Writing Excuses 9.5: Hijacking the Knowledge You Already Have, with Mette Ivie Harrison
Key points: Remember the donkey, wearing a tuba and hauling a cart. Can you make music with your tuba, and pull your friends around in your cart? What aspects of your life may be useful in your writing? Teenager obsessions, relationships, secret fanfiction imagination, something that you have practiced a lot that you can transfer to your writing? Ways of looking at things? Life experiences that you can mine? Moments to remember?
Do you take people from your life experience and put them in stories? Yes, but normally just an aspect that is interesting.
[Mary] Season nine, episode five.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, hijacking knowledge you already have.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Mary] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And the part of Dan will be played by a goblet of orange juice. We also have Mette Ivie Harrison, joining us once again. Mette, thank you for being here.
[Mette] It’s great to be here again.
[Brandon] Can you tell us about one of your books?
[Mette] Sure. The Rose Throne just came out this year, in 2013. It is a story of two princesses who are from rival kingdoms. It is based loosely on Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth who were my obsessions when I was in high school. I studied everything I could about Tudor England and about these two characters. I sort of wanted to have an alternate universe in which they met as teenagers and became friends. Not that that would have solved all of their problems.
[Mette] It would have made a lot of things really more difficult between them because they were still… They would still have been rivals for the same crown. The alternate universe that I’ve created has these two islands that are connected by a very small bridge, but they were once one island. The ideal of both of the kings who rule these separate islands is to join them back together again, at least politically. So the two princesses are being used as pawns, basically, in their fathers’ plans to bring the kingdoms together, and they are very dangerous to each other. The success of one will mean the failure of another. On top of that, I laid a magic system that is based on gender. So men have a different kind of magic than women do.
[Brandon] Oh, cool.
[Mette] So one of the princesses has the right magic, and the other princess doesn’t have the right magic.
[Brandon] Okay. Wow. That’s awesome. It was called The Rose Throne?
[Mette] The Rose Throne.
[Brandon] Awesome. That actually transitions very well into what we are going to talk about, which is hijacking knowledge you already have. This was a topic that came out of a discussion we were just having for our own interest, because Mary had done a recording of a book.
[Mary] Right. So, you guys know that I record audio fiction. This one is not out at the time that we’re recording, but it’s called Make Art Make Money by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens. It’s lessons from Jim Henson on finding your creative career. One of the things that she talks about is, there’s this meme that you need to spend 10,000 hours developing your craft and practicing, and that the idea is that you may already have some of those 10,000 hours under your belt from another part of your life. It’s learning to recognize what is junk and what is… That a lot of this junk is actually useful. The metaphor that she uses is Jim Henson’s Brementon musicians, where the donkey runs away from his terrible master, and he’s saddled to this cart. He has to haul this cart around with him. There’s this big tube of metal around his neck. He’s like, “Oh, my life is terrible. I’m hauling this cart around and there’s this tube around my neck.” Kermit points out that the tube around his neck is in fact a tuba, and he can use it to make music. He does, and he can support himself doing that. The entirety of the film, he is still attached to the cart, but he uses it to haul his friends around. So what was a terrible burden becomes part of the way he makes his living. I thought that this was a very interesting… Her point was that you can look at aspects of your life to see whether or not there is something useful there, that you can use in your writing.
[Brandon] Okay. Let’s look at this for ourselves and see if we can take examples from our lives. Has this happened to you guys? Did you find things in your life… I mean, obviously, Mette, a… What, teenage fascination for you became something that became a story.
[