Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Little Light

This is my beloved little table-top tree. This understandably raises a few questions, so let me answer them, here: No, I don't celebrate Christmas. Yes, I'm Jewish. Yes, this tree may have been the subject of a few minor disagreements in my household.

I know, I know, it's a little odd. But I love Christmas trees. I always used to envy my friends who had them growing up. They're beautiful and festive and each ornament carries its own story, and they smell wonderful (when they're real, anyway, which this little guy is) and make the whole month feel like a celebration.

They also, true to their pagan roots, are a light held up against the encroaching dark. In these, the shortest days of the year, when the sun makes the briefest of appearances, and the whole world is brown and bare and covered in snow, and spring seems like nothing more than a dream, the evergreen tree helps us to hold back the long, dark hopelessness of winter.

So, I hope the same for all of you, no matter which holiday you celebrate or which religion, if any, has your faith: may you find some light to hold back the darkness. May you have hope and joy and peace this holiday season.

I'll be off this week and next, and back for IWSG (and visiting all of your blogs!) on January 8th. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Research is Character is Plot

Ok, first: THANK YOU INTERNET!! (And by "internet", I mean all of you beautiful people who came, read my plea, and left a comment last week with fantastic research tips.) I got a heretofore unimagined wealth of great, helpful information, which I am now using. Like, right now. Right this very second. Oh yeah, I'm a multitasker-extraordinaire.

Ok, fine. Not really. BUT I've been using your ideas already, and I'm spending a day at my local library this week, so that sort of counts.

I want to take a step back, though, and answer a question no one has asked. Why? Because I need a lead-in to the body of this post, obviously. Duh.

Last week, I wrote out a veritable laundry list of research needs for my new book, and explained that I needed these items for, well, really important writing stuff. Which begs the question, Ancient Greece and Tibet and the British Raj and Australian sheep and my good God what the heck is wrong with you?? Are you trying to give yourself a brain aneurysm???

Oh no, wait. That's not the question I was going to answer. Sorry. It was this one: Why exactly do you need this research to create a plot? You say character is plot; why can't you just use the characters instead of doing this utterly psychotic amount of research?

Ahhh, sneaky me, using my own words against myself! Well, smarty-pants, let me give you an example.

So, I had this idea to have one of the lifetimes for my souls take place in a remote village in Tibet, around 500-600 CE. When I came up with the idea, I thought of writing it from the POV of an old man on the day his next door neighbor, an old woman, lies dying. Without giving away too much, this little story revolved around the idea that he was supposed to marry this woman - as in an arranged marriage - but instead, he married someone else.

Cool. Workable idea. Then I did some very preliminary research into Tibetan culture...and found out that Tibet is one of the very few areas in the world where polyandry was widely practiced. For those of you who don't want to click on that Wikipedia link (and really, you should; the article is freaking fascinating), polyandry is "a form of polygamy whereby a woman takes two or more husbands at the same time."

Yes, you read that right. One lady, many husbands.

No, this isn't some form of ancient feminism. I had to read quite a bit more to wrap my head around this concept, but the basic idea is this: in a place like Himalayan Tibet, where there is very little arable land, it becomes critical to keep a family's land intact and not divide it up among all of the children (or, ok, sons) into small, unsustainable plots. To that end, the eldest son is considered the head of the family, and the heir. So this lucky guy finds a gal who is absolutely NOT from his clan, and marries her, and then, by proxy, all of his brothers are automatically married to this lady, too. Whatever children she bears, no matter which brother is the actual father, are considered the children of the eldest brother. And all of these people - wife, multiple brother/husbands, children, and any remaining members of the previous generation - live together, usually in one large house. (And thus you can see why people aren't allowed to marry within their clans; they really are all related to each other.)

It's a creative solution to some difficult problems, when you think about it. In addition to dealing with issues of inheritance, polyandry was also thought to help control population - again, important in a place with limited resources - as well as increase the likelihood of children surviving to adulthood. Really cool, from an anthropological standpoint, but a major problem for me and my cute little idea.

As you can guess, this information threw my seed of an idea on its tiny, undeveloped head. Maybe I do have an old guy with a wife, but are there other husbands, too? Or did he go off on his own and break all acceptable tradition, and marry one lady for himself, thereby losing all right to his family's land?

And anyway, what is the concept of a village in ancient Tibet? Is there even such a thing as a next-door neighbor, or are there just these clans living together in isolated pockets? If so, can our old man even have a neighbor who is dying? And are these marriages arranged, or not?

So, you see, in this case, the research informs everything. This is often the case with a society and culture that I'm unfamiliar with. I can come up with some nice ideas, but until I learn something about the time period and place, those ideas are fairly useless.

Which means... that I really do have to do all of that research. I know, I'm crazy. But if I can pull it off, it might just make a really effing cool book.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Confessions and Pleas (and PLEASE)

It might seem like a weird intrusion of the real world into imaginary life, but non-fiction research really is an essential part of the process of writing a novel. Unless I'm going to make up my own entire world, I need to be able to create believable descriptions of fictitious characters living in non-fictitious places - and time periods. Otherwise, people who read my books will spend a ton of time saying, "Hey, there weren't any Ferrari's in 10th century Egypt! What the hell kind of book is this?!" rather than getting involved in the conflict and the characters, and generally doing things that mean they're going to keep reading.

I've mentioned briefly that this new book I'm working on is shaping up to need a whole lot of that research....which isn't going so well.

Ok, I admit it: the internet age has ruined me. I no longer remember how to do traditional research.

