What Archaeology and Fiction Writing Have in Common

For anyone curious about why my two biggest interests are so “different” from one another…here’s why they’re not:

  1. All knowledge is useful knowledge. Taking interest in a wide variety of subjects gives you that much more material to work with when it comes to writing – you can get rich, specific detail and a broad spectrum of characters and settings just by being curious…and you never know what will pop up that might give you an idea. In archaeology, you never know what might come in handy, either. Obviously, you need a smattering of history and geology of the area you’re working in, but then there are things like being aware of what plant species are native, which were introduced and when and for what purpose (for example, Vinca minor – graveyard ivy – isn’t native to Kentucky, doesn’t spread much on its own, and was a common graveyard planting in the 19th century); things like the fact that tanneries used human urine as a chemical component of processing leather (and therefore might be located near a lavatory in a historic building); things like what parts of an animal have the highest caloric value…you get the idea. Anything might turn out to be useful.
  2. Everything is writing / Everything is archaeology.  This is kind of along the lines of the previous. Anything you know about, hear about, learn about, can potentially be applied to fiction writing, and the same goes for archaeology. When you think about it, since archaeology is essentially the study of the human past, then any human behavior, and any natural phenomenon or environment that humans have ever had a relationship to, well…that pretty much covers everything. When it comes to writing, everything you observe, think about, act upon, receive responses from, and interact with is story potential.
  3. Getting into a point of view. Unless you’re writing a fictionalized autobiography, fiction requires you to step out of your own worldview and into the worldview of somebody (or more than one somebody) else. Any branch of anthropology, including archaeology, requires the same thing…except you’re doing your best to step into the worldview of real people, living or dead (depending on what you’re working on).
  4. Beginning, Middle, and End (and sometimes Epilogue). Obviously, a story has to have a beginning, middle, and end – even if it’s a flash fiction story, something happens, something changes, someone’s mind opens or closes or shifts. In archaeology, we have Phase 1 projects (surveys, which might be done with ground penetrating radar or electromagnetometry or by walking the site or by shovel testing), Phase 2 projects (“Hey! We found stuff in Phase 1 and someone is willing to pay for us to find out more!!”) where you dig test units in areas that promise evidence of features or artifacts, and Phase 3 projects (when you excavate a site in detail). Not every site gets to Phase 2, and not all Phase 2 projects go on to a Phase 3. It depends on money, the site’s potential for adding to our knowledge of history/prehistory, and why the site was being excavated to begin with (Who funded it? Did they fund it voluntarily, or for compliance with the law before their development could move forward? How fast do they want the archaeologists out of their hair?) Or you could view the beginning, middle, and end of archaeology this way: Excavation, artifact processing, and report writing. Because those three steps happen on any project, at any level (unless you’re a lousy archaeologist). The epilogue, in that case, could be seen as public presentations, or in some cases the establishment of a historical center or local museum on site. 
  5. Drinking, Swearing, and Nerding Out. All three of these activities are near and dear to both archaeologists and writers. At least, 90% of all the archaeologists and writers I know. Preferably, do all three at the same time while in the company of other writers/archaeologists after a day of slaving away at the computer/with the trowel.
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Some Thoughts on Descriptions

Descriptions generally get a bad rap.  When you say something has a lot of description, people assume you mean it’s boring.  And to some people, maybe it’s true that any description is a boring description.  But since it’s a necessary part of any story, we writers can only hope that there are ways to make description interesting to our readers.

There are a few things that really draw me in when it comes to descriptive passages:

  • A character’s voice if it’s first person – how they perceive the environment gives me clues, not only about their environment, but about the characters themselves, about their psychology, and about what they may do next based on that perception.  I want to know if my guesses about them are right or not, so I read on.
  • If it’s third person, a character’s thoughts and feelings and reactions, as they’re revealed throughout the passage, for the same reasons listed above, will also keep me hooked.
  • Truly evocative language – avoidance of clichés, avoidance of overly flowery prose, metaphors that really help me place myself in the scene, and not forgetting that there are senses other than sight.
  • Description that mingles with hints about conflict or change.  A fleeting  sense of the past or a glimpse of tension that might mean trouble in the future.

An Oft-Neglected Element

It’s funny how easy it is to forget to mention certain sensory details, whereas others come out automatically.  Most of us go for visual description as our primary focus, with auditory details as a close second, touch being prominent mostly during scenes of sex or violence, with smell barely mentioned and taste almost forgotten.  Granted, it’s hard to separate taste and smell, since if one is mentioned the other is generally implied.

