Dana's Dojo: Write What You Know – Or Can, At Least, Convincingly Fake

Today in the Dojo: Dana’s Editorial on writing, research, and her personal preferences regarding authors who Really Know Their Shit

It has taken me years of struggle, hard work and research to learn to make one simple gesture, and I know enough about the art of writing to realize that it would take as many years of concentrated effort to write one simple, beautiful sentence.
     -Isadora Duncan 

No fewer than two of my friends have taken me to task recently for devoting so much time to pure research.  “You’ll never know everything, Dana” and “You’ve got to stop researching and just write at some point” are the common themes here.  And they’re both right.  But there’s good reason for devoting time to research, and for going in-depth with it.

So this article’s for them.  And it’s for all of you who get laughed at for engaging in Extreme Research.

The Primary Types of Authors

I’ve read a hell of a lot of books, and I’ve discerned broad patterns among writers.  There’s the type who get all of their research done from movies and fiction books.  There’s the type who have read a book or two on the subject and then relied on sheer imagination for the rest.  There’s the kind who only Write What They Know, and gods forbid they should write anything outside of their own area of expertise.  And then there’s the kind who research not only widely but deeply, and come across as experts on about thirty-seven disparate subjects.

Those last kind are the ones I’m trying to emulate.  And I have news for you.  They’re not experts on every subject they sound expert in – they’ve just done enough research to sound like they are.  They know just a little bit more than the read-two-books types, and they know just enough to make the real experts smile proudly.  It’s actually not that hard to get there.

Every writer has to make a decision about his or her work: how much research is necessary?  Great stories have been written by all the types, from the crassest “Hey, it worked in Star Trek” to the “I’m a theoretical physicist with a background in socio-psychology and honorary degrees in ten billion other subjects.”  No amount of knowledge is going to save you if you aren’t good at telling stories.  And any amount of ignorance is forgiven by the majority of the reading public if you tell a ripping good tale.

That being so, you may well ask why anyone wouldn’t go for the soft option of watching a few movies and then faking it.  The answer is deeply personal.  And it has a lot to do with the way you want your writing to be viewed.

Big Mac or Filet Mignon?

I personally despise Big Macs.  I have several friends who would happily live on nothing else.  It’s all a matter of taste.

So know your tastes.  If you adore books that tell a ripping good story without any concern for facts, you’re probably not going to be one of those authors who obsesses over the veracity of every detail, nor should you be.  Make it all up and have a great good time doing it.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

I, however, have noticed a distinct pattern in my reading tastes: I gorge on books that are “true” in the sense that the author knew what they were talking about.  They didn’t make things up whole cloth.  They extrapolated from a solid foundation of knowledge about the “real” world.  And when I find authors who play fast and loose with the facts, I can’t stop reading their books fast enough.  It drives me crazy when I can tell that the author is basing his or her fantasy world on misunderstood rehashes of Tolkien, D&D, and the latest Hollywood offering on King Arthur.  I can’t stand “science” fiction writers who wouldn’t know an electron from a positron and yet based their entire story on what they believed to be the difference (and were dead wrong).  To me, this is no better than the infomercials selling ionized water claiming it will cure any ill.  Their science is faulty, therefore so is their premise, and the whole foundation of what they’re trying to get me to buy in to is faulty.  I can tell when an author is blowing smoke up my ass, and I don’t care how good the plot or characters are after that – they’ve lost me.

So I can’t write the kind of story where I don’t know as much as possible about my subject matter.  Just can’t.  And I won’t be limited to writing what I already know – who wants a fantasy about a woman who works in a call center and dreams about being a fantasy author?  That’s all I know from firsthand experience.  Forget it.  So that means research and plenty of it.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors – Take Note

Another gripe I have is the plethora of crap on the shelves in my genre.  I refuse to be counted among the many who don’t know what they’re talking about, who decide that since they played D&D in high school they know everything there is to know about dragons, elves and wizards, and write accordingly. 

It’s bad enough when you substitute fake knowledge for the real thing in fantasy – but when you’re writing science fiction, it’s deadly.  The fast way to the rejection pile is to write a science fiction story using no more science than you’ve picked up from two episodes of Nova. 

Editors see a billion submissions a year from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.  If you’re going to write in these genres, do the work.  There’s no excuse not to.

Knowledge is Beauty

I just love knowing things.  Nothing makes me happier than to find out things about things.  That’s why I don’t spend my nights watching the latest CSI rerun. 

You may think that research is a dread thing to be done only because you must, but knowing more about the subjects you’re writing about make you appreciate the world more.  Did you know I used to hate science and math?  Well, then I had to get into those subjects in order to write science-based fantasy, and suddenly, I discovered their beauty.  It’s not that dry crap you get in school.  Nothing is.  I’ve researched so many formerly-despised subjects now that I’ve lost count, but the more I know, the more things I love.  And the more interesting the world becomes.

So if you’re going to do research, don’t do it just for your books.  Do it for yourself.  Do it for the excuse to do crazy things you’d never in a million billion years do otherwise.  It’s the best excuse ever: “Yeah, I had to take a Carribbean cruise for the book I’m writing” or “I had to buy this Prada handbag to really understand how my character relates to the finer things in life.”  My gods, people, milk it!

And if you get published, some of this stuff actually becomes tax-deductable…

Knowledge Generates Ideas

The more I’ve learned, the more stories I’ve been able to tell.  Possibilities become endless when you know more than what you’ve learned from reading Harlequin Romances.  For instance, “Schroedinger’s Bum.”  I couldn’t have written that story without my knowledge of quantum physics.  Because I know quantum physics, I had an original idea and got out a story in about two hours.

Not bad, eh?

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been horribly blocked, and had new knowledge come to the rescue.  I get stuck by ignorance, unstuck by new knowledge.  And as for new story ideas, well.  Let’s just say that the more I know, the more stuff I want to write, and most importantly can write.

Knowledge Keeps You Original

The more you know, the more unique ideas you can come
up with.  A lot of people I tal
k to who want to write pitch me ideas that I’ve heard a thousand times before.  Then they go off and dig up a little background on their intended story subject, and each time they come back, what they’ve learned has led to a better, more original idea.

The same is true for me.  Back before I knew many things, all I could do was write an old, tired quest-type book.  Now that I know more things, I’ve been able to break free of that and come up with things I’ve never seen written before.  Ever.  And those whacky ideas work because they’ve sprung from things that existed in the real world.  They result from a synthesis of the oddball things I’ve researched – such as mythology, quantum physics, and fine art.  The more you know, the more you can mix-and-match for something totally fresh that at the same time sounds very real indeed.

