My post last week was all about Classic Books but the problem with this topic is it will be inevitably biased towards fiction. Tonight’s post will redress the balance.
I look at why reading non-fiction widely is vital for fiction writers (as well as being a great thing to do given it widens your reading “diet” and general knowledge).
I also share how classic texts (including the Bible) can generate so many wonderful themes to write stories about, and discuss why historical and science books (to name just two categories) can all help inspire fiction.
Reading widely is one of the first tips given to anyone who wants to write creatively. Why? Partly so you can “absorb” how work is laid out, the standard of the publication and house style (in terms of layout, punctuation and so on). But it is crucial for fiction writers to read widely, not just in our own department so to speak, but to wander as much as possible in the realm of non-fiction.
Why? Partly because you are feeding your mind every time you read a factual book and ideas can spark from things like this. There’s also the research aspect.
Besides what every fiction writer needs to bring into their work is a sense of realism. It is that which keeps readers glued to the page. The moment they feel your fictional world doesn’t hold together, you’ve lost them.
And it doesn’t matter if you’re writing the most fantastical world or characters, that realism still needs to be there. For example, you might have two wizards at loggerheads with each other but you still need to show how and why they got to that point. And that will be based on knowledge of how we are when we’re at loggerheads with each other.
There is a lot of psychology in creative writing. Talking of which…
I went to an excellent Character Psychology course at Swanwick Writers’ Summer School last August and found it fascinating. The ways of portraying characters, as outlined by this series of talks, is based on knowledge of how the human psyche works. And we were recommended to adopt these into our character creations.
Now the great thing is I, and I’m sure the other writers there, will have discovered well, hang on, we’ve been doing this. And yes we have. It’s all based on our knowledge of how humans work. This, in turn, is based on our own experience of how relationships work but this course explained so much more about why people behave the way they do.
Reading widely introduces you, when reading fiction, to characters in different settings reacting in different ways but they are all realistic ways. Reading non-fiction can help you work out how to create your world. Every fictional world needs to have a geography, a history, at least one government (so knowing how political systems work can be useful), a plumbing system, a banking system, ways of feeding its peoples and so on.
The wonderful Terry Pratchett once commented in an interview he’d created his world, Discworld, from the bottom up by working out how the garbage and other waste would be dealt with. Ankh-Morpork was born as a result of that.
In my short fiction, I always work out what the main character is like and what consequences that has for others. Awkward characters are great for causing tension in a story and strike sparks from other characters. For example, characters who think they are courageous by many will, in the eyes of others, be a pain in the neck because they think said characters are reckless. But before I can do all that, I need to know what kind of world that character is living in so I can picture them fully and write about them convincingly.
Be prepared to be inspired by all kinds of books too. You would expect me as a Christian to be inspired by the Bible and I am but sometimes people you might not expect to be are also inspired by it.
I remember reading in the last year or so in the Radio Times an Eastenders scriptwriter saying they were inspired by tales from the Bible. (And I’m assuming from the context of what I read that the person concerned didn’t come from a faith background).
Well, yes, while I’m not a soap fan, I can see that scriptwriter and others almost certainly would be and are inspired by the Bible. From what I see of the descriptions of Eastenders’ story lines, I’d say the tale of Samson and Delilah is still hugely popular with said scriptwriters! How often have you come across in soapland the tale of a man betrayed by a woman (and yes the other way round too)?
The Bible has also been the source of so many stories thanks to its sayings. For example, the often misquoted “the love of money is the root of all evil” comes from one of St. Paul’s letters to the early churches and countless stories have their theme based on this. The truth of that theme is undeniable and it is also a very powerful one.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens touches on this and then goes on to the theme of redemption (another Biblical theme). I’d say Wall Street was inspired by this quote (subconsciously perhaps) but Gordon Gekko illustrates the saying to a tee (“Greed is good” being his “classic” phrase but not one most of us would agree with).
I would highly recommend that any writer from whatever background should consider using the book of Proverbs in particular to find themes for your stories. You won’t run out of ideas doing that! Also, the Psalms reflect all human emotions and I’d be surprised if people, again from different backgrounds, have not picked up inspiration for story and poetry ideas from these.
I also use various history books (particularly Simon Schama’s A History of Britain series). I never use anything directly but a fact here, another there, and the connections historians make between them can be so useful to a storyteller.
I have a lovely little book called People of the Palace which looks at the roles of various “employees” within the palaces over the centuries. This has helped me populate my novel’s Fairy Queen’s Palace with the staff she would need. (Magic does not solve everything and can cause more problems, which is one of my themes. Besides, it drains energy and even a powerful magical being will welcome having staff bring them a refreshing cup of mead or what have you at the end of a long day fighting evildoers or being the evildoer. What I needed to know, and found out, was what staff were employed in what capacity in a royal environment).
Scientific textbooks (especially those that deal with how something was discovered) can be a source of inspiration for stories. The story of Joseph Bazelgette’s re-discovery of the sewer system and “proper” plumbing can be a direct source for how your own fictional world comes up with things that are crucial to public health.
The Roman Baths in Bath show how the Romans created channels to make the most of the natural hot waters and for draining. They were well ahead of their time. I can understand why the period in Britain after they left is called the Dark Ages. I find it horrifying it took from their times to the Victorian era for there to be proper waste facilities. No wonder there was so much disease about… but that again could be a good theme to base stories around.
So to all fiction writers, get out the Bible, the classic texts, the reference books, the science and history books and use them to sharpen and develop your fiction. And for those writers already doing this, what reference books have you found useful?
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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