The question came up in a writing group: who are your influences?
And being writers and overthinking everything (it’s what we do!), the question mutated to cover stories that made you think, even if your thoughts ended in a completely different direction than the author intended. And again, to cover authors you hated, whose influence lies more in the direction of spite books: “I can do better than you messed that up!”
I’m going to ask you not to list the last, because spewing hatred, bitterness, and vitriol neither encourages nor makes the world a better place. Not that stubbornness and spite can’t make the world sweeter, though… ask anyone who’s tried making maple syrup at home!
When I was a kid, Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources didn’t care if you lived in state or out; they’d send a newsletter focused on geology, ecology, biomes, habitats and the lands and laws local to the state, with a lot of in-depth articles written at mostly-layman level, with line-drawing illustrations. I remember looking forward to the odd texture and colour of the newsletter (recycled paper, heavier bond than copy paper) in the mailbox.
Combine that with such fantastic possibilities as Jack Vance’s Blue World, and Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees, and yes, you find me sitting down with friends who are geologists and water law specialists (you have to understand your ecosystem, including the history on the geological scale, to understand the law and its impact) and biologists and… and bouncing ecosystem ideas off them, right down to “What trophic levels do you need in order to sustain predatory fish like cod or yellowfin tuna?” And I get people telling me that the world doesn’t need that level of research, but I also get people telling me that my worlds actually feel real, and they really enjoy that.
Yes, even that guy who checked my math and had to tell me that he knew where in the solar system I’d pulled my crater from, and I was right, it was large enough to form the weather systems I’d given it. (I know! I did the math too, which was a special hell for a dyslexic like me! But I wanted to make sure it would be right, and I had someone who’s far better at math than me check it!) …You know, on the balance, if he was motivated enough to check my math, then that means he liked it enough to do so. Yay for that, eh? Jim Curtis tells me he has had fans who’ve actually gone and recreated shots from his Grey Man series, and emailed him to say that they were possible, so I’m not alone! Though I am perhaps feeling a fair amount of pressure to make sure that any profession heavily featured in the books can be read with pleasure by members of that profession.
Speaking of friends, yes, you’ve not seen the unpublishable early fiction (and pray G-d you never will), but yes, after enough years of being married to Peter and hanging with the gang, more has sunk in than the stray u’s that have crept into my accent and my spelling; there’s less fish & wildlife & customs & cops in it, and more military.
(Peter once said to me with a fair amount of puzzlement, “Why do you use the Napoleonic-era spelling of amoung? It’s not wrong, just archaic, but…”
I blinked at him until the question penetrated a brain lacking in caffeine and sleep, and said “Ah! Was I spelling things phonetically and dyslexically in the rest of the email, too?”
He nodded, and replied, “Lack of coffee, that’s why. I love you.”)
Sitting down over a tagine with a table full of friends, and being the only person there who hasn’t done an arms deal in a souk, will eventually rub off on my subconscious and influence my fiction. It also means I have the best alpha-readers I could dream of when it comes to small-group actions… although when I mention to someone whose career was in anti-submarine warfare that I’m researching magnetotellurics, I have only myself to blame for the firehose of information forthcoming.
What, you thought I was going to start listing books? Perhaps I should. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I was in a small town and extremely bored, broke, and years from being posessed of a driver’s license or car. So I set myself the project of reading every single library book in the entire adult scifi and fantasy section, even if the cover and blurb didn’t appeal.* This was long enough ago, many were the DAW yellow spine on the pocket-sized pocket books, and a number were Ace doubles. (Which, come to think of it, may have influenced the way I view 50K as a perfectly good length of story to write, even as I’m surrounded by people who think novels should be 100-120K.)
Do I remember most of the titles? No, but that doesn’t mean no few characters and concepts stuck with me. I also developed both a deep fondness for Luis Royo’s work and the sad realization that no matter how much I liked his cover art, I inevitably hated the book so covered. (Later in life when a serious wine aficionado told me, “The cuter the label or bottle, the worse the wine.”, I would nod sadly, and say “Luis Royo covers on paperbacks are exactly the same. Michael Whelan not so much, but Royo? The more I like the cover art, the worse the book inside.” and sigh in commiseration.)
Influences? My Magic: the Gathering cards were organized alphabetically. By the last name of the artist. Yes, I was that goth. That, too, like Michael Whelan and Luis Royo, Boris Vallejo, Bev Doolittle, and Wyland shows up in my worldbuilding. How about you?
*The librarian let me into the adult section after I complained, “But I’ve read the entire kid’s section!” And she pulled up my checkout card file and realized I had started methodically from the upper right corner by the checkout desk and worked my way to the lower left corner of the other side of the room, including all the picture books for completion’s sake. Nancy Drew books get really repetitive after 15th one. Would my life have been different if I’d started on the classics instead when I got into the adult section? Probably, but mom was pushing me to read those as “good for me”, so I read the SciFi & Fantasy section in stubborn rebellion instead. You’d be amazed how many concepts and history I picked up anyway from old SF&F, though my Calmer Half laughed when I told him I finally read Xenophon only to realize Anabasis was March Upcountry set in the past.)