I really don't know what I used to do before some dudes invented Wikipedia. I mean, I have these vague ideas that I read encyclopedias and books and stuff, but I don't even know if physical encyclopedias still exist. These days, when I need to do research, I spend my time wading through mountains of Google results for things like "British colonial era in India British family life", or "Tibet mountain villages ancient culture gender roles".

Yes, I know; my Google searches look like stream-of-consciousness exercises. This is what happens when you try to get quick answers to complex cultural and historical questions on the internet.

Clearly, this reliance on these new-fangled interwebs isn't working too well for me. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with Wikipedia when you need to quickly find out how many people live in Botswana, or what the state animal of Montana is (for the record, it's a Grizzly bear.) But if you need to understand why a British family might have moved to India in the 1890s, and to get a clear picture of their lives there, as well as understand how an Indian woman would have viewed and interacted with said British family, then Wikipedia isn't going to be super helpful.

This wasn't really an issue when I was doing research for Cloudland. That's one of the benefits of making up a land in the sky: no research required. The rest of what I needed to look into was fairly simple, and pretty easy to find. Want to know what a school social worker does? Great. Interview one. Want to know how kids process death? Perfect. There are giant piles of child psychology books on that one.

My new project, however, is going to be heavily reliant on good research. Right now, I have ideas for six lifetimes for my two souls... none of which take place in present-day New England, which is the only time and place I'm qualified to talk about without doing some research first.

This is, as I said, a bit of an embarrassing problem. As my Google search terms grow ever longer, my actual tangible results wear thin.

So, internet friends, I'm going to do something silly and embarrassing and rather odd, and ask for your help. I need some reminders of where to look, and how to research, any or all of the following:

  • Day-to-day life in the Classical Period of Ancient Greece, including specifics on the worship and temples and priests of Apollo;
  • Day-to-day life, religion, culture, and gender roles in villages in ancient mountainous Tibet, 500-600 CE; 
  • Information on the indigenous peoples of South America in pre-Columbus times (around 1200-1300 CE), specifically in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, and the details of their culture, religion, and daily lives;
  • The lives and work of the British colonialists and their families in India around 1890, as well as the lives of the Indian people, with specific information on Hindu religion at the time, and any rebellions being mounted against the British. I'm also specifically wondering how these two cultures viewed each other;
  • Life as a sheep farmer in southern Australia in the 1960s or 70s, including day-to-day running of the farm, climate and weather patterns, as well as motorcycle culture during that same period;
  • And finally (for now), the day-to-day life of a preeminent bio-geneticist doing cutting edge research, in the present day. 
I'm not expecting anyone to give me information on the topics above, of course. I'm ready and willing to roll up my sleeves and do the dirty work; I just need a little, eensy, minor bit of help remembering how. I'll take any advice you've got. Please?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Insecure Writers: Be Brave

NOTE: It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's time for The Insecure Writers! For those who don't remember, it's an online group created by Alex J. Cavanaugh for writers. Most of whom are insecure. So we support each other from the safety and comfort of our desks. 

I've been thinking about this particular post for a while. Not the content, exactly, but the fact that it's an IWSG post, and what that means.

I have to admit that I've mostly used IWSG Wednesdays as an opportunity to vent about my most recent and pressing set of insecurities. Occasionally (ok, once) I used it to share an inspiring idea.

And there's nothing wrong with any of this; that's part of what a support group is all about.

The thing is, I don't really want to do that this week. I want to try something new.

It's been a rough week. Not bad, necessarily, just tough. A lot of ups and a lot of downs, which, as I'm learning, is part of being an author. Some people will love your work, and some will hate it, or, even worse, just not care much about it one way or the other. And somehow, through all of the conflicting feedback/responses/reviews/etc.,  I have to learn how to keep my head on straight and not pay too much attention to the criticism or the praise.

That's not easy. And that's not specific to writers, either.

Anyone who has ever cared about anything they produce, in any deeply personal way, has to struggle through this, too. Artists, yes, but also any person who loves and cares about their job or their cooking or child-rearing, or whatever that thing is, that thing that motivates and inspires and drives each of us to work and work more and hone and perfect and sweat and curse and laugh with sheer joy. That thing that comes from somewhere inside us, somewhere intensely personal and, I think, profound. It could be a presentation at work, a novel, a painting, a research study. It could be anything.

It's different for each of us, but sharing it with the world is universally terrifying. We take a part of ourselves, a piece of our being that we value tremendously, and offer it up to the rest of the world for judgement. It could be incredible, everything we've ever dreamed of, but it could also be a disaster.

No wonder so many of us choose not to take that risk. This is why people write books and then put them in drawer to sit and gather dust for thirty years, or create an innovative business plan for a start-up and then shelve it forever.

Here's the thing, though: it's terrifying and risky, but it's also vital. I can't help but think that it's better to try, and possibly to fail, then to never share the best part of yourself. It's a cliche, but it's true - if you never try, you'll never be able to succeed. You'll never know how amazing it could be, to realize your best and deepest dream. If it doesn't work, I have to think it's better to know that I tried, that I did everything I could, than to spend the rest of my life filled with regret, wondering, "what if...?"

So that's what all of this preamble is about. That's what I'm trying to say: it's normal to be afraid, but don't you dare let it stop you.

If you need more, there's this, from Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine... It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same...”

And this:

Whoever you are, reading this right now, feeling terrified, I hope this helps, in some way. You're not alone at ALL, and all of the rest of us can't wait to see what you have to share. Please share it.