Touchstones: Chris Breach

I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones this year, starting with my post from a few months ago on Sapsorrow’s Dress. As well as exploring some more of my own imaginative touchstones, I decided to ask a bunch of other writers about theirs. This week I’ve invited one of my 2016 HARDCOPY buddies, Chris Breach, to share his thoughts on something that inspires him and captures something of what he aspires to in his own writing.

Hey Chris, thanks for coming! OK… What is your touchstone?

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

I love that book. When did this book first emerge as a source of inspiration for you? Where did it come from?

Well, it’s a classic, one of those books you read without thinking about how good it is, necessarily. It was not until I started reading it to my kids (multiple times, night after night) that its genius began to reveal itself. For example, have you ever realised that each picture is a different shape or size? The first image is the size of a postcard, roughly, then each picture increases until you reach the three full pages where there is no text at all—just Max and the wild things roaring and dancing to the moon, swinging in the trees and parading around. Then the pictures start to shrink again as he returns across the ocean and back to his room. These sorts of intricacies reveal themselves with multiple readings, which is something I love in anything I read.

Why do you think it resonated with you so strongly?

I think we share a similar outlook on life, for whatever reason. I did not lose the majority of my family in the Holocaust, I was not traumatised by the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder in 1932 (as Sendak has said he was)—but I also believe that life is not fair, that it is, for the most part, a challenge, but one that has its moments of joy and tenderness and love in amongst the shit. We are both pessimists, I suppose, and attracted to the dark instead of the light. It has been worth remembering that he once vowed he wouldn’t write stories of sunshine and rainbows, because that’s not real life.

How has Where the Wild Things Are inspired your writing? Have you ever written directly about it, or does it lurk in the background of your stories?

Sendak has a control, a tightness, in his writing that is inspiring to me. I love reading short, tightly controlled narratives, and I aspire to that same succinctness in my own writing: to be able to say the most with the least number of words. I could have easily picked Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for great examples of taut storytelling, but there are—surprisingly—a large number of similarities between my latest manuscript (a verse novel about racism and mass murder) and Where the Wild Things Are—they both feature morally ambiguous characters, a story without a clear resolution, and benefit from repeat readings. They have an unsettling element of fear that permeates the narrative but is never explicitly stated. And most of all, Sendak has a fearless approach to his writing that is inspirational, refusing to follow established patterns in the publishing industry (which, incidentally, got his books banned more than once).

I’ll leave you with, perhaps, my favourite quote from any author, living or dead:

I know my work is good. Not everybody likes it, that’s fine. I don’t do it for everybody. Or anybody. I do it because I can’t not do it.

Something for all us writers to aspire to.

Chris BreachChristopher Breach was the overall winner of the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards in 2011. He was selected as a participant of HARDCOPY in 2016, a manuscript development and industry information masterclass. He participated in The Lost Art of Letter Writing as part of the Shepparton Art Festival 2016. He was a finalist for the ACU Prize for Literature in 2014 and for the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize in 2015.

Epilogue

Just as I was prettifying this post for publication, Chris alerted me to this beautifully timed piece of exciting news…

 

Advertisements

Luc Besson meets Labyrinth, but BETTER

This is so exciting. I have been waiting for this. Robin Shortt’s Wellside came out yesterday from publishers Candlemark & Gleam! I am gonna be heading down to my local bookstore TODAY to badger them into getting it in for me so I can dive into this exquisite, crazy world again. Think: if Luc Besson made Labyrinth….

Wellside_FC3-SM

I say “again” because I read an early draft of Wellside, which went through the CSFG’s novel critiquing circle in the same year as my own The Beast’s Heart. And that draft of Wellside blew me away. Robin’s writing is nothing short of magic. He creates these complex, mind-blowingly inventive worlds for his characters to explore that you can just smell as you turn the pages. I have only read a handful of books in my life that are as utterly immersive as Robin’s. I am all about immersive fiction, so if you are too, you have got to read this.

And then there’s the characters. Oh. My. God. He’s got that knack of coming up with characters that are at once familiar and utterly strange. That kind of awesome that floors you with inventive brilliance while simultaneously somehow feeling just right. I don’t know. Think… Calcifer out of Diana Wynn-Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. Or Augra from The Dark Crystal. Or Harmony, out of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

I don’t make these comparisons lightly: Robin’s stuff is just that good.

Oh, I can’t wait.

Touchstones: Robin Shortt

I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately, starting with Sapsorrow’s Dress. As well as exploring some more of my own imaginative touchstones, I decided to ask a bunch of other writers about theirs. This week I’ve invited my good friend Robin Shortt, author of the soon-to-be-released YA novel Wellside, to share a key source of his storytelling inspiration. I gave him a bunch of questions, but I’m just going to throw them away at this point, because Robin’s story is fasincating…

(And because he’s too modest to boast, I’m going to say that you should watch out for Wellside, because it is A. May. Zing. I beta-read an early draft and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.)

