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Questions from Playwriting Student Darren Pine
April 2001


Question
What does the term "research" mean to you?

OSC Answers
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 plausible world.

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.


Question
What are you currently working on that requires research?

OSC Answers
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.


Question
What have you found to be your most valuable research tool?

OSC Answers
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."


Question
Do you utilize primary source material (actual artifacts/documents, interviews, etc.) or is most of your research secondary (library, the web, etc.)?

OSC Answers
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.


Question
Is there something you have not had a chance to research/write about that you are dying to do?

OSC Answers
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>


Question
What was your education and when did you decide to become a writer?

OSC Answers
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).


Question
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?

OSC Answers
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.


Question
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?

OSC Answers
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.


Question
Who are your favorite playwrights? Writers in general? Who inspired you to become a writer?

OSC Answers
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!"


Question
Finally, what words of advice can you bestow upon someone who desires to one day make a living as a writer?

OSC Answers
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.


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