I’ve been asked before what I thought was the most important thing every writer should possess, and I’ve given various answers. Those answers have ranged from the practical (a laptop) to the more-or-less nonsensical (a “thick skin”), but I’ve been thinking about that question a bit more lately and I think I may have stumbled upon the one thing every writer absolutely must have, and that is intellectual curiosity.
Regardless of the genre of fiction you’re writing, in order to craft compelling prose you have to be able to retain and process information. A fiction writer truly has to be a jack-of-all-trades. You have to know a little bit about, well . . . everything. You never know where your fiction is going to lead you, and just guessing, or making it up as you go along, simply isn’t going to be good enough.
With fantasy, in particular, you might think, Hey, I’m making up the entire world from scratch, what do I need to research?
The answer to that is lots of things, and there’s no way for me to give you a complete list. But here are some examples from my own writing.
In the Watercourse Trilogy, my hero is building a canal. Now, even though this is set in the magic-rich world of the Forgotten Realms, he’s not building this all by himself, so he’s surrounded by workers and craftsmen. In one case I wanted a setting for an action scene in which one of the villainous groups has sent a monster to kill him, and I knew I wanted this to happen at the canal construction site, so I looked into medieval building techniques and tools. I had established that the workers lived in a sort of mobile village, built on site, and used timber for that and all sorts of other things like supports for their various excavations. I found a description somewhere of the pit saw, and thought, Hmm . . . dangerous saw blade that has to be avoided and/or can be used as a weapon, and the pit itself gives some three-dimensionality to the affair. I like it.
I had never seen nor heard of a pit saw before that. I found it becuase I did three things:
I recognized that I needed something specific and practical as a setting.
I wanted the construction of the canal to have an air of authenticity within the basically late medieval technology level of the Forgotten Realms setting.
And most important of all:
I knew I had gaps in my knowledge.
I recognized, accepted, then did something about my lack of specific knowledge of how people might saw lumber in pre-industrial times. I’m smart enough to know that that information was out there somewhere, and capable enough to know how to find it.
And this wasn’t hard. It didn’t take months, or even hours, to settle on the pit saw. It looked right, “felt” right, pretty much the second I saw it.
In the case of science fiction, it can be this intellectual curiosity that begins a story in the first place. Before writing the short story “Vignette,” which I’ve shared with you here, I had run across the word “liquivore” to describe the way spiders inject digestive venom into their prey then slurp up the liquefied contents out of the hapless insect’s exoskeleton. Yuck. That’s scary. And it got me thinking: How awful would it be to be attacked by something big enough to do that to me? And what would be the equivalent of an exoskeleton? How about a space suit? And what I ended up with was “Vignette.”
One of the things I inherited from my father was a head for trivia. I have trouble remembering things like, oh, the water bill was due yesterday, but I can hear an out-of-context “factoid” in passing on a TV show and remember it for years. I know it can make being around me irritating sometimes, especially my obscure references that no one but me seems to understand, let alone find hilarious.
In my formative years, when I had started to really get interested in movies, I made my mother take me to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan. I couldn’t have been much older than twelve. It’s become one of my favorite movies but one scene really stuck out for me.
Woody and his friend, played by Michael Murphy, are walking down a sidewalk in Manhattan, Woody’s girlfriend and Murphy’s wife following several steps behind, when Murphy confides in Woody that he’s having an affair. Woody is all flustered and finally tries to avoid the subject by saying, “Don’t ask me. When it comes to relationships with women, I’m the winner of the August Strindberg Award.”
When I first heard that line I laughed, then immediately wondered why I was laughing. I had no idea who August Strindberg was, but something in my brain told me that was funny.
That experience rattled around in my skull for some years before I finally thought to look up August Strindberg. This is several years pre-internet so I ended up with a short entry in a dictionary of biography in the school library in which Strindberg is identified not only as a playwright, but as a misogynist.
Ever since then I’ve been particularly enamored of books, movies, and so on that make me look stuff up. I love it when a word I’ve never seen before is thrust in front of me. It drives me crazy when someone I’ve never seen or heard of before is cast in Celebrity Whatever, and I have to find out who this person is. Soap opera star? Oh, okay. Part of the cast of the latest drunken teenager reality show? Celebrity? If you say so.
You should always have something to say in your writing, but if you aren’t learning something, too, then you’re doing something wrong. Don’t be afraid of a little research, especially in the internet age. And for the love of all that’s holy, never let yourself think you know everything there is to know on any subject, let alone the myriad of subjects in which you have to be conversant to write fiction.
The more you don’t know, the more fun you’ll have learning new stuff.