Always a pleasant surprise when my fellow MWers and I are in sync. Well before I read Stuart’s excellent post yesterday titled ‘Looking At Other Art Forms,’ I had been planning to write about non-genre books (mainly because I’ve read a whole bunch of them lately). This subject has certainly been covered before, but since I believe a writer should be reading as broadly as possible on a regular and consistent basis, I thought it couldn’t hurt to touch on it one more time.
You do read outside the fantasy genre, right? And I don’t mean the occasional science fiction or horror novel, either. For novels, I’m talking about classics and mysteries and romance. In non-fiction I’m talking about history and biographies and memoirs (what the heck is the difference between an autobiography and a memoir anyway?) and religion and psychology and sociology. It’s all fair game, because frankly it’s all useful. From the other genres you can pick up tropes and tricks. From non-fiction you can pick all sorts of useful nuggets you can use in future novels of your own.
But you knew that already, right?
The question is, have you been doing it?
Just to show you that it doesn’t all have to be highbrow or deep academics, let me throw at you the list of books I’ve read in the past month or so. You’ll find plenty of fluffy fun to go with the more serious works. In no particular order:
- Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond
- Twilight of the Gods: The Mayan Calendar and the Return of the Extraterrestrials, by Eric von Daniken
- American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot, memoir by Craig Ferguson (lunatic host of The Late, Late Show)
- The Men Who Stare At Goats, by Jon Ronson (non-fic book that was the basis for the movie of the same name)
- The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Cholera Epidemic of 1854, by Steven Johnson
- U122: Diary of a U-Boat Commander (1916-1918), novel by Sir Stephen King-Hall, writing as Karl von Schenk, ‘translated’ by Etienne (there’s a back-story behind the novel that’s almost as long as the novel itself)
- The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (one of my favorite novels; I re-read it every few years)
- Terror in The Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, by Jessica Stern
- The Walking Dead vol. 4, (graphic novel (which is a glorified way of saying “really big comic book”)), by Robert Kirkman (I guess this one’s not really ‘out of genre’)
- The Alchemist, (graphic novel version) by Paulo Coelho
- Fiction Is Folks: How To Create Unforgettable Characters, by Robert N. Peck
- I also subscribe to and regularly read Smithsonian and Discovery magazines
What do I get out of these books and magazines? Well, there’s too much to list it all, but let me throw a few highlights at you. I don’t know when/where/how I’ll use these tidbits in my own work in the future, but rest assured I will be looking for opportunities.
Again, in no particular order:
- De Tocqueville’s observation that the most dangerous moment for governments is when they set about to undertake reform
- Some operatives will admit that they got involved in terrorism out of nothing more than a desire for adventure
- Terrorists often suffer from delusions of grandeur
- When the Mayans revolted against their Mexican overlords, they were on the verge of victory when the Mayan army abruptly broke off fighting to go home and harvest their crops in order to avoid starvation during the coming winter
- In New Guinea in 1965, one of Jared Diamond’s best workers quit his job in order to go home for the funeral of his prospective son-in-law, where they ate the deceased as a sign of respect. The New Guinean man was quite disgusted at the Western tradition of burying loved ones in the ground
- Re: the creation of a military intelligence unit: “We need a colonel, three majors, six captains, and fifteen lieutenants to be reassigned to military intell. So what do you do if you get a phone call like that? You think, Ha, Let’s give them all the bindlestiffs and stumblebums. So they did. And that’s who went into military intelligence, more or less globally.”
- At one time Manuel Noriega took to tying black ribbons around his ankles and placing little scraps of paper in his shoes with names written on them to protect him against spells cast by his enemies
- Cowards can make for some very interesting characters
There’s more–lots, lots more–but then that’s kind of the point: there’s a wealth of material waiting to be discovered, mined from the treasure-troves of various books and magazines. You really don’t even have to work all that hard for it; just find books on topics that interest you and read with a pen or a highlighter in hand (as long as they’re not library books). It’s fun. Heck my biggest challenge is not getting lost in ‘research.’
So, what have you read lately outside of our genre that you would recommend to the rest of the group, and what interesting tidbits have you picked up in the process?
BTW, on a completely unrelated note, I want to mention that I’ll be teaching a class at this year’s North Carolina Writer’s Network Spring Conference. The conference is next Saturday, April 30th, but registration closes on Monday the 25th. The event is being held at the Greensboro campus of the University of North Carolina in, you guessed it, Greensboro, NC. Admission to the full one-day event is $175, and my workshop on Writing and Selling Science Fiction and Fantasy is part of the morning slate of workshops. More details can be found at the NCWN website.