writing advice

Asymmetric Creativity: Down the Research Rabbit Hole

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I’m a fiend for research. I am addicted to the chase of ideas and facts throughout history. When I conjur up a story idea I often know how I will tackle my research before I have a fully fleshed out plot. Sometimes the research serves the story, fleshing out concepts or imbuing characters with more authentic voices. Sometimes, the addiction, the jonzing for new and more information can overwhelm, bog down, and drown a story in its earliest stages. Occasionally I dive into the creative process only to get lost in the rabbit warren of journals, books and articles.

For years I would start the research and essentially kill the idea because I exhausted all of my inquisitive and curious creative energy on the research process. Realizing this only just recently has given me a new lease on life as research addicted author. I now let the story outline lead the horse, rather than the research as cart.

Seems like a no-brainer, wanting to put your all into research in order to wring out the most from source or background materials. Yet the energy is sometimes expended, leaving nothing but a snake skin of the original inspiration. If creativity strikes like lightning for you as it does for me, then grounding the lightning bolt by burying your brain in research only diffuses all the writing energy. Back in the day of libraries and bookstore visits, this wouldn’t be so much a problem, but in the day of Internet research indulgences can be fed into gluttony.

My newest tactic in combating this obsessive level of research, denying the creative process,comes by setting a deadline. As a former journalist, deadlines don’t scare me. But denying the rush and thrill of research feels like denying yourself Halloween candy after spending all night going door to door collecting it. Instead of indulging this rush, I merely channel my research into a time-frame, say two hours, before returning to the writing process, whether that’s outlining or character development.

Most important, trust your creative instincts and voice. Let the story flow with the basic framework of research. Trust your outline, trust your wandering words and new strange directions. If you write yourself into a corner, perhaps generated by a lack of information you’d need through research, then dive back in to solve the problem. But immediately reemerge to finish the creative writing.

While this is easier said than done, requiring a discipline that eluded me for ages, I think that this simple advice may help keep you on track.

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Asymmetric Creativity: World Building a Relgion

foundationSince my World Building post was so well received I wanted to return to the subject with a bit more detail. Specifically I wanted to delve into one of the most critical aspects of fantasy or speculative worlds- religions.

This can be a delicate subject, religion and faith, but it is something defines a good portion of men and women around the globe. It informs decisions of cultures, affects politics, economies and even directs the outcomes of war. The complexity of faith is one that could spend a dozen posts on and just scratch the surface. So I wanted to get into the idea of religion by asking the question that was asked of me by a professor- what does ‘religion’ mean to you?

What does Religion mean to you– This is an important question because you would be surprised at the variety and scope of answers one produces with that question. There is no right or wrong answer, but it serves as your personal baseline as to your creative vision for your fictional faith. This will give you an idea for building blocks- are you a rules and ritual person, or a spiritual fulfillment person of faith or perhaps you’re simply excited by the imagery of religion. Once you have defined what religion means to you, then its time to start working on the religion of your fictional world. There are many ways of going about this, but I would suggest starting by reading about religions from across the millennia.

Research– Don’t go too far down the rabbit hole with this one. You can easily get caught in a the research trap when it comes to religions as they history and variety is literally as old as man. However, that being said, I would suggest picking periods of history- Bronze and Iron ages- to identify the faiths and religions practiced during those times. Choose religions that served as inspiration or building blocks to later, larger or well known faiths. Again, think and look asymmetrically at the subject of religion and you’d be surprised what you’d find. To do online research I would recommend Patheos religion library, a reliable site encouraged by my religion professor. Important, as you read about religions and take notes, keep in mind how you answered what you religion means to you.

Fictional Syncretism– One of the creative tools a writer can apply to constructing a new faith for a universe is by applying syncrestism to some faiths you’ve found in your research. The best explination of syncretism is the cooping or borrowing elements of older faiths by a new faith that is either  moving into or converting a population. Try looking at an old, mist shrouded faith, and looking at it with new eyes. If an old faith considers fire the element of a creator, perhaps your fictional creator employs it in a  different way. Perhaps your deities use it only on one day, therefore it becomes the symbol of a festival, month or day. Some of the best examples of syncretism in our world come from the Christian conversion of Scandinavian pagans (Thor’s Day =Thursday, etc.)

