Find Out What You Know

Shall I admit it?  I like detail.  Okay…  Let me rephrase that.  I like certain kinds of

A Few of My Notebooks

detail.  I am immune to the charm of entering long lines of computer code.  Tax forms give me hives and palpitations.

When I say I like detail, what I mean is I love knowing what underlies the familiar.  If you’ve been reading the Thursday Tangents, you’ve probably figured this out.  Poor Alan Robson is more patient than you know about my myriad questions.  Of course, he gets in a few of his own, now and then.

I really get excited by how ideas fit together, as anyone knows who has had the misfortune to be in the vicinity when I have a new obsession.  Then I will happily prattle on about whatever has just caught my fancy.  This interest in detail is really not a bad trait for a writer of Fantasy and Science Fiction, since these are genres where knowing where things come from can save a writer from making embarrassing errors.

So how do you start learning about something about which you know nothing?  Do you need to sign up for a course at the local college or prowl the web?  No.  Nothing so complex.  The former is time consuming and the latter demands a real skill in assessing your sources for validity.

A fun and easy way to give yourself a foundation in anything from a historical period to fashions in clothing to industrial processes to wildlife biology – well, to just about anything except tax forms and computer programming – is to read the simple books written for children of grammar school age.  (Alan, by that I mean from about age six through age ten or eleven.)

Let me give an example.  When I was writing the Firekeeper books, I wanted to have the economy of New Kelvin be based in part on being able to supply a commodity not available anywhere else.  I decided to settle on silk.  Why?  I like silk.

However, despite the fact that I like silk, all I knew about how it was produced was that it came from what was usually called a silkworm.  From reading the excellent novel Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart, I knew these weren’t worms of the sort I dig up in my garden, but more like caterpillars.  Clearly, if I was going to base an export economy on silk, I needed to know more.

Surely, you say, sericulture (that’s the cultivation of silkworms) is not something you’ll find covered in children’s books.  Guess what?  It is!  Even in our relatively small local library system, I found several that covered the subject.  I took these home.

From their pages, I acquainted myself with all sorts of interesting facts.  For example, an adult silkworm moth has a wingspan of about two inches.  It reproduces sexually.  Adult life span is brief – a few days or weeks.

I learned that a silkworm’s cocoon is made from a single unbroken thread more than a mile long.  Sericulturalists heat-kill the moths to keep them from breaking the cocoon when they emerge.   And, yep, to get the thread, the cocoons need to be unwound – again, without breaking that thread.

From this start I went on.  I learned that, although the silkworm that produces the silk you’ll find in your local clothing store is of one particular type, there are related insects that produce a similar thread.  These can be found in different climates and not all of them require mulberry leaves…

Whoa!  There I go again…  Still, how many of you have some beauty in your fantasy novel wearing a silk gown?  Does she live in a land of ice and cold, the type of climate where silkworms could never thrive?  I guess there’s a good trade route available.  There is?  Then you’ve learned something about your world.

One of the great things about children’s books as sources is that, since they’re written for young people, nothing is assumed.  Words are defined.  Often the definitions are repeated in a simple glossary.  Another great thing is that there are pictures, not only photographs, but drawings, including cut-away diagrams that show you how things work.

Those pictures and glossaries can be a gem beyond price.  Armed with the knowledge you can garner from them, you’re prepared to move ahead.  Maybe you’ll move to texts written for older children.  Maybe you’ll jump all the way to texts written for adults.  Maybe now you’ll be able to tackle that interesting website that was so confusing the first time.

Or maybe you’ll realize that you have enough to get you going with that part of your story which you didn’t feel was coming out quite right.

I love detail.  I realize that not everyone thinks that reading a book about the evolution of fabric-making techniques is fun.  I do, and did.  Be careful or I’ll start telling you about what went into making the velvet in that gown your heroine is wearing in her big love scene…

Or maybe you can tell me how you feel about detail.  Do you love it or does it drive you up the wall?


12 Responses to “Find Out What You Know”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    I work in a highly complex field. Computers fill my day (Pity me! Pity me!). I have an email friend with whom I exchange technical esoterica. As part of her email signature she has the sentence:

    Explain it to me like I’m five years old.

    And she’s right. It’s the very best way to learn about anything. Jane — you never spoke a truer word.

    I too get obsessed with detail. When I get interested in a subject I pursue it relentlessly. Learning new stuff is fun! I’m the archetypal elephant’s child. As a result of this nobody will play Trivial Pursuit with me any more…


  2. heteromeles Says:

    Hmmm. I think the issue I have with this strategy is that childrens’ book tend to repeat each other. The example I remember offhand was Stephen Jay Gould talking about how Eohippus (at that time the first horse) was always said to be “about the size of a fox terrier.” Why? he asked. It’s not like fox terriers are a popular dog breed any more. It was something that writers and textbook publishers had picked up as a standard, without noticing that fox terriers had gone out of fashion decades ago. How many kids have even seen a fox terrier now.

    Hitting the kids section also leaves out a number of very good writers and researchers, such as David Quammen, Charles Mann, Jared Diamond, E.O. Wilson, Bernd Heinrich, and Craig Childs. Heck, even Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle is quite readable. It was a best seller in its day.

    That said, there are a lot of good children’s books out there. Some of the best I’ve seen come from the UK. One of my favorites is Diana Wynne-Jones Tough Guide To Fantasyland. For some reason, my local library shelved it in the kid’s section. This is something every SFF writer should read.