Back in the mid-Eighties, what got me through a lot of boring days in sweltering classrooms was the knowledge that once they let me out I could go home, turn the fan on, turn the TV on and hear this:

In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned. Heaven sought order…but the phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown. The four worlds formed again and yet again, as endless aeons wheeled and passed. Time and the pure essences of Heaven, the moisture of Earth, the powers of the sun and the moon all worked upon a certain rock, old as creation; and it became magically fertile. That first egg was named “Thought”. Tathāgata Buddha, the Father Buddha, said: “With our thoughts, we make the world.” Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch. From it then came a stone monkey. The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!

(Cue Seventies J-Rock).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2huJqFsFDE&t=19s

Monkey was (deep breath) a BBC dub of a Japanese adaptation of the Ming Dynasty Chinese novel Journey to the West, which was in turn based on Song Dynasty legends surrounding Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang (or Sanzang, or Tripitaka) and his pilgrimage to India.

In both the novel and the show, Tripitaka is only a supporting character. The protagonist is the stone monkey we just saw in the intro—Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, an even older figure in Chinese folklore, who becomes Tripitaka’s chief disciple. Together they journey from China to India so they can bring back original Buddhist scriptures. And, every episode, Monkey has to fend off assorted brigands, goblins and demons who try to waylay our heroes, in some kickass tokusatsu-style fight scenes.

It would almost be easier to talk about what isn’t a touchstone for me here. I like my heroes to question authority, and you won’t find a better anti-authoritarian fantasy than Monkey, who gatecrashes Heaven, mocks the Jade Emperor, steals the Peaches of Immortality from under his nose, and proceeds to beat up pretty much every major figure in Chinese mythology, with only the direct intervention of Buddha slowing him down. He’s a great character who still makes his presence felt in pop culture today, notably as the direct inspiration for Dragonball’s Goku. It was also my first exposure to East Asian martial arts and fight choreography, which I immediately fell in love with—I don’t think I’ve written a fight scene yet without some Monkey in its DNA.

Also—and this is what I want to talk about here—it was full of mythology and theology, starting with the dense Creation-story in the intro, that I knew literally nothing about. In Australian schools of the Eighties, when Religious Education consisted of a visit from a Protestant with an acoustic guitar and a felt board, Buddhism (let alone Taoism) was not exactly on the cultural radar. All this stuff was completely new to me, a vast and complex cosmology that was often only dropped as tantalizing hints, since the show always had to keep moving to the next scene of Monkey beating the shit out of a luckless demon with his magical staff. The culture, the society, even the landscape and architecture in the show, all of it was new.

This is probably a good time to mention the cultural appropriation angle. Monkey is an absolute minefield of appropriation issues—even before we get to the English dub, Japan’s borrowing of Chinese culture is an entire field of study in its own right. Then there’s China’s historical appropriation of Buddhism, which you can see in the syncretism of the novel’s vision of Heaven, where Buddha rubs shoulders with Laozi and the Jade Emperor.

There’s a lot in the dub that (rightly) wouldn’t fly these days—the Chinese-takeaway typeface of the title, the Asian accents put on by the mostly white cast. Back then, though, when Doctor Who was literally casting white dudes in yellowface as Asian characters, it didn’t stand out. Most importantly, their hearts were in the right place. While the dub, written by David Weir, could get silly (and the Japanese series was very silly at times), the underlying Buddhist and Taoist ideas were serious—Monkey itself is an extended Buddhist parable—and they were treated seriously. And while the show’s original Japanese audience would have been a lot more familiar with this world and its characters, the dub had to introduce them to kids for whom they were entirely new, without getting in the way of the story. They succeeded brilliantly.

(Digression: it helped that the source material, and the literary tradition it belonged to, was massively entertaining in its own right. Of Chinese literature’s Four Great Classical Novels, three of them (Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Water Margin) are pretty much straight-up adventure stories and compulsively readable. They even have cliffhangers:

The Jade Emperor accordingly told the demon-king Mahabali and a contingent of heavenly troops to hoist Monkey up and bring him to the executioner’s block, where he was to be cut into small pieces.

If you do not know what now became of this Monkey King, listen to what is told in the next chapter.

It’s the literary tradition that ended up giving us wuxia and Jin Yong, probably the best writer of adventure fiction in the history of the world, and who deserves a blog post or several in his own right. End digression.)

This trick—to introduce an unfamiliar world while also telling a readable story—is hard to pull off. We’ve all read stories that get bogged down in world-building, spending pages and pages on lovingly-detailed backstory while nothing  at all happens; or stories that move along pleasantly enough but where the background is threadbare at best, or at worst just copy-pastes elves and dwarves from Tolkein at second- or third-hand.

