Saturday, January 23, 2010

Where to get ideas

This is a map of the galaxy by Samuel Arbesman which is repeated here without permission for review purposes.

As you can see, it is drawn in the style of the London tube map. The current tube map style was devised by Beck in 1933 and was a graphic design breakthrough in the Beck used schematics to convey the sense of the system rather than a confusing literal map of London. Arbesman has done the same thing for the Milky Way, or Mutter's Spiral as it appears on Time Lord four dimensional maps.

This is a rather laboured instroduction to the main theme of today's blog - What should and SF&F writer read?

They read SF&F fiction, obviously, to keep a weather eye on the opposition and sneer at clearly inferior works that have somehow been published when their own works of genius have been rejected - again.

They read other fiction, as Tom Lehrer so cogently argued 'Don't just use your eyes, plagiarise' - or as I prefer to put it - artists borrow.

But most of all, they should read non-fiction. In particular, read narrative histories and biographies.

Narrative histories are a superb source of events to set a background for a story and to inspire a cast of characters. I have just finished 'Empire of the Seas', a narrative history of the struggles between Turkey and Spain, or more properly the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs, in the Mediterranean in the 16th Century from the battle for Rhodes in 1521 to Lepanto in 1571. I will not review this excellent work, you can find reviews elsewhere, except to say that it is not a simple military history but puts matters into their political context.

The only fault that I would find with it is a final section portraying Lepanto as the decisive battle to save Christian civilisation. Lepanto was no such thing. Like most 'decisive' battles it had very little little long term effect. It did not represent the high water of Turkish naval arms, that was at Malta in 1565. At the end of the battle, Spain, France, England and some smaller Christian states held the Western Roman Empire and Turkey held the Eastern Roman Empire.

Plus ca change, geopolitics overuled religion. Valois France had been a Turkish ally, even letting the Ottoman fleet base in Toulon in 1543, and the merchants of Venice had changed sides more frequently than Italy in the modern world. North Africa was a pirate stronghold who lived mainly by enslaving Europeans on an industrial scale. Millions of Europeans were kidnapped in slave raids that went on into the 19th Century and reached as far north as England. Maybe we should demand apologies and reperations.

But I digress, something my wife is often forced to reprove me for. This superb book is a mine for anyone wanting to write a story set in an SF universe with spacefleets battling it out for an arm of the galaxy (see above).

The other works that are immensely valuable for inspiration are biographies. David Drake has pointed out to me that autobiographies are even more valuable as they show what people were trying to achieve, not just what actually happened.

I am currently reading 'Lord Byron's Jackal' by David Crane. This is the biography of Edward John Trelawny who, as you can tell by the name, is a Cornishman - like me. It contains the immortal line about Trelawny - 'It is given to few men to kill two major poets..'

Trelawny was an uneducated failed naval officer, he reached the dizzy rank of midshipman, who reinvented himself as a dashing corsair and lover, became a friend to both Shelley and Byron, managing to assist both in getting killed, hid in a Greek cave while fighting in the Greek War of Independence alongside a bandit leader called Odysseus, married a thirteen year old bride and was shot in the back twice by English assassins to be eventually rescued by another Englishman by the name of Francis D'Ancy Bacon. Those are only the bare facts that he failed to embellish.

He died in bed at the age of 89 after becoming one of the great prose writers of his day. His last known words were 'lies, lies, lies'.

Try inventing an anti-hero like that!

So to help you write fiction, read non-fiction.

Anyone know any other real larger than life antiheroes?


Kate said...

Way too easy :)

Vlad Dracula - and most of his contemporaries - Vlad Dracul, for similar reasons. Heck even Mehmed the Conquerer fits the template. It was a psychotic era.

In Australian history, there's Peter Lalor (for non-aussies, look up the Eureka Stockade), Ned Kelly, Ben Hall and most of the other bushrangers, and on the other side of the fence Governers Bligh and Macarthur, Captain Logan and assorted others from the early colonial times. More recently Joh Bjelke Petersen who might be more accurately regarded as a magnificent bastard than an anti-hero.

They're everywhere. You don't have to look far to find them.

Anonymous said...

In "The Wild Wild West" there's another bunch. The Earps and the James, Johnny Ringo, who is a much removed uncle of the Baen author. Doc Holiday, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

You pretty much needed a score card, and which side's the good guys depended on your POV and as often as not, which side of the Civil War you'd been on.

C Kelsey said...

My goodness, Matapam brought up the Wild West, but no mention of "Black Bart"? Black Bart was a highwayman who robbed stagecoach's in California. He was famous for his gentlemanly manners and being well dressed whilst robbing the folks on the highway. He carried a double-barreled shotgun but rumor always had it that the shotgun was actually empty.

As for books concerning naval battles and the interweaving of politics, I found Six Frigates: The Epic Story of the Founding of the US Navy to be one of the best books I've ever read in that regard.

Andrew said...

And shall Trelawney live ?
And shall Trelawney die ?
Here's twenty thousand Cornishmen
Will know the reason why

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

What fascinating books you've been reading, John!

John Lambshead said...

I think being bad is not enough to make an antihero. There must be the sort of wicked attraction that makes a maiden's heart beat faster. An antihero must be wicked rather than evil, dashing rather than mean, a cad rather than a psychopath. A Colonel Blood sort of character.

One can have female antiheroes - The Wicked Lady - but they are mainly male.


John Lambshead said...

Dear Pam

The Texas branch of my family were around Fort Worth when Doc Holiday was there, and, I think, Johnny Ringo.


John Lambshead said...

Dear Andrew
By tree, poll and pen, you shall know the Cornishmen.


John Lambshead said...

Dear Rowena

It pays to be catholic in one's reading habits. I have an insatiable curiosity.