Research Give You Something Useful to Do

We all get blocked.  We all have times when everything we write seems trite and contrived and more wooden than Pinnochio.  So instead of filling your time with picking lint out of your belly button or gambling your life away on PartyPoker.com, might as well do the research.  You’ll get inspiration, and your stories will be all the better for it.

And remember that research also includes reading endless amounts of fiction.  Gotta research what’s getting published these days.  It’s hard work.  Honestly.  Nothing to do with lying around like a lazy sod drinking Coke and eating Cheetos until the belly explodes.  Not having any fun at all, no, sir…

Someday, the Research Must Take Back Seat

Alas, one cannot know everything, as my wise young friend has pointed out.  There comes a day when all this knowledge must be turned into immortal prose.  And so it’s pretty silly to make it your goal to know absolutely everything about everything.

The trick is to do just enough research to have knowledge of a decent depth, adequate to your story’s needs, and enough to fool a few random experts into thinking you actually know what you’re talking about, and then just go for it.  Sure, you’re going to come across some glaring areas of ignorance while you’re writing.  Just like in housepainting, you’ll have to do some touch-ups.  You’ve just got to accept that and get it done.

I’ve done that successfully with many, many short stories, and while the research for the novel’s going to take far longer, I still have limits.  The research will end, and the writing will begin. 

If you’re tempted to do endless research, set aside a good chunk of time to do your research in, do it, and then start writing.  That way you won’t get trapped in the research-till-you’re-too-old-to-write-the-damned-book pit.

And then enjoy all the people exclaiming about how you really know what you’re talking about.

Dana's Dojo: Write What You Know – Or Can, At Least, Convincingly Fake

It's Not That Easy Addendum

Saw this at Digby’s after I’d written the previous post:

All over TV today, I’m hearing the gasbags fret about the fact that Obama hasn’t brought up gun control. It’s a good question, but they know the answer to it very well: the Democrats have given up that issue, the only problem is that the Republicans refuse to accept their surrender. They have nothing more to say about it.

I’m more curious about why they aren’t all over this:

Gov. Jan Brewer’s plan to roll back state Medicaid coverage would leave thousands of Arizona’s most mentally fragile without health care. 

An estimated 5,200 people diagnosed with a serious mental illness and thousands more who qualify for other behavioral-health services would be among 280,000 childless adults losing health-care coverage under the governor’s plan.

But, Jan sez, she’ll allocate $10 mil or so to cover psych meds.  Well, that’s nice, Jan.  Too bad you’re cutting out all the other services that go along with the meds.  You don’t seem to realize that it’s not just a matter of chucking pills down people’s throats.  Meds have to be prescribed, they have to be monitored, they have to be adjusted, they stop working and have to be changed, above all they have to be taken.  Funny thing about mental illness, paranoid people often won’t swallow the pills you hand them.

Without intensive monitoring, without counseling appointments, and without a support system that will help these poor ill people get well enough to achieve some level of function, you might as well be hosing them down with homeopathy for all the good it will do.

Just like with transplants, Jan Brewer doesn’t get it.  Jan Brewer doesn’t care.  That’s the takeaway lesson here, people: do not get sick in Arizona, because Jan Brewer doesn’t care if you suffer and die.  She and her merry band of fucktards do not believe the great state of Arizona needs to waste its money on you.

Suzanne left a comment on the last installment I want to make sure all of you see:

very well said dana. in the past, i’ve had to try to navigate the california mental health system for family and friends in addition to my experiences on the pd.

even before the draconian cuts that have happened in ca, the cops had to determine that the person was (1) a danger to themselves (suicidal); or (2) a danger to others (homicidal); or (3) gravely disabled (ie dementia/alzheimer) in order to place an involuntary 72 hour psychiatric hold. the patient would then be transported by ambulance to the county contracted mental health facility where the docs would either agree or disagree.

more times than i can recount, if ya didn’t have good insurance, that 72 hour hold was ignored the patient would be discharged early — many times later that same day.

it is heartbreaking what is happening to our safety net in the country.

its not that easy — and it is being made harder and harder each and every day.

And that was in California, which according to some was a socialist paradise.

If you want to see what the Republican ideal of health care is, watch Arizona.  And consider carefully whether that’s what you want for this country the next time you go to the ballot box.

It's Not That Easy Addendum

It's Not That Easy

So David Dayen wrote this article right after the Giffords shooting, taking the WaPo out to the woodshed and administering some tough love for being such complete fuckwits.  You see, WaPo decided that since there’s a law on the books in good ol’ AZ saying crazy folk can be committed, all those people who didn’t take advantage of the law to get Loughner off the streets before he put a bullet in a Congresswoman’s head and killed a whole bunch of others have something to answer for:

According to the Washington Post, Arizona has a law on the books that enables anyone to identify a potential victim of mental illness, and remand them for treatment:

Under Arizona law, any one of Jared Lee Loughner’s classmates or teachers at Pima Community College so concerned about his increasingly bizarre behavior could have contacted local officials and asked that he be evaluated for mental illness and potentially committed for psychiatric treatment.

That, according to local mental health and law enforcement officials, never happened.

Ah, yes.  Good ol’ Title 36.   Title 36, wot could’ve saved ’em all.

Let me tell you a little something about Title 36.  And it’s gonna get personal.

 My mother, you see, is off her nut.  She won’t mind me telling you.  She’d tell you herself, if you asked her.  I’m sure she’d be happy to tell you about being Title 36ed, too, and what the Arizona mental health care system was like.  And keep in mind something: that was before they slashed the funding.

When my mother went nuts, my dad and I didn’t know about Title 36.  We didn’t know about psychiatric disorders.  Sure, my uncle was crazy as a loon, but he’d been in the service, so the feds had taken care of that.  And this was my mom.  Sanest woman in the universe.  At least until the accident.  An old biddy rear-ended her.  She hit her head on the side window.  Nothing major.  But after that, she started getting odd.  She’d go to the chiropractor to have her neck adjusted and come back convinced that she had to change her diet.  She started eating nothing but squash.  She lost her skills as a homemaker.  She started flying off the handle at the least little thing.  We never knew what would set her off. She became withdrawn.  And we put it all down to stress from the accident.

Then she started sitting in my room at night.  I’d wake up with her breathing heavily over me, terrified, and she wouldn’t tell me why.  I started locking her out.

She’d wander off down the street, and howl at my dad when he dragged her back.  He had to lock her in the house to keep her from running off.  Otherwise, she’d just walk away, and we were afraid something would happen to her, because by then it was crystal clear she wasn’t rational.  But we had no idea what to do.  We didn’t know about Title 36, and she refused to admit anything was wrong.  So, for that matter, were we.  Hard to admit that your loved one’s crazy as a loon.

