Friday, August 26, 2011

Zette's Take: Read Nonfiction

This isn't school work

You know the saying: Write what you know.

Well the truth is you should write what you can learn, and learn everything that interests you.

I hear things from other writers that sometimes drive me crazy and this is one of the big ones: I don't want to read nonfiction because I'm out of school. I hated study then, so why do it now? It's boring. Why should I bother when I can just pick up a few things I need on the Internet?

So these people only go to look for things that occur to them. Yes, you can get a lot of research done on the Internet. However, by pursuing only things of the moment, they limit their searches to whatever links happen to connect to it. Don't they truly want to learn something new? Okay, so what they're probably really saying is that they don't want to work to learn something new. Sometimes I think people use the Internet for an excuse not to have to think very hard at all. And there they are, grabbing the same easy facts as everyone else.

You should pursue learning things even when you don't need some information right at that moment. The more you learn, the better material you'll have to call upon when you start writing. If nothing else, you'll have better questions to ask when you go Internet hopping. The more you know, the more complex you can make the background for your stories.

Nor can you get everything you need from shows and movies. You may get a feel and a glimpse -- but you can't get the depth, not for every piece you will ever write. While there are some great history pieces out there, too, they are limited in scope by their small allotment of time. And unless you are taking notes, you're not going to remember it all anyway. They're great for quick flashes of inspiration, but you need more depth.

Books are still the better choice for in-depth learning. You can, in fact, pick up a number of interesting history ebooks for the Nook (and I assume Kindle) for little or (quite literally) nothing. Even if you don't have a Nook or Kindle, you can still read these books on your computer.

Besides, the people who run away from this sort of thing because of school are confusing the joy of learning things with the regiment and testing of school work. This is not the same thing. You get to choose whatever interests you, study as much or as little as you like, and you will never be tested. Unless you are writing historical fiction (in which case you better love the idea of learning and research), you don't have to worry if you miss a key date for a battle or can't tell Akkadians from Assyrians.

There is no test. You are not reading to memorize science equations (jot them down if you need them for your story), and there will be no pop quiz on the order of Norman and Angevin kings.

So, what's the point?

Go to the source, rather than other fiction

You know how you hear that every idea has already been done? It's true, of course, but you can still sidestep the most obvious ones by going to the bedrock source of many ideas -- nonfiction books.

But you write fantasy! You don't care about history or science.

Yes, actually, you do. Not history as the series of events that happened, but you might do well to study how kingdoms managed to supply cities, how peasants built houses and why horses were not used for plowing until relatively recently. There is far more to history than a series of dated events. There is also the story of how everyone lived, surviving from day-to-day in an often hostile environment.

If you like fantasy fiction based in Egypt, don't get your ideas for Egypt from the fiction books you've read. Go to the library (or an online source for full books) and find a book on the subject. This doesn't have to be a huge, scholarly tome with so many footnotes you lose track of the text. I've found books aimed at teens often give me the basic facts I need before I do any deeper study. Even if you aren't writing about Egypt itself, but rather some river-based civilization, it doesn't hurt to find out how things worked. Not just building pyramids, but the day-to-day life of people. What recourse did they have when things went bad? Who was the local representative of government, and how much control did that person have?

How did they build boats in a land with virtually no trees? Will your river kingdom have papyrus, or will you resort to clay for important documents, such as they used in other river kingdoms?

Stone Age? Chalcolithic? Bronze? What does that mean for weapons and personal adornment? Where did they get their metals?

I suppose some of you are thinking this is too much work to research. It's not. These are not questions I thought up to research, but rather questions that occurred to me while I was recently reading about Ancient Egypt and happened to be thinking of it as a backdrop to a new story.

Reading nonfiction gives you new ideas and better understanding of backgrounds. You won't use everything you learn, but you will find that you can make your world seem more real, whether that's Ancient Egypt or Victorian England.

It's amazing how just a little tidbit of information can turn into a huge story. An army disappeared into the desert? Someone fled from the Egyptian court when he backed the wrong person?

Want to create interesting new dragons? Go read some books on lizards and snakes. Stop squirming. What do you think dragons are, after all? You might add in some avian studies if you have flying dragons, especially if you want to get that mass to wing size ratio right.

Pick up a book or two on weather. There's something you can use in almost any story, and knowing the signs of an upcoming major storm might be just the sort of thing you want as a warning for your people. Do you know what kinds of clouds appear when? What causes monsoons?

What does the role of weather patterns play in your society? What would it take to change the pattern? How far would a drought reach in your terrain? What? You don't know the terrain in your world's area, other than a few descriptions of mountains in the west and ocean in the east?

Do you know how to tell the difference between a mountain valley that was created by a glacier rather than one created by a river, when neither glacier or river are any longer present? Why should that matter?

Well imagine your characters seeking a lost, forgotten city. But they can't find the river valley they need as a check point along the bit of map they have. The rivers have all dried up in this area and the terrain changed. Then one of the group realizes the valley they are following was made by a glacier, not a river. They're in the wrong area.