All the fiction I’ve loved since I was a kid has managed this trick—H.P. Lovecraft, Tanith Lee, Michael Moorcock, Zack Parsons. Now, probably foolishly, I’m trying it myself. My upcoming novel Wellside is set in the Well, an endless pit lined with doors that each open onto a different world—a hub of realities, owing something to King’s Dark Tower and Blyton’s Faraway Tree. Various worlds have attempted to colonize the Well, sometimes cooperating with each other, sometimes butting heads.

The setting itself isn’t influenced by Chinese mythology (although watching the intro again after so many years, I can see the mountains of mud from which Monkey’s egg hatches in the skyline of Wellside’s Red Sand City) but it’s a complex background that I’ve tried to sketch out without bogging down the story. I hope I’ve at least partially succeeded.

Wellside_FC3-SM.jpg

Robin was born in Canberra and lives in Vancouver. His stories have previously appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild anthology Winds of Change. Wellside, his debut novel, out from Candlemark and Gleam in June 2017, is a tour de force of subgenre fusion that just cries out to become an immersive movie directed by someone with the visual flair of Peter Jackson or Guillermo del Toro.

Touchstones: David Versace

I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately, starting with Sapsorrow’s Dress. As well as exploring some more of my own imaginative touchstones, I decided to ask a bunch of other writers about theirs. This week I’ve invited my good friend and 2016 Aurealis Awards co-nominee, the extremely talented and all-round-lovely-guy, David Versace to share his thoughts on something that fuels his passion for storytelling.

Hey Dave, thanks for agreeing to bare your soul on my blog. What’s your touchstone?

I suppose most people answering this question would talk about their religion, a key childhood memory or a beloved family friend who visited great wisdom upon them at an impressionable age.

Me too. My touchstone is an obscure educational program from the 1960s, which purported to teach science and history to children, called Doctor Who.

(*Fighting to be heard over the chorus of YESSSS!!!*) When did this emerge as a source of inspiration for you?

One of my earliest childhood memories was of watching a robot molest Sarah-Jane Smith, with whipping cables, at far too young an age. But the clincher came on my eighth birthday, when my parents gave me two Target novelisations: The Ark in Space and The Cybermen. Those much-read treasures not only inspired an obsession with collecting the entire range of books, but also triggered a desire to write. I eventually gave up on the collection (I’m an indifferent completist and I didn’t have that much money) but the desire to tell stories never went away.

Why (apart from all the obvious reasons to do with awesomeness) do you think it resonated so strongly with you?

Like nearly every Australian kid growing up in the seventies, I was obsessed with Tom Baker’s shouty swagger and ridiculous scarf, as he stomped his way through the Phillip Hinchcliffe era of highly unsuitable Gothic horror stories. I became fascinated with the show’s weird and frequently irreconcilable mythology, its revolving-door lead actors and its mad inventiveness.

Eventually I figured out what really held my interest – that Doctor Who is a magic formula for telling almost any kind of story (even if what they mostly told was the same “monsters besiege an outpost” story again and again, for budgetary purposes). It can do a detective mystery one week, a screwball comedy the next and cosmic horror the week after that, and nobody questions it. Nobody but boring people, anyway.

How has it inspired your writing?

Well, the first story I can ever remember writing for purposes other than showing off to teachers was a Dalek story – that one was illustrated! – and, of course, I wrote some regrettable fan fiction in online forums in the 90’s. (I’m lying. I regret nothing).

But the truth is, the greater part of my moral and ethical framework comes more from Doctor Who than from my casually-abandoned Anglican faith. Much of my sense of social justice, of sticking up for the unprotected and opposing authoritarianism, started with the Doctor. Those themes show up in my work often, in quiet resistance, weary defiance and hot rebellion.

How does Dr Who embody or reflect other things that interest you as a writer?

I think Doctor Who inspired my love for science, though I’ll cheerfully disavow the absurd pseudoscientific nonsense the show throws around. The idea of science was sufficiently inspiring to overcome any gaps in the methodological rigour of BBC staff writers on a deadline. If maths hadn’t suddenly become unintelligible when I turned fifteen, I’m sure I’d have followed a career in the sciences.

But the other thing I’ve taken from the go-anywhere, do-anything formula of the Who concept is a blithe disdain for staying inside the boundaries of genre. I love taking pieces from different genres and smashing them together. I just can’t seem to stay inside the lines: a space opera will inevitably end up stuffed with time travel, dragons and hard-bitten PI’s; my romantic mysteries get infected with vampires, and my magical robots fight werewolves. (That last one is a real story, by the way). Hell, my latest story is a Western full of argumentative ghosts.

Basically, Doctor Who has ruined me for ever sticking with a single genre. There’s just too much fun stuff out there to settle in one place.

How has your relationship with your Whovian touchstone changed over time?

I doubt I’ll ever stop loving its versatility and sense of invention – if the sad and grim missteps of the Colin Baker era couldn’t kill my devotion, I doubt anything will. I’ll probably get some stupid quip engraved on my tombstone. (How about “My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he looks!”? Hmm, maybe I’ll keep thinking about that one.)