But even within the confines of visual and auditory elements, there is, in fiction in general, a woeful disregard for the atmospherics of weather.  It’s so much a part of our daily setting.  It can color our mood, affect our decisions for what to do with our day, change the dynamics of a conversation.  It changes the feel and flavor of the air, the smells that carry or get washed away, whether we listen to birdsong or rainfall all afternoon.  It can be soothing, frightening, frustrating, or blissful.

How the weather affects people can be anything from a home destroyed by a tornado or a flood to road rage from not having AC in the car, from draught affecting crops to seasonal depression.  A sudden thunderstorm could interrupt a lover’s spat, reuniting the couple as they run for cover together, forgetting their differences just long enough to realize the whole argument is unimportant compared to their mutual affection and respect for one another.  A hot summer day can sizzle away at a frustration until it festers into murderous rage.  A cool rain can bring relief and cleansing on a dusty, dry garden.  A snowstorm can trap a group of travelers, blocking their progress.  Torrential storms can force someone to pull off the highway, giving him time that maybe he’d rather not have to think about what he just said to his mother.  A clear, starry night can make a character feel small and insignificant and lost – or like she belongs to a larger whole, freeing her from the worries of the moment.

People talk about the weather, gripe about it, relish it, go out in it, stay in because of it, take shelter from it, survive it.  Writers, take note, and USE IT!

Stranger Than Fiction

I may have rambled on the topic of research for fantasy (why I do it) before on this blog, but I’m gonna do it again anyway.  My favorite reason to research for fantasy is that I couldn’t possibly make up anything crazier than the things that have happened in the real world throughout its multitude of cultures and time periods.

I set out to do some research about the history of immunization yesterday, for example, and ran across this article on theriac, a “cure-all” used in ancient Greece.  Scroll down to that insane list of ingredients!!  I couldn’t make anything up weirder than that.  Turpentine, viper venom, opium, and…carrots and black pepper?  Wait a minute, the first three are weird enough, but then to combine them with something as normal as carrots and black pepper is just…over the top.  And that’s only a fraction of the stuff that went into this substance – there were 64 ingredients.

It isn’t that I’ll necessarily use this particular tidbit of information.  It’s that I run across so many odd little scraps and details, and all of it rattles around in my head (sort of like the 64 ingredients of theriac) and shifts and combines and ignites into something new, and that’s how I get a lot of my inspiration.

Action!

Action scenes used to be the hardest thing for me to write.  I think partly I had trouble with them because I tend to work stories out visually first, almost daydreaming my scenes before or while I write them.  When the action is high, though, there’s too much happening too fast to write a play-by-play the same way I would with, say, a scene of dialogue between just two characters.  Bad enough to write a dialogue scene including six or seven people, which can get just as jumbled and messy as any climactic battle!

Over the years, though, I’ve gotten very comfortable with writing action sequences.  I still get anxious when I’m coming up on one, worrying if I’ll pull it off or if it’ll be a worthy payoff after a big lead-up – but once I get into the action, it’s almost always smooth sailing.

So how do you control the chaos of an action scene well enough to let the reader follow clearly what’s happening, but keep the feeling of chaos and speed?

Some of the things I try to do –

  • Keep your sentences simple and on the short side.  It doesn’t have to be Hemingway, but it just makes sense that it’s easier for people to keep up with complex action if your sentences are easy to follow.
  • Make your details count.  In fight-or-flight mode, our senses are heightened, but we also orient toward and lock onto the source of threat.  It’s built into our systems.  So with that in mind, are your characters going to notice the beautiful old oak trees in the background, or the tendons of an enemy’s arm clenching as he prepares to lunge forward with a knife?  Maybe there’s a vivid blur of green behind them, giving a sense of the lush forest surroundings, but a ‘vivid blur of green’ gives a lot more of a sense of (a) motion, speed, (b) heightened senses, and (c) the irrelevance of the world beyond the immediate confrontation.
  • Make your details COUNT.  Cliche details won’t get you anywhere with readers.  They’re already filling in stuff about the character’s heart pounding in her ears, because they’ve read it a million times.  So assume they know the character’s heart is pounding.  Great.  You get a freebie.  Now come up with something more personal, more telling, and use that as your detail.
  • If too much happens at once, let it be a little confusing.  Let the character or the narration describe the disorientation of being in that moment, but keep it in that moment.  You can explain what happened later.
  • Don’t spoil your action by telling every little step blow-by-blow.  Action scenes would be pretty boring if I had to read through every thrust and parry of a swordfight.  Give the highlights, the turning points, the moments of terror and the moments of hope, the instant the stakes get higher, and the moment of triumph or defeat.  Everything else is irrelevant, like having a vital exchange of dialogue interspersed with an unrelated conversation about so-and-so’s cute new shoes floating over from the next table.  Sure, maybe it would be there in real life, but that doesn’t mean it should be there in fiction.

