My Eye-opening Second Reason for Writing

Over the past few years I’ve learned what it would take to climb a mountain in the Himalayas. I’ve studied supply lists for crossing the Pacific as a single sailor. I’ve wrapped my arms around high-frequency trading, come to understand the damage caused by oil exploration in the Niger Delta, and learned the history of U.S. immigration laws. It has been one hell of an adult education program.

My degree, if you will, is the six novels I’ve authored. I’ve discovered that the information living in my brain because of them is one of the seven reasons I write books.

Couldn’t you go research all these things and more, and not bother with the writing part, you might ask? It would be a fine question. Of course I could, but I probably wouldn’t. I’m curious about so many things, but my ability to get myself to sit down and learn about them instead of goofing off is pretty limited. Unless I’m doing it for one of my books. Then I will spend hours on it.

I’ve recently returned to participating in writers’ group, and that has started this reflecting on why I write. At a recent meeting, one writer was trying to describe the subject matter of Philip Roth’s books. “Anything he got a wild hair up his ass about,” she said.  I had to laugh, not only because it was apt, but because she had described one of the chief joys of writing.

You get to pick something you care about, anything that interests you, and then go learn enough to begin to weave a story. You don’t know where your imagination or your research will take you, but between the two of them you can bet it will be somewhere fascinating.

I haven’t only learned from research. The very act of producing books has forced me to to become more acquainted with software, graphics, and photo licensing. I’ve had to brush up my grammar. Do you know when to use “a while” and when to use “awhile”?  I do, now.

Writing has also forced me to stay more current with idioms and kept me more politically correct. No one says “on the QT” anymore, but “on the DL” is still used. Really? It is better to call a mentally challenged child cognitively impaired? Okay. Glad I know.

My ad hoc education program hasn’t been restricted to me, either. Others have been kind enough to seek out information for me in their own fields, leaving friends and relatives familiar with Mayan numbers and civil war battles. (Yes, my husband really did attend a re-enactment to help me with a book.)

Much of my education has come from the intriguing people I’ve been exposed to because of my writing. There is a lady in Denmark who shared her vacation photos from Iceland with me, to make d4 more realistic. Four wonderful women from India helped me with information and cultural sensitivity as I wrote c3. One went a step further, working with me to create a Sanskrit word needed for the story. I had taken a stab at it, using internet translation, and she laughed at my result. She took the problem to her father, a scholar who speaks Sanskrit, and “Jvalalaya, the Abode of Light” was born.

As I work to overcome the inertia and start a new series of books, the thrill of learning draws me forward. I have a giant “to read” pile already, much of it on artificial intelligence, which will play a large role in the world I am building. Anticipation of creating this world has me headed off in two very different directions this summer, attending two fabulous yet odd events I would have passed on without the added impetus of “this will really help me with the next novel.”

Yes, sometimes writing gets me up out of my chair to take in the world.

Of course, this still doesn’t explain what drives me to keep on with all the other time-consuming pieces of putting together a book. For that, I’m going to need to take a hard look at the other five reasons I spend most of my free time creating novels.

(Read more about why I write at The Number One Reason I Write Books, Nothing cool about modest ambitions  and I write because it’s cheaper than therapy.)

A sense of time

I had a boyfriend in high school who could tell you the time of day off the top of his head within ten minutes or so. He was an aspiring actor (back then) and attributed his unnatural skill to his performer’s sense of timing. Ummm ….. maybe.

I have a husband now who can do the same thing. He’s a former math teacher who considers it an ability derived from his close relationship with numbers. Well …… maybe that, too.

I have less of a sense of time. Hours pass unnoticed when I write, minutes last forever as I stare at a blank page. I attribute this to living more inside my head than out of it. But if hours and minutes confound me, years and decades are worse. Today, I reviewed a book called Deep Sahara. It takes place in 1980, which I shrugged off as being nearly current fiction when I began reading the book. Then characters who lived during World War Two began to play a role.

Geez, WWII was like 80 years ago. What are they doing still alive? Wait, 1980 was nearly 40 years ago, now, wasn’t it? Yeah, it was.

