Learning from Great Novels-To Kill a Mockingbird


If you’re going to produce good writing, you have to read good writing. In this series we’ll look at some great novels and see what they teach us. We’ll start with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite books. Here are a few things you can take away from this classic. Keep in mind this was the first novel Ms. Lee wrote so don’t think you can’t do great things as a first time novelist.

Write what you know.

“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it.” With that one sentence, Harper Lee transports us to a small Alabama town in the 1930’s. You can picture the dusty streets and the faded, clapboard houses that line them. You feel the sun beating down on your arms on a summer day. Why do you leave the place you’re standing in and step into that town? Because she was describing a place she knew well. She set her story in the town she grew up in and you can tell. Good writing is more than the words you put down on the paper. It’s about the emotions and impressions behind them. The more real those feelings are to the writer the more chance the reader will feel them.  So don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s nothing worth writing about in the time and place you know best. There’s drama everywhere.

Base your characters on real people.

This leads to our second point. She based the people she wrote about on people she knew. Atticus Finch had a piece of her father in him.  As she runs through the town, playing with Jem and Dill you are beside them, remembering what your relationships were with your brothers and the kids in the neighborhood. Of course, you can take artistic license. You don’t have to describe everyone to a tee. It’s probably better if you don’t. The rule is: if it serves the story, it stays. You might have to change people a little to get the story told, but imbuing your characters with personality traits from people you know will make them live and breathe to your readers.

Don’t be afraid to tell the good, the bad and the ugly.

Harper Lee writes about Alabama in the 1930’s and she includes negative and positive experiences. You get the sense of a small town community. You see her and Jem being raised by the village. You get to know Atticus as a quiet, courageous man, the type of father anyone would be proud to claim. But you also see the ugly side of the racial issues that were part of that time and place. This makes the story real. We all grew up in the same kind of time and place. There are people and events we love to remember and claim as our own and there are things we’d rather forget. To ground a story in reality both the good and the bad memories have to be there. It might be painful to remember and recount some stories, but that’s the kind of narrative that draws readers in.

I hope this helps. Next we’ll look at one of my favorite books, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marques.