5 Details

One thing I’ve started doing when I know I have an important scene on my hands and I’m nervous about how it’s going to come across is, I write down five sensory details I want to include within the scene before I actually start it.  I try to pick at least three things that aren’t the “obvious thing” to point out – the obvious stuff will generally fall into place by itself, anyway.  Sometimes I don’t even end up putting one of my details in the text, but it’s implied by other details or dialogue or character reactions.

Why does this help me write difficult scenes?  I think there are a number of reasons it bolsters my confidence in what I’m about to set down in type.   (1) It helps me visualize/feel the setting and how it will affect the action and the characters involved.  (2) It helps me stay consistent on my details…like not saying it’s a sweltering day and then dressing a character in winter clothes.  (3) I know I won’t have to stop to think up details if the scene is coming out flat.  (4) It gives me a focus for thinking through the scene a little ahead of time, solidifying the action and interactions in my head before I start slinging words around.  (5) It puts me there.  I’m not at my desk or my laptop anymore; I’m in the story world.

This whole thing originally started with some of Donald Maass’ exercises in The Fire in Fiction, but I’m using it in a different context than he originally suggests in the book, and it’s helping me keep plugging away at my wordsmithing.

I cheated.  This is more a writing exercise post than a regular “writing and rewriting Monday” post.

Choosing Curiosity

For the second week in a row, I’ve missed my Monday post – this time, because I was busy all weekend (thus, didn’t have time to write one in advance), and then started jury duty Monday morning.  So, like last Wednesday, I’m posting about writing instead of marketing with my Wednesday post.

To start with, here’s a little run-down of how my time has been spent lately:  last week (when I had the flu), over the course of this weekend (when I was out doing stuff, meeting and getting to know new people, hearing lots of memories and stories shared between friends, seeing new places and hearing the history these friends had there together, etc.), and so far this week (while waiting to be called from the jury pool room to trials, being questioned for possible selection to a jury, chatting with fellow jury pool members to pass the time, etc.).  All of this stuff is pretty much outside my normal routine, some of it understandably crappy (being sick, parking downtown, having to get up early (I’m a night person and an evening shift worker), sitting in a room for hours just waiting for something to happen), some of it understandably exciting and fun (my weekend), and some of it able to go either way (jury duty is very much all or nothing…either you’re just sitting around passing the time as best you can, or something important is happening).

That said, what’s been on my mind in terms of writing has been (a) the fact that breaking out of your normal routine does, indeed, get your brain going, (b) even if you don’t choose what breaks your routine and even if the break is unwanted and/or unpleasant, as a writer, you can use anything as an opportunity – any experience adds to what you know about life, and therefore what you can convincingly write about in your fiction, and (c)  anytime you’re stuck in a room full of other people, you’re sitting on a gold mine of observable material…characters, dialogue, quirks, mannerisms, backgrounds, story ideas….

One of the best things about being a writer, I think, is that we have the gift of being able to pull something positive out of any situation.  Whether it’s traumatic, aggravating, uncomfortable, or fantastically awesome, a writer can get at least a short story or a poem out of almost anything that happens.  At times in my life, that has been the one gleam of reassurance and positivity in the back of my mind – when things have been at the very depths of fear and trauma, I’ve had this calm, logical piece of myself that has told me, “This is going to be so good for your writing someday,” and patted me on the shoulder…it’s a soothing thought when you’re in a panic, a ray of hope in times of despair, a candle in the darkness.  Writers are lucky to have that.

In less dire circumstances, such as the aggravations of being in a jury pool (getting up ridiculously early and still being barely on time because of parking, monetary troubles, long lunch lines, chairs that make your butt hurt after 45 minutes, waiting around for stuff, not getting picked for a trial that sounded interesting, etc.) there’s still that happy little part of me that’s like, “Ooh, but shiny!  Now I know all this stuff about how this works that I didn’t know before!” and “Hey, this lady I’m sitting next to all damn day waiting to get pulled for a case knows an awful lot of cool stuff about [whatever]…wonder where that could lead?” and “Hm…this guy sure knows a lot about [historical event].  Has some good yarns to spin about the experience.  Let’s keep him talking!”

A writer can always choose to get curious – let yourself wonder about a system or a process you’re encountering for the first time, pay attention to what’s going on, listen to what other people are saying about it to you or to each other, watch the folks who’re on familiar ground and how they interact with one another and with the newbies, chat with people in waiting rooms, look around for anomalies, watch facial expressions.  It beats being bored anyday…and it’s good practise.  My theory is, the more you make it a habit to be observant and take note of your surroundings, the more generally inspired you’ll be, and the richer your details will become.

