I’ve read most of what Jacqueline Carrey has written, so I read with interest Scalzi’s blog post on Carrey’s Big Idea. One of the books she used to help her plan her new novel was Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and this same booked sparked a major element of my own fictional world. As her next book deals with encountering an alternate-history pre-Columbian Americas, I wondered if she used 1491 by Charles C. Mann. Then I started thinking of the other books that have influenced my fictional world and began thinking about all of the texts that have influenced the writing of my novel.
My initial attempts at beginning this story had two elements that have continued through the story: a group of actors dragged into the political conflicts of their day despite themselves, and a woman masquerading as a man playing woman’s roles on stage. I had the image, but not the conflict, not the why. I kept reading. Once I read Guns,Germs, and Steel I radically changed my initial concept of the world. That book provided the economic element that gave me the cultural conflict. In the novel as it stands now, I have two cultures that share a common heritage, but one group has left the dominant agricultural culture for the life of the “Uplands” – a heavily forested ridge that runs down the center of the peninsula that forms the country – for a life of hunting and gathering. The conflicts that Jared set out between the two, particularly in his excerpt called “Agriculture: the World’s Greatest Mistake,” got me thinking about how best to have a viable hunter culture exist alongside an agricultural culture, and what kind of conflicts and misunderstandings might arise.
In order to give myself a better understanding of just what a hunter/gatherer culture might look like, I turned to 1491. Or more to the point, stumbled onto it and then let out a great big A ha! That book set me straight on a number of fallacies that I’d learned during my grade school history classes about the “Indians” and what the American continents had been like before Columbus. I discovered that radically changing the landscape to make it easier to survive isn’t something that’s limited to agricultural societies. His descriptions of how the New England area and even the vast Amazonian expanse may have looked like in the 15th century gave me a framework for how my hunter culture would look. I loved the sophistication that such “primitive” people brought to the shaping of their environments to suit themselves. The book Biomimicryy: Innovation Inspired by Nature gave me a modern approach to doing what these ancient peoples did without science as we know it, and together they gave me ideas such as the Provider Meadows, regular burning to keep undergrowth clear in “undeveloped” lands, and making sure that certain areas would have the foods that most attracted preferred prey animals so that the hunters might not have to range so far so often in search of game. It also reinforced my concerns about our modern “monoculture” of farming which is a central aspect of the book.
I also wanted to have, as a primary cultural difference, that my Uplands culture would be matriarchal in some manner while the Lowlands culture would be embarking on a much more patriarchal path. I am, unfortunately, rather familiar with patriarchy but I wanted to have a solid idea of what a female-led or dominated culture might look like. I had begun with an unoriginal sort of Gaia idea, but I’m happy to say that it evolved. One of my favorite sources of research material has been The Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” series.
Frankly, it’s hard to say which of the many lectures I’ve listened to haven’t been “research” because I listen to subjects I’m interested in and I write what I’m interested in, so there’s lots of overlap. But in doing all I could to make sure that the cultures of my world were plausible, I mined the cultures of our world quite a bit. Two standout: Peoples and Cultures of the World presented by Professor Edward F. Fischer provided me many examples of how cultures have worked across time and within them I found examples of matrilineal if not matriarchal cultures, and I incorporated that information where it made sense. The other lecture is The Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition presented by Professor Teofilo F. Ruiz, which describes the upheaval in Medieval Europe around turn of the 10th century, and the influence of the millennial movements, including the witch-hunting frenzy, as well as the role that orthodoxy plays in major religions.
Religion plays a huge role in this story, for it is a conflict between the followers of the God An and those who follow the Goddess Na as much as anything. The first half of The Evolution of God by Robert Wright assisted in my understanding of the genesis and role of religion in societies and how religions always support the dominant culture and protect it from change. Another lecture series, Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication presented by Professor Bart D. Ehrman I had gotten years ago as a gift for my folks and so I can’t say that I used it specifically as research for this story, still, the ideas of textuality vs oral tradition in the transmission of religion became important, as did the conflict between the concept of inspired “word of god” and the human agency that writes, reads, and utilizes those words.
Fiction works also inspired me, particularly in the concept of my Players. In My Father had a Daughter: Judith Shakespeare’s Tale by Grace Tiffany I got to read about how it would be for a woman to be an actor when women were denied that opportunity. Of course, Shakespeare in Love did that as well, but something about this novel really got me thinking about how I might use a similar situation. One series that got me thinking about the role that Players might play in my world was the A Play of… series by Margaret Frazier. And while I don’t want to mislead anyone about the highbrow nature of my novel, the works of Shakespeare influenced me greatly. I have no hope to write blank verse as well as The Bard and the dramatic worlds he created I can’t even hope to aspire to. But his language has always inspired me and he created many situations in which women are forced to enter the “male sphere” and they do it by changing clothes and manners. “I can use that,” I thought, which pretty much sums up all of the ideas garnered from the books mentioned above and many more besides.
Even though I’m the one writing the novel, I still find it fascinating how so many disparate elements can be combined, through me, into something new. My writing is nothing like Carrey’s and yet we both employed the same book to help us create our worlds. More than once, I’ve gotten into arguments over such things as “authorial intent” and I realize that all we as authors have is what makes it onto the page. That’s the craft part of writing. The fun part is going through all of these works and finding those bits that strike a spark. Whatever my intent is in writing, in reading I’m on a never-ending search for those things that make me think: “I can use that!”