From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think science fiction and fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the SF/fantasy author, so worth looking for.
By now you’ve heard me advise authors to read books, and to read both inside and outside the genre you’re writing in yourself. It’s not a coincidence that this series of posts has featured a preponderance of non-fiction books, even though this whole blog is devoted to the aspiring fantasy, science fiction, and horror author. There’s a lot about writing fiction that’s difficult. Though rewarding, fun, enlightening (etc.), it’s not an easy pursuit. And in this case I don’t mean how hard it is to find any agent at all, let alone the right agent, how to sell your first novel—the business challenges. The act of writing itself is hard enough, especially in as crowded a genre as fantasy.
In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I quote Pyr editor Lou Anders, from an interview later posted here, as saying, “You have to be better than brilliant. There are so so so so many fantasy manuscripts doing the rounds out there. And the problem isn’t that it’s all drek. It’s that it’s all average, competent, but not exuberantly good. Your writing needs to make an editor leap up out of his/her chair.” That’s quite a challenge, and one you really do have to work hard to be equal to.
One of the ways you do that is by creating the most plausible fantasy (or SF, or horror) you can, and again, I’ve said more than once that plausibility comes from consistency (consistently-applied rules for how magic works, etc.), and one of the ways to help infuse your fantasy with plausible action is to do research.
Some authors approach research as a dirty word—something to be avoided at all costs. Those authors are rarely successful. Others see it as a necessary evil, to be engaged in only when and to the extent that is absolutely necessary. I get that. Others embrace it, revel in the joy of the hunt for facts and the bliss of an elegant meeting of truth and fiction. Then there are people who go over the top and substitute research for writing, diligently collecting notes, year after year, for a novel they never will actually write.
The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators by Gordon Grice is a must-read for all of these authors, and for most of the same reasons.
This slim volume contains seven brilliant essays, each covering a different predatory animal: Black Widow, Mantid, Rattlesnake, Tarantula, Pig, Canid, and Recluse. One of the things that fantasy, SF, and horror have in common is that—not always, but often—there’s a monster. And let’s face it, those monsters mostly eat meat.
If you’ve found a book on dragons—their behavior, origins, diet, and so on—enjoy that book then make damn sure none of that information shows up in your fantasy novel. Why? Because dragons are pretend, and though they have strong archetypal qualities that will follow them from fantasy to fantasy you shouldn’t be full-on ripping off someone else’s dragons. But pigs belong to us all, and that’s the brilliance of The Red Hourglass.
Use this book to study predatory behavior in general, from the author’s exemplary real-world stories. Does your monster, whatever it is, have some characteristics in common with a spider? An insect? A snake? A predatory mammal? A pack hunter? Lessons learned from The Red Hourglass will lend an air of authenticity, of essential plausibility, to your fantastical predator.
The seven essays are specific to a different animal, so if you’re specifically researching lions, for instance, this is not the book for you, but what I found most fascinating about it is the author’s choice of animals. Other than at a distance at the zoo, I doubt I’ll be coming into contact with a lion in real life, but there’s a dog (Canid) sleeping under my desk even as I type this. There are spiders and bugs all over the place. I’ve seen coyotes in my subdivision, and had pig for dinner night before last. These are the predators that live in our neighborhoods, and Gordon Grice reveals all their elegant savagery in glorious detail, and wonderfully well-written prose.
Talk about first paragraphs . . . he starts with the Black Widow:
I hunt black widow spiders. When I find one, I capture it. I have found them in discarded car wheels and under railroad ties. I have found them in house foundations and cellars, in automotive shops and tool-sheds, against fences and in cinder block walls. As a boy I used to lift the iron lids that guarded underground water meters, and there in the darkness of the meter wells I would often see something round as a flensed human skull, glinting like chipped obsidian, scarred with a pair of crimson triangles that touched each other to form an hourglass: the widow as she looks in shadow. A quick stir with a stick would trap her for a few seconds in her own web, long enough for me to catch her in a jar.
The facts are masterfully woven through his prose like that, and he speaks to the reader from direct experience. It’s not an accident, I’m sure that the first word of this book is I. The Red Hourglass is Gordon Grice’s vivid description of his encounters with the predators among us. His description of a mantid being eaten by some kind of giant cricket he’d captured, while his family looks on, is as disturbing a scene as I’ve ever read.
What Gordon Grice does in this outstanding book is not only tell us what these predators do, but conveys a sense of how it feels—how if feels to be them, and how it feels to be their prey—and it’s that visceral quality that I think authors of fiction will find most enlightening, and inspiring, in The Red Hourglass.