  3. Tom MacCarrol Says:

    Always a good place to pick up the basics (It’s how everyone starts).
    Detail is important- to the writer; not *necessarily* to the reader. One problem is the writher who, having put in the time & effort to do the research, feels the need to include it *all*, cramming it all in whether it fits the flow of the actual story or not.

    If you know that (for example) silk cannot be produced in the local area of your setting, then it must be an import from somewhere else (racheting up the cost with distance and number of middle-people. This should drive a behind-the-scenes understanding of how rare and expensive it is, how many people of what social groups can afford it, the degree of sacrifice needed for someone else to attempt to ‘fit in’ etc…not a twelve page discussion on trade routes and global textile markets that connects to nothing else in the story.

    • Tori Says:

      This is basically what I was going to say, and I completely agree. I want to add too that some of the details can become interesting in the story if they’re completely unexpected: like your beauty in the land of ice and cold must be very rich since she wears silk, but she eats alligator tail just like the commoners there. Huh? Well, maybe her land has hot springs where imported alligators can grow year-round without hibernating and breed like crazy. (Like the alligator farm in Colorado that exports alligator meat and hides to the south!) Anything in too much depth is going to get dull though. I’m looking at you, Herman Melville.

  4. Nicholas Wells Says:

    It all depends on the detail for me. As a writer, I prefer to understand as much as I can about my own world. Especially if it’s one I’ve built from the molten core up for my alien race to live on. But as a reader, I don’t *need* to know everything. I remember a book called “The Silver Wolf” (can’t remember the author) I read once. The author spent a paragraph, often a thick one, describing dresses and building. Ok, overload. (Great book otherwise by the way). Switch to “Citadel” by John Ringo, he mentions some alien has fur, and I’m thinking, “Fur? So what is he? Dog, cat, frog, what?” Now to be fair, that one was book two in a series, so maybe it was better described in book 1.

    Still, I’m with Tom. I don’t need a breakdown of someone’s culture and economy unless it actually matters. Even then, I doubt I need the whole thing. For my own notes however, probably not a bad idea. That way if it dose come up, I’m ready.

    Don’t get me started on aliens and the detail they need.

    As for gathering details, the annoying thing is sometimes those childrens books are flat wrong. Or they say the opposite things. I found one once that said fennec foxes live in packs. Uh, no. Then one book says red foxes mate for life, while another says they mate with one then split once the kits are adults.

    That’s what drives me up the wall. Sorting through and finding what’s right, and what the actual details are. I don’t mind research, but give me research I can trust. When a wolf center tells me coyotes don’t hunt in packs, which I know from personal observations to be wrong, I wonder what kind of miss-information my own efforts are finding.

  5. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    Jane does have a really good point about children’s books, and perhaps a way to minimize gathering of erroneous information would be to check publication dates and sources of the information. Publication dates of scientific data, in particular, are important. For example, a National Geographic article of just a few years ago stated the the Neanderthals died out completely; a much more recent one says that Neanderthal genes are found in people of European and Asian descent. (I find that extremely cool, by the way) Who knows what “they” will find out later?
    Hooray for the author’s researching minutiae for the sake of credibility. I find it irritating to read something in a story that just doesn’t make sense: to use the above example, finding silk in a very cold climate that has no contact with areas where silkworms might thrive.
    As for how much of the underlying details to reveal to the reader, well, it depends on how interesting you can make it.

  6. Paul Says:

    Asimov did a bunch of various science-type books for young readers (when he put aside SF for a time after Sputnik, he felt it was his mission to educate people about science through nonfiction, including young people). All of those would provide so many basics in so many fields, if you could still find them.

  7. janelindskold Says:

    I hardly know where to start… There are a lot of good thoughts here…

    Repetition. Actually, I don’t have a problem with this. It helps drum details into my head.

    Both Julie and heteromeles have good answers for Nicholas’s point — check dates. Especially in any science, information gets updated. Certainly, the articles I’ve read on coyotes stress how they are incredibly adaptable and will hunt in packs when there are no other pack hunters to fill that niche. However, this did not enter common knowledge until later.

    Also, consider how easy it is for those studies to be made. I’d take anything about the life-styles of wild snow leopards with a grain of salt since every articles stresses how hard they are to track. However, information from zoos etc. about diet, health issues etc might be valid because snow leopards often do well in captivity.

    Weighing sources is really important. When I was researching wolves, I rapidly found that the material from studies based on captive or restricted packs varied from that gathered from free roaming packs.

    This didn’t mean one was “right” and one “wrong.” What it meant was that I had to balance where the information came from and even the rivalries within the various fields.

    Finally, Tori made me grin… Alligators in Colorado? Who would have thought… but it shows how the anomaly can be very useful to a writer!

  8. Barbara Joan Says:

    At dinner last night a friend, retired school teacher, was talking about how much she learned about various personalities Thomas Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright etc from a children’s series she was reading to her grandchildren.

  9. Debby Says:

    I thought I was the only one who bought children’s books. I am a teacher at our local nature center. I depend on the kids books for REALLY basic information — then I hit the internet. I especially like them as sources when I am setting up an exhibit.

    Does anyone else depend on the reading level statistics that Microsoft Word supplies? I use that to make sure that handouts and ‘Did you know’ signs aren’t too complicated.

  10. Debbie Daughetee Says:

    Great post! I never thought of mining children’s books, but it makes total sense. You’ve opened up a whole new world of research for me, Jane. Thanks!

  11. janelindskold Says:

    Delighted to find out that so many people find children’s books useful!

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