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Posts Tagged ‘research’

Two kinds of research

I’m starting to think there are two kinds of research — or rather, a spectrum with two ends. Quite possibly it’s a more multi-directional spectrum than that, but there are two ends that seem particularly applicable to my life.

The first kind is reading for facts. This is the type of research I did all the time for the Onyx Court books: I’m writing about a specific thing, and so I need to know stuff about it. What route did Elizabeth I’s coronation procession take? Where were the imprisoned members of Parliament held after Pride’s Purge? When did somebody calculate the moment of perihelion for Halley’s Comet in 1759? What actions were taken by Fenian terrorists in the later Victorian period? This extends to more general questions; a lot of my reading was to fill in broad topics along the lines of “what was life like in this period,” not because there was a specific detail I knew I needed, but because I needed a large mass of specific details to draw from in shaping my plot and laying out my scenes. And often one of those elements would suggest a new dimension to the story, so then I’m off down a new fact-reading rabbit hole; rinse and repeat until my deadline starts breathing down my neck and I have to quit adding to the pile.

The other kind of research is one I used to do all the time — but I didn’t really think of it as “research” back then. It was just, y’know, my life. I took an odd assortment of classes and read an odd assortment of books, and they all poured material into my head, and out of that came stories. This is reading for fodder, and I’m finally back to doing it, because I have several projects in the hopper that are all secondary-world, as opposed to urban fantasy (the Wilders series) or historical fantasy (Onyx Court) or what I think of as world-and-a-half (Memoirs of Lady Trent, halfway between historical and invented). It isn’t that I won’t wind up using specific details out of what I read; the difference is that in the end, I’m not actually writing about those things. Lately I’ve been reading a book on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, Everyday Things in Premodern Japan, the Mahabharata, a book on the Sumerians, a bunch of Wikipedia articles on ancient Greek philosophy and society because I finished Jo Walton’s The Just City. Am I planning on writing anything set in Georgian England, Tokugawa Japan, ancient India, ancient Sumer, or ancient Greece? Not necessarily. But it’s all going into the mental compost heap, to intermix and break down and become fertile soil for ideas.

Some subconscious part of myself feels like I’m skiving off of work reading these things, because it’s been trained by nine books of historical or quasi-historical fiction to think the only real research is the kind done for facts. I need to do this, though, or else the worlds I invent will stay firmly in the box of “modified analogues,” places that can easily be mapped to single real-world origins. I need to throw a bunch of different things into my head at once, so that I come up with a society where there’s a deified emperor (a bit Roman, a bit Egyptian) and a caste system (a bit Indian) with a meritocratic way of changing your caste (a bit Chinese) and a clockpunky tech level (a bit Italian Renaissance) and so forth, without it being straightforwardly any of those things. If they wind up having an architecture a little bit like Tokugawa Japan or a schooling system like ancient Sumer, it will be because that happened to click into place, not because I had to use one of those societies for inspiration.

As I said at the beginning, these aren’t clearly divided types. “What was life like in this period” is closer to being a fodder-type question than “how rapidly did the plague take hold in 1665,” because it’s designed to help me come up with ideas for that specific period. And you’ll see the Mayan calendrical system with a minor fictional paint job showing up in Lightning in the Blood because years ago I read about it for fun and wound up incorporating it into a story more or less wholesale, complete with fiddly little details about Year-Bearers. But it helps me to remember that fodder-type reading is a form of research, and one that’s very necessary for my job.

Books read, November 2015

This was one of those months that ends with me in the middle of reading a bunch of things, but not done with any of them. 😛

The Drowning Eyes, Emily Foster. Provided to me by the editor, Lee Harris. This is one of the upcoming novellas from Tor.com, a story set in a world where Windspeakers can control the weather — but for them to do so safely, they have to undergo a ritual which replaces their “wet eyes” with spheres of stone. Shina is still wet-eyed, but after invaders start killing Windspeakers and steal a priceless relic, she’s the only one left who can get it back. I very much liked the concepts behind this; my quibble (and it will be interesting to see whether this is a frequent reaction for me with novellas) is that I wanted more. The invaders never get explored in detail, and the story only begins to touch on the complexity of the Windspeaker thing. So it’s enjoyable, but I think I’ll enjoy it even more if this turns out to be the jumping-off point for a novel or series of novellas.

