Saturday, 16 June 2012

If Not Now, then after I’ve finished messing around for another half an hour or so

 by Ashley Lister

I’ll be honest here: my schedule is replete with displacement activities, all of which I justify with psychotic vehemence.

At the start of this year I was commissioned to produce a novel about dragons. The story was based in a pre-medieval version of the UK. Consequently I was looking at sites about dragons and the fantastic. I was reading similar literature and delving into essays on Tolkien and the relationship between the complementary genres of fantasy and science fiction. I was brushing up on my pre-medieval history. I was watching movies about dragons and wizards. I was even playing PC games based on medieval battles.

Notice how, in the paragraph above there is no mention of my writing the novel.

I justified the above activities under the rubric of ‘thinking time’. In my own mind I qualify it as opportunities for research and reflection. A part of me thinks it would be more honest to call it ‘not writing time’.

But I have to wonder – are these really displacement activities or are they valid exercises in research and reflection?

The dragon book is now complete and with the publisher.

I was particularly pleased with the level of historical detail I’ve included because it’s accurate without being boring or intrusive. I couldn’t have achieved any of this without all the online research I did or the visits I made to areas of historical interest.

I was also pleased with the approach to magic in the story. Arthur C Clarke (Clarke’s Third Law) says, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ I’d encountered this sage piece of wisdom before I started writing the most recent opus but it was at the forefront of my mind when I encountered the writings of the 1930’s editor of Astounding Stories, John W Campbell.

Campbell dealt mainly with SF stories and advocated that those fantastic elements of the future that made SF so appealing to readers should be treated as if they were everyday objects or occurrences by the characters in the story. It’s a technique where characters perceive the marvellous as mundane.

Applied to the genre of fantasy, the magic in my story is not treated as miraculous, making it seem (I think) more credible.

All of which is my way of saying I don’t believe my displacement activities really are displacement activities: I do think they are genuine opportunities for research and reflection.

And the only thing that niggles at the back of my mind is the knowledge that I’ve spent time writing this blog post when I could have been working on outlining a sequel.   



Anonymous said...

I like the idea of you 'method acting' your way through dragon encounters on the PC, providing you don't think the dialogue in fantasy video games is to be emulated...But of course you taught writing for video games so you know how poo the majority of games are when it comes to characterisation. Please let us know when the dragon book is due for release, assuming it contains damsels in distress of course. Damn, now I've got to resist the urge to google for dragon erotica...


Ashley R Lister said...

Funny you should mention dialogue. I got in touch with a previous guest blogger from this site (Katy) to help me with the brief pieces of Welsh language that are used in the book.

Then I had the majority of my characters speak using only (where possible) words derived from an old English root.

Obviously the challenge here was to make it sound believable and authentic without making it sound overwritten.

It's due out in November (I think) and I would love to hear your thoughts on this one.


Lindsay said...

Looking forward to your novel coming out, sounds really good. I love a bit of research. Unfortunately though I can overdo it. How do you know when you have done enough?

Great post Ash.

Ashley R Lister said...

How do you know when you've done enough research? I think I reach that point when I'm disagreeing with the texts I've been researching.

But I do find research to be one of the delightful benefits about writing.


vicky ellis said...

Did you ever read any of Mary Stewart's Merlin series?

I think she did a cracking job getting an ancient feel alongside natural dialogue.

Have you gone down the multiple dragon species (Rowling) route or did you stick with generic dragons? Ooh, also... the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik is a belter. The Napoleonic Wars with dragons. I can lend you the first one if you like, but you might be sick of dragons now :)

Ashley R Lister said...

I see what you're doing here. Now you've graduated you're handing out reading lists ;-)


Jo Michaels said...

Don't you love how much you learn when doing research? Authors are interesting people to converse with because we have such an in-depth knowledge about so many things. WRITE ON!

Ashley R Lister said...


I adore the research aspect of writing.

It appeals to the smug know-it-all inside me:-)