Crystals of Stories

Mei-Ling Researches Bats

Last week, when I mentioned I was reading about the extinctions of various paleo mammals, someone said, “So, shall we expect a story with mammoths and saber-tooth tigers soon?  Or are you going to be writing about mass extinctions?”

I have to admit, I was flummoxed.  I was reading the book (End of the Megafauna by Ross. D. E. MacPhee, with marvelous illustrations by Peter Schouten) because I’d seen a review and it seemed interesting.   But during the discussion that followed, I was reminded of a comment made the previous weekend at Bubonicon during the GOH interviews.

Somehow, research came up.  Alan Steele answered first and his answer was well-balanced, thoughtful, and very scholarly.  He researched both before and during a project, often for years in advance. Then it was Ursula Vernon’s turn.  She laughed and said (I may misquote, since I’m doing this from memory), “I don’t really research.  I write Fantasy.  I can change things to fit what I want.”

Well, that didn’t fit my impression of her books.  Since first meeting Ursula some years ago, I’ve read a lot of her books, both those written as Ursula Vernon and others published under her pen name of T. Kingfisher.  One of the things I love about her books is that underlying the rollicking stories is a lot of cool information about a wide range of topics.  A good example is Lair of the Bat Monster from her Danny Dragonbreath series.  You come out of this book knowing a lot more about bats than you ever knew there was to know.

Later, when we were chatting privately, I chided Ursula for underselling the amount of work that goes into even the most apparently lightweight of her books.  Her response was, in its own way, as thoughtful as Alan Steele’s.  She said: “But I don’t really research.  I just draw on what I’ve read and thought was fascinating.”  She then started telling me about a nifty book she’d been reading about perfumes, and we got sidetracked from there…

Often when both readers and writers think about “research,” we think about it in terms of schooldays of yore, of immersing oneself in a specific topic of more or less interest in order to produce a specific product.  That sort of research absolutely has a place in fiction writing.  I’ve done that, both before writing a project, during the writing, and then after to make sure I have specific points right.

But the other sort of research is probably more valuable.  Why?  Because you probably won’t even have ideas about new and thrilling topics if you never read outside of secondary sources and your existing interests.

I think this is why so much literary fiction deals with college professors and academics.  I’d also argue that it’s one reason why some writers start writing about writers and the business of writing.  In both cases, their interests have narrowed to what they are doing on a daily basis.  Becoming too immersed in a single field is another research issue, one that leads to some writers creating stories that are more and more specialized variations on a single theme.  That’s great if that’s what they want to write, but I’ll admit, both in my own writing and in my reading, I’m more eclectic.

Roger Zelazny routinely read up to five books at one time, dipping into each on a daily basis.  These included a volume of poetry, a biography, something non-fiction (often science or history related), something specific to a project he was working on or contemplating, and one or more volumes of fiction.  My reading is much the same.  Those of you who look at my Friday Fragments get part of my reading, but I don’t even try to itemize the articles I read,  nor short fiction.

Without my eclectic tastes, the “Breaking the Wall” novels never would have been written, because I wouldn’t have known enough about Chinese history, characters, and mythology to find myself asking the question that triggered the idea that led to the story.  The same is true for the varied cultures featured in the Firekeeper novels and elsewhere.  They’re not cultures from our world with the serial numbers lightly filed off; they’re evolved from the ground up based on what I know about how environment, politics, and religion (to name just three) have to do with how cultures are shaped.

My next read is likely to be a non-fiction book about a relatively minor historical figure.  Do I plan to write about him?  Not necessarily, but what I learn will definitely bubble up in some strange and wonderful way somewhere in the future.

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5 Responses to “Crystals of Stories”

  1. James Mendur Says:

    “I don’t really research. I write Fantasy. I can change things to fit what I want.”

    I never forget that authors lie for a living.

    That said, some authors research more than others and many authors crib stories from their own life as they write. A few years ago, I was following the blog of the author Steve Perry (not the singer Steve Perry; he hasn’t written any novels that I know of) and then I read a new book he had written and I could see where he was getting all the bits and pieces: the martial arts lessons, the character names, the little stories and jokes told by characters which illuminated who they were. Yes, authors lie for a living, but those lies often seem to have a kernel of truth in them from what the author has experienced, read, seen, heard, etc.

    Regarding your reading, if you’re up for it, perhaps, just for one week, you might consider keeping a log of everything you’ve read (articles, short stories, etc.) and making that a WW or FF? An insight into the mind of Jane Lindskold?

    Just a thought.

  2. Harried Harry Says:

    Great ideas come from ideas others have developed or thought about. In my view, we all use “sources” of material from our reading, our experiences, our friends and acquaintances experiences, and the stories told to us by others.

    As a child one of my sisters made up stories to keep us entertained as we went on trips. Most of the time, we were in the back of the pickup inside the shell so we could hear her stories. Keeping nine to thirteen children entertained on a long trip (two to five hours) was always a challenge but the stories made the time fly bye.

    I’m a “Jack of all trades, but master of none” so I use whatever I have learned from reading and from hearing others speak about to aid in my endeavors. Many people refer to sections of a Bible to explain moral concepts to others, especially children. At times, the sections quoted are no longer applicable due to changes in culture and society but they are still used.

    The information presented in this posting aids the rest of us by expanding our knowledge of what is possible if we “just think about it”.

    Enjoy the week and the weekend; stay cool if it’s warm, but stay warm if it’s cool. Never drive into running water, unless you can see the bottom (and it is not too deep or fast for you to swim).

    • janelindskold Says:

      What’s the source of the idea that you shouldn’t dive into running water unless you can see the bottom? Sounds like folks wisdom, but I’m not familiar with the idea. And I used to dive into the Chesapeake, where you can rarely see the bottom in summer because of a greenish algae.

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