Mining your obsessions

BOSTON — “Write what you know,” the old adage goes. Finding connections between what you’re writing and what you care about can sometimes be a challenge for writers, no matter what format or genre you write in.

This was one of the many topics covered at Boskone, a regional science fiction and fantasy convention held at Boston’s Westin Waterfront Hotel every February. Genre writers from all over the country fly in to lead panels and discussions about all aspects of the genre and writing within it. Every writer, whether he or she is an author or a poet or a reporter, should learn to use his or her obsessions to craft well-thought out and interesting stories. One of the most interesting panels of the convention was on that very subject.

“Everybody naturally gravitates to certain materials,” says fantasy author Gregory Frost. “Everything you read is possible research for something you haven’t written yet. If you go into a used bookstore and some book catches your eye for no reason, you’d better buy it, because when you need it in six months, it’ll be gone.”

Each of the panelists cited finding inspiration through interestingly odd topics. Frost stated that he was obsessed with Japanese folk tales, the supernatural, mysteries, and most surprisingly, real estate. Joshua B. Palmatier, a writer and mathematics teacher, finds inspiration in numbers, the violin, and the spinning wheel.

“I don’t spin,” he claims, laughing. “I just see spinning wheels and I want them.”
Tamora PierceTamora Pierce, a very popular young adult fantasy author who writes stories about “girls who kick butt,” found inspiration for Immortals, her second quartet (that is, a four-book series), from sitting in the park watching animals and bringing some of the hurt ones home to care for. The series, about a girl named Daine who can talk to animals, relied heavily on its scaly and furry characters.

“I’d call Tim [my husband] on my way home,” she says, “and say ‘Honey…?’ and he’d ask, ‘What is it this time, Tammy?’ One time it was an injured morning dove, another time it was a baby squirrel… most recently, it was a chicken. Keep in mind, we used to live in a tiny studio apartment in New York, and we had cats.”

When it comes to their weirdest obsessions, Patricia Bray, author of the ­Sword of Change series, had to laugh.

“I’m a science fiction writer – how could I get weird?” she joked. As it turns out, though, she took up pistol shooting and parachuting in college, and then fencing in her 30s. “Not many people start fencing in their 30s,” she said. “I suppose it qualifies as weird.”

The authors also found other people, mostly historical, very interesting in mining their obsessions. Pierce claimed to have been “haunted by Elizabeth I” for most of her life, and she tries to emulate the “strong ruling woman” in some of her books.

One of the best serious answers came from Bray, though.

“It’s the real people, the people not in the history books… it’s the little telling details of their lives that I put into characters,” she said.

Some of the authors could not help joking around about the real-life people who intrigued them.

“The only person I’ve really been obsessed with is Christopher Columbus, and then I realized he was a bastard,” stated Palmatier.

“My obvious answer would have to be Britney Spears,” Frost announced, to rounds of laughter from the audience. “I keep on adding new obsessions on top of old obsessions – the old ones never go away,” Frost continued, changing the subject and getting nods in response this time.

Pierce added, “When you go crazy about one topic for six to eight months, be it Italian cooking or building your own musket, people say you have no follow-through because you’re always changing interests. But what you’re really doing is laying the foundation.” She recommended keeping a “mental shoebox, or a real one if necessary” in order to keep your obsessions and knowledge organized.

The best people to learn writing from are successful writers themselves, and using what works for them is useful in implementing your own ideas about mixing obsessions into your book or article. Chances are, other people are out there who also care about the same subject. The moral is, pretty much, that nothing is too weird or too unrelated. Connections can be drawn from anything to anything, as Palmatier learned when mixing his love of mathematics with his love of writing. If you’re interested in it, make a character interested in it, too. It’s the best thing an aspiring writer can do to learn more about his or herself.

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