On Possessing the Origin of All Poems

I am bogged down in my least favorite part of writing at the moment. Every single one of my ongoing projects is at a phase where I’m slogging through tedious continuity edits and fact-checking. Blergh. If I emerge from the other side without shaving my head bald as some sort of desperate prayer for salvation from the tedium, I will count myself saner than expected.

I have to laugh at myself about the continuity piece. When I set out to write Autumn’s Daughter, the original intent was to work on a YA fantasy concept that would require minimal research and therefore be an easier gateway for playing with voice and plot and the like. I wasn’t wrong about the level of research needed to pull AD off, but what I failed to realize is that if you create a world that you decide to keep writing in, you are still going to have to put research in. The only difference is that you have a much smaller body of information to keep track of (i.e., what you’ve already written as opposed to, say, the entire span of works on Korean culture) and the information originated from your own brain…which mostly just means it would be several degrees of magnitude more embarrassing to rest the pivot point of the sequel on a fulcrum that you outlawed as impossible in the first book.

Fact-checking research is frustrating, but it’s also the foundation of believable contexts and rich scenarios. So: it matters.

The most difficult problem of research is, of course, “How do I know what I don’t know?” A friend gave me the term “postage stamp worlds” to encapsulate this struggle. When you look at stamps, they seem like a fairly simple illustration, but the closer you look, the more you realize that the art is lush with detail that seems impossibly complex for the size of the thing. Any area of expertise or knowledge is the same way: from an outside perspective, it looks like an interesting little hobby or quirky set of facts. The minute you decide to step in to become part of the world, however, you will find yourself tumbling down an absolute warren of rabbit holes.

I fall into these warrens all the time. One of the first qualifications for being a writer is probably an unhealthy fascination with pretty much everything, although there is some serious irony in the fact that my endless fascination with everything really eats into my writing time. My latest warren is drawing, in particular botanical drawing, and while I was reading Bente Starcke King’s Beautiful Botanicals, my brain latched onto this:

At the risk of moralizing, I will nevertheless point out that you should work from original materials and never copy someone else’s drawing. If another artist made a mistake, you are likely to repeat if not magnify an error.

While she’s discussing the importance of drawing from actual plants instead of photos or drawings, it’s an interesting thought to ponder in the context of writing. There is a great deal of temptation to borrow research from other writers. If I were to write high fantasy, for example, it would be incredibly tempting to simply mash together all of the weaponry / clothing / conveyance / horse gear / etc. terms I’ve picked up from reading an unhealthy amount of high fantasy. But that approach means that (a) I might repeat or build upon another writer’s sloppy research and (b) I’m limited to the set of details that other authors have chosen to pull from their studies and could very well be missing that lynch pin detail that makes the scene work.

I was listening to Tex Thompson and Dan Bensen talk writing on Dan’s podcast awhile back (which you should listen to in full), and they got into a discussion about Tex’s writing of horses and characters who love horses. Tex made the point that even though she is not really into the smelly, hot labor of caring for horses, she spent plenty of time around people who are, which itself gave her an insider’s perspective on how people appreciate horses.

What all of this boils down to for me is that, while good research is essential to rich fiction and the best way to resolve the epistemology problem of research is to get your feet wet in whatever postage stamp world you’re working with, you don’t necessarily have to dive in to find the hidden questions. Smart researching means making friends with a wide range of cool people with diverse interests and listening actively and intently to their enthusiastic gushing for the thing they love.

…Which means that writing fiction doesn’t actually excuse me from developing the good interview/people skills that scared me away from journalism many moons ago.

Curses. Foiled again.

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