I have come to the sad conclusion that perhaps I won’t, after all, ever be asked to produce the show, write an episode or play the Doctor. I still harbour the until-now-secret hope to one day be famous enough to be invited to the show as an extra who gets eaten or exterminated by something. That’d be something to go back in time and tell to my eight-year-old self while he has nightmares about Zygons.

For me, Doctor Who is a foundational text. I don’t reference it directly (well, not often) but when I write, it’s always resting in the spaces between the words. I get a great sense of satisfaction, of assurance from it. Who will always be there, quietly evolving and shifting with the tides, until it once again bursts forth with a new wave of popularity or unexpected moment of relevance.

That’s not a career I’d be unhappy with.

DavidVersace_Portrait.jpgDavid Versace (www.davidversace.com and @_Lexifab) lives with his family in Canberra, Australia. He is a member of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild and an occasional public servant. His work appears in the anthologies “Next” (CSFG Publishing) and “At the Edge” (Paper Road Press) and his short story “The Lighthouse at Cape Defeat” (Aurealis #89) is a Best Fantasy Short Story finalist in the 2016 Aurealis Awards.

Touchstones: Zena Shapter

I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately, starting with Sapsorrow’s Dress. As well as exploring some more of my own imaginative touchstones, I decided to ask a bunch of other writers about theirs. This week I’ve invited award-winning author Zena Shapter to share her thoughts on a touchstone that lies at the heart of many of her stories. And I’m really glad I did, because – Wow! Like many writers and consumers of fiction, I’m a big fan of living vicariously through other people’s experiences, and Zena has provided some amazing pictures below to keep me going for quite a while.

Thank you for agreeing to share your thoughts with me, Zena! What is your touchstone?

Thanks for inviting me to your blog series, Leife! My touchstone is actually an intangible thing – travel. Whenever I visit somewhere new, my senses come alive – aromas become more vibrant, sounds are stronger and I hear more of them, I absorb atmospheres, caress textures, breath more slowly and find myself analysing and recording every detail about the people and place until my notebooks are crammed full. I search for what’s different to ‘back home’, and celebrate the commonality of humankind across the world. These experiences never fade (and if they do I have my notebooks!) and they constantly inspire my writing, especially my longer fiction. They help me build worlds that are out-of-this-world! …yet grounded in reality.

Zena Shapter backpacking – Komodo Island – Iceland – Galapagos – Californa – Tanzania
Top: Komodo Island; Iceland. Bottom: Galapagos Islands; California Redwoods; Tanzania.

 

When did travel first emerge as a source of inspiration for you? Where did it come from?

The first time travel inspired me was when I was twenty-one, working in a Birmingham publishing company after reading English at University. I hadn’t travelled much at that point, and a friend asked me to go away with her for the weekend. It was January, miserably cold, we were both newly single and needed to get away. We went to a travel agency and asked about last minute deals. In England you can make rock-bottom bargain travel plans if you wait until the day before you want to go and aren’t fussed about where. We ended up with tickets to Tenerife, in the Canaries Islands off the west coast of Africa, and a few days later landed in a completely different climate and culture. It was a transformative experience, changing my mindset, career choices, and life view – it felt like magic!

Zena Shapter Easter Island, Chile
Easter Island, Chile

Why do you think this experience affected you so strongly?

I couldn’t believe how much the act of stepping away from what was familiar enabled me to assess that familiarity objectively. It gave me the space and opportunity to really think, assess and see where I needed to make changes in my life. I also loved the experience of discovering and exploring, walking down streets and over landscapes new to me. I wanted to travel more. After that trip I went back to Birmingham, applied for sponsorship that would enable me to return to University and re-train as a solicitor so I could afford to travel more often. In hindsight that decision may itself have been a mistake, because I’m an artist at heart, though it did enable me to travel more. The first of my working-class family to go to university, my parents were also chuffed I went twice!

Zena Shapter Mount Bromo
Standing on the edge of Mount Bromo, Java

How have your travels inspired your writing? Have you ever written directly about these experiences, or do they lurk in the background of your stories?

Travel for me is a transformative experience. There are countless challenges, especially when you’re backpacking, and each one enables you to grow as a person. The characters in my stories do the same. Challenges touch their lives and they have to adapt to survive. In this way my stories, like travel, are about transformation, and sometimes this is reflected in a physical journey my characters undertake from one place to another. I also love giving readers the thrill of discovering a new place!

Zena Shapter – Iceland – Towards White
A trip to Iceland inspired my upcoming novel, Towards White.

How does your travel touchstone embody or reflect other things that interest you as a writer?

I was talking about this with my agent just the other day! Looking at some of my recent works I realised that ‘control’ was a common theme. What is control and when do we have it? I enjoy questioning our ability and inability to be in control, pitting my characters against both mind control techniques and self-control issues. When I travel I look at cultural approaches to these questions too, examining how people in other countries use mass media, advertising and political spin to gain control, as well as how individuals strive to take control of their own lives. The history of a place, the events that made it what it is today, also interests me as a writer, and I gain a fuller sense of that when I physically travel there.