One of our physician friends finally got us in touch with a psychiatrist, a wonderful woman who persuaded my mother to sit with her long enough to figure out what the problem was: Bipolar Disorder.  The kind with the psychotic features.  Chemical imbalance, not a personality flaw, not something you could just snap out of if you really put your mind to it.  She’d need medication.

Oh, that did not go over well.  You see, my mother was convinced people were trying to poison her, although we didn’t know that at the time.  She refused medication.  And we couldn’t just bundle her off to a nice treatment facility.  Even with a supremely capable psychiatrist on your side, it’s hard to get someone committed against their will.  And when they wander the streets, it’s hard to get the police to take them in.  At first, it’s because there’s no diagnosis.  After that, it’s because getting them picked up could make their paranoia worse, so you’re reluctant to ask for police help.  And what can they do?  If that person’s not an imminent threat, they just drop them off at home, where a working father and a teenage daughter are at their wit’s end while they wait for the courts to decide the problem’s severe enough to do something about it.

We finally did get her committed.  And then came the issue of getting her to the facility.  A long drive up the canyon to Flagstaff, winding roads with cliffs, and a crazy woman trying to jump out of the car at 30mph.  She howled when we gave her to the orderlies.  She had to be heavily medicated and put in solitary at first.  If that doesn’t break your heart, nothing will.  It almost seems kinder to leave them alone with their paranoia, at home, where they find occasional moments of comfort.  Not everyone has the stomach for it.  Not everyone can apply that kind of tough love.

But we got her there, and the facility (a private one), returned her to normal.  So normal, in fact, that after a few months of having my mother back, she went off the meds, thinking she didn’t need them anymore.

Thus began the cycle: commitment, normalcy, go off meds, commitment.  My dad handled the court stuff.  I never saw how difficult that was.  But I know it was very nearly a full-time job for him.  You can’t just say, “Hey, this person’s gone bonkers again, can I just drop them off at the mental hospital?”  It doesn’t work that way.

Private insurance wouldn’t cover the expensive private facility after so many go-rounds, so it was off to the state’s.  And she was never right after that.  Never.  They’d return her to something approaching sane and eject her before her medications were fully adjusted.  The state facility wasn’t an institutional horror, but it was a dim, depressing little place filled with desperate people who also would never be right.  She hated it there.  She’d beg to come home.  And when she came home, she wasn’t my mother and never would be again.  She’d gone off her meds too often, for one, and for another, the doctors there weren’t as good.  They were underfunded and overworked and they did their best, but they could only do so much.

They kept her alive, and that’s something.  But the state of Arizona just patches you up.  They don’t do all it takes to fix you.  And this was back in the halcyon days, before they cut the funding by 37%, and told all of the people who couldn’t afford mental health care but were too rich for Medicaid to fuck off.  Here’s what Arizona’s doing now:

To fill a $1 billion hole in its 2011 budget, Arizona slashed this year’s budget for mental health services by $36 million — a 37 percent cut. As a result, advocates say 3,800 people who do not qualify for Medicaid are at risk of losing services such as counseling and employment preparation. In addition, more than 12,000 adults and 2,000 children will no longer receive the name-brand medications they take to keep their illnesses in check. Other services such as supportive housing and transportation to doctor’s appointments also will be eliminated.

Let me tell you about something about people who can’t get their meds and can’t get to their appointments: they’re condemned to hell.  A worse hell than my mother ever faced.  At least the state always made sure she had a place to go when she was too crazy to survive on her own.  At least they gave her a refuge when she was suicidal, and provided her medications that, while they didn’t set her completely right, at least gave her some sanity back.  She didn’t have to hear voices telling her awful things would happen to her family if she didn’t kill herself.  She didn’t have to believe her only option was suicide.  They saved her, over and over again, and now, if she were there, they wouldn’t.  Not if we had it to do over again.  Instead of her divorcing my dad because she’d concluded he was the root of all her problems, he’d probably have had to divorce her in order to leave her poor enough to qualify for care, once the insurance ran out.  And it would have killed him, because he is an honorable man who didn’t abandon her, not when she went nuts and not when she left him for another man, but would occasionally come back to him for help because he was the only one who knew what to do when the voices returned.

Now imagine trying to do this.  Imagine trying to navigate this morass of mental health law.  Imagine trying to get authorities to understand that a very odd man is a deathly danger, when he hasn’t done a damned thing other than freak people out.  Imagine trying to get that man help, when you’re afraid of him, when you don’t know how to navigate this morass, can’t get anyone to take it seriously, and can’t convince the person in question to get help, and even if you could, who’s gonna provide it, with budgets slashed so severely?

If you walk out on an Arizona street and say, “Title 36, who knows what that is?” how many hands do you think will go up?  If you ask for volunteers to get a man picked up for possible insanity, who do you think will take that step, knowing they could be wrong, knowing that man may blame them, hate them, for what they’ve done?  How many of us really feel comfortable enough judging another person’s sanity to make that call?

It is not so simple, WaPo, even with a law on the books.  First, you have to know there’s a problem, and that this problem is severe enough to report to the authorities.  Then, there has to be a court system willing to get treatment for those refusing it, and a mental health care system well-funded enough to provide said treatment.  None of those things is assured in the great state of Arizona.  Few places in America will do all in their power to heal broken minds.  

And you, WaPo, have no idea how desperately hard it is.  You’ve never been there.  You’ve never walked in the shoes.  So don’t tell us a phone call would have done it.  There was too much: the deterioration of Arizona’s health care system, the easy access to guns, the relentless drumbeat of eliminationism, the stigma of being branded mentally ill in a wild west state, and the simple fact that things this complex care rarely be prevented by picking up the phone.

Especially when the people on the other end of it don’t have the funding to take you seriously.

It's Not That Easy

Some Thoughts on Subduction, Science, and Denialists

What I was supposed to be doing today: cleaning house, working on research.

What I did: got sucked into a series of posts having fun at the expense of Expanding Earthers, who are just as pathetic as IDiots.

It all started with this tweet, which led to me reading three posts on subduction and the Cascadia subduction zone by Brian Romans, including comments.  The comments taught me that Expanding Earthers like to engage in all the usual IDiocy, namely quote mining, misinterpreting science, refusing to answer direct questions, refusing to provide any actual evidence and/or explain how their inane ideas fit the data, and when backed into a corner, move the goalposts, frantically start making shit up and/or resort to personal attacks before running away in a snit.  And let’s not forget the ALL CAPS arguments.  For some reason, these people think ALL CAPS makes their contentions IRREFUTABLE.  Pathetic.