Avoid Egyptian and Greco-Roman Gods–  I cannot stress this enough. For me nothing is the kiss of death when reading a blurb about a new novel or short story and it is yet another retread of Egyptian gods or ancient Greece deities. It happens all too often and taints otherwise original stories and universes when a thinly veiled Ra or Zeus wanders into a oily back alley.

Express the idea of Religion in the voice of a character– You’ve undoubtedly created a pantheon, a creator goddess, her sons or daughters, their kin, creatures and beasts. Once its all sorted out, build a temple to that deity- whether its an open field or stone ediface- and have a character spend one afternoon inside it. Express the journey of fact, the act itself, in a peaceful setting. Perhaps create a regular man or woman, have them experience the sights, sounds and smells of the religious movement. Sit and think how your own religious experience affected you and rewrite that thought through the eyes of the fictional devotee. Express the act of devotion and the very important interaction the character has with the mystery of their deity.

All of these ideas, I hope, will aid fellow writers in creating inventive, exciting and engaging religions in the world of speculative fiction.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Asymmetric Creativity: Devil in the Military Details

soldiertypeFor almost eight years I was a newspaper reporter in the Boston-area. During that time my primary beat was law enforcement where I had daily experience with local and state police officers. I had the pleasure of getting to know them, training with them and writing about the job, its mundanity and its darker side. Overlapped during that period was my time writing feature stories about local men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, further hardening my appreciation for getting the details right. By getting stories and details right I gained the trust and respect of the soldiers and police I covered. That desire for authenticity has been transferred to my military or law enforcement fiction, even if the stories are about Lovecraftian monsters or future technological terrors.

Here are some basic tips that you might keep in mind when you plunge into the world of military or law enforcement fiction:

Authenticity builds credibility– Authentic language, structure and characters also go a long way to creating credibility in your work. Many authors will read military sci-fi or a techno thriller an mimic the language and jargon, but it often falls short in authenticity. Remember that authenticity builds credibility and fortifies the overall perception of your skill. A famous techno-author was great at ships and jets, but writing unconventional warfare and warriors he was quite lacking, eroding the overall credibility of the story being spun. But this idea of authenticity applies to all genre stories whether they are military, police or medical.

Magazine is not a ‘clip‘- There is a long line of mistakes made by authors when it comes to writing military and law enforcement but nothing is worse than ‘clip.’ Not to get all technical, but a clip is not a magazine. Yes, a clip can hold bullets, as in the M1 Garand’s ‘clip’ which holds rounds in a metal c-shaped clip, but it is not a ‘box’ magazine used in modern pistol or assault weapons. I learned from a police officer the need for credibility and clarity when speaking about ‘clips’ versus magazines. He told me that if he were to go on the witness stand during a legal case and called a magazine a ‘clip’ that would erode his credibility as an expert or authority as ‘clips’ and magazines are not the same thing. Similarly, a device attached to the muzzle of a pistol or rifle may have been called a silencer in the past, but its never called that now. Properly called a suppressor, or in slang as a ‘can’, it is a device that suppresses sound but never completely silences. So if you’re crafting a story of steely eyed professional, he or she should never “put a clip into the silenced rifle.”

Avoid the Slang Cyclone– You may get magazine and suppressor right, but avoid bombarding readers with too much slang. Yes, police communications or platoon leader instructions may be filled with lingo and slang, but recognize that its done with a purpose of brevity not drama. To the untrained ear most jargon or slang becomes gibberish, even if its used correctly. And if your reader knows the jargon and you load a sentence incorrectly then it lessens the credibility. Pepper the work with authentic language or details to keep the story grounded in reality, but ensure it is readable to laymen.

Never use Black Ops– This is a term that had very limited credibility for several decades, but was never the kind of term truly used in intelligence or military circles. Other jargon to avoid- wet works, commando (unless you’re writing a World War II story,) chopper (use helo or bird,) or bullet proof vest (ballistic vest/plate carrier are acceptable modern terms.)

Reference– There is a good quick hit list of slang in an NPR piece on the subject of fiction and jargon. For another list with more slang check out ITS Tactical or pick up a modern military-tactical magazine (the thing you read) for up-to-date gear and its associated language. Another way to understand the mindset or hear the cadence of modern military lingo, check out any number of videos on Youtube. These will give you a sense of character and diversity of modern soldiers, while also showing you the proper operation of many weapons used in stories but never personally handled by authors.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.