Sunday, May 01, 2011

Seduced by Research

When I was in college, I often wondered if there was some way I could become a professional student. I think I got the concept from a science fiction book. There was a class of people who were paid to go to school. It sounded like my dream occupation. There are just so many things to learn!

Recently I've felt the same way. I got the idea for my most recent Work In Progress (WIP) from an article in the Arizona Daily Star on sites you could visit to see petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are pictures on the rocks created by prehistoric residents of the Southwest. You can see them in many places, including Signal Hill in Saguaro National Park West. No one knows exactly why the ancient peoples created them. Theories range from religious purposes to mere graffiti. But they are intriguing.

These mysterious images etched in the rocks were just the jumping off point. (Writers get tired of answering the question "Where do you get your ideas?" The problem really is how to you make time to write about all the ideas you get!) I knew I wanted to write some kind of fantasy, but I didn't want to write the same old Tolkienesque or Medieval trope. I wanted a different kind of world, something that hasn't been done before. So you rub together the two sticks of petroglyphs and fantasy and you come up with a world of Hohokam and Anasazi. These are two peoples who vanished around 1200 AD. Some say they didn't actually vanish, but became the modern Native American peoples of Hopi and O'odham. I prefer to think that they vanished. I've got a whole novel or three I can write about how that happened.

Can you see where this is leading? Did you learn about the Anasazi, or "ancient enemy" as it's translated from the Navajo, in school? Did you study rock art? Neither did I. I did take a class in anthropology in college and, for a while, thought about becoming an archaeologist, but traveling to places without indoor plumbing and soft beds didn't seem to be like something I wanted to do.

My first step was to reserve three books for the Pima County Public Library: "Life on the Rocks" by Katherine Wells, "A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols" by Alex Patterson, and "Canyon de Chelly; Its People and Rock Art" by Campbell Grant. Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "shay") National Monument is a place famous for petroglyphs left there by the Anasazi.

I first "read" "A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols" because I wanted to see the kinds of pictures the native peoples had drawn. Although I've been to Signal Hill, my memory of those drawings is fuzzy. As can be expected, there were hunters and animals and bows and arrows. There were also stars and the moon. But one picture, which I sketched in my notebook, was really intriguing. This was described as a drawing of a shaman with lines of power emanating from his head and spirits between them.  Tell me you can't think of a story based on that drawing!

And this is just the start. I want to read more about these cultures, find out how they lived, what their beliefs were like.

I've never written a fantasy, so I want to read a bunch of those to get the flavor of how they're put together. I've never done worldbuilding, being content to use the world I live in for the mysteries I've written in the past, and have to figure out how do I create a whole culture or three with all that that entails. There are weapons and pottery and religious customs and ceremonies. There's music and dancing (I know they danced, because there are several petroglyphs of dancers in a line) and storytelling.

And I want to start my story in the present day on a ranch. I've been to the rodeo and had dinner at the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch, but I think I need to learn more about what life on a ranch is like.

And you know what? That's all fun! I love poking into all these things. I love learning about them. I can spend hours on the web or at the library or wandering around parks and trails and ranches. The trouble isn't exploring it all. The problem is in knowing when to stop.
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