Following Will O’the Wisps

Kage Baker spent  a certain amount of time in what she called “free association research.”

She usually started with a Google entry, something random and potentially amusing: panko pando. Garnet spectrum. Chromophobe. She select some entry on, say, page 7 (because these nonsense searches always yielded page after page of hopeful near-matches) and then just go on to wherever it led her.

She’d leap from link to link, checking images at intervals to see what might turn up, until she was metaphysical light years away. Her path was a series of stepping stone for 7-league boots, linked by whatever associations poor Google and Kage – opposite poles on a Turing Test – came up with. And from such paths, she contrived story ideas, or plot details, or interesting titles. Or just something interesting and new on which to obsess for a while as a rest from building worlds.

There was usually a profit to be had from this habit. At worst, it relaxed Kage’s mind and let her unconscious work closer to the surface. At best, it sparked stories. In between … well, I now have a set of bone needles and bobbins carved from the femurs of good English beef cattle, a century or more ago in Devon. The lady who had them no longer knew what they were for. Kage knew they were for me.

And she found Events Shadows this way, and things with which to fill them. For instance, I have the notes  suggesting ways in which to use the Great Fire of London (raging in September of 1666) to cover oddities arising from Newton’s work with prisms and calculus, and the inconveniences of the Burial in Woolens Act; not neglecting the fact that the first European records of coloured clouds were destroyed in the Great Fire.

Kage had a real weakness for following mysterious bright lights through any available bog.

What she called “free-association” I called “chumming for shark with a pork roast tied to your leg”. At first, when search engines were new and she was groping her way slowly along the strands of Webcrawler (whose name amused her), the dangers were few. However, I doubt any environment on Earth has developed predators and parasites as quickly as the Internet did: maybe the primeval seas, where proto-cells and bacteria were still working out the difference between eating and breeding …

Anyway, I learned about security real fast (anyone else remember John Bull Antivirus? Had a charming icon.) and the necessity of regularly-scheduled maintenance on the computer. The only times anything did get through the crystal spheres I erected around our private cyberspace were after some free-association search of Kage’s had gone on until 3 AM and no one remembered to let the watch-weasel loose on the computer.

Since Kage has been gone, though, I have discovered the joys of just following the links. No knowledge is useless; and the more you accumulate, the wider – and stranger – the associations between them can grow. That’s been especially apparent this week, when story ideas have been cropping up in my mind like faerie rings of mushrooms. Like the subterranean fungi that cover multiple acres of Oregon and only show a few fruiting bodies on the surface, huge networks of unrelated facts can produce shining, strangely luminescent mushrooms on the top of my mind.

Which is a fairly dreadful and interesting image, actually. Jeff VanderMeer has made much splendidly horrific hay of the idea, too. As did H. P. Lovecraft; and both of those gentlemen contribute largely to the body of ideas in my memory-bins.  But that’s how the whole process seems to work, and very nearly literally.

Brainstorming with you, Dear Readers, is also part of this process. It’s been especially fruitful this week. And the link-safaris have been especially productive and entertaining. A tree that covers 100 acres, and a fungus that covers 1,000. What does it mean that Oregon is sitting on the back of a giant mushroom? What does the sign in a coastal McDonald’s that advised “Free Ice To Senior Citizens: Bring Your Ice Chest!” mean? Why does the combination give me goose bumps?

Time to search a little more, and see what comes to light. And update Norton. All kinds of things go wandering after will o’the wisps on hot Saturday nights.

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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3 Responses to Following Will O’the Wisps

  1. mizkizzle says:

    Yes! Kage was right. The internet is the perfect venue for free-association fact trawling. A recent search to find out exactly how Oak Apple Day used to be celebrated in England before the holiday was (sadly) abolished in 1859 led me to the tree that owns itself in Athens, Ga., and the poem about the tree that never had to fight.
    Oh, and the tree that ate a corpse…


    • Kate says:

      You mean Roger Williams and the apple tree? That was an interesting factoid. I t interested Kage because one of Momma’s ancestors – who died before his pre-contracted tomb was finished – had his corpse pickled in apple brandy to preserve it until it could interred.


  2. mizkizzle says:

    Yeah, they did that in the old days. It worked pretty well for Lord Nelson.Despite reports of jolly tars “tapping the admiral” he arrived back in London in pretty good condition for a dead guy who had been immersed in a cask of brandy.
    At least his spiffy sarcophagus at St. Paul’s (originally intended for Cardinal Wolsey) made up for any indignities he suffered following the Battle of Trafalgar.


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