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New Worlds Theory Post: Be a Goat

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Some of you may have heard of “CliftonStrengths,” a personality assessment administered by Gallup and used by writing coach Becca Symes, of Write Better Faster, to advise her clients. (I promise, this will relate to worldbuilding.)

I like CliftonStrengths better than a lot of those types of tests in part because it’s more granular; it measures thirty-four different aspects, some of which are closely related but not quite the same. For example, two of them, Learner and Input, both have to do with learning things . . . but, to both oversimplify and link it to writerly concerns, Learner wants to master a topic in great depth, and Input is a goat. It will eat whatever information is available. And then possibly pull the stake out of the ground so it can go eat some information that was just out of reach.

From the perspective of inventing new worlds, it’s great to be a goat.

This is the other side of the coin I touched on way back in Year One, in the “bricolage” theory essay. If you’re not writing a setting that’s a close analogue of a real place and time — Ming Dynasty China, the pre-Revolutionary American colonies, the Neo-Assyrian Empire — but rather cobbling together interesting practices and ideas to make something new, then you need to get all those bits and bobs from somewhere.

These essays? They’re the product of years of me just reading all kinds of history and anthropology and so forth. The same is true of my fiction; I’ve occasionally referred to myself as “an anthropological compost heap from which stories sprout.” (Input miiiight be my top characteristic in CliftonStrengths. And Learner miiiight be third.) This process has been aided and abetted by majoring in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, but it doesn’t require academic degrees; it just requires a high degree of curiosity.

So let’s talk about how to feed the goat.

While I have read many excellent nonfiction books over the decades, my front-line recommendation is not to go for whole monographs. Instead, you want the textual equivalent of a buffet, something that’s going to provide you with a wide array of brief topics to sample. When you find one that’s tasty, then you go looking for more information. In other words, it’s good to start magazines and blogs.

Which ones you want will depend on your own specific interests. I’m subscribed to National Geographic, Smithsonian, and the emails of Archaeology; I also follow The History Blog, which is literally just one person’s sporadic reporting on interesting bits of news in the worlds of archaeology, art restoration, antiquities theft, and similar fields. It’s a completely random grab bag, and that’s why I love it. Sometimes it lands on topics I know very well, and sometimes it mentions some ancient culture I’ve literally never heard of — quick, to Wikipedia!

(Wikipedia is also good, if you’re the sort of person to fall down the rabbit hole of clicking from one article to another. You can wind up in all kinds of fascinating places that way.)

I’ve taken to referring to this sort of thing as Continuing Writing Education. The attorneys I know are required to do a certain amount of Continuing Legal Education, attending lectures and seminars to make sure they keep up with new developments in the field (e.g. the changing face of privacy law online); nobody formally requires an equivalent from fiction writers, but I think it’s a damn good idea. Nonfiction, fiction, novels, short stories, poetry, TV, movies, video games — all kinds of fodder. I fell out of the nonfiction browsing habit for a while because I’d been doing so much focused research for my novels — the Onyx Court series and then the Memoirs of Lady Trent — but after a few years, I realized that I had to keep feeding the goat if I wanted ideas to come out of . . .

. . . no, let’s just leave that metaphor unfinished, shall we?

The point here is not that focused research I just mentioned. That, to me, is a different kind of process: okay, I’m sending Lady Trent to a tropical island region where the culture will be inspired by Polynesia, so it’s time for me to go read about Polynesia. In that case, the story idea is already there, and I’m looking for material to flesh it out. But where does the story idea itself come from?

If you’re me (or share my slate of top CliftonStrengths), the answer is “from those bits and bobs of random information.” Somebody on a panel mentions a book, Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome: Trust in the Gods, But Verify, Rose Mary Sheldon; I put it on my wish list. A few years later, I finally get around to buying it. A few years after that, I finally read it. I’m in the middle of the chapter on the Clades Variana when my brain says HANG ON, I HAVE AN IDEA. By the end of that night, I have a short story about an archaeologist and the legionary eagles lost during the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest.

That’s not a secondary world, of course, but you get the principle. The History Blog at one point mentioned that in Biblical texts, clothing stained with wine is a symbol of vengeance. What am I going to do with that detail? Your guess is as good as mine, but one of these days it may wander into some fictional setting, simply because I find it interesting. It’s information I didn’t go out and get because I knew I needed it for something; it’s information I have on hand so that someday it might contribute to a story, or even spark one just off that single element.

Not everybody works this way, of course — not even every writer. I’m not preaching that you have to vacuum up every stray detail of culture and history that wanders through your field of attention. But if you are this kind of writer, then give yourself permission to lean into it. Make the resolution I made circa 2019, to make sure you feed your inner goat an adequate diet of new information, not because you already have ideas that call for it, but because you want a steady supply of fresh ideas. I think it’s no accident that since 2019, my production of short stories has been notably higher than it was in the decade preceding, when I was reading relatively little, and almost all of it fiction rather nonfiction about real-world cultures.

It’s work, in the sense that it can be a vital part of the job and you’re justified in giving it priority in your life. But if you’re this kind of writer, than the process of feeding your brain is also fun.

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4 thoughts on “New Worlds Theory Post: Be a Goat”

  1. Unlike an academic historian, I’m a generalist. I know a little bit about a lot of different things rather than specializing in one narrow part of history.

    But since I was a history major, I took a class called historiography and I know how to go find more detailed information when I get an idea.

    1. This is definitely a job where being a generalist is to one’s benefit, yeah. Unless you intend to write Regency romances and nothing but, or Roman historical fantasy and nothing but, you’re better off with a broad base of knowledge.

      And, as you say, it’s a huge benefit to know how to find information, when you get to the stage of needing more focused specifics. That’s one of the greatest benefits I got from college and graduate school.

      1. For my big fat Merlin’s Descendants series I had stacks 3-4 inches high of 3X5 note cards. I used maybe 5% of the details, but by the time the books were published I knew a lot more about the periods.

        When my brother wrote is doctoral dissertation he said he lived with 3X5s in his pockets, littering his desk, stashed in kitchen cannisters etc. etc. I keep mine on notebook rings.

  2. Anthony Docimo

    Never heard of Clifton, but am very interested now; will take a look. Thank you!

    >I realized that I had to keep feeding the goat if I wanted ideas to come out of . . .
    Knowledge spills from the ears. No need to trail off.

    >, clothing stained with wine is a symbol of vengeance
    I now have a mental image of Lady Trent overhearing a friend say “Be careful – don’t end up winecoated.”

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