Full Fathom Five, Max Gladstone. Third book of the Craft Sequence, after Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise (c’mon, Max, why couldn’t you take pity on us and number them in order). It’s a pretty slow burn compared to its predecessors; it starts off with a bang when Kai nearly gets herself killed trying to save a goddess whose investments have gone sour, but getting from there to the underlying issues takes a while. In the meantime, this is where this starts to look like a series: not only are there references to Alt Coulumb and Dresediel Lex, but characters from the previous books show up and play a fairly vital role. And as usual, Gladstone is also exploring social issues — in this case, the question of how a small island nation (clearly influenced by the Polynesian cultural sphere) can survive as an independent state in the face of much larger powers, and what constitutes the preservation of traditional culture vs. its commercialization for tourist purposes, and when it’s okay for a culture to change. The Penitents were super-creepy; they were probably the best part of the book for me, along with the pool in which the priests of Kavekana make and keep their idols. (The story of how Kai remade her body in the pool was excellent.)

Mountaineering Women: Stories by Early Climbers, ed. David Mazel. More research. It took me a surprisingly long time to get through this, given how thin of a book it is, but that happens sometimes when a book is a collection of smaller texts. (See also why it takes me forever to read an anthology.) The bulk of the content consists of excerpts from accounts written by female mountaineers from the nineteenth century up through the mid-twentieth, with brief introductions by Mazel to give context. It’s interesting to watch mountaineering techniques and jargon develop through the decades, and also to see feminism become an explicit issue, especially around the time when women started trying to mount expeditions without any male assistance at all.

Books read, October 2015

Somewhat delayed on account of World Fantasy.

The Great Zoo of China, Matthew Reilly. This book can basically be summarized as “Jurassic Park, with DRAGONS!” Which, y’know. Kind of put it squarely in my field of interest. And it was a moderately entertaining read — but I kept being thrown out of the story by the fact that the author seemed to be watching the movie he hopes they’ll make of his book, and writing it as if it were that movie. This means a pov that wanders around aimlessly between close third and a camera-eye omniscient (complete with lines like “if they could have seen the vehicle from the outside, they would have seen X”), and choppy little not-even-scenes that are the textual equivalent of rapid camera cuts. See our heroine clinging to the outside of the truck! See the driver of the truck stomp on the brakes in a three-line “scene”! Cut back to our heroine barely holding on as the truck skids to a halt! That kind of thing works in audiovisual media; in text, it just keeps yanking me away from any engagement with the characters. I appreciated the fact that the heroine is a facially scarred herpetologist who basically saves the day with her knowledge of crocodiles, but she never really came alive for me. Also, while I’m fine with the idea that Chinese bureaucrats and soldiers might do all kinds of underhanded shit in pursuit of building an enormous dragon zoo with which to impress the world, the story really could have used more in the way of sympathetic and competent Chinese characters to counterbalance the bureaucrats and soldiers. (Not to mention the fact that the dragons are apparently all Western-style, even though the story gives a relatively clever explanation for why dragons are a real worldwide phenomenon.) Overall, I’d say give this one a miss, unless you are absolutely dying to read Jurassic Park with dragons.

The Last Airbender: Zuko’s Story, Dave Roman and Alison Wilgus, art by Nina Matsumoto. Picked this one up because I met Alison Wilgus last World Fantasy and really enjoyed talking to her, and also because I’ve been reading various Avatar tie-in comics. This one feels thinner than the others simply because it’s filling in a minor hole from the show, rather than exploring new territory; it’s the tale of what happened with Zuko between the agni kai against his father and Aang turning up. So, while it’s well done, I didn’t engage with it quite as much as with the sequel comics. I should note, though, that it also includes a section at the back which compares the comic script to the rough sketches. If you’re interested in what a script looks like, and how the vision can change from the script to the roughs to the final version, it’s quite useful.

Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy Sayers. Still working my way slowly through the Wimsey novels. I came up with a much more convoluted answer to this one than turned out to be the reality, reading too much significance into a particular detail. Wimsey undercover was pretty cute, though I feel I might have done with just a bit less exploration of the advertising industry; his interactions with Dian Momerie were . . . interesting. Not entirely sure what I think of them, though once again, it gave me a chance to see just how big an influence Sayers must have been on Dunnett.

Violence: A Writer’s Guide, Second Edition, Rory Miller. Yoon Ha Lee recommended this one, and I second the rec. When I put together Writing Fight Scenes (which is part of the 2015 NaNoWriMo StoryBundle right now, plug plug), I was very aware that I don’t actually have any personal experience with being in a real fight. Miller won’t tell you anything about how to put a fight on the page, but he has personal experience in spades, and says a great many interesting things about what being in a fight is like, what kinds of violence people engage in, and how people experienced with violence tend to behave. The book does have its flaws: it could use better organization (especially since he repeats himself occasionally) and it’s mostly concerned with violence in a modern society like ours, making it less than 100% applicable to premodern fantasy societies. In fact, I feel Miller is at his weakest when he tries to talk about historical situations; at one point he basically declares that before about 1800, the only possible responses to a violent crime were to a) go get revenge with your own two hands or b) suck it up and go on being a victim. Uh, the rule of law may have been imperfect in the past, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, and that legal remedies were never available. Furthermore, at one point he says “unless you can not only write things like the mass slaughter at Halabja, but write from a point of view where slaughtering Kurdish men, women and children to test chemical weapons just made sense, your fiction will always be missing something. It will always be two-dimensional,” which I feel is overstating his point with a vengeance. Having said that, he’s got a really fascinating perspective on sex differences, focusing not just on the socialization regarding violence but the less-obvious consequences of that socialization, and also on biological differences in how adrenaline gets processed. I’m very curious to know whether that latter point is in fact true, because if so, it’s really helpful information.

Yak Butter and Black Tea: A Journey into Tibet, Wade Brackenbury. Dear lord, this book. I’ll say for starters that I read it for the first-person account of what it’s like to tramp around at high altitude across rugged terrain, and on that front, it delivered admirably. But it’s also the story of a couple of guys who decided they wanted to go to the Drung valley, in territory the Chinese government had put off-limits to foreigners, for no better reason than because no westerner had ever been there. They weren’t anthropologists; they weren’t journalists; they weren’t serving any higher cause whose worthiness and importance we could debate. They just got a wild hair up their asses and decided to do it. At one point Brackenbury finally arrives at sufficient self-awareness to think that, hey, maybe he and his traveling companion were really screwing over the people they dealt with while sneaking around trying to get to the valley: those officials they lied to or got into arguments with might have been terrified of losing their jobs, those people who were reluctant to sell them food might not have had much to spare, etc. But on the whole, they seemed to feel that “we want to go” was sufficient justification for them to break the law right, left, and center. So if you want to read about people tramping around at high altitude across rugged terrain, this book may be useful to you — but don’t pick it up unless you’re prepared to deal with some amazingly self-centered assholes.

Books read, June 2015

Very, very belated. But at least I’m managing to get it posted before August?

High volume of reading this month, and 100% of it was for work. It was revision/copy-edits/whatever, or it was material for a blurb, or it was research, or it was Hugo reading. There was nothing I finished this month that I picked up just because I felt like it. This makes me slightly cranky, even though I enjoyed a lot of what I read. Especially since so far in July, the pattern has been much the same.

