Questions from Playwriting Student Darren Pine
What does the term "research" mean to you?
Invention. Because science fiction and fantasy are essentially made-up stories, a
lot of research actually consists of pure invention. But this invention is
tantamount to research because it has to be systematic and consistent. If I
determine that my culture has two overlapping calendars (rather the way our
weeks overlap with the month/year calendar), I then have to chart the timeline of
my story or novel so that I know what day each event takes place on both
calendars. Or if I work with a society of alien symbiotes, I have to think through
all the social implications of having a symbiotic relationship between two species
with often-different social, reproductive, dietary, or other needs. Thus even
wholly-invented milieus require methodical note-taking, just like research.
General Background. Science fiction also intersects with the real world at many
points; so does fantasy. Often sf/fantasy writers concentrate only on their
extravagances and pay little attention to quotidian details. That's how you end up
with silly fantasies where nobody seems actually to do the work that puts food on
the table (you know, the stories where thousands of people are living in a
completely barren land without water, surviving by eating little animals - which
have no apparent source of food themselves), or sci-fi stories that have societies
behaving in ways that are completely unbelievable because the writer has no
understanding of how societies actually work and the services that communities
must provide for their members. This kind of research is often "general," not tied
to a particular project. Instead, I spend my life doing this research, reading books
like "The Lost Country Life" or "Guns, Germs, and Steel" that help me by
providing background information that shows up again and again in the way I
think about worlds I create.
Specific Details. Particular projects, however, often have their own research
demands. For instance, my novel "Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher
Columbus" absolutely required that I be deeply familiar with the true history of
the world that Columbus moved through -- European, Aztec, and Caribbean
history. Since I also invented a devastated future Earth a couple of centuries
ahead, I had to rely on general research to help me invent that; but for the real
histories of Mexico, the Caribbean, Spain, Italy, etc., I had to rely on good
sources. What makes this hard is that what a fiction writer needs are exactly the
kinds of things that most historians gloss over -- the details of daily life, the
patterns of society. What did Taino Indians eat? How did they handle waste
disposal? Thus the research can be frustrating, involving a search through book
after book just to find one little paragraph of information that will help me build a
This kind of research is identical to the research historical and contemporary
novelists have to do. Having written historicals and contemporary fantasies, I'm
keenly aware of how hard it is to find out, for instance, exactly what day a
particular hit song was released (I had to know that about The Police's "Every
Breath You Take" for my novel "Lost Boys" -- turned out it was released a
couple of months too late for the place I wanted to use it!). You can fiddle with
the past, but you want to do it knowingly, not ignorantly.
What are you currently working on that requires research?
Everything I do requires the first two types of research -- and the third type comes
up for most works. For instance, my screenplay for "My One and Only," set in
contemporary Provo, Utah, required that I take into account the actual services
provided by the BYU Housing Office. Members of the audience would know, and
I didn't know, so I had to find out! This week I also went to a conference on
future technology and strategic surprise at the Institute for Defense Analysis in
Alexandria, VA. I picked up several ideas on future weaponry that will be
invaluable as I write Shadow Puppets (the third book in the Shadow series begun
with Ender's Shadow). I'm always doing general research and thinking of ways to
apply it to my stories, along with inventing and researching specific information
that each project requires. That's how I live.
What have you found to be your most valuable research tool?
Books. Books I buy, so I can write in them, dog-ear them, circle and underline
and comment to my heart's content. And I usually find these books by going to
Borders (the only chain with consistently deep and interesting history, biography,
science, and geography sections) and browsing through what they happen to have.
I've assembled enough of a library that my kids were able to get through high
school without ever having to leave the house to do research <grin>. I find the
internet useless to me -- the information I need is almost always too deep,
specific, or obscure to be findable on the net. And when I do use the net, I usually
ask for the help of someone who is used to doing net searches. I just don't have
time or patience to wade through the piles of useless, shallow information on the
net. (That's why I am derisive of all the hype about the "information revolution."
More like a "distraction inundation."
Do you utilize primary source material (actual artifacts/documents, interviews,
etc.) or is most of your research secondary (library, the web, etc.)?