From there, I went on to a post that demolishes Expanding Earther dumbfuckery with one word: gravity

Now.  I’d like to make some observations for any passing Expanding Earthers:

1.  If you want to overturn existing scientific paradigms, you must present the data and evidence to do so.  No, I’m sorry – you’re not going to understand that.  Let me try to put it in a format you can understand:

If you want scientists to take your Expanding Earth idea seriously, YOU must PRESENT DATA AND EVIDENCE in PEER-REVIEWED PUBLICATIONS.  It is YOUR JOB to PROVIDE EVIDENCE, because you are trying to overturn a body of scientific work that has already proven itself over and over and over and over and over again. 

Let’s pretend for a moment that this is a jello wrestling match.  The current theory of plate tectonics has so much evidence and so much data backing it that, if evidence and data were jello, scientists would be able to bury you to a depth of roughly ten billion feet with it.  You, on the other hand, are holding an empty jello packet and trying to say you won.  It’s just sad.

2.  For all those who like to play maverick and pretend there is some huge conspiracy preventing your EE bullshit from being taken seriously, you might want to consider how quickly scientists accepted plate tectonics when other scientists presented evidence proving it and supplied a mechanism showing how it would be possible. 

In fact, the plate tectonics revolution seems to be one of the most beautiful examples of how science works: first came the germ of an idea (continental drift), which wasn’t accepted until a lot of hard work got done.  Scientists went out and did science.  Evidence piled up.  The idea got tweaked and modified into a theory (plate tectonics).  The theory turned out to explain a whole lot of disparate data that couldn’t be explained before.  The underlying mechanism was found.  And before you knew it, viva la revolucion! 

All of this happened because the early plate tectonics folks actually went out and did science.  They didn’t sit around sniveling that scientists wouldn’t listen to them.  They didn’t mine some quotes and call it a day.  They worked their asses off, knowing their ideas would live or die based on their results, that they had to present the evidence, that they had to do the science, that they might be wrong and had to be damned sure they were right before they could expect respect. 

3.  Ask yourself what’s more likely: that the entire scientific establishment, from chemists to physicists to geologists to biologists to every other form of –ist, together with all of their journals, conferences, organizations, and so forth, are conspiring to conceal “the truth” you think is out there, or that you’re a deluded nitwit?  Apply Occam’s Razor.  And if you slice it on the “Everybody’s conspiring!” side, please pin a badge to your chest that says “Certified Crank” so the rest of us don’t have to waste our time with you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must get on with finding other ways to entertain myself, such as wondering if there are any Shrinking Earthers out there so that we can set up a cage match between them and the Expanders.  No jello wrestling, alas, as neither of them have got any jello.  Still, it’d be quite the sight to see.

Some Thoughts on Subduction, Science, and Denialists

Overdose of Cute, Plus Snow!

Some of you like cute kitteh photos.  Well, this post is for you.

My cat, who is spawn of Satan at the best of times and something Satan would flee from at the worst, has been overplaying the cute card over the past few weeks.  I believe she’s plotting something.  Or perhaps she’s just saying thanks for giving her a big ol’ sheet o’ paper for Xmas:

Nah.  Plot.

More disgusting cute after the fold, plus a rare glimpse of Seattle snow.

When I was busy researching ice caves, she decided to “help.”

Yes, that is me trying to take notes on a notepad held vertically against my chest.  It was that or get my hand chewed off.

You know, it was tough doing this with the old computer.  With the new one, it’s impossible to get anything done when she wishes to snuggle.  I’m going to have to invest in one of those extra-wide recliners someday, preferably one with a laptop desk attached to the side.

Usually, though, she’s sacked out on the couch.  She’s got her preferred spot, and she finds a myriad of ever-more-adorable positions to lie in, trying to tempt me away from my work.  And she succeeds.  I end up spending too much time fiddling with the camera, trying to determine if I can get supreme cute results from handheld twilight mode:

Or mebbe the flash:

More experiments will have to be conducted.

And, finally, snow!  When it snowed overnight, I decided to see if handheld twilight could capture the dark, snowbound scene:

Yup.  Although I should’ve fiddled with the white balance more.  It’s hard to do, since the stupid outdoor lights always choose to either go on or off right after I’ve set up the shot and then pressed the shutter.  Argh.  Still.  Snow.  In the dead of night.  Pretty awesome, that was, especially since it started raining early that morning and all went away before I had to worry about venturing out.  That’s how I like snow!

Wish I’d caught the Little Hell Beast when she was doing her “What’s this white shit all over my porch?” routine, but she lost interest before I could aim.

So there you are.  Your overdose of cute for the week.  If I suddenly stop blogging, you’ll know that there was a plot, and it involved grievous bodily harm.  But I doubt she’ll do anything to me before summer.  She knows other people will feed her, but only mommy risks death and dismemberment to cuddle her on cold nights.

Overdose of Cute, Plus Snow!

Cantina Quote o' The Week: Blaise Pascal

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

Blaise Pascal

Despite sounding like a Gnu Atheist gigantidick, Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century mathematician and physicist whose name you should curse if you don’t like getting injections, as he had a little something to do with the invention of syringes.  He’s also the guy who came up with Pascal’s Triangle, which is apparently important to mathematicians.

The above quote comes from his Pensées, in which he not only defended Christianity, but included his famous Wager.

Cantina Quote o' The Week: Blaise Pascal

Los Links 1/21

I’d write you an inspiring lead, and helpfully split this week’s links into categories, and generally do more by way of saying “Go read all these and then some!” But my book on South China agriculture just came in, I’ve still got Krakatoa to finish, and a dream has sent me on a scramble through old photos, so this is all you get:

Go.  Read.

Dr. King’s Nightmare: “It’s the priorities MLK spoke of that I find interesting. In retrospect, he seems to have predicted the place we’re in now – a nation diminished both economically and intellectually from what we were in his time. We’ve become more inclusive, but we’re mostly more inclusive at the bottom 99% of our society. The ones who really count are what they’ve always been.” (Slobber and Spittle)

At Least He’s Honest: “These people don’t believe that America is a country. They don’t believe that it is an American value, across all state lines and across all political divisions to ensure that children are not exploited. If Oklahoma wants to allow people to hire 10 year old children to make cheap consumer goods for whatever the market will pay, that’s just the price we pay for freedom.

