The advice that most established writers give to aspiring writers is that they should read, read, read – and specifically, they should read in the genre they’re writing in. It’s advice I’ve often given myself, but in my case, it’s advice I don’t follow, and there’s a good reason for that. If I’m working on a book – and since I bring out 2-3 a year, I usually am – I’m terrified that reading someone else’s mystery style will seep into mine, so the first half of the book will have echoes of Reginald Hill I was reading while I wrote it, and the second half will be vaguely reminiscent of Val McDermid, both of whom are very fine writers, but whose style would jar in the middle of my books.
What I do tend to read are books that have no chance of “infecting” my writing, and since writing a new novel is usually head-banging work, I tend to choose something humorous.
I’m particularly fond of EF Benson’s MAPP AND LUCIA books, which are set in a small town of the English south coast in the 1920s. The characters in these books are not admirable (the one exception being Olga Bracely, the prima donna). In fact, they’re petty and spiteful, but the way Benson dissects them with his gentle humour is pure joy.
Another wonderful book is THE DIARY OF A NOBODY, written towards the end of 19th Century, and supposedly the diary of a middle-level clerk in London. Charlie Pooter, the supposed diarist, is a fussy man who will never rise to great heights – nor would he wish to – but the authors have an affection for him, and so do the readers
I would also recommend Peter Tinneswood’s Brandon family trilogy – A TOUCH OF DANIEL, I DIDN’T KNOW YOU CARED, and EXCEPT YOU’RE A BIRD. These books are set in the north of England in the 1960s, and are a mixture of surrealism and black humour. Tinneswood is one of those writers who manage to let you see what they’re doing without leaving you with any idea of how they’ve done it.