Zena Shapter – petra_siq – Jordan
Three months pregnant here in the Siq, Petra, Jordan.

How has your relationship with your touchstone, or the way you’ve drawn inspiration from it, changed over time?

Travel takes time and costs money. So yes, the responsibilities of raising a family have over time meant a decline in my ability to travel. Every few years or so I try to fly from Sydney back to England to visit family, and stopover along the way – never in the same place of course. Those stopovers are all too brief, yet enough to assure me that travel is still my inspirational touchstone. I always come home with another notebook and countless photos of the people I’ve met along the way – they’re bound to turn up in a story soon enough.

ZenaShapter300dpi

Zena Shapter writes from a castle in a flying city hidden by a thundercloud. She is the winner of twelve national writing competitions, including a Ditmar Award, the Glen Miles Short Story Prize and the Australian Horror Writers’ Association Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in numerous online and print venues including the Hugo-nominated Sci Phi Journal, Midnight Echo, Award-Winning Australian Writing (twice), and Antipodean SF. Reviewer for Tangent Online Lillian Csernica has referred to her as a writer who “deserves your attention”. In 2016 her co-authored science fiction middle grade novel Into Tordon was published by MidnightSun under the pseudonym Z.F. Kingbolt. Her solo novel Towards White will be published in 2017 by the International Fantasy Writers’ Guild (inspired by a trip to Iceland, see photo above!). She is the founder and leader of Sydney’s award-winning Northern Beaches Writers’ Group, a book creator and mentor, creative writing tutor, editor, social media consultant and workshop presenter. Connect with her online via ZenaShapter.com

Vale Babette Cole

I was very sad to hear today that Babette Cole has passed away after a short illness. She was only 67! If you haven’t had a chance to read her wonderful children’s books, run-don’t-walk to your nearest library or bookshop and rectify this immediately. She first captured my heart with her re-imaginings of fairy tales in Princess Smartypants and Prince Cinders.

There really should be more re-tellings of fairy tales in this vein.

But my absolute favourite is Mummy laid an egg.

mumm-laid-an-egg

I have yet to come across a more joyfully frank explanation of where babies come from (complete with a totally age-appropriate double page spread on some ways that mummies and daddies “fit together”.) I read it to my kids when they were tiny. It’s one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen. I love it.

skateboard
Look, if my kids have to grow up with unreasonable expectations of sex…

Thank you Ms Cole, your work is wonderful and I so wish you’d been granted more time to do much more.

 

The Never Never Land – ebook coming soon!

promotionalnevernever
The Never Never Land

Well, here is some exciting news! The Never Never Land anthology, containing my story “Adventure Socks”, is due out in ebook on 1 July!

To celebrate, CSFG are hosting some interviews with authors from the anthology.The first one up is Thoraiya Dyer, whose debut novel Crossroads of Canopy, set in a giant rainforest, is due out from Tor in January 2017.

Research Rabbit Holes #8 – with David Versace

Research Rabbit Holes can be fabulously inspirational, or horribly time wasting. They can take you in directions that are wildly irrelevant to your story, or can help you add layers of authenticity and meaning to your work. In this series of blog posts I’m sharing some of my favourite journeys down these Research Rabbit Holes, and I’ve also asked some other writers about their experiences falling into these diabolical black holes of eternal fascination.

20140809_150443This week’s guest is David Versace. I urge you to look out his stuff if you haven’t seen it before, because what comes out of his brain is often startlingly original and beautifully written. By way of example, and because he’s too modest to mention it below (or maybe he forgot), you can read his latest story, the flash piece Incidental, on Evil Girlfriend Media.

Tell me a little bit about your latest story and what sort of research you needed to do to write this story.

The story is called “Silver the Moon in Ascension”; it’s a military adventure about magic robots fighting against werewolves. Stop that, I’m serious! As you can probably tell, it’s a secondary world fantasy, so I didn’t need to dive too deep on the research for this one. This was a Wikipedia-skim over the history of alchemy; the general beliefs behind alchemy, the purported qualities of various base metals, their symbolic significance and in particular the weird rivalries and status games of its practitioners. Much of it has been (ahem) transmuted for story purposes, but the real stuff is more than weird enough for future use.

How does research fit into your writing process? Do you research first, then write, or do you research as you write?

With short stories, about half the time something cool I’ve read will prompt further reading and inspire a few ideas – and more reading. The rest of the time the general idea might come first and then I will realise I know nothing about international currency exchange laws or how a dog pound works, and then I hit the books. I try not to kill my writing momentum by going off to research, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. I find it’s usually better to know enough about what I’m describing before I start than it is to rewrite after I discover I was completely wrong.

Is research a distraction or an inspiration?

