At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Essentials of Writing: Curiosity

I've written already about the joy and privilege of collaboration in writing. But writing is about more than asking what works and what doesn't. When you have a story to be told, all sorts of ingredients go into that literary stew. So many details play a role in the story. I'm convinced that what can often make an extraordinary difference between the mundane and the colorfully realistic in a novel is the curiosity of the author.

Recently, a friend (who happens to be reading through my novel, Litany of Secrets) asked me on Facebook, "How and where did you do your Eastern Orthodox research?" This is not a bizarre question; Chris was entirely within his rights to ask--and for the record, he himself has taken an interest in that wing of Christendom, what I call "the craft of Constantinople". Because Litany of Secrets takes place at a seminary that trains priests in the Orthodox faith, there were two realities at play.

One, I had to be precocious and do a lot of background research on Orthodoxy; it is a stream outside of my own (Presbyterian) faith tradition, so I needed to make up some ground in order to have deep knowledge of the practices and traditions evident in my novel. Because I didn't want my readers' B.S. alarms going off, I wanted the environment in which my story took place to be as true-to-life as possible, because alignment to a factual basis gives your story (and your reputation) credibility. So part of my curiosity about the Orthodox faith was driven by necessity.

But the second reality was much more powerful and meaningful. I thoroughly read, digested, and drank deeply of Orthodox liturgy, history, doctrine, and traditions simply because I wanted to. Yes, I had a novel to write, one which I believed in and wanted to be a true-to-life as possible. But the larger reason for my curiosity was that I wanted to learn about a tradition outside my own simply because I wanted to learn. I wanted to know for the sake of knowing. I navigated all over various Orthodox websites, read through various worship services, researched the distinctions between a regular funeral and one specifically for a priest. I found prayers that were appropriate for different junctures of my story and utilized them to that effect, keeping them word for word in order to maintain realism.

What drove that with me was that I found the whole process and every detail I ran across interesting. It was part of the length and breadth of what it meant for another person in that tradition to be human, to live, to worship, and to love. I might never be a part of that community. So what? Some people might say "Why do you bother with learning about it?" Because I both enjoy the process and because I believe it fills up something lacking within me, I say, "Why wouldn't I bother with it? It's different! It's fascinating."

Over the years, I've learned many things about others, but I've also learned a cardinal detail about myself. I love learning new things simply because I love the pursuit of knowledge, the chasing of wisdom, and the joining together of my limited life experience with the vastness of what's out there.

And writing is a place where that comes together with the force of a tornado. Indeed--in my honest opinion--writing is exactly where that should occur. Perpetually.

Why be curious? The real question is "Why not be curious?"

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