My sense of time (or lack thereof) is front and center this week as I vacation at an old house on the beach owned by my husband’s family. The house was built in the 1850’s and the deck looks out over Charleston Harbor, and directly at Fort Sumter. The first shots of the civil war rang out here, when Confederate artillery opened fire on this federal fort in April 1861. Family members who are history buffs love this fact. I find wars sad, not fascinating, and secretly think the view would be so much more pleasant if it didn’t have a reminder of a bloody, painful conflict right in the middle of it.

The house itself contains an old and a new part. The old portion is lovingly maintained as it looked in the 20’s and 30’s when this was a small beach shack used to escape the summer heat of the city. Creative relatives have decorated the walls with tools used to handle the ice blocks that provided precious refrigeration back then.

The rest of the house is circa early 1990’s, built after hurricane Hugo tore through the area. Parts of this are deemed “worn and in need of replacement” as opposed to historical. The cynic in me thinks that if they just leave the indoor-outdoor carpet on the stairs another forty years, it will become too treasured to remove. It’s all relative, isn’t it?

As I sit here studying the various ages of what I can see, I think I’ve figured out my problem with time. I’m trained as a geologist, fascinated by the formation of the earth 5 billion or so years ago, and intrigued by the first forms of life to emerge over four billion years later.

Old? Rocks formed from tiny creatures in the inland Cretaceous sea are a 100 million years old. In my home state of Kansas, we used that 100-million-year-old limestone to build houses in the mid 1800’s, about the time when shots were being fired over this beautiful harbor and you could have watched Fort Sumter being attacked from this deck.

Maybe I would care more about this if 150 years weren’t mere seconds to a geologist. To those who study the earth, everything that’s happened since 10,000 years ago is pretty much considered debris. It could be I don’t lack a sense of time, I just have another way of looking at it.

(For more of my recent thoughts on time, see my post Spending Time.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember and move on

photo(3)I’ve written about places I know and about many I’ve researched but never seen. It is always odd to finally visit the real location that I’ve held in my imagination for a story. Today is a windy, overcast day in late autumn, and I stand for the first time on the grounds of the civil war battle of Cedar Creek in Northwest Virginia. Battle grounds bring a hush over us all. People died there, often in the most difficult and painful of ways, and we know that they did. Lots of people lost their lives at this site, and thanks to my determination to write a battle scene as accurately as I could, I know more about these people than I do about those in any other battle ever.

I’m not a big fan of military history.  I have very mixed feelings about enshrining war and about the civil war in particular. I’ve lived in the south for most of my adult life and I still cringe at attempts to glorify the reasons behind the conflict. But my quasi-time travel novel z2 needed a complicated battle that could have changed the outcome of the war, and my history loving husband was delighted when his research acquainted us both with Cedar Creek.

photo(6) There is much about this battle to intrigue even the barely interested. A surprise attack at the crack of dawn began with soldiers sneaking single file along a pig path in the dark. It was a near victory for the south, close enough to the nation’s capital to have alarmed a war-weary nation already pressuring Lincoln to stop this nonsense and let the bastards secede. Cold, half starved confederate boys took advantage of a halt at a union camp to scarf down food and find themselves shoes and jackets. There was a commander who couldn’t or wouldn’t move those boys along, giving the union reinforcements the time they needed. There was a quiet engineer who received little credit for his contribution and a showy General Sheridan who rode in on horseback amidst trumpet blasts to save the day. In the end all the stories melded into a Union victory, a little more time for Lincoln and, well, the rest is history.

I don’t particularly like monuments, and I don’t think we should glamorize war. But as I stand in the wind I hear ten thousand stories calling to me and I stop and listen to a snippet here and there.

photo(7)Let go, let go of this painful past and move on, part of my brain cries. Enough with the deaths and the sad things they died for.

No! Remember us. Remember how it happened. Remember why.

Remember and move on. Such a tricky balance — to let go of the anger and hatred and yet to keep the lessons and even to keep the stories. Because they were real people. Real suffering. Real hopes.

I pause, and place my hand on the ornate plaque that tells a historian’s short version of the events, and I let the other stories I have read of those involved wash over my brain and heart. The wind picks up, my husband heads for the car. “You coming?” I nod. It’s time to move on.

For more thoughts about letting go check out my post on throwing out everything when cleaning out closets at Face Painting for World Peace, and my post about the difficulties of describing teens drinking on New Year’s Eve at With a Breath of Kindness Blow the Rest Away.

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