Both. So very much both. Many of my best ideas have sparked from an “I did not know that” moment – especially when I take an occasional plummet into some corner of history or another. On the other hand, nothing puts the brakes on a story draft like the sudden realisation that you have no idea how the pre-Columbian Mayan economy operated, and your story hinges on whether they kept bees.

(Just an example. I know almost nothing about the Mayans…but now I have an urge to visit the library).

When you’re writing secondary-world or alternate-world stories, how does real-world research contribute to your world-building?

The real world is a pretty good resource when you’re making up a secondary world. The fact that the Mayans kept bees (or not) is a delicious detail that could open all sorts of avenues for your dragon-ravaged, kite-riding fantasy culture. I like to grab cool details from all over the place and then figure out how they could plausibly work together. Semi-plausibly, maybe. If you squint. Those small details, extrapolated outwards, can shape societies and economies and ecologies in ways you’d never expect.

What was the weirdest thing you had to research?    

Over the last couple of years I have spent a lot more time thinking about the economics and politics of different track gauges – the distance between the rails on a train track – than I would ever have expected to.  Those weighty contemplations have had sadly little bearing on the train story that originally prompted them.

Now that you bring it up, I have a dark suspicion I may have wasted quite a lot of my time.

next_front_cover
Next

David Versace (www.davidversace.com) writes fantasy and science fiction in Canberra, Australia. His work appears in the CSFG anthology “Next” and in the forthcoming anthologies “The Lane of Unusual Traders” (Tiny Owl Workshop) and “At the Edge” (Paper Road Press).

He is a member of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, who can vouch for his whereabouts on the night in question. He is a voracious consumer of speculative fiction, comics, wine, and television drama. He is teaching himself basic coding, bass guitar and how to write novels.

His heartfelt dream is to stop drifting aimlessly through the Australia Public Service, where he has worked for over 20 years. Until the dream becomes reality, he remains focused on corporate governance, risk management and business continuity, the sexy invisible lifeblood of well-regulated government.

He lives with his wife Fiona and two children. They tolerate his interests with patient good humour.

Down the Research Rabbit Hole #7 – with Ian McHugh

Research Rabbit Holes can be fabulously inspirational, or horribly time wasting. They can take you in directions that are wildly irrelevant to your story, or can help you add layers of authenticity and meaning to your work. In this series of blog posts I’m sharing some of my favourite journeys down these Research Rabbit Holes, and I’ve also asked some other writers about their experiences falling into these diabolical black holes of eternal fascination.

IanThis week’s guest is Ian McHugh, who sports what is surely one of the most resplendent beards in the Australian speculative fiction scene. His writing speaks for itself and has featured in publications such as Asimov’s, Clockwork Phoenix and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He is renowned as a blunt and fearless (and therefore extremely useful) beta reader, and his critiques often start with a variation of: “Your story starts here on page 3.” He can frequently be found running workshops at the ACT Writers Centre, or teaching at the University of Canberra.

Tell me a little bit about your latest book/story and what sort of research you needed to do to write this story.

I’m currently writing a secondary world fantasy novel with early modern technology – steam engines and gunpowder weapons and whatnot – combined with magic. It’s not steampunk, I just wanted to step away from the standard medieval-era for adventure fantasy. So, I needed to know early steam technology, firearms and artillery, as well as naval warfare in the transition from sail to steam, siege warfare with early cannons and (because it’s a magical secondary world) golems.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing your research turned up?

This current project started with canals. The canal infrastructure from the early industrial revolution in Britain was incredible. They had actual mechanical lifts – not locks, lifts – for barges, where the barge would go into a gated tub and be lifted, water and all, straight up a cliff, with a counterweight tub coming down. So, that canal infrastructure became a bigger part of the story as I wrote, and a number of the pivotal moments in the story are built around canal things.

How does research fit into your writing process? Do you research first, then write, or do you research as you write?

I tend to research big things before I start writing, then research details as I go. As such, research is important to both my writing process and my procrastination process. It also means I do a fair bit of backtracking to retrofit corrected details as I write, so forward progress some days can be slow even if I’m working hardly rather than hardly working.

Is research a distraction or an inspiration?

I think once you have writer-brain, everything and anything can become research and inspiration. Generally speaking, research is inspiration. Research is also incredibly distracting. So many rabbit holes to disappear down! For example: I recently wanted to know if a 1700s era cannon was in an elevated position – on top of a wall, say – how close to the foot of the wall could it shoot? How did they shoot downwards? Could a cannon’s barrel be declined to shoot downwards? Was it ever the done thing? I lost hours. Found a multiplicity of blogs and rants and treatises and articles and instructional manuals about the optimum angle of elevation for maximum effective range for every kind of cannon and carronade and culverin and mortar and firestick. But what about when the other fellas are nearly at the bottom of the wall? I know they used a cotton bung to stop the cannonball rolling out when the gun was pointed down, but beyond that, I’m as ignorant as when I started.

When you’re writing secondary-world or alternate-world stories, how does real-world research contribute to your world-building?

