Research. Fascinating, isn’t it? History, biography, geography, language, clothing, I could go on and on. In fact, I do go on and on. Sometimes I use up so much of my time researching that I lose the sense of my story; I follow link after link to site after site and take pages of notes on the cultures of our world that are paralleled in my new one.
It’s funny, I said as much to my husband last night and he smiled and replied, “Don’t forget, you’re not a historian, you’re a story-teller.”
My newly retired husband, my left-brained, linear thinker, brilliant manager, non-writer husband practically knocked me off my feet. Or at least off of my writer high-horse.
After he watched me pick up my jaw from the floor he lifted his latest copy of Medieval History magazine. “There’s an interview in here with Bernard Cornwell, the author of The Last Kingdom. When people asked him why his story isn’t perfectly historically accurate, that was his answer.”
My only response could be: “Of course. That is exactly right.”
Tell the story. Tell my story. Tell my characters’ stories. That is the essence of good writing. Be focused on serving the story, not on details like what shoes they wear or how the Greek islands influenced city-state development. In my tale, I must tell Matthias’ story. Simon’s story. The story of a broken child and a broken world and how he copes.
That is not to say that research is not important. It is. It’s vital that you understand the world your characters live in. That you know about their daily habits, family structure, means of transportation. That you understand it so well that you have no reason to spend pages and pages of your story on those things. Certainly Matthias understands how to go about life in his home of Iconia. He understands the religion, the culture, the language, the assumptions and expectations. It’s change that rocks him.
In preparation for next month’s NaNoWriMo, I’m closely and carefully re-reading Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. His take on world-building is intriguing. And humbling. He speaks of idea nets which catch up all of his thoughts/ideas/hints about his fantasy world. About understanding the cost of magic, the evolution of culture, the need to make rules for your world that can underlay your story so solidly that they never have to be listed outright.
And he talks about the art and science of writing alien/foreign/utterly new languages. That’s where my ‘rudog’ comes in.
In my second draft of my novel, I inserted a scene where Matthias talks about how the sheep are reacting with terror. He’s supposed to feed them – that’s his morning chore – but they are being weird. As if, I say, a rudog is chasing them. Because, you know, Matthias’ world is our world, just a little sideways, with alternate history/geography. So, words would change. Some a lot. Some a little. Rudog. Get it?
My daughter, one of my extremely valued first readers, simply looked at me with one raised eyebrow. “Really? Rudog? You couldn’t just say wild dog? Because this is stupid.”
Ouch. But, fine, I changed it. Grudgingly. And then, surprise, surprise, in reading O. S. Card’s book, I find this:
“Nothing is more tacky than to have a bunch of foreign-sounding words thrown into a story for no better reason than to have something that sounds foreign. James Blish called such needlessly coined words ‘shmeerps.’ If it looks like a rabbit and acts like a rabbit, calling it a shmeerp doesn’t make it alien.”
“If mugubasala means bread, then say bread! Only use the made-up stuff when it is used for a concept for which there is no English word. If your viewpoint character thinks that mugubasala is nothing but bread, then later discovers that it is prepared through a special process that releases a drug from the native grain, and that drug turns out to be the source of the telepathic power that the natives are suspected of having, then you are fully justified in calling the bread mugubasala. It really is different, and deserved the added importance that a foreign name bestows.”
After I chuckled about the fact that Card must be a Stargate fan (Cassa! It’s addictive space corn!) I had to sit back and re-think my use of language. There are still some foreign words and phrases in Matthias’ world, but they are based on real Earth languages. This is where research shouldn’t be stinted – I must make the effort to use these foreign (to me) words and phrases correctly.
So, no more rudogs for me. No more half-hearted attempts to suddenly insert weirdness in the form of bizarre words. Bread is bread. Rabbits are rabbits. And wild dogs are wild dogs. No more panic about getting my twist on history exactly right. I mean, how could it be? It’s alternate history. If, at some point in the future I am blessed enough to have a best-selling book made into a TV show like Mr. Cornwell, and people care enough to ask me about my world-building and lack of historical accuracy, I’ll probably be so excited that I’ll be much less succinct and powerful in my reply than he was. Heck, I’ll be grinning. Dancing.
Why? Because I’m a story-teller. And other people would now be my story-readers and –sharers. And how exciting would that be?