Little Bits of Eclectic Knowledge

This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of talking for an hour with Joe Barrett, who will be reading the audiobook version of Artemis Invaded.  Joe also read Artemis Awakening, so I was familiar with both his enthusiasm for his work and his attention to detail.

Persephone Purruses Eclectic Knowledge

Persephone Purruses Eclectic Elements

Some of his questions were about typos, since he was working from an uncorrected proof.  Some were about pronunciation.  However, he was also interested in details about the characters and setting, so he’d be certain how to present them.

Occasionally, I feared that I was giving Joe more than he either wanted or needed, but I felt reassured when – after one micro-lecture on the relationship between Greek and Latin variations of the same name – he laughed and said, “I really love your little bits of eclectic knowledge.”  Then he paused, obviously afraid he’d insulted me by assuming I wasn’t an authority on all these topics.

I was quick to reassure him that, like most writers I know, I’m a magpie, collecting weird details and cool bits of information into a shiny treasure hoard that then finds its way into whatever I’m writing.

This treasure heap doesn’t accumulate by accident.  One thing my Friday Fragments does not include is the extensive reading I do in shorter formats – especially magazine articles.  We take several general interest magazines, a couple on archeology, one of photography, and, just to keep my mind fresh, I occasionally raid the periodicals section of the library for magazines I’m either thinking about subscribing to or that I’d never subscribe to, but that are interesting in small doses.

How often some randomly acquired bit of information comes in useful hit me this past weekend, when Jan and Steve (S.M.) Stirling came over for dinner.  Over the years, Jim and I have often had the pleasure of hearing Steve talk about a project when he’s in the process of evolving it, so after dinner – swearing ourselves to deepest, blackest secrecy – we asked Steve if he had anything new in mind.

Steve nodded and began telling us about a project he’s still evolving.  Eventually, I commented, “Did you know that…”  Steve didn’t, and I’ve promised that we’ll copy the article and send it along to him.  It was a really minor point, but just the sort of thing that adds an extra bit of shading to a tale.

Unlike some writers, who write their SF/F in a setting clearly recognizable as belonging to Earth’s own history, unless I’m writing something actually set here, I enjoy evolving my own variants.  That’s when the hoard of interesting information comes in particularly handy.

This shouldn’t be taken as a deliberate mixing of elements, like spices in a recipe.  There’s no “Take one teaspoon Mayan extract, blend into a flour ground from Germany pre-Bismark, shake over a fillet cut from Meiji era Japan, and sauté in last summer’s windstorm.”  Instead, for me, the pleasure is when some little bit of something sparks a revelation as to how my characters might deal with a problem or how particular governmental system might evolve in a certain situation or why they’d wear a certain sort of clothing or armor.

As I’ve been reviewing the over sixty short stories I’ve had published to this point (two more later this year will make a round seventy), I’ve had a vivid illustration as to how often a story owed its genesis or some key element to a small detail picked out of my glittering hoard.  For the reader’s amusement, I’ve include many of these in the short after=pieces that I’ve written to go with each story.

Now duty calls…  I’m about to go cut apart a truly gigantic pumpkin that looks as if it cross-hybridized with some other squash.  I wonder if the differences will be more than skin deep?  What color will the flesh be?  Seed shape?  Flavor?

Wait!  Pumpkins originated in North America.  When did Cinderella’s carriage become a pumpkin?  The French word comes from a Greek word that was usually applied to melons…

Hmm…  I wonder how different Cinderella’s journey might have been if her carriage had been made from a watermelon?

13 Responses to “Little Bits of Eclectic Knowledge”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    “I wonder how different Cinderella’s journey might have been if her carriage had been made from a watermelon?”

    She’d never have got home. Her carriage would have been eaten by an elephant. Unless my wife Robin got to it first. Robin is addicted to watermelon mixed with coarsly chopped red onion which she sometimes eats as a salad and sometimes as a dessert, depending on her mood at the time.


  2. Peter Says:

    Well, she probably would have looked different than the Disney version, watermelons originating in Southern Africa. Might provide an alternate explanation of the “Cinder-” part of her name (or maybe it’s a corruption of “China”, where they were being widely cultivated by the 10th century, which is probably around the point they started to spread to Europe via Moorish Spain.)

  3. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Bits of eclectic knowledge can be amazing. I’m working on a project with someone and just today we came up with related information on the same topic, and neither of us knew the other’s. Worked out well.

  4. Paul Genesse Says:

    Funny stuff about the pumpkin. 70 short stories!!!! Wow!!!!!

  5. Heteromeles Says:

    My favorite metaphor du jour is that a lot of writing is mosaic making, in the sense that you break pieces off your source material and work to shape them into a new piece of artwork, a mosaic of shards (or properly tesserae) from a bunch of sources. A big part of the art is in getting the reader to stop seeing the source materials and to focus on the new work you’ve made with them.

  6. Dominique Says:

    I love hearing random trivia! In your books Jane, I find that I am always learning something new, even when it is Artemis and not Earth…

  7. DrWeb Says:

    Reblogged this on DrWeb's Domain and commented:
    Little Bits of Eclectic Knowledge.. good piece…

  8. Louis Robinson Says:

    Now you’ve got me going! Never looked at Cinderella in French. LaPerousse, iirc…

  9. Eric Says:

    I love the attention to detail and depth of character those little bits of eclectic knowledge can bring to a story …and to life!

  10. Jane Lindskold Says:

    My mental image of Cinderella’s coach transformed into a watermelon kept becoming a stretch limo with Cinderella a modern girl going to the prom…

    I like that. Wouldn’t mind seeing it done as a picture! Might make a neat short story.

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