White houses of Lindos, Rhodes, Greece

Me and Mary Stewart

I read a lot of Mary Stewart books when I was growing up, around the age of twelve. Recently I’ve been re-reading a couple of them, and I’m just now realizing the extent of the influence she had on my writing. She wrote mystery/thrillers with a romantic element, and richly-described, often exotic, locations.

Whether because I just hadn’t experienced as much, or because my imagination was more active and open when I was a teenager, books, movies, and music from that time had a much bigger impact on me than they do now. I’m guessing that’s pretty normal. I knew that Mary Stewart’s books set in Greece (My Brother Michael, The Moonspinners, This Rough Magic) made me really want to visit Greece, which I finally got to do in 2013. I’ve included a couple pictures from that trip.

Hillside houses of Symi, Greece
The island of Symi

I also have a good part of my story set on an island in Greece. Her descriptions made me feel like I had been there. She really involves all your senses, and has a wonderful way of phrasing things.

Here’s a beautiful passage of description from My Brother Michael, of the drive to Delphi: “The road reared and twisted between great ribs of brown hill that thrust the landscape up into folded ranges. At the foot of the steep waterless valleys dead streams curled white along their single beds, like the sloughed skins of snakes.”

White houses of Lindos, Rhodes, Greece
Lindos, Rhodes

I’m re-reading her first novel right now, Madam, Will You Talk? and I realized that the original opening scene of my book owes a lot to the dramatic car ride scene at the end of that book. I’ve edited out that scene in my later drafts, but it was the beginning of the whole thing for a long time. My writing is nowhere near the level of Mary Stewart’s, but here’s a little excerpt:

The car screamed to a halt, skewed across the middle of the deserted road.  Klara lurched against the dashboard then jerked back into her seat and sat, apprehension chilling her temper.  She glanced at her companion.  He was sitting easily, his hands light on the wheel, staring sightlessly ahead.  Silence roared in the car, drawing her nerves to the snapping point.  He is going to kill me, Klara thought, staring transfixed at his handsome profile.  The painful red of her blow was clearly visible against the pallor of his face.  Klara heard him take a long breath between his teeth and froze.

And here’s a few bits from Madam, Will You Talk?:

The road whipped wickedly under us like a snake. The world swung in a sickening lurch as the tyres screamed at a bend. Then we were straight again, tearing hell-bent down our long tunnel of light.

“It’s a pleasure.” He accompanied the formal words with a smile so delightful that, in spite of my heart-aching fear and apprehension, I smiled back. I found myself watching him as he leaned back in his seat, and settled the car down to a steady sixty-five, his eyes narrowed on the extreme arrow-tip of light ahead. In its reflected glow his face was a handsome mask of concentration.

And I was aware again, sharply, of the impression of excitement that I had received before: somehow, it was there, banked and blazing, under the smoothly handsome exterior: the fain gleam of sweat over his cheekbones betrayed it, the nostrils that flared to a quicker breathing above a rigid upper lip, the hands, too tight upon the wheel.

It’s been startling and fun to see how much of the feel and imagery of that scene seeped into my own writing. I wrote the first version of my own tense night driving scene when I was fourteen, a couple years after I read Madam, Will You Talk? and I was (as far as I remember) totally unaware of how much that book was influencing me. It definitely made an impression!

I’m interested to see what other elements have seeped into my writing as I continue re-reading these great books. If you haven’t read any Mary Stewart, you should check her out!

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