Random Fruits of Research

Kage Baker used research like a roulette wheel. She’d need to learn something – locations of post offices in Buffalo in 1943, or how long it will take a Hot Wheels car to decay, or a place to eat zuppa inglese at 11 PM in Marin County – so she’d dive into research. But as she jackknifed into the data stream, she’d give that wheel a random spin. Just to see where she might surface …

At worst, she’d get, say,  dessert out of it; at best, a story. It might be the story she was writing at that moment, or it might be something else. For instance, we learned during the hunt for immediate zuppa inglese input (which took place late at night and thus was in restaurants rather than libraries) that  zuppa inglese is yummy but should not be eaten in mixed company.  Not late at night in an Italian cafe full of rowdy gorgeous soccer players. Not unless you want to embarrass your escort so much he leaves the table to 4 giggling ladies making off-colour jokes about their dessert.

On the other hand, we got to split his share while he was pretending he didn’t know us. So it was a win-win situation. You just never know what research will yield, and so you have to be prepared to profit from whatever you find.

A search on early photographic experiments led from geranium leaves, to Roman sunglasses, to salt mordants, to grade school experiments with watching solar eclipses without (quite) going blind, to the Griffith Park Observatory where we took turns testing the field boundaries of the camera obscura in the west gallery. Which largely involved dancing back and forth in the lawn in front of the lens and fascinated Japanese tourists. Then Kage ended up writing a story about Vermeer.

When we were young, she would wander around libraries and bookstores, selecting volumes at random and reading bits of them. She usually chose a book by colour and/or cover art – the subject didn’t matter as much as the art – and she always began her browsing in the middle. (Even when she read a book on purpose, she read it in bits and pieces and out of sequence. I don’t know how she ever made sense of it, but she did.) When something caught her attention, she’d pursue it in another book. She’d sample 2 dozen apparently unrelated books while I hunted obsessively for volume 3 of a series I’d accidentally donated to a library drive. I’d leave with a book on the Permian Extinction, and she’d have one on embroidery patterns designed by Ernest Theisinger …

Embroidery patterns, by the way, led to fractal repetitions and Mandlebrot sets. And to the delicious pastry, like primordial uber-biscotti, of the same name. So Kage learned to make mandelbrot and biscotti, and her concept of the shape of Time became a Mandelbrot set with no end points. And she ate mandelbrot while writing about Mandelbrots.

Kage’s sure-fire recipe for not getting bogged down in the ordinary world: avoid reality at all times.

Tomorrow: the computer revolution in her methods of madness

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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2 Responses to Random Fruits of Research


  1. I myself have found the random bit o’ stuff one finds on the way to “The eccliastic livings in Ulster during the life of Red Hugh O’Neal” to be the real value of the computer in my life. That and really old dirty pictures.

    Oh I firmly believe in really good cover art as a book selection tool as well.

  2. catharine says:

    I agree with Kage’s cover art method of book chosing. I have read some true dreck because the cover art was fabulous, and then missed some good stuff (the first time around at any rate) because of dull art.

    And I’m always on the lookout for good mandelbrot recipe, if you are willing to share …

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