“Likewise, slavery. But we had that argument already. They lost.” (Hullabaloo)

Battle Hymn Of The Republican: “I was just continuing to muse a bit over the fascinating change in rhetoric over the past week. The above verse is meant as an amalgam, not merely the obvious target. I remember Rush bloviating “talent on loan from God”; Beck gloating over the attendance at his rally, Billo’s obsession with the numbers competition between himself and his MSNBC counterparts… WHen it suited their interest, they claimed tremendous influence. That influence, however, has the fascinating property of disappearing altogether when reality catches up to rhetoric.” (The Digital Cuttlefish)

When Human Research Gets Inside Your Mind…:  “Early in the research career I began 11 years ago, I worked with a population of Vietnam War veterans with terminal lung disease.  They were incredibly sick, although still ambulatory and living independently, and we were trying a new medication to try to relieve some of their symptoms.  They visited my office every month for a year and would stay for 18 hours at a time.  None of them ever wanted to sit alone in our patient room with the comfortable couch, television, and fridge full of water and juice and snacks.  They wanted to sit with me in my office in the small wooden chair in the corner, and I accommodated them. Usually they would sit quietly, sipping decaf coffee and reading the paper or a book while I worked on my charts and entered my data.  Sometimes they would want to make small talk – tell me about the town’s latest gossip, their children and grandchildren, or discuss the weather,  And sometimes, late at night, at the end of our time together, they would tell me about the things they had seen.  Things so sad and so horrific that those stories are blistered permanently inside of my mind. Knowing these things changed me.  I don’t know that they made me better, but I know that they made me different inside.  I know now that there are things you can never forget.  But I also know that what are even more horrific, are the stories they couldn’t bring themselves to tell me.”  (On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess)

Helpless in the Face of Madness: “What is the matter with us? Are we really helpless in the face of the astounding toll that guns take on this society?

“More than 30,000 people die from gunfire every year. Another 66,000 or so are wounded, which means that nearly 100,000 men, women and children are shot in the United States annually. Have we really become so impotent as a society, so pathetically fearful in the face of the extremists, that we can’t even take the most modest of steps to begin curbing this horror?” (NYT)

How Plate Tectonics Became Accepted Science:  “‘Most of the really great breakthroughs in science are unifications,’ said Owen J. Gingerich, a science historian at Harvard. Newton’s laws of motion unified the sky and Earth as ruled by the same physics; that was radically different from the earlier Aristotelian concept, in which the two realms were separate. Einstein’s laws of relativity unified space and time.

“’Obviously, plate tectonics was an enormous unifying theory that began to make sense of disparate sorts of phenomena,’ Dr. Gingerich said.” (NYT Week in Review) (h/t)

How deep the Universe: “Now there you go. Did you see that? What I said? ‘The nearby spiral…’. ‘The galaxy is close to our own…’. But it isn’t.” (Bad Astronomy)

Dysteleological Physicalism: “Ernst Haeckel coined the term ‘dysteleology’ to describe the idea that the universe has no ultimate goal or purpose. His primary concern was with biological evolution, but the conception goes deeper. Google returns no hits for the phrase ‘dysteleological physicalism’ (until now, I suppose). But it is arguably the most fundamental insight that science has given us about the ultimate nature of reality. The world consists of things, which obey rules. Everything else derives from that.”  (Cosmic Variance)

Palinspeak and Violence: “One of the constants in Sarah Palin’s worldview is violence. You see it in her reality show where most wildlife is immediately identified as a threat to be guarded against or killed. You see it in her inflammatory language, and the ways in which she corrals supporters to sometimes shockingly violent threats. You see it even in completely innocuous Facebook postings on sports. Just check out this Palin stream-of-consciousness on, yes, March Madness…” (The Daily Dish)

“An armed society is a polite society”:  “So how is the aphorism; ‘An armed society is a polite society’ supposed to work?  I often hear people use it who advocate universal access to firearms as a solution to social problems.  What form, exactly, would that politeness take?  And what would happen if it were violated?  What would the result be in very crowded places?  How would it work out for people who cannot conform socially? What about the exchange of ideas considered by some to be inherently rude?  How would social innovation ever take place? A bit of imagination is in order and for that we might turn to a very imaginative author.” (Decrepit Old Fool)

The elephants in the room at ScienceOnline 2011: “Chris Mooney told us that we need ‘Deadly Ninjas of Science Communication’, Tom Peterson of the National Climatic Data Center said that he had been told by a Congressman that the debate over climate change was a ‘knife fight’, and Josh Rosenau drew some compelling parallels between the tactics and rhetoric employed by denialists and the creationist playbook. And yet, there was still a rather odd focus on the communication skills – or the implied lack thereof – of scientists as the reason that so many seem to think that the basic fact of anthropogenic climate change is still up for discussion. Sure, we can refine our message. But how effective is this in a media landscape, particularly in the US, where manufactured controversy abounds, and people who knowingly distort and misrepresent the science are happily given a megaphone? Our ninjas are going to need more than better framing in their toolkit of rhetorical jujitsu moves.” (Highly Allochthonous)

Krugman Finally Has His ‘Creationist Moment’: “I’ve written many times that everything you need to know about movement conservatism can be understood by observing creationists (not surprising, since the theopolitical right is a major element of the conservative movement). I’m glad to see NY Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman has finally reached his ‘creationist moment’: the epiphany one realizes that, to creationists, words have no meaning, that they are not being honest.” (Mike the Mad Biologist)

When my Inner Writer is stomping her foot in protest….: “I love writing. I really do. Editing, not so much. Background info….meh. But I love writing.

“And yet, there are days when I sit at my computer and open my WIP*, and all I can think is, ‘Okay….now what?'” [What follows is damned good advice, and all writers should go read it.  Now, in fact.] (The Coffee-Stained Writer)

Flooding on the flanks of Mt. Hood: “It’s the middle of January. You’ve traveled to Oregon’s majestic Mount Hood for a weekend of skiing the snow- and glacier-covered slopes. On Saturday morning when you begin to head up the mountain from Portland, it’s warm and raining. ‘No problem,’ you think, ‘it will be snowing at higher elevations
.’ (Thanks t
o generally decreasing temperature with increasing elevation, or the environmental lapse rate.) But it’s not. Instead, it is raining. Not just run-of-the-mill Oregon drizzle, either. It’s really raining hard. (Highly Allochthonous)

The Significance of a Symbolic Gesture: “With yesterday’s vote, Republicans effectively told American families, ‘We’ll gut the health care system now, and maybe figure something else out later. In the meantime, good luck — and don’t get sick.’ Those who find this compelling probably aren’t paying close enough attention.” (The Washington Monthly)

A Really Big Erratic White Rock in Jefferson County: “A few weeks back David Tucker posted a query regarding big erratics located within the Puget Sound area. He has done some nice write ups on our local glacial erratics including ones I would recommend. So it took me a few days to think of some. Some of my favorites are resting on the mud flats of Drayton Harbor southwest of Blaine, but an impressively large erratic is located north of Hood Head on the west shore of the upper Hood Canal. It is so big and prominent, you don’t have to take a field trip to see it. You can see it using Google Maps or Bing Maps.” (Reading the Washington Landscape)

Los Links 1/21

So You Know Exactly How God Did It, Then?