Friday Exercise – Evidence of Others

Take a walk somewhere.  Anywhere.  Pay attention to your surroundings.  If you’re anywhere urban, suburban, or otherwise sometimes populated by other humans, look for one sign of another person having been there (who isn’t there now).  Graffiti.  A cross next to a bad turn on a country road.  A hand print on a toy store window.  Anything.  Brainstorm about this person – were they here alone, or with someone?  How were they feeling?  What was their purpose?  What is the rest of their life like?  Free write about it, or if a story just comes to you, start writing it.

If your walk is out in the woods, away from people, turn your attention to evidence of animals.  Prints, scraped bark, old nests from prior years, burrows.  See what’s around.  Write from the animal’s point of view, or if that’s not your cup of tea, think about what kind of character would pay attention to the details you’ve noticed.  A hunter?  A bird-watcher?  A conservation expert?  Someone from the past, who needs to pay attention to the environment around him/her in order to survive?

Making Sense Just Makes Sense

I love it when people say stuff like, “Oh, it must be nice to write fantasy and sci-fi.  You don’t have to do any research.”  That’s sarcasm, by the way.  Speculative fiction, in order to suspend a reader’s disbelief, requires at least as much research as mainstream or literary fiction.  Details have to be consistent, incongruities have to be clearly accounted for, and all in all the stuff you make up has to make sense.

And, frankly, the more fans like something, the more they want your world to make sense – think about how avid fans of Star Trek and Star Wars will study up on ship designs, pseudo-scientific principles, alien races, etc.  Any writer of speculative fiction who hopes to have a fan base that devoted someday (and let’s face it, we all wish our works were as beloved and marketable) should have in mind that, if they’re lucky, people will want this kind of consistency and detail from their creation.

It’s funny how you have to leave so much technical detail, background, history, etc. out of the text of your book because to put it in would be to bore the reader half to death with “info dumping”, and yet that same kind of material is exactly what a fan base seeks out once they’re in love with your world and your characters.  And they’re disappointed when the world crumbles on inspection, which a writer can say is silly (it’s only fiction, after all!) or can embrace and enjoy that folks care so much about it.

Dig in.  Don’t be sloppy with your details.  Work things out even if they won’t be said outright in the text.  You’ll write your world and your characters better for it, probably save yourself from some messy rewriting to fix inconsistencies, and, if you’re lucky enough to have avid fans someday, you’ll be able to answer their questions with confidence at science fiction conventions.

Hearts on Sleeves

Fridays are now dedicated to writing exercises and other fun stuff related to the creative process, because, let’s face it, Fridays are supposed to be fun.  Also, fun stuff is easier to come up with than real content, so this gives me a break at the end of the week.  Ha!

In writing the Erica Flynn novel, I realized that I rely almost entirely on physically based reaction for conveying my characters’ feelings.  “My heart thundered…” or “I felt myself flush…” or “I stood up shakily…” etc.  Now, I think it’s good to lock emotion into a character’s body, because we DO have physical side effects to our feelings.  It can be a good way to show a character’s own particular manifestation of an emotion, too – does she have a really strong grip because she constantly clenches her fists?  Then anger is probably more than just a momentary feeling for her; it’s part of who she is.  Does the character glare at other people when he’s mad, or look down at his hands?  One of those tells me he’s aggressive (or at least confident!) and the other says he’s a guy who bottles stuff up and/or feels powerless for some reason or another.

There are a few problems with relying solely on physically based “tells” to convey your characters’ feelings, though.  One, in the case of my novel, was that my characters were dead.  Since part of the setup was the removal of the physical aspect of their emotions, I couldn’t use my own favorite tool.  That’s what made me realize how much I used it.

Another problem is that it’s very easy to fall into cliché stuff about hearts pounding and the hair on the back of someone’s neck standing up and so on.  Okay, so it’s something we all experience at one time or another and that’s WHY it’s a cliché, but a reader will skim over a phrase like that and get as much emotional impact from it as if you’d just left the line blank.  I know I’ve caught some lame clichés like this in my writing, and had to work out a more original take to fix it.

The other problem, in my case, is simply that I lean on this particular tool so much that I’m baffled when I’m confronted with being unable to use it.  Pushing past that for the Erica Flynn novel has been great for me as a writer, because the whole book was like a writing exercise to stretch my conveying-of-emotional-reaction muscle.

So my writing exercise for my beloved blog readers is this:  write a scene or a story in which emotions run high, but only one indication of each character’s internal, physical sensation of his/her emotion is given.  See how you can work around it!