Like beacons of light along a garden path at night, books offer flashes of influence and inspiration to each eager reader and invaluable writing lessons for any aspiring writer. Over the years, these gifts have filled my heart and mind, making my life rich and my imagination richer.

Today, I share with you five of these books (or series) and each one’s story of influence in my own life and the writing lessons they’ve taught me.

5. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I was only a few days old, my parents moved us from Mobile, Ala., to teeny-tiny Artas, S.D. On our journey we encountered the first of a number of blizzards we would experience over the next few years. We stopped at a hotel where all the rooms were taken. But, as any such business in that area would do in the face of such a storm, they began rolling beds and other makeshift accommodations around the indoor pool. No family turned away that night!

My mother shared with me the story of that adventure many times over the years and she always reminds me of the promise she made as we faced a brand new situation together.

“If we make it out of this storm alive, Joy, I will buy you the entire Little House on the Prairie series and read each and every book to you.”

That’s a promise she kept and a promise I carried through to my own children, finishing reading them the ninth and final book in January of 2013.

Laura Ingalls Wilder took her own life experiences and created a series that instilled in me hope and determination. She taught through narrative the story of the American pioneers and the perseverance they possessed.

Her writing lessons to me showed the power of embracing daily mundane tasks to bring reality and deeper meaning to the world in which my characters live. It is in the simple act of stirring in a kitchen where a daughter’s heart unfolds to her mother. In the drudgery of sewing a dress, a girl discovers the art of patience. Through sweat and blood, a man discovers the well of water that means his family will survive.

4. Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare

My story surrounding this play includes an embarrassing moment.

(Anyone else thinking back to snickering in study hall while reading those horrible most-embarrassing-moment stories in teen mags?? Just me? Right then.)

I was about 9 years old (coincidentally, my daughter’s current age). One of my older brothers who is actually more nerdy than I am—I know, that’s hard to imagine!—had just given me a bunch of his books. Nestled amongst these lovely gems was a little copy of Romeo & Juliet.

So, one afternoon, I settled in atop my bed to read the entire play…out loud…with a unique voice for every character. I was blissfully content and oblivious to the humor of the image I must have made when I suddenly heard a chuckle from the hall. When I whipped around, I caught my father trying not to completely lose it.

I was mortified! And, needless to say, occasional door checks became routine whenever I acted out plays from that point forward.

I did learn some writing lessons from Shakespeare as well. Romeo & Juliet began my appreciation of both tragedy and romance in stories, and I frequently (though inadvertently) visit the tragic in my writing. In some ways, my childhood acting taught me the art of developing different character’s voices in such a way that they speak aloud more clearly than even the best audiobooks.

3. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

This is another book that reminds me of my mother. She often read books aloud to me (something I love to do with my two little munchkins), and this was another series we enjoyed together.

What I learned from “Ann, with an ‘e’” was spirit and attitude and a fierceness in fights and friendships alike. Honestly, as I look back at my own growth over the years, I see a good deal of “Carrots” in me. (Perhaps this is why my decision to become a redhead last week surprised no one.)

From a writer’s standpoint, Lucy Maud Montgomery taught me how to create characters so much larger than the pages on which they live—characters like Anne who become “kindred spirits” to us in our lonely moments or Miss Shirley who encourages us to believe in our dreams when they seem too great to achieve or Gilbert Blythe who fights for the love of the girl whose pigtails he once pulled “’cause [he] wanted to meet [her] so much.’”

(Seriously—what girl did not have a gigantic crush on Gilbert Blythe?!?!)

2. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

When I think about how J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit with children in mind, I can’t help but think of this quote by Madeleine L’Engle. “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

This book overflows with action (anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t smoked enough pipe-weed!) and carries themes both ordinary and deep. Bilbo Baggins teaches us to head out the front door even if it flies in the face of tradition, to find a way to live up to the expectations those far wiser than us have for our abilities and to call out a friend’s misdeeds even when doing so makes them turn their backs on us for a time.

For my writing, though, Tolkien’s masterful descriptions of the homey shire, the beckoning Misty Mountains, the treacherous paths of Mirkwood and the forbidding Lonely Mountain at the end of the journey teach me more than any graduate-level writing lessons ever could. Each word appears to me as a brushstroke building toward a masterpiece of an imaginary world as real as our own in my mind’s eye.

1. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

Best for last—Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. This is the book that shattered any doubt I had about who my all-time favorite author would be. My wonderfully nerdy brother (remember him from the Shakespeare section above?) gave me most of Tolkien’s books that I have; although I have been adding to my collection recently.

I first read this book only five years ago, and it rocked my world. Tolkien remains, in my mind, the master fantasy-teller. No one can compete and none should be compared to him.

This man created worlds, mythologies, peoples, histories, languages. He developed everything from a broad creation story to detailed lineages of each race of beings to believable names and words unique to each of them. He told stories of individuals in each group that have lived on in his readers’ minds from first publication to present day.

Tolkien’s works continue to inspire and enlarge readers’ imaginations. His works embody the quintessential definition of “literary legacy.”

When I read his works or accounts of his life, I catch a glimpse into the mind of a story creator; and it is a beautiful sight! The language he uses to spin his yarns is lyrical, captivating, delightful.

The Silmarillion was Tolkien’s life’s work. He never saw it completed. His magnum opus first hit readers’ hands in 1977, 4 years after his death and 40 years after the release of The Hobbit. This book gave all the back story and history leading up to the events we know with far more familiarity thanks to the unrivaled popularity of Bilbo’s tale and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This epic volume both inspires and terrifies me with its siren call to develop worlds and mold peoples and weave tales like he did.


How many of these books have you read? Which books would be your top 5 and how have they inspired you?

Writing Lessons While Reading—