You know, sometimes it seems like USA has come to stand for “United States of Appalling Ignorance.”  A lot of people in this country need to read an improving book.  And I’m not talking about the Bible.  That one only seems to improve people’s ability to be smug about their appalling ignorance.

MTHellfire found this bit of outstanding fuckwittery spouted by Bill O’Reilly and took him to the woodshed over it (h/t):

“Tide goes in and tide goes out…you can’t explain that.” Bill O’Reilly recently told Dave Silverman of American Atheists, during a recent airing on Fox News as they debated the integrity of religion.

After her head hit her desk, she went on to advise that, yes, actually, Billo, we can explain how the tide goes in and out.  I’d just like to add that Billo needs to avail himself of a book I recently read, Beyond the Moon.  We are so able to explain tides that entire pop sci books can be written on the subject.

MTHellfire went on to quote, in its full misspelled glory, a screed she’d been subjected to on Facebook, wherein the correspondent (and I use this term loosely) advised that the reason people don’t trust scientists is that they can’t explain where the first speck of dirt came from, but they can tell you how life was created.

Wrong wrong wrong, and not just because the original had enough grammatical errors to make an English teacher contemplate a home lobotomy in an effort to escape the pain.  Scientists can explain how life evolved.  They’re not yet sure how it originated, but they’ve got some promising ideas.  They’re pretty certain it did not include a large bearded deity poofing the whole thing into existence.

As far as the speck of dirt goes, any decent book on cosmology can clue you in.  Dirt is formed of elements.  Elements are forged in stars.  And so on, all the way back to the Big Bang.  So yes, Facebook babbler, scientists can explain where the first speck of dirt came from.  At length, and with equations, if you like.

But it’s not like the “God did it” crowd is likely to listen to the evidence.  If they do, their eyes will all too likely glaze over, and they will take this as a sign: they cannot understand it, therefore scientists don’t really understand it, ergo Jesus!  So let me just turn this around a bit.  I like turning tables.  It adds interest to a room.

Here’s my reply to the “Scientists can’t explain every single detail exactly, so God, so there!” crowd:

Do you know every last detail of how, precisely, God created the universe?  I mean, precisely how he spoke the whole thing into existence?  The complete and excruciating details of how, exactly, God did it, from the first photon to the last squidgy bit on Eve?


Deary me.  Guess I’ll have to just stick with science, then.

So You Know Exactly How God Did It, Then?

Oregon Geology Parte the Fourth: Hug Yer Geology South

We’ve had an eventful first day in Oregon so far.  We saw the mouth of the mighty Columbia River at Astoria; watched the Columbia River Basalts plunge into the sea at Ecola State Park; and done a bit of desultory spelunking at the north side of Hug Point.  The sun’s getting ready to sink into the sea past shattered sea stacks of brecciated basalt.

Grande Ronde Silhouette

And if we don’t get our arses round Austin Point and back before high tide, we’re going to be hugging something other than geology soon.  It’s a mad scramble through a tangle of biology up to Highway 101 if you get stranded on the beach.  So let’s get a move on.

The character of the place changes a bit down here.  And it’s a good place to talk about basalt.

First off, if one’s just taking a casual look round, it’s easy to be deceived.  What with all these dikes, stringers, sills, and so forth, it’s easy to think that these basalts are natives.  In fact, for a while, that’s just what geologists thought.  The source didn’t seem like it could be too far from here.  After all, the way the Columbia River Basalts insinuated themselves into the local strata, it looked just like they’d arrived from below.

However, that’s not what gravity and chemistry tells us.

A Finger o’ Basalt

Check this dude out.  If he were a local, he’d be rooted pretty far down, thousands of feet in fact.  But gravity studies revealed that all that lovely, solid basalt stops just a few hundred feet beneath the surface.  Weird, inexplicable – until you look east, and realize there’s a whole big plateau of this stuff covering appreciable parts of Oregon and Washington.  But most of the basalt flows we’re used to travel only so far and then peter out: a mile, a dozen, sometimes a hundred.  But nearly half a thousand?  Read some of the old scientific papers on this area, and you’ll see that geologists struggled with the idea.

But then came chemistry.  And chemical analysis said, “Yup, that’s sure Columbia River Basalt, that is.  Eye-din-tee-cull.”  It boggles the mind – we’ve had zero experience with state-spanning flows of flood basalts in recent history.  If I’m remembering rightly, humans in historical time never have witnessed such a thing.  But it happened here.

Down here to the south, the Grande Ronde looms more.  And it’s a mass of fractures and fragments, welded together.


Make sure at some point to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the point and look out to sea.  It’s a wild and wonderful view.


Clamber over the riot of rocks, basalt rising up on both sides of you.  Once you’re through the gap between head and stack, you’ll suddenly emerge from igneous to sedimentary again.

Dipping Down

If you’re looking at those layers and thinking, “Hmm, tilty,” you’re not wrong – they’ve got a pronounced dip.  Why this is, I have not yet discovered, but I imagine it has quite a bit to do with hanging about on the edge of a subduction zone.

Sandstone Slope

Notice the basalt stack right to the right of it, there?  That’s remnants of a big dike of Grande Ronde basalt that sheared off the Astoria Formation, and now protects it from the worst of the waves.

Down near the tide line, when you can find bits that aren’t all covered in crunchy-coated biology, you can see just how smooth and slick basalt can become when polished by sand-laden waves.

Scoured Basalt

The spaces between the sea stacks and the headland form channels, and so we end up with these lovely smooth bits that look like they’ve been scoured out by a river.  See how fractured and fragmented it is, even polished?  When the basalt hit the coast and plunged into the cold Pacific waters, it cooled rapidly enough to shatter.  In places, it actually boiled the water, and you can see red oxidized basalt where that happened.

Things look rather different where the water’s been at the sandstone.


Looks like the sea’s trying to tunnel through here, helped by pebbles.

I want to turn your attention now to the head, where you can see basalt and sediments getting really intimate.


See how the basalt threads its way through the sandstone, there?  When it reached the coast, it sank into the mud and sand, butted in between layers, and wove itself into any space it could find or make.  In places, it incorporated the sediments into itself.  Told you this is XXX geology.

Jaunty Basalt Cap

If the Columbia River Basalt’s Grande Ronde formation hadn’t made it out to the coast, it’s quite possible, even probable, we wouldn’t be seeing these lovely cliffs.  We certainly wouldn’t have the imposing heads and monolithic sea stacks.  Sandstones and mudstones aren’t as inclined to hold up against wave action, as we’ll see when we get to Parte the Fifth.

