Saturday, February 6, 2010

Why Fiction Writers Should Read Nonfiction

In my last post here at Novel Spaces, I argued that fiction writers would benefit from reading about world history, biography, psychology, religion and mythology, technology, grammar, and many other areas of nonfiction. Today, I talk about four areas in which a writer can improve by reading nonfiction.


The most obvious area is mechanics. Most agents and editors stop reading if the first page or two of a manuscript contains spelling and grammar errors, is printed on perfumed pink paper, or describes scenery or backstory. A writer who reads books about writing and studies up on grammar and proper manuscript formatting can avoid basic pitfalls.


Simple errors of fact can throw readers out of a story and ruin its believability. I’ve read stories in which small colonies on isolated planets have technology that requires deep social infrastructure, wide-ranging trade networks, and workers with specialized skills; stories in which pre-1492 Europeans eat foods native to the New World; and stories in which the demographics of a human society were ludicrously out of whack. Much speculative fiction written before about 1970 is impossible to take seriously because it assumes women are less intelligent, less ambitious, less creative, less varied, and less everything else than men.

A basic knowledge of social, biological, and physical sciences would help a writer avoid such errors. One need not struggle through dull textbooks; magazines such as National Geographic, Psychology Today, and The Smithsonian and children’s books such as those in the Eyewitness Books series can give a writer a good grasp of the nature of people, animals, the Earth, and the universe.

Breadth and Depth

What traits do all humans share? Scientists may argue, but spiritual beliefs, death rituals, music and dancing, tool-making and -decorating, storytelling, social hierarchy, ceremonies to mark important events, standards for proper and improper emotional expression and sexual behavior, and self-decoration are probably among the universals.

Yet how often do we see most of these in speculative fiction. For example, in most societies, spiritual beliefs are essential, and sacred and secular are integrated. Yet religion is absent or a minor element in much speculative fiction. Similarly, furniture and tools are often utilitarian, and the arts often play little or no role in people’s lives. Why do some authors serve up this watery gruel, when most societies are more like minestrone or a robust gumbo? Is the writer unconsciously or lazily using life as depicted on TV as a model? Or—what I fear is more likely—is the writer ignorant both of human universals and of the dizzying diversity of ways in which different societies express them?

A writer who is well read in nonfiction is better equipped to create a fully realized world. Instead of opening a can of soup, the writer will cook a roux until it is golden, sauté an array of ingredients to bring out their flavors, add a long-cooked broth and fresh herbs, and simmer it all until the flavors deepen and meld.


Originality in writing is an offshoot of its depth and breadth because details make the difference. Many fantasies are set in a stock preindustrial world with a European landscape and a mannered society with a many-leveled hierarchy topped by a monarch. A writer who reads widely can leap free of these stale tropes. Dozens or hundreds of civilizations have risen and fallen in a variety of climates and latitudes. What if you set your story in a jungle? Or African-like steppes? Or the sub-Arctic? What if the society was based on that of the Mayans or the Egyptians or the Hittites or the Javans? What if the political system was a republic or a confederation of villages? Just one tweak on the Tolkienesque opens up new possibilities for characters and sets them new challenges.

I've been abstract, too abstract for my own tastes. So in my next Novel Spaces post, on February 20, I’ll get down to the nitty gritty and talk about a real example: the many topics I read about to write Like Mayflies in a Stream.

Thanks for dropping by.

—Shauna Roberts


Anonymous said...

All good advice, thank you. One question though: what is meant by speculative fiction? Does that mean anything set in the future, or is there a more specific definition?

Shauna Roberts said...

Captain Black, "speculative fiction" is an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Personally, I include some historical fiction and some comic books under the spec fic umbrella too. The time period can be past, present, future, or in some other time line completely.

I'm trying to decide what links these together as speculative, and I'd say it was that the author to some extent created the world in which the story takes place rather than using the world as we know it. For example, the TV show "True Blood" takes place in modern-day Louisiana, but with the twist that vampires exist and are out of the closet. Charlaine Harris had to re-invent Louisiana to incorporate vampires.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the explanation, Shauna. Non-speculative fiction sounds rather dull in comparison ;o)