Secondary research is almost de rigueur, just because I don't have time to
rediscover the wheel <grin>. Sometimes, though, my needs are so specific that I
have to go to original sources just to find the particular detail I need. This is
particularly true when I need to find the names of obscure participants in real
historical events. Most of the time, though, secondary sources are simply more
convenient. In researching my novel about Sarah, the wife of Abraham, for
instance, it would have taken me months to assemble, from original sources, the
kind of world-picture I was able to get from a close-reading of a well-done treatise
on the relations between Egypt and Canaan during the biblical period. Only about
fifty pages in the whole book were pertinent (though I had to read three hundred
pages to be sure of that), but those fifty pages replaced, in hours, what would have
taken me months in original sources.
Yet when I needed to find the names of crew members in each of Columbus's
ships, it felt almost hopeless. Not until I found a set of Spanish game cards
containing the names of the crew members and their jobs was my task
accomplished. Who knew that would end up being my source? I knew the
information existed, but I wasn't in Spain and couldn't easily get to the original
sources; biographies of Columbus just didn't have that information.
Is there something you have not had a chance to research/write about that you
are dying to do?
I have several projects under contract that will be written, as I find time -- my
sci-fi time-travel treatments of Noah's flood and the Garden of Eden, for instance
(two separate books, to your great relief <grin>). But the only kind of work that I
ever want to write but don't have the opportunity is contemporary realistic fiction.
Nobody wants to publish that sort of book from me -- I have to have a sci-fi or
fantasy spin on everything for it to be marketable....
But as for research, I never give myself a chance to be "dying to" research
something, because the moment I notice a hole in my general knowledge, I take
steps to fill it. For instance, I recently read a history of India because I realized
that I knew nothing about it. It wasn't tied to a project -- I simply recognized that
I didn't know something and ought to know it. I've previously read histories of
China and the Arabs (and Arabic-speaking nations) for the same reason, as I also
read books about organic chemistry, language theory and history, economics, etc.
I'll also read biographies of semi-famous people from interesting periods that I
know little about. My goal is to know everything about everything. Of course I'll
never come close to succeeding, but ... the attempt is the goal. <grin>
What was your education and when did you decide to become a writer?
I entered college as an archaeology major, but quickly discovered that science was
too methodical and required far too much patience for me to thrive there. I was
spending all my time in theatre, so I surrendered to myself and changed my major.
I enjoyed performance, costume design, makeup, set design and construction, and
everything else about theatre, but the thing I did that nobody else did as well was
script doctoring and adaptation. I wrote a reader's theatre version of Tell Me That
You Love Me, Junie Moon that was way better than the lame movie adaptation (I
did mine first, when the book was still brand new); when we did Flowers for
Algernon, the second act stank, so I went back to the original book and wrote a
new second act that actually worked. From play doctoring it was an easy step to
adapting historical and scriptural stories into original plays -- and since the true
story was already there, I was able to learn how to construct scenes and discover
and develop characters and relationships without having to learn how to invent
compelling storylines. By the end of my time as a theatre undergraduate I thought
of myself as a playwright. Only when I started my own theatre company and
realized how much money you have to make just to become spectacularly in debt
did I decide to try my hand in a serious way at writing fiction, and I still write
fiction in a playwrightish way (i.e., minimal description, dialogue-heavy scenes).
I've heard tell of your interest in playwriting and theatre. Please describe what
experiences you have had in this area, was it beneficial to your growth as a writer,
and does it still hold any interest for you?
I was able to get over my worst stupid mistakes as a playwright, so that when I
switched to fiction I had far fewer dumb errors to get past. The result was that
with only a handful of exceptions, everything I've written as fiction has been
published and I've been paid for. The most important benefit, though, was the
immediacy of theatre. You can't get caught up in the nonsense of flamboyant
writing style when somebody else has to actually say your words. And in the
process of actor-proofing my scripts, I learned the discipline of clarity -- to write
a story in language that cannot be misunderstood except by the most wilfully
rebellious of readers. And watching an audience watch your play is the best
education a writer can ever have, because audiences never lie during the
performance. They show you where they disbelieve or lose interest or don't
understand. I've gone to great lengths to replace that informative process in my
fiction reading -- I've trained my pre-readers to read like a living audience,
reporting to me whenever they're confused, uninterested, or doubtful, without
attempting to diagnose why or prescribe some treatment for the problem. As a
result, I still get "out of town tryouts" and "dress rehearsals" for my writing.
