Reading and Writing – an update on my book problem

I have so many piles of books in my living area (which is also my work area) that even I feel the clutter. The reason this post’s title includes the words ‘book problem’ is because occasionally they topple and I tripped over one yesterday and…

I love them all. It’s not a problem in any sense except the clutter. I’m not reading just one good book this month, I’m reading dozens. They are my building blocks for a three-year research project (1), and I’m already having fun. Gradually, the piles will diminish.

One pile is for putting away. “I’ve finished this – it was fun but not terribly useful. I’ve taken the notes I need from it but they’re not relevant to anything I’ll be writing. It can go away. No need to put it in the bibliography.”

Another pile is carefully marked up. Not the books themselves – I have special sticky paper that doesn’t harm books and I write on that. When I’m ready to write that book up, I go straight to the notes and lo, it’s ready to go. I know what page to refer to in my footnotes and I have my thoughts on the sticky paper. Then I put the details of the book in the bibliography, and then that book goes on the putting-away pile.

The third pile consists of one book right now, called Putting the Science into Fiction. It’s not a scrap of use for my research project, but has some stuff in it I want to use as a reminder for world building. The world building has nothing to do with the research project. Until last Wednesday I did it full-time, but now I’m doing it as a leisure activity. The book will be put away when I talk through what it contains with my co-conspirators in world building, which could be next Monday, or it could be in three months.

The three largest piles relate to three of the core focal points of the research project. One is on fairy tales, one is on own voices, and the third is on writing about cultures that are a bit alien or foreign.

The piles I’m working through right now, however, are none of those things. Some are on writing technique, some are on genre, and some are on what makes narrative, and some are on rhetoric or critical theory. These are my reminder piles: it’s no use launching into research without checking that you know what you’re doing. It’s not enough to know this stuff as an expert or generally. I have to know exactly what elements I need for this precise project.

That’s all for this project, for now.

A proposal I put in for an academic paper was accepted yesterday. I’m about to start an extra pile (which will link into the project, but is right now just for the paper) will be about food in speculative fiction. This one is quite dangerous. Whenever I write about food, I have to cook things.

When people ask me what I love about research I am stumped. What’s not to love about reading fiction and inventing recipes to fit the food mentioned in the story? Although in this case I’ll be doing a critical analysis. Mouthfeel has to play a part. Maybe I’ll have recipes as the slides that illustrate the paper? After all, I have a nice collection of cookbooks that I can match to the foodways in the fiction. The most mouth-watering paper at an academic conference. It sounds good to me.

Writing long fiction is on the backburner for a bit, obviously, but my reasons are impeccable, as are my piles of books. Also, I did that thing that chefs do on cooking shows. There are three objects I prepared earlier, one that is out in paperback and now affordable (earlier research!) , one that is out already and the other is coming in a very, very short time. The same applies to next year – work finished a while back means that I shall research away and books will appear and everyone will think that I work 36 hours a day.

I don’t. But I do have impressive piles of books stacked everywhere they fit.

 

  1. For all of you, a footnote. For anyone wondering, yes, this research project is for a PhD. It’s not my first PhD, however, and Australian PhDs are only three years long and we start the research on Day One. Also, I’m more interested in the research itself and in working with two tremendous supervisors than I am with shouting, “Hey, I’m doing a PhD.” Because it’s all about writers and what they put in their fiction, I shall talk about the cool stuff here, from time to time. Ivory towers are a fiction, and research relates to the real world. This research relates to culture in fiction. And I am one of those people who write stuff into footnotes that people need to read. I did it for my first novel and I refuse to stop doing it unless I’m writing an academic piece. This is due to a certain warped element in my personality.

Summer Reading Gems

Although I work at home, I’ve been reading more since the pandemic Shelter In Place orders. Like many others, I’ve had more than my share of moments of wanting to run away to Middle Earth or Darkover or Narnia. (One of the ways I exercise is on a recumbent bike in the garage, facing a TV/DVD/VCR unit on which I’ve been watching the commentaries to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, but that’s a different topic.) Here are some books that really grabbed me:

The Bone Ships, by RJ Barker (Orbit Books)

Oh, what a luscious, heart-rending, beautifully crafted book this is! In the world of warring island nations, the most valuable commodity – one that comprises the great war ships that grant naval supremacy – is the bones of sea dragons. The supply is limited, for the dragons are believed to be extinct, so the bones are salvaged and repurposed to for the great ships of the fleet. Then there are the black ships, the ships of the condemned and untouchable. Fisherman’s son Joron is one of those wretched souls, sentenced as “shipwife” (captain) to a black ship and determined to stay as drunk as possible. His fortunes change with the arrival of “Lucky” Meas, an extraordinary leader and daughter of the ruler, although why she might have been sentenced to a black ship, Joron has no idea. As Meas trains and then inspires the dissolute crew, Joron goes from grudging obedience to trust, even as he learns her true mission. For after centuries a sea dragon has been spotted, and the contest for its precious bones threatens to plunge the world into unending war.

There is so much to love about this book, but for me it was the language that enchanted me the most. I found myself slowing down and repeating passages just to savor them. In many senses, the narrative text itself was a character and gateway to this world.

Tide Child’s colour showed he [in this world ships are masculine] was a last-chance ship, the crew condemned to death. The only chance anyone had for a return to life was through some heroic act, something so undeniably great that the acclaim of the people would see their crimes expunged and their life restored to them. Such hope made desperate deckchilder, and desperate deckchilder were fierce. Though if any forgiveness had been offered to the dead it had not been in Joron’s lifetime, or in his father’s lifetime before him.

At some point this crew of the violent and the lost had decided that Meas could be trusted, and if she kept her side of the bargain then they would keep theirs. It was an odd thing, thought Joron, to find a purpose in such a dark place as a black ship. Superb world-building, compelling characters, and carefully nuanced tension mark Bone Ships as a book to treasure. And there will be more – I can hardly wait!

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Unseen Fire, by Cass Morris (DAW)

Ancient Rome! With magic! I am not a scholar of ancient history, so I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy of this dramatic tale of politics, warfare, cultural upheaval, and romance set about 67 B.C.E. But the world, its peoples, and their attitudes and choices, in every detail feel so seamlessly consistent I was never jolted out of the story.

Rome – Aven in this book – is in the beginning of its decline but still the dominant power in the known world. At the opening of the story, a brutal dictator, having executed or exiled anyone who spoke out against him, has died. Now it’s up to those remaining leaders to reconstitute a republic. Some are already in Aven, having bowed to the dictator or gone into hiding; others return from exile. One such return is Sempronius, a mage of Shadow and Water elements, a brilliant leader and strategist who must hide his magical powers, for mages are forbidden by law from holding public office. Latona, daughter of an elder Senator, has just been freed from the dictator’s thumb (and bed), and her confidence in herself and her magical powers of Spirit and Fire have not yet recovered. Meanwhile, elections bog down as those who want to restrict power to traditionalist classes vie with those who see Aven’s future in the expansion of suffrage. And on the Iberian peninsula, a fanatical war leader is using blood magic to expel the Avenian invaders.

The book perfectly balances the richly nuanced portrayal of a culture in tumult with characters that change and grow, a fascinating system of magic and its relationship to pantheist religion, lively dialog, unexpected plot twists, and a tender love story. It’s a long read (and only the first part of a longer series) but well worth savoring every page.

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