Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

“Too much traveling on the railway could turn you into a philosopher, although, he conceded, not a very good one.” (Sir Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam)

I’ve been traveling by plane, train, or car since I was very small. I don’t remember a lot of those childhood travels — cassette tapes were a big factor on long car trips, as I recall, and that’s about it. But as a slightly older person I remember a lot more, not least because I wrote some of it down.

The first time I was on a plane I was too young to have even the slightest shred of a memory. But the first time I remember being on a plane was for a family trip down to Florida with the grandparents. It was a two-hour flight, and the sheer novelty of being able to see the tops of clouds was amazing. If I had had a camera phone, I’m certain I would have taken a million pictures. (And later, on a plane with a smart phone, yes, I’ve taken a million pictures.) On one level, the fact that a whole bunch of people have been crammed into a giant tin can and are zooming through the air at high altitudes might be ho-hum; after all, we’ve been doing it for just over a hundred years.

It’s interesting to think about all the technology that we’re used to, that people two hundred years ago would have boggled at. But the fact that we’ve constructed these tiny worlds that go far faster than we ever could, on pavement or on rails or in the air, I think that’s pretty neat. I think, however we get used to it, we shouldn’t forget a little of that wonder.

All of which goes to say two things. The first — whatever you write, put some kind of wonder into it, no matter how familiar you are. The second — this post is a little abbreviated because, well, guess who’ll be flying in a tin can in a few hours?

See you on the flip side!

Write What You (Don’t) Know

That “write what you know” adage is a mixed bag of cats, in my opinion. The technical word for it that they whip out in English classes is verisimilitude — the feeling of truth in fiction. That’s well and dandy, but some people seem to think that means you can’t write about anything that doesn’t happen in real life.

Sorry, what?

I remember reading a picture book with my second grade class full of vocabulary words. It was a retelling of the Cinderella story, but with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs! It was the best thing in the world. (It’s called Dinorella: A Prehistoric Fairy Tale. Talk about a blast from the past, eh? Wink wink, nudge nudge.) It was fantastic, in every sense of the word.

Speaking of, there are entire genres, thousands of stories, devoted to turning “verisimilitude” on its head. Do you think Tolkien ever met an actual, scaly, fire-breathing dragon? He wrote five or six of the darn things. I have never been on an intergalactic spaceship in my life, but darned if I’m going to let that stop me from writing a space opera. I’ve never met a fairy from the Summer Court, but I wrote a book about them. So what if these things aren’t real right now? That’s the thing about words. You can do anything with them. If you want to write a book about cowboy aliens feuding with mermaids, you can do that. If you want to write a book about a cactus’s search for love, you can do that. It’s your brain, dude. Go nuts.

But now that you have your crazy cool world, it has to be relatable. This is what I mean by a mixed bag — there’s got to be some element that the readers can recognize and identify with. I don’t care whether your protagonist has tentacles. Maybe blue spots lighting up on his face is the alien equivalent of a blush, and he can’t stop glowing when he sees the other alien down the hall. Or maybe the protag is a dragon who’s trying to outdo that green-scaled idiot across the mountainside in a contest on whose lair is the most bedecked with jewels.

And not just the characters, the setting, too. Even Mars has crunchy sand underfoot that gets everywhere and annoys the crap out of your characters. Playing in fantastic genres is a lot of fun, but it won’t work if the only cool thing is the genre itself.