LawDog has gotten a slim but gut-bustingly funny volume of his police stories off to his editor, and is now oscillating between writing down more tales of Africa, working on an urban fantasy… although, can you call it urban when it’s in small town Texas?
(Picture a satyr before a rural-county Texas judge. “You can’t sentence me! You don’t believe in me! I’m a mythological creature; I can’t exist!” “Boy, I saw weirder things than you in the sixties. Now, you’re up for theft, public intoxication…” )
…anyway, and half a dozen other projects that keep crowding into a writer’s brain. As we were discussing life, the universe, and everything (including him yelling at the “police gear up for a raid” scene on tv, “Why are you loading your weapons? Why are they not already loaded?”) , he paused to ask why certain books in a genre we’ve both read feel so… divorced from reality, and so thin.
Ah, LawDog, says I, the word you’re looking for is “derivative.” The kindliest interpretation is that the true groundbreakers in the field created a field, because the subgenre barely existed, or was still coagulating, when they wrote this weird thing they loved. So they were widely read, and drawing on a lot of different sources, and pulling together many different things. Then came authors who loved the world the first one created, and wanted to put their own spin on it. So they drew on other sources, or re-interpreted the first one’s sources as well as the first author. But then, then came people who loved the second wave of authors, and hadn’t read outside the subgenre… and so their pool of resources and interpretation to draw on is extremely shallow and limited compared to the first or second wave.
This extreme shallowness is often seen in fanfiction, where the inexperienced writer loves their one show, but hasn’t done any digging into the source materials the writers pulled from to create that show and world. If all you know of Meiji period Japan comes from Kenshin, then you’re not going to have a very great pool of knowledge on how and why that world works… and when a writer fills in the gaps with their own world and assumptions as they wander off script, it’s often profoundly wrong (including one fanfic assuming Kenshin was set during Europe’s Dark Ages… because feudal! *facepalm*)
Kris Rusch has a slightly different take; she says the original groundbreaker slipped past the gatekeepers somehow, and when it proved to be a breakout success, the publishers looked around to find similar books that were written on spec by people who just loved the genre. When they started being published, and there was a large demand, then other writers would jump on the bandwagon, briefly read the top books in the genre, and crank out something in a similar style without knowing or loving the genre. This is the sort of “writing to market” that she decries.
With the indies slipping past the gatekeepers, the truth is probably a mix of these, and other reasons. How do you make sure that you’re not falling prey to this?
1: Go Deep. Read the oldest depths from which your genre sprang, not just the last 20 years. Find the good stuff that inspired the books that inspired the books and films that inspired you.
Jeffro Johnson started reading his way through Appendix N – the list of sources Gary Gygax listed as his inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons . Many, many a current fantasy novel treats Dungeons and Dragons as the foundation of their world, upon which you can either build, or try to subvert (with a brief nod to Tolkien, who came before.) The retrospectives are now a category up on the Castalia house blog:
or in kindle book: http://amzn.to/2nVJ4Qa
What he found was nothing like the “standard fantasy novel” you get now, and nothing like the stereotype of “pulp scifi” that some quarters burn in effigy without ever having actually read. It’s worth reading some of what he found as a transition – but even more so, it’s worth reading everything on Appendix N itself! ( http://digital-eel.com/blog/ADnD_reading_list.htm )
(And let me sigh here and note that when following this advice and reading Jack Vance’s Tales of a Dying Earth (http://amzn.to/2oPHezs ) I had to keep breaking out the dictionary. I thought I had a fairly good vocabulary, but if this was the stuff “the common man” enjoyed in the 1950’s, my nose has now been painfully rubbed in just how far our education system had fallen by the time I went through.)
2. Go Deeper. Go back to the original legends, myths, histories, trading routes, wars, cultures…
Alma Boykin recently posted a snippet of a fantasy that’s been battening around her brain as the result of reading academic papers and monographs on medieval trade:
When’s the last time you saw something like that, compared to “He paid five copper for the meal, and two silver for a room.”?
3. Go wide. Read about things far outside your field. Orson Scott Card is reputed to have said one of the best ways to get inspiration to is to pick something you don’t care about at all, and then research it in depth.
For example, Peter’s first published book, Take the Star Road (http://amzn.to/2nVBIMl ), was partially inspired by The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. ( http://amzn.to/2pu5Bka )
Here’s another for you: Rory Miller is the author of the highly interesting book Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training and Real World Violence (http://amzn.to/2pJKbyX ). Last night, as Peter was reorganizing books from one bookshelf to another as he moves the reference books from Things for Westerns to Things For Fantasy, another book by Miller popped up on the couch. Violence: A Writer’s Guide. ( http://amzn.to/2oi7IGV ) I didn’t even know this thing existed. But it is an excellent breakdown on what motivates people to violence – from the office gossip (manipulation to get their way) to the bullying SJW (aggressive posturing and speech to get their way) to assault, to murder… and what those people think of other’s use of different levels of force. It’ll definitely force you to think through the eyes of a character completely unlike yourself, and in doing so, make them more real and alive.
4. Go and do yourself.
There is no perfect substitute for actually going to a place, or doing a thing. Because in the going and in the doing are a thousand sensory details, rhythms, habits, minutiae, large-scale considerations, environments, and people that you can use to make your writing come alive.
If you’ve never shot a gun, go to a range and take a basic pistol course with an instructor. You’re going to find it’s as close to the movies as… as, well, most people’s courtships are to Adam Sandler’s romantic comedies. Many police departments offer citizens academies or ride-a-long programs, which prove that real life is nothing like TV, either.
Go hike the unpaved trails, and discover that moving from point A to point B through different terrains is a while lot different than driving. Take a flying lesson, a sailing lesson, or go whitewater rafting. Get your fishing license and learn to fish, or find a climbing gym and get coached through a climbing wall. Ride a horse, or take a horsedrawn carriage ride. Learn to fence. Hey, it’s research! And it’s learning, growing, stretching yourself in ways you haven’t done before, or done in years. Do a chef’s tasting menu, try a flight of wine, go on a distillery tour… check your local area’s tourist literature, and play tourist in your own home state. You’ll turn up the most random and fun things to do – and if you ask more questions, you’ll find people who are passionate about something love to talk about it, and can tell you more than you dreamed existed.
Art is the synthesis of all our knowledge and worldview, mixed with “what if?”, “and then what happens?”, and a creative spark. So increase your knowledge, enrich your worldview, and throw a lot of new experiences into the mix. What comes out will be all the better for it!