In places, the intruding Grande Ronde squirted up through the sediments.  Remnants still stand watch, tall and imposing.


Get closer to one of them.  Let’s choose the one that’s tilting like a charming drunk.

Leaning Tower

Notice how chunky it is, some of it blocky and some more brecciated.  This basalt didn’t have a long, quiet cool-down.  If you’ve ever wondered why sea stacks look so rough, now you know it isn’t just the relentless pounding of the waves – it’s the explosive action of rapid quenching.

Come closer still.


Check that out.  Chips, cracks, and even some rough conchoidal fractures off to the left, there.  This is some seriously broken rock.  It makes it a lot of fun to explore.  Unfortunately, before we could get really immersed in it, we were getting immersed in something else.  Stupid high tide.

Gazing North

One last, long, lingering look; one last fond pat for the rocks; one final moment to contemplate the power of good Mother Earth to create and destroy; and then it’s off to the Land o’ Lincoln (City), where we’ll meet the world’s shortest river.

Ye olde indispensable volumes of reference as the author was trying to make sense of it all:

Fires, Faults and Floods – one of the best roadside guides to the Columbia River Basin evah.

In Search of Ancient Oregon – simply the most beautiful book written about Oregon’s natural history.
Hiking Oregon’s Geology – chock full o’ adventurous goodness sure to help you get your rocks on.

Northwest Exposures – tying the whole shebang together in one easy-to-follow narrative.

Cataclysms on the Columbia – the book that truly helped me comprehend the incomprehensible.

The Restless Northwest – short, sweet, and yet comprehensive guide to Northwest geological shenanigans.

Roadside Geology of Oregon and Roadside Geology of Washington – indispensable references and inspirations.

Glacial Lake Missoula and its Humongous Floods – not only an informative guide to the discovery and history of the Floods, but an apt title, too!
Oregon Geology Parte the Fourth: Hug Yer Geology South

Dana's Dojo: Extrapolation vs. Experience

Today in the Dojo: The secret to writing what you don’t know.

“I think that is the biggest part of being a storyteller, being true to your characters and allowing them to present themselves to readers in ways that speak beyond the limitations of personal experience.”


For those who wonder how I spend most afternoons off, it involves the following: I plan to do many necessary things.  I sit down to check my email.  My cat crawls into my lap and curls up in excrutiatingly cute positions.  So the house goes uncleaned, the groceries unbought, and Dana unshowered until the cat finishes cuddling around five. 

I am chained to my computer by cute. 

So while I’m trapped, I write posts.  Such as this one.

Lest you think the above was just a thowaway paragraph merely All About Dana, look at it again.  Some of you may never have experienced the joys of a purring bundle of homicidal fur lying across your arms and gazing adoringly into your face.  Some of you may not even like it much.  But you can all imagine yourselves into my world, can’t you?  You’ve cuddled with a friend, a lover, a child or perhaps a dog or ferret when you should be doing something else.  You’ve felt their warmth and breath against your stomach.  You’ve looked into each other’s eyes and experienced an ineffible adoration while at the same time thinking in the far corner of your mind, “Damn it, I was supposed to be…”

Of course, your respective bundles of joy may not have been licking your arm with a sandpaper tongue, and for that you should be grateful.  However, the fact remains: you do not have to experience this precisely to imagine it.

Now let me turn it on its head: you don’t have to experience it precisely to write it with authority.

Eh?  What’s that?  You can write what you don’t know?  Isn’t that dead against all that write-what-you-know advice?


Let’s be utterly realistic here: if we were confined to writing what we know, there would be no fantasy, science fiction, historicals, westerns, spy thrillers (the actual life of a spy is mostly dead boring), or about a billion other types of books currently populating bookstore shelves.  In one fell swoop, we destroy countless publishing categories with this rule.

To take it further, there would also be strict limitations on what kind of things the individual author could write.  I’ll use myself as a sample case.  If I stayed true to the “write what I know” rule, I could only write about an aspiring author who works in a call center and doesn’t get out much.  There’s a bit of drama in there: mother has bipolar disorder and occasionally gets committed because of psychotic episodes when the meds quit working.  But she lives a couple thousand miles away, so it’s all drama at second hand.  Dead boring.

I would be trapped in a single viewpoint: mine.  Single white female.  Smoker.  Worry wart.  Straight.  No major tragedies in life.  Even the Defining Crisis of becoming a statistic at the age of eighteen presented no more than some rethinking of assumptions about people and a very minor case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I overcame without shrinks or drugs because it really wasn’t that horrid, comparitively speaking.  Pretty sad, isn’t it? 

If I could only write What I Know, I couldn’t write anything that I write now.  Not one single word. 

Take a moment and think about the kinds of things you would be forced to write if you could only write what you, yourself, have experienced firsthand.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.  Judge Judy is on, I can keep myself amused.


Scary, isn’t it?

But there’s hope.  We’re not trapped by some idiot rule that says we can only Write What We Know.  Really.  We’re not.  And I can prove it.  Another anecdote for you:

After my Defining Crisis, my father sat down with me one night and had A Talk.  He said, “You’ve always wanted to watch Full Metal Jacket with me.  I didn’t think you could understand it.  You can understand it now.  You’re a survivor, too.”

Or words to that effect.  I really don’t remember them specifically because my jaw was in the way.  Kinda hurts when it hits the floor that hard.  Here’s a man who survived a year in Vietnam during the heavy fighting, who was afraid to take his boots off for three months because every time he did, his unit came under heavy mortar fire, who got shot in the jaw and took shrapnel in the leg that’s still working its way out of his body, who lost most of the hearing in one ear because some idiot fired off a .45 in a tunnel thinking a shadow was Viet Cong, who spent Christmas that year pinned down under rifle fire running out of ammo, who still can’t go to see the Wall because there are too many friends’ names on it…  This man is now telling me that I can understand all of the pain and fear and rage and anguish because I spent one hour one morning wondering if I was going to get killed with a dull kitchen knife.  He equates this to a year of getting shot at in a jungle.  The hell?

Well, I didn’t argue the point.  I wanted to see Full Metal Jacket with my dad because he’d told me that this was the only movie about Vietnam that really captured what it was like.  Maybe I’d know by the end of the movie why my situation matched his.  So we watched.  And I was even more perplexed.  How the hell could he possibly think that my situation had been even a fraction of his?

Well, he was right.  He knew that because I’d experienced a credible threat to my life, lived however briefly under the fear of permanent mutilation, and then had to come back with the determination that this would not define or destroy me, that I could understand Vietnam in a way I couldn’t have before.  I could imagine my way in.

Extrapolation, my darlings.  It’s our most powerful tool.