How can she tell? Glaciers leave U shaped valleys and rivers leave V shaped ones (among other things, of course). This is just a little something you can add to the story to make it different from others. Every bit of info you learn goes towards building better stories, even if you don't use the information right away.

Plethora of new ideas everywhere

You can get ideas anywhere, of course. They're out there at every turn, if you open your eyes to them. The trouble is closing them again afterwards, because you can become inundated with new story ideas every day -- which plainly will not help.

This is about attitude. Really, everything in writing is about attitude, and this is no different. I have to believe you want to tell the best story possible. To do so you need to know things. Many things. They need to pile up in your brain and grow, mutate and attach themselves to other ideas and suddenly blossom into something wondrous.

This doesn't mean you won't get ideas from shows, books, music, etc. What it does mean is you can quickly expand those ideas in ways that create something different and reaches beyond the source of the idea.

Learn to adapt to what you want to write

The hardest part seems to be to learn to adapt what you read to your work. People often see nonfiction as 'set-in-stone' facts which they can't manipulate, at least for history and science. It's very hard to break that mindset, and yet fiction writers do it all the time without considering it. They manipulate the real world and yet have trouble considering something already settled as history. They can't see how to drag a little piece out of the bigger picture to add to something entirely different.

The truth is this takes two things: (1) Practice (2) Willingness to adapt and change things within your own story idea.

The first is easy. Once you get the knack of reading nonfiction and thinking about what you can do with it, the rest comes easy.

The second can prove to be harder. Many people don't want to change their ideas once something comes to them. They see the world around their characters and think that's good enough, without exploring what more they could add or change. Or, as I often hear, they're writing in the real world and don't need to look at anything else.

Really? What do you know about the various cultures present in your own neighborhood. We have people from Somali, Mexico, Native Americans and various flavors of European descendants. In my block we have single mothers, gay couple (until they recently moved) and a divorced race car driver. I can guarantee that we do not all share the same culture and once inside those front doors, you might be surprised by the changes. Don't you think you could use that in your book? Give it a bit of diversity?

What do you know about how the police work? Fire department? Library? School? Not just the outer coating that we all see, but what happens when specific problems arise.

Not genre specific

Also remember that very little you read in nonfiction is genre-specific. Some of the high-tech science might only be good for science fiction or thrillers, but anything else is adaptable. You may not use it in the way you first see it, though.

That's all right. Add the tidbits of information into your brain and let them move around and make associations with other odds and ends you've collected. No learning is wasted. Oh and if you want another good reason to continue to learn things, I read a report that says people who pursue learning throughout life are less susceptible to Alzheimer's disease. You'll be doing yourself and the people who love you a favor by keeping your brain active.

Reading nonfiction is a way to expand your writing horizons. And isn't that what we all really want?

(I have purposely left books specifically about writing off this list. You should read those, too -- but most of you already do!)


Catana/Sylvie Mac said...

Great post. It can't be said too often that nonfiction is an important part of any writer's education. One small point, though. Using the internet doesn't limit you to what's currently "of the moment." And even that kind of material can lead you on to sites with real depth, on many topics. One delightful site I discovered recently (AD79) is all about the Mt. Vesuvius eruption that buried Pompeii. There many, many in-depth sites on science, history, art, politics, etc. And one advantage that they have over books is that they can be updated with the latest information.

For someone who doesn't have access to a good library and/or can't afford to buy a lot of books (most really good nonfiction books tend to be rather expensive), the internet is a treasurehouse. And it's the source of all those great, free public domain books on subjects that can inspire a novel or two.

Zette said...

I actually should have worded that better. The 'of the moment' referred to their interest of the moment, not what they would find! It tied in with the 'study, even when you aren't looking specifically for something.'

And yes, you are right. You can find a lot of information on the Internet, and that can be a great help when you don't have access to other material. That includes a lot of great history and science books, like you point out. I have been loading my Nook up with interesting things!

Mikaela said...

I am agree with you, Zette. It is important to read non-fiction. And that's why I love e-books, so many free Public domain books to read! :)

I just discovered another resource:
Itunes U. Right now, I am doing a lot of research about Ancient Greece. One of my sources is an Open Yale course called Ancient Greek History. In total, it is 24 hours of lectures. I treat them as an audiobook, so I turns it on, and listen to it while doing other things.

Zette said...

That sounds interesting! I don't always do well with 'listening' unfortuantely. I'm one of those people who do better by reading than by lectures. (Now, if I could read the lecture, I'd be fine!)

I read more nonfiction than fiction, and I am trying to add a bit more fiction into my list again. But there is so much interesting nonfiction to read! (grin)

Anonymous said...

Great post. Most of my reading has been to relax, not to learn, well, except for the books on writing... I need to change that.

The children's section at the library is actually a place where I start researching items. i get the bare bones/foundation from the kidlit section, figure out what I need to focus on, then move on to the adult literature. it works for me.

But it might be fun to read up on something without NEEDING to.

Zette said...

Reading just for the joy of learning something I'm interested in (and not something I need to know for whatever reason) is one of the things I really enjoy. It's also why I'm full of such odd facts sometimes. LOL

It's made me a better writer, but that was just chance.