunts and uncles are in fiction when you want to get your main character away from their normal life!) Tom has been told that he may be infectious so he is not allowed out to play with other children. He feels lonely and restless and cannot sleep. One night he hears the clock in the hall strike thirteen instead of midnight. He gets up to investigate and discovers that the house has changed and that there is a beautiful sunlit garden that was not there before. This story about families and time travel has stayed with me over the years and had a strong influence on me when I was thinking about the Cornish standing stones and the links with the past in my own story.

Notes on an Exhibition – Patrick Gale

This is a book for adults, but again, YA fans and older teens will love it. It is set in the exact same area of Cornwall that I have written about in Summer’s Shadow. Gale’s writing is stunning. His descriptions of the sea and the light in that part of the world outstrip anything I have read – you can taste the salt in the air and smell the sea through his words. The plot is complex and compelling: it concerns a painter who suffers from mental health problems. She is consequently a difficult character, but is redeemed by her marriage to an intensely lovable man. There is tragedy and heartbreak and incredible beauty in this book. It will sweep you away. I would not recommend it to younger readers though, as the book most definitely contains ‘adult themes’. If you are a younger reader, you will just have to wait – but it will be worth it!

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