A lot of writers seem to fall prey to the idea that if one hasn’t experienced something, one can’t write truthfully about it.  “I can’t write war because I’m not a soldier.”  “I can’t write from a woman’s viewpoint because I’m a man.”  “I can’t write gay because I’m straight.”  And on and on.  Some writers buy into this so strongly that they never step out of their own heads.  You can tell these writers.  One aspect of their story is drawn in sweeping detail and throbs with authority, and everything else that had to be there is dead wood.  Stereotypes.  Cutouts.  They never learn the power of extrapolation.

We’re not going to do that, are we?  We’re going to learn the power.  We’re going to let go of our limitations.

It starts from what we do know and have experienced.  Unless you’ve lived your life in a sensory deprivation tank, you’ve experienced things: love, hate, fear, relief, sorrow, joy…  need I continue?  You’re human.  You know what these things are.  You’ve been through them.  It’s just a matter of degree.

Another anecdote, this one brief: on the first day of Abnormal Psychology, our instructor told us that by the end of the course, we’d believe we had every disorder in the book.  You don’t, he assured us, most of you are perfectly normal.  Most of us?  Just most?  You’re all human, he said, blythely ignoring the nervous looks as we wondered which ones had the real psychoses.  Humans feel all of these things.  What makes it abnormal is the degree

I learned that day that I could understand any psycholog
ical disorder in that book,
simply because I’m a human being and have felt all of these things to a much lesser degree.  Instead of saying “I can’t imagine what it would be like to have Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” I could say, “I’ve been pretty self-centered at times.  How did that feel?  Now, intensify that feeling until…”

No, I couldn’t write a character with Narcissistic Personality Disorder with absolute authenticity, but if I did my research and drew on my own wells of experience, I could get pretty damned close.  And what’s authenticity, anyway?  Put a dozen people suffering from the disorder in a room and they’ll all disagree on what’s authentic experience anyway.  Everybody’s different.  No one description of what it’s like will ever please all those who know.  But get enough of it right, and they’ll fill in the rest.

Personal Experience + Research x A Lot of Imagination2 = Authentic Enough, Damn It!

Remember that all we’re really needing to do is put forth a reasonable facsimilie of the way things are.  We want the nitty-gritty details that simulate the truth.  But we can get them from other sources than having done it ourselves.

The equation is so simple.  You’ve got a situation: a cop pinned down under gunfire.  You’re no cop.  You’ve never crouched behind a car while people shoot at you and your colleague lies dead beside you.  How can you write this?

Personal experience.  You’ve felt fear before, raw, clammy fear.  You’ve been angry.  You’ve been in situations you weren’t sure you could get out of.  Sure, maybe it was just a bad blind date, and it was more tragicomedy than anything else, but those emotions were there.  Go back to them.  Draw on them.  Ask yourself: How much more intense would this be if I were trapped behind a car next to a dead guy while people shoot at me?

Okay.  Now comes the research: You’ve hopefully watched some cop shows.  If not, COPS is on at least one channel most nights.  Read a book or dozen about police officers.  I’m not talking fiction, I’m talking real life journalism stuff.  Got friends who are cops?  Great!  Get ’em talking.  Now you’re ready to ask yourself: how would someone with this training and this mentality deal with these emotions, all of that fear and grief and rage? 

Now you’re ready to imagine.  Go ahead.  Live the scene.  If you have to go outside and kneel behind your car in the blazing hot sun of the afternoon and point your finger and yell “Bang!” while neighbors gawp, do it.  Ignore them when they dial 911 and have the people in white coats come for you.  All you have to tell the shrinks is that you’re writing a book.  They’ll leave you alone.  The point is, you do whatever you have to do to get yourself into this person’s head without actually going out and joining the police academy.

All right?  I said imagination squared up there, for those of you observant enough to notice the superscript 2.  Here’s where you square: remember that episode of COPS you were watching?  What detail in the midst of the chaos really stood out?  Use it, or something like it.  When I wrote the above scene, it was a broken tail light and a person’s reflection in a pool of blood.  Since there was a pool of blood, I remembered what my blood smells and tastes and feels like.  We’ve all bled.  Imagine that to the power of 10.  Now you know what it’s like to glance over to see if anything else is coming at you, or maybe somebody shouted, or something else drew your attention for a fraction of a second away from the spot from whence the bullets are coming – anyway, you know what it’s like to glance over, and see shards of tail light gleaming in the sun, and your reflection in a pool of blood.  You know what it feels like to have that blood seeping into the knee of your uniform.  You know what it smells like.  And you know the emotions involved, and you know what’s going through this person’s mind, because you let yourself become the conduit for your character’s experience.

What did Glynis say?  “I think that is the biggest part of being a storyteller, being true to your characters and allowing them to present themselves to readers in ways that speak beyond the limitations of personal experience.”

If you open yourself to these people, if you use every bit of knowledge and experience you have to understand them, they’ll speak through you.  They’ll present themselves, often to the extent that you’ll look back later and wonder where the hell that came from, because that wasn’t me talking there.  I’ve never done that!


A friend of mine wrote a story about a Vietnam vet who goes to the Wall and can’t go up to it.  A man approached him later and asked him when he’d done his tour, and which war it had been.  “Huh?” says the author.  “Dude, I’m nineteen – I’ve never served in the military!”  “But this was exactly what it’s like!” the vet said.  “How did you know?”

He knew because he’d read an article about the Wall opening in Washington, and he knew a little bit about Vietnam from other people, and he’d just put himself in there.  He walked toward the wall with the character, and stopped dead, and couldn’t go on, and it was an absolutely authentic experience because, young and innocent as he was, he’d dealt with loss enough to extrapolate.  I can tell you it was eerie.  He read the story to me, and I knew he’d gotten it right, because he’d captured everything my dad had ever said or done regarding the War and the Wall.

See?  No need for the author to go live in a jungle shooting at people and being shot at for a year.  He was able to write something absolutely authentic anyway, because the character had been there, and he let the character tell him how it was. 

So use the equation: Personal Experience + Research x A Lot of Imagination2, get out of your characters’ way when they tell you how something is, and just write it down.  You’ll get it right.  If not, you’ll go back and experience something (like walking a labyrinth) and do a bit more research (like on sleep deprivation, starvation and sunstroke) and imagine more, and get it right next go round.

Never let anyone tell you that you can only write what you know, that you can only authentically speak about things you yourself have personally experienced.  That’s just not true.  If you do enough of the necessary work, the rest is just a matter of extrapolation, and if you can’t extrapolate with confidence you either need to practice or quit writing.

Right?  Right. 

So go.  Extrapolate.  Speak beyond the bounds of personal experience.

Dana's Dojo: Extrapolation vs. Experience