Something like how to shoot artillery from the top of a wall might seem like a detail I could write around, but it’s the little details that can catch you. If I want to have my characters defend a fortress when both sides have artillery, I need to know what the actual real strategies were for both attacking and defending a fortress with artillery. Just because it’s a secondary world, I can’t just make shit up that sounds good to me, because it will probably be completely wrong. Whatever secondary world you’re writing, it’s going to have a lot of real-world stuff in it. You have to get that stuff right first, if you want your secondary world to have any kind of credibility, then figure out how your magic and dragons and whatevs fit in with it and change it.

Tell me about a time when your research threw up something that changed your story or a character.

I think you need to approach research with the expectation that it’s going to change your story, because research is a critical part of the process of developing and refining your story idea. And, if you’re like me and keep researching as you write, it’s also part of your drafting process. As such, every bit of research tends to have consequential changes for my plots and scenes and worlds. Less so with characters, I think, unless they’re non-human (and I find a cool way to pimp them up some more) or based on historical figures (and I turn up an interesting factoid about the real person).

I have a draft of a historical fantasy novel currently filed in the Cry For Help folder, which featured a version of Peter Lalor, the leader of the Eureka Stockade gold miners’ rebellion. I originally conceived him as a fairly idealistic figure, but then reading about the real man, I discovered that, after leading this rebellion to demand democratic rights for gold miners, he became a member of parliament and voted against those rights. Although the men he led to take up arms were Chartists and other advocates of democracy, Lalor wasn’t. He was a republican and a liberal, but not a democrat. Given that the conceit of my novel is, in part, “what if Lalor’s rebellion was successful?”, this tidbit threw up some interesting questions. So my version of Lalor now became a kind of Australian Robespierre and his rebellion/revolution followed the template of the French Revolution – including the Terror. Suddenly my character had way more depth and a way more interesting arc.

Have you ever researched something that made you abandon a story idea?

I said before that research is inspiration. Sometimes it’s also an obstacle or a roadblock. I don’t know that I’ve ever abandoned a story because of something my research turned up, but research often turns up inconvenient bits of knowledge that then need to be accounted for. In my story (deep breath) Extracted journal notes for an ethnography of bnebene nomad culture, I conceived an alien species with five genders. Initially, I just said they had three available sex chromosomes which could be paired in five viable combinations. But then I read about the other non-chromosomal ways that gender is determined in nature, like temperature variance and haplodiploidy (look it up), so I had to not only have my scientist protagonist consider those possibilities as well, but I had to consider for myself whether they were more realistic than what I’d proposed.

What was the weirdest thing you had to research?    

Research for stories is often esoteric, but I think it’s only weird to other people. If you’re geeking out on it, it never seems weird. And if you’re (if I’m) researching for a story, then you’re (I’m) probably geeking out. You just end up knowing a lot of unusual factoids – for my recent story Demons Enough I decided I needed to know how much blood is in an adult human (five litres, for anyone who’s interested). Knowing it wasn’t critical for the story (read it, you’ll see) and finding it out didn’t change how I told the story, but I was geeking out on the story, so I wanted to know. Not weird at all, see?

What kind of research have you needed to do for stuff that doesn’t exist? How do you approach that?

If you’re writing speculative fiction of any kind you’re always researching for stuff that doesn’t exist. I think most of the time, you’re riffing on what’s real – extrapolating technology or politics, mashing things together to make a monster, filing off the serial numbers from some meditative technique and saying that’s what you do to work magic. And if you’re not riffing on what’s real, you’re probably riffing on something someone else made up before. So, for me, I don’t think there’s a difference in the research approach – writer-brain is always switched on. It’s more what I do with it once I’ve done the research. If I’m researching something that exists, then I regurgitate it as accurately as possible into my story. If I’m researching something that doesn’t exist, then I bang together things that do until I get sparks of something new.

A gigantic metal angel statue stands over a city with one arm raised. The buildings in the foreground are low and dark, the buildings at the angel's feet are tall and gleam with the reflected light of a setting sun.Ian McHugh’s first success as a speculative fiction writer was winning the short story contest at the 2004 Australian national SF convention. Since then he has sold stories to professional and semi-pro magazines, webzines and anthologies in Australia and internationally. His stories have won grand prize in the Writers of the Future contest, been shortlisted five times at Australia’s Aurealis Awards (winning Best Fantasy Short Story in 2010), reprinted in Australian year’s best anthologies, honourably mentioned for world year’s bests and appeared in the Locus and Tangent Online annual Recommended Reading Lists. He graduated from the Clarion West writers’ workshop in 2006. His first collection of short stories, Angel Dust, was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award for Best Collection in 2015.

Ian lives in Canberra, Australia and is a member of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild.

