Now that I’m about to leave the country for four months, I find myself digging in and enjoying all things American. An odd nostalgia for my town and state have settled in, which I’m sure is only because my bags are nearly packed. On my morning walks in the park, I find myself thinking that next time I see this place, the trees will be bare and snow will cover the ground. Strange how we prepare to say goodbye.
I’ve been devouring books, trying to keep my stack from making its way into my suitcase. My husband assures me there will be libraries in England… but will they have the books I want?
Writing a novel is a long process. I’m currently in my second in-gathering/research phase. Inspired by several books I’ve read for my current project, including The World Without Us, I’ve been doing historical research to try to figure out what the world (the world of my new book) might look like in the future. In William Gibson‘s intro to his story collection, Burning Chrome, he says, “Science fiction tends to behave like a species of history pointing in the opposite direction, up the timeline rather than back. But you can’t draw imaginary future histories without a map of the past that your readers will accept as their own” (xv). Last weekend, I visited Cahokia Mounds, which is near where my book is set. A friend mentioned it to me a few weeks ago, and since then, I’ve been fascinated at the parallels between the mound builders’ world, our world, and the world I’m trying to describe in the future. From around 900-1200 AD, what is now called Cahokia Mounds was the largest city in North America. Archeologists think that 20,000 people lived in the city with a population density of 4,000 people/square mile, which nearly rivals modern-day St. Louis at 5,000 people/sq. mile. With no plumbing or electricity. Quite a feat.
One of the reasons the mound builders were able to create an urban environment was agriculture, and more specifically, maize. Which is, of course, one of the main agricultural crops in Illinois today. The mound builders died out and dispersed from the area before European settlers came, and the mound builders had no written language, so we don’t know much about them. Almost every plaque at the museum said something like “maybe” or “we think” or “it seems”… all words to indicate that the scientists are doing a lot of guessing. According to an article in National Geographic, the only reason we know anything at all about these people is because Eisenhower included money for archeological excavation in his interstate highway program. Today, I55/I70 runs right through the site of the ancient mounds. It was strange to drive that interstate home and imagine what the mound builders would think if they could see the miles and miles of maize growing today.
Recently, Nicholas Grider, author of Misadventure, had some good advice for writers. I especially like #8: “There’s often a tradeoff between complexity/innovation and accessibility, and when you’re trying to decide how your text should be defined in those terms, don’t let people tell you what to do, just go with your gut. There’s no right answer.” Writing science fiction can be especially tricky in terms of complexity and innovation. I’ve been reading MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood, and she dazzles with every paragraph. My work is a bit slower than hers, more like a walk in the woods instead of a fevered drumming in the jungle. But that’s the beauty of writing–you get to write the story you want to write. So, here I go.
Wait, before I leave, a little local music (recently local to my neck of the woods, that is) to feed the nostalgia bug before I head out the door. Some gems from the WEFT sessions with Rebecca Rego and the Trainmen.