In our playwriting classes of late, we've been talking a lot about the
importance of structure and the importance of following your own "inner voice"
as a writer. We've all found that one of these aspects is often opposed to the
other. How strict are you on following established structures in your writing? Or
do you let your voice make the structure?
These two are never opposed. If you think they are, it means you are not being
taught real structure. You're probably just being taught form, formula, or plotting,
which are often inimical to your intuitive sense of what is important and true in a
story. I have never seen an intelligent treatment of true story structure that I didn't
write myself <wince>, even though all stories depend on deep structure for the
audience's sense of satisfaction and closure. Forms (i.e, three-act drama, five-act
drama, two-act musical comedy) can be useful, but only in the sense that a sonnet
is useful: You fight againat the form in order to force yourself to be creative, not
because the form itself contains some "truth" that you need to comply with in
order to write well. The form is the rules of the game. But the true structure is
deeper than that, and can be preserved across many forms.
As for formulas, they are useful to know so you can use them when they're useful
and avoid them when they're not. (If you think of them as archetypes, it assuages
your conscience about using them. In other words, archetypes in stories I don't
like are "formula," while formulas in stories I like are "archetypes.")
And plotting is just a matter of which scenes to show and which not to show,
which characters to bring onstage or expel from a scene, etc. Purely mechanical,
and virtually irrelevant to the core of the story. It's more about how you unfold
information than the what-happens-and-why of the story itself.
Who are your favorite playwrights? Writers in general? Who inspired you to
become a writer?
Shakespeare is the great teacher. I grew up on the Lambs' "Tales from
Shakespeare" and later read through all the plays, studying how Shakespeare
structured his stories and chose his scenes and developed his characters (most
important lesson: Every character is hero of his own story). However, I also loved
and learned from Miller (All My Sons; The Crucible), Simon (The Odd Couple,
the third act of Plaza Suite), Albee (Virginia Woolf remains a masterpiece), James
Goldman (Lion in Winter), Bolt (Man for All Seasons), Anouilh (Becket), Shaw
(Pygmalion, Arms and the Man, Mrs. Warren's Profession), Wilde, Beckett, and
Ionesco, and I read many others who influenced me, though often negatively
(please let me never write so tediously or self-indulgently!).
Writers in general who taught me and still teach me: Twain, Austen, Richter,
Mitchell, Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, LeGuin, Renault, Rand, Tolkien, Norton,
Michener, George MacDonald, the old fairy tales, Faulkner, Douglas, Wallace,
Spenser, Wordsworth, Whitman, GMHopkin, ee cummings, Frost, Herrick, Pope,
Swift, Tennyson, and I know I'm leaving out some really important ones just
because my memory is unreliable. (Not to mention great works of nonfiction that
have been at least as powerful an influence: Shirer's Rise and Fall, Churchill's
History of the English Speaking People, Catton's Army of the Potomac,
Machiavelli's The Prince, Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Montaigne's
Essays, and more recent writers like Hofstadter, Pinker, Frye ...)
But I was not inspired by any of these to become a writer. I was inspired to
become a writer by the authors of terrible books and really bad plays, who made
me say, "If that can get published, I can write!"
Finally, what words of advice can you bestow upon someone who desires to
one day make a living as a writer?
Don't study writing or literature in school. It will take you years to get your
teachers' falsehoods out of your head and rediscover your real voice, which only
emerges from the conversation with the living audience. You and your audience
must find each other, and all the colleges in the world exist only to prevent that, so
you will be a tame writer instead of a promethean storyteller. Never lose touch
with reality -- don't waste your time associating with the needy and pretentious
writers for whom being a writer is an end in itself. Shun the litterateurs. Maintain
your friendships with blue-collar people, or those who work those nine-to-five
white-collar jobs. Know children and teenagers, listen to them and talk to them.
Get over your high school ideas of who's cool and who's not -- as soon as you
think someone is not worth knowing or hearing, that is the very person who has
most to teach you as a writer, and whom you must take the time to become
acquainted with. Biography and history will teach you more about storytelling in
any form than will belletristic literature. And, above all, write and then put the
story out into the marketplace, moving on at once to the next project.