Kage Baker had many favourite places to look for story inspiration. Every writer does, I guess. Some are tried-and-true wells of ideas and dreamscapes. Others are the 7-11’s of prose – garishly lit places on the edge of a wide expanse of cracked pavement, where you go to get a fast FTL burrito or see if they still have any of those stale but yummy dystopias on sale.
Write what you know is, of course, the received wisdom for writers, However, that doesn’t work as well for writers of any kind of speculative fiction. And the “literary” writers who claim it for their sanctified motto are fooling no one but themselves: very few people who actually live lives of dramatic passion or horrific tragedy or even suburban mundanity actually write books about it. How many romance writers have really had the kind of sex they write about? Have they ever even had the electric “eyes across the crowded room” experience? Kage used to ask that scornfully, roll her own eyes, and observe that the only thing that ever got her was a bartender with another Singapore Sling.
All is grist for the writer’s mill comes a little closer. Kage preferred it as a war-cry, certainly. As she always said, truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s more interesting – thus, the bizarre moments of “Real Life” were a constant mine of scenes, dialogue and plot for her. I suspect they are for every writer who has every managed to walk a plot from A to B and not fall in the narrative stream. Life is a random number generator, and paying attention ot which way the little balls come up is endlessly productive.
Do you realize that most people don’t even notice the oddities and wonders that overrun their daily lives, Dear Readers? Do you – or they – realize that other people are taking fascinated notes on all these happenings? Why do you think you end up in books, folks? Writers who are in on the Secret Theatre are watching your every move. Bwa-ha-ha.
Their own lives, not so much. I think it depends on the writer; Kage felt it depended not only on the writer, but their vanity. How enthralled are you with the antics of your family? Your self? Can you take your eyes off the mirror long enough to write about someone else, or are you observing the rest of the world backwards and wrong way round in the rear view all the while? It may not matter which you choose – good writing can come from both. But Kage preferred not to use her personal history too much. Not only is a prophet without honour in her own land, she used to say, but even the prophet doesn’t care what happened there.
The heat that had actually scorched her in real life was more than she wanted to encounter again.
Her mother, bless Katherine Carmichael Baker’s goddess-sized heart, wanted Kage to be a writer. Consequently, Kage swore she never would do that, and ran off to join the circus. The circus in question being the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, she promptly fell down the rabbit hole and became … a writer. She fell so far down that polychromatic rabbit hole that it coloured every other Universe she explored in her writing.
Eventually, that calmed Kage down enough to use some of her own, personal history as well. Many of the tales of the Company could be labelled “Based Partially on a True Story”. Some are so very personal Kage would never identify them to her family members, for fear of permanently offending various siblings … some she refused to write until her parents were gone, in fact. I suspect that happens a lot to all writers, too, a lot more than is ever described in the writing guides. There’s many an awkward Thanksgiving dinner, I bet, behind all those books about bridges and notebooks and coming-of-age …
But more – Kage didn’t find that her Life Before Writing really held that many treasures for her stories. Her mother wanted her to write the fabulous history of the Bakers, Carmichaels, Jeffries, Hickeys, etc. – and a lot of it is fabulous indeed. I listened too, as Momma Baker related the amazing family stories; Kage often rolled her eyes and let the over-familiar stories fall out her ears again, but she remembered them. Sometimes she used them. More often, she used other people’s families.
Sometimes, as an exercise, she’d take a few random elements from her memories and throw them in the air: literary 52-Pick-Up. Maybe a story came out of it, maybe not: it was a finger exercise, a limbering-up, a fabric swatch knitted for gauge.
So … let’s see. It rains late in an unnaturally dry season; strange plants grow large. A young girl tells off an old relative for being – well, old. She discovers that old women can be judgmental, cranky, mean girls long after you think their juices have dried up. Sometimes their lives are as vital as a young girl’s might be; sweet verjuice has fermented and distilled into bitter brandy … A new jewel arrives from the hand of a messenger and Means Something. A goddess manifests. Or a new will. Or a broken water main.
Could be a story there, you know. Or maybe it needs a bit of weird spice from the botanica display on the front counter of that eldritch 7-11.
In the end, you have to brave the heat and stir what’s boiling. And season to taste.