Anyway, the books. I’m leaving the Hugo stuff out because I discussed it already in a separate post.

(more…)

Actual Quote from an Actual Thing I Actually Read

From Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes, by Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver, following a discussion of George Mallory’s social circle in Cambridge which features a number of quotes that make you think “my, that sounds more than a wee bit homoerotic”:

“But it was James Strachey, the future translator of Freud, and not his older brother Lytton who evidently initiated Mallory into the pleasures of ‘the higher sodomy,’ as [the Bloomsbury Group] called it. The precise nature of ‘l’affaire George’ is unclear and ultimately uninteresting. What is interesting and of some significance to the history of Himalayan mountaineering is” . . .

No. No, you do not get to drop a phrase like “the higher sodomy” into your book on the history of Himalayan mountaineering and then declare it uninteresting. You were interested enough in it to mention it; you bloody well ought to explain it. If the explanation does not fit into this book, then neither does the phrase. Stick with the fact that George Mallory slept with men; you don’t have to leave your reader wondering what precisely distinguishes “the higher sodomy” from “the lower sodomy” — a question which only invites the brain to come up with increasingly creative answers, all of which are an unnecessary distraction from the tale of how Mallory came to be chosen for the Everest expedition.

(One also cannot help but wonder if Isserman and Weaver were slightly uncomfortable with Mallory’s sexuality, given that they later say “the heterosexual side of his nature asserted itself permanently when he met and fell in love with Ruth Turner,” Mallory’s eventual wife. This book was written in 2008: bisexuality had been invented by then, guys. You don’t have to use a phrase that implies Mallory got over his attraction to men.)

EDIT: My brain being what it is, of course I had to go and google the phrase. As near as I can tell, “the higher sodomy” was the groundbreaking notion that instead of just buggering your fellow students in the good old public school fashion, you should also have romantic feelings for your partner. Shocking!

Here and there (but not everywhere)

Made a haphazard stab at sightseeing in D.C. today. I had only about five hours to spend on it; getting myself to the hotel and then out to the National Mall ate the morning, and at this time of year both the museums and the sun close up shop pretty early. The Mall itself wasn’t putting its best foot forward anyway: this being the off-season, they’re doing returfing projects, there were temporary fences everywhere along with some tents (related to Election Day yesterday? or something else entirely?), the Capitol dome is wrapped in scaffolding, etc. Plus the weather was rather grey. From a photography standpoint, it wasn’t ideal, though I did get some pretty good shots of the Korean War memorial — the trees there had turned red, which harmonized nicely with the metal statues and the dark green ground cover.

But photography was one of only several things I’d come there to do. My top priority was actually research for Chains and Memory. There’s a scene that takes place at the western end of the Mall, so I wandered around Constitution Gardens and the Lincoln Memorial and the bank of the Potomac to fix in my head just how far apart everything is. (Answer: quite.) Then I needed food, and somebody had told me the cafe in the Museum of the American Indian was really good, so I walked more or less the entire bloody length of the Mall just to get a very late lunch — which, to be fair, was worth it. Bison skirt steak with huckleberry reduction, cucumber and some other things I forget in fireweed honey, a truly excellent salad of wild rice with pine nuts and watercress and cranberries and other stuff I couldn’t identify in a apple cider vinaigrette, and then some fry bread to top it off, because how can you not have fry bread?

Wound up spending the rest of my afternoon in that museum, because a) I was there and b) I like anthropological stuff. It’s not at all the kind of museum I expected it to be: I subconsciously assumed there would be galleries devoted to the various geo-cultural areas, i.e. Great Plains and Southwest and so forth, but it’s organized much more around themes. One gallery had to do with the cosmologies of seven different tribes; another was about treaties between the nations and the U.S.; a third discussed how contemporary Native Americans express their identity in the modern world. I don’t think I did the museum justice, but my feet were hurting and I was a little brain-dead; I will have to settle for the value I did get out of it.