Down the Research Rabbit Hole #6 – with Cat Sparks

Research Rabbit Holes can be fabulously inspirational, or horribly time wasting. They can take you in directions that are wildly irrelevant to your story, or can help you add layers of authenticity and meaning to your work. In this series of blog posts I’m sharing some of my favourite journeys down these Research Rabbit Holes, and I’ve also asked some other writers about their experiences falling into these diabolical black holes of eternal fascination.

This week’s guest is Cat Sparks, an award winning author, editor and artist who, among other things, can rightly claim to be the inspiration for the latest Fablecroft anthology-in-the-making, In Your Face  (which is running a Pozible kickstarter at that link you can support if you hurry). If you’ve been to any of the spec fic conventions in Australia, you’ll have been lucky to escape without her snapping your photograph (well, not lucky. It’s actually kind of a privilege to be photographed by her).

She’s also penned my favourite line so far about an author’s relationship to research.

Bolstering my own ideas with research is like retrofitting the skeleton into a dissected organism.

Read on…

Tell me a little bit about your latest book and what sort of research you needed to do to write this story.

The working title of my current manuscript is The Salted Earth – a title that will probably change at some point. The novel forms the greater part of my PhD. My research investigates the way authors utilise scientific data in the construction of science fiction texts, specifically young adult climate change stories. All my own research has to be accurate. Everything has to be sourced. Not only has this PhD changed the way I write fiction, it’s changed the way I think about text in general. It’s turned me into a research junkie and I doubt I’m ever going back.

I need to keep up with climate science reporting as well as the fiction generated in its wake. These are rapidly expanding areas, not to mention terribly depressing. There wasn’t much climate fiction around when I began. Now everybody’s arguing about what terminology we should be using to describe it – anthropocene, hyper-object, slow apocalypse, cli fi – and whether or not it’s a subset of science fiction.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing your research turned up?

Two things:

  1. The legitimacy of weather modification technology. I had totally presumed there to be no such thing outside of tinfoil hat wackjob conspiracy theory. But the Beijing Weather Modification Office is as real as the CIA. They spend millions every year trying to keep rain of their parades.
  2. Gaps in the literature. Many people are currently writing climate fiction but there are loads of stories not being told, avenues not being investigated, which makes me feel that I need to get in there first. But I’m too deep in to my own research to change tack now with my major project. This leaves the option of short fiction and essays, but everything takes so much time to research and get right – or as close to right as possible.

How does research fit into your writing process? Do you research first, then write, or do you research as you write?

Here’s where the rabbit holes really kick in. Writing for me used to be a fairly surgical procedure. I’d get an idea, I’d write it down, flesh it out – produce a step sheet, and from that generate the story. Voila! That was back in the days when I could conceivably write a story in a day or three. Now it takes me three weeks just to work out what it is I’m trying to say. Ideas beget research, which begets further ideas of the vast, conflicting and potentially more interesting variety. Before too long I’m so confused I’m really not sure what I’m writing. That’s when archaeology kicks in; me with a metaphorical trowel on my knees trying to uncover structures in the narrative mud. Or something.

My story ideas ferment like liquor. Theme needs to be drawn out. I have many friends who churn out stories at an alarming rate, but I just can’t do that. Even when I think a story is finished, I’m usually wrong. I’ve still got three or four drafts left to do.

Is research a distraction or an inspiration?

Both. Constantly. Research seems to have become the entire point of the exercise. I’ve learnt that I don’t really know much about anything, not in a genuine sense. I’m just a spongy filter through which data passes, diverts and degrades. Bolstering my own ideas with research is like retrofitting the skeleton into a dissected organism. Add style for animation — then the story might take on a life of its own.

As a reader, stories not grounded in research bore me. We have become such technological creatures, with easy access data at our fingertips. It’s impossible to get through an Internet-fuelled day without learning stuff. Science fiction is a particularly research-needy field, which doesn’t make quality technobabble a requirement (although I am impressed with the writers who manage to pull that trick off convincingly). Science fiction readers are smart and they’re interested in real science. SF needs to come across as genuine and solid. Writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, Ian McDonald, Julie Czernada and Ramez Naam have set the bar very high for the rest of us.

When you’re writing secondary-world or alternate-world stories, how does real-world research contribute to your world-building?

Real-world examples serve as excellent templates for minting alternate world elements. Societies – be they real or invented – need economies and politics. Their food supply has to come from somewhere. People have been living in cities since the Neolithic revolution. Basing an imagined society upon the mechanics of a real one makes a lot more sense than reinventing the wheel. The writer doesn’t have to fully comprehend how everything in the alternate world ought to work, but they must be able to fake it with aplomb.

Fiction writers are like pirates. We steal everything that isn’t nailed down.

Cat portrait

Cat Sparks is a multi-award-winning author, editor and artist whose former employment has included: media monitor, political and archaeological photographer, graphic designer and manager of Agog! Press amongst other (much less interesting) things. She’s currently fiction editor of Cosmos Magazine while simultaneously grappling with a PhD on YA climate change fiction.  Her debut novel, Lotus Blue, is forthcoming from Talos Press in February 2017.