Spring is springing, and my thoughts inevitably turn to gardens. I’m not planning on putting one in this year, instead I have assigned the design and creation of a garden to my daughter as a school project. I’ll give her guidance of course. But most of it is going to be up to her. I’ll give her the information she needs, but the execution of knowledge is more important than simply knowing something. It’s not possible in this era of information overload for her to know everything starting out. She has to learn by doing, making mistakes, and correcting course.
It has gotten me thinking, along with having written a garden onto a spaceship in my latest book, about gardening in general. But that’s not what I came here to talk about today. Rather, it’s a comment one of my alpha readers made while I was working on Tanager’s Fledglings and she was reading along.
I wrote a scene with the main character lamenting his limited potable water supply and how he’d have to wait on a long shower until he reached a station or planet. My alpha reader inserted a comment that it would be very simple to turn his shipboard garden into a giant water filter. I replied that “I know that, and you know that, and he doesn’t know that… Yet.”
It’s hard, as an author, to know all the things, but withhold that from the story until the time is right. In this case, my character has access to the information on how to build what he needs, but it’s never occurred to him to do it that way. It will take an outside influence in the form of another character for him to have that forehead slapping d’uh! Moment.
Because life is like that. To create a believable character, you can’t have them knowing everything. We all have those sudden eureka moments as we figure something out, usually something that should have been blindingly obvious to us in the first place. Now, you don’t want your character to be an idiot about it, either. As I said, it’s hard.
Sometimes we just have to figure things out the hard way. For instance, every writer is different. Some need a secluded room in the house, no interruptions, just a blank desk, a pencil, and a piece of paper. That would drive me nuts, and I know it. So when we moved, a few months back, I set up my big desk and main computer in the common household area. I thought the background noise of kids and the dog playing, easy access to the kitchen while I was cooking, that would help me work.
It turned out I was wrong. I’ve done my best, most prolific days at a table in my bedroom, typing on my laptop, with the door firmly closed between me and my family. I can still hear them, but they aren’t tapping me on the shoulder, wanting to play on my computer, and so forth. This does have some serious drawbacks. It means that I can’t hear the oven timer, and the kids can’t access me instantly which makes them pout.
On the other hand, it’s possible the next book will insist on a different layout. But I don’t think so. I just need to get into the groove. I’ve been cultivating words, researching, thinking about character motivation, trying to decide what’s the overall arc of this book, within the series it is set in… Just like a garden, it’s all about the soil. Build up a great soil, full of rich humus and a bit of sand for drainage…
Which brings me back to the gardens on a ship. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a ripe tomato warm from the sun, or the first strawberry of spring, will wonder about the quality of such raised in space, with no sun, and possibly no soil. Does that gardener know what they are missing? They may know in theory that microbes in the soil contribute far more to successfully gardening than we realize, now (but are starting to learn). They might even have the technology to inoculate their soil with a suite of beneficial microbes, fungus, and invertebrates. But just like in the human body, under the right circumstances those benefits can become opportunistic pathogens, and wreak havoc.
Why yes, I am planning a story where gardening gone awry threatens life itself…