I certainly did not do justice to the Mall itself, because I lacked the time and the energy, and the weather was on the dreary side. In tracking how long it took me to get from the north end of the pond in Constitution Gardens to the Lincoln Memorial, I managed to miss the Vietnam Memorial entirely. And I meant to stop at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on my way to food, but thanks to my calorie-deprived state I went right past the place where I should have turned to find it, and by the time I realized that it was much too late to backtrack. But given how many other things I missed in the area — e.g. every museum save the one — it isn’t like I can check “see the National Mall” off my bucket list anyway. I’ll be back some day, and then I’ll see at least a portion of the things I missed this time.

And now, World Fantasy!

Meet the Rewards: Tarot Readings

I meant to post these a while ago, rather than in the last week of the Kickstarter — but hey, better late than never, right? So over the next few days, I’ll be making a few posts to talk about the non-book rewards available for Chains and Memory, and why I chose them.

First up are the tarot readings by my friend Emily Dare. I included these because Kim is a divination major at Welton, and tarot is her preferred tool, so it’s something that’s both very fitting for the story and also kind of unusual. And I asked Emily to participate because pretty much any time* Kim sits down with a tarot deck in this series, that’s Emily’s handiwork you’re seeing: I tell her what I want the reading to convey, and she reverse-engineers that to say what cards Kim should get, what layout she would likely use, etc. For Kim’s big reading in the early part of Lies and Prophecy, that ended up adding quite a lot of depth to the scene, because of Emily’s suggestions for how to complicate the process. And that’s exactly why I look for outside help: I could sit there with the itty-bitty Rider-Waite booklet and try to make something up, but I wouldn’t get the nuances and the neat little details that make it seem more real.

(Which is pretty much a true statement of any instance where I recruit help on a particular topic for a story. It’s always good to ask the people with the hands-on experience; they know the things you wouldn’t even think to ask.)

So that’s it for the first of the special rewards. I’ll be back later to talk about the miniscript, Tuckerization, and the t-shirts. Stay tuned!

*The exception being the Tower scene in Lies and Prophecy. I made up that particular reading all on my own. 😛

A question for the legal eagles

More a question for the legislative eagles, I suppose. This has nothing to do with the Memoirs of Lady Trent; it’s a question for the modern-day U.S. (Because when I’m on the home stretch of a book is a great time for totally unrelated stories to mug me!)

Suppose there is a federal law to deal with Topic X. Ambiguous Situation B arises, sparking disagreement over whether the law applies in this instance or not. This is the first time Ambiguous Situation B has occurred, but it likely won’t be the last, and Topic X is a pretty serious issue, so people are very invested in getting the matter settled beyond question.

Quite apart from the fact that there would be presumably be a legal brangle over the applicability or irrelevance of Law for Topic X, I imagine that there would also be a rush to amend the law and render that question permanently moot.

My question for you all: how would this proceed?

Assume that Congress is very interested in getting the law amended ASAP, but that it is divided as to whether it should be amended to say “nope, definitely doesn’t apply here” or “hell yes it applies.” Would there be competing bills, one for each side? (I imagine there would.) Different bills in the House and the Senate? How do those get started? What process do they go through before they come to a vote? How rapidly could all of this unfold, presuming there is a compelling reason for trying to make it happen quickly? How would Congress deal with there being two bills in direct opposition to one another, if that’s actually what would be going on? What effect would the ongoing legal brangle have on the legislative process? (The lawsuit being settled in favor of “yes, it applies” could theoretically render unnecessary any change to say that yes, it applies, but Congress is now worried about the possibility of Ambiguous Situations C, D, E, and everything else they can think up. And if the lawsuit gets settled the other way, the side that wants Ambiguous Situation B covered could say “well, we just changed the law, and this version definitely applies.”)

I know only slightly more than zilch about the legislative process in this country, so this is one of those “talk to me like I’m five” questions. I need to know the procedure here before I can judge what it would do to the rest of the story.

Books read, December 2013

A bit belated — I didn’t want to post anything in the first days of the year because I was busy getting my WordPress setup functional.

Mother of the Believers, Kamran Pasha. A novel about the founding and early days of Islam, from the perspective of Muhammad’s wife Aisha.

It’s always tough, reading a fictionalized account of something like this: I find myself going “oh look, another enemy has converted to their side, geez, this ‘Messenger of God’ guy is such a Gary Stu.” Which, you know, missing the point. At the same time, though, it gestures in the direction of an actual problem, which is that it’s Pasha’s responsibility to sell me on the events he’s describing, and he didn’t always succeed. He could have done it one of two ways — either by emphasizing the numinous and miraculous, or by digging into the motivations of the people involved to help me understand why they acted that way. I would have been fine with either. Sadly, Pasha didn’t quite manage to do that consistently. Couple that with the fact that I really disagree with his handling of Aisha’s age (I think his reasoning is flawed and he failed to follow through on it anyway), and it’s surprising that I found this as engaging and readable as I did. But: engaging and readable, so recommended if you want to read a novel about the founding and early days of Islam.

A Tale of Time City, Diana Wynne Jones. Re-read for Yuletide (look for a post about that soon). It is still a lovely book. And I have even more fondness for Elio than I did before — writing fanfic will do that to you.

Ancient Hawai’i, Herb Kawainui Kane. Read for research, on the recommendation of Kate Elliott. It’s a brief and abundantly illustrated book about pre-contact Hawaiian society, ergo useful to me.

Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch. Once again, I feel like the two plots in here were just happening to share a book, rather than tying together very well. I was also deeply uninterested in Peter’s romantic relationship — or rather, his sexual relationship, since I got very little sense of any substance to it other than bedplay. (In fact, that skew had me convinced for a while that his fixation was going to prove to be a Significant Thing, to a much greater degree than turned out to be the case.) Having said that, I still enjoy the general feel of this series, and I very much liked the way the consequences of the previous book played out. To some extent, this is the denouement I felt was lacking before — though I still would have liked more at the end of Book One.

Whispers Under Ground, Ben Aaronovitch. Better plotting! In part, I think, because the B plot here is actually just a continuation of what got set up in #2, and isn’t looking to be resolved any time soon, so it tooled happily along being its own thing and I didn’t expect it to interlock with the A plot the way I kept wanting before. Mind you, I found the thing they uncovered at the end to be a little O_o . . . but I may be okay with that, if the series follows through on what it’s been hinting about for a while now. There’s a point at which you really start questioning how much longer the world can go on failing to notice all the weird shit going on — I’m just sayin’.

(Ten points from Ravenclaw, though, for atrociously misleading cover copy. I expected this book to heavily feature Peter working with Agent Reynolds and having to dodge around her evangelical faith. Instead Reynolds just shows up sporadically and shows virtually no signs of being the “born-again Christian” she was billed as. I’m not sure the former would have actually been good, but it’s what I was led to expect, so the lack was annoying.)

Also: more Quicksilver. Because I have always been reading Quicksilver. And I will always be reading Quicksilver.

Two — I mean three — more books!

Because late on a Friday is the best time to put out pieces of major news. 🙂

Many of you know that my intent has always been for the Memoirs of Lady Trent to be a five-book series, of which Tor had already purchased the first three. Well, as of today I am allowed to tell you that now we’re set for all five: they have offered a contract for the remaining two, ensuring that the entirety of Lady Trent’s story will be told.

And! Bonus!

They have also made an offer for a third, unrelated book. That won’t be coming out until after this series is done, so it’s years off yet; don’t look for me to be talking about it all that much here. (Especially since it’s entirely possible that three or four years from now, we’ll decide that it ought to be something else than what we’re planning on right now.) But if you want a teaser, well, let’s just say it might be inspired by this song and involve a few weeks of research here. ^_^

So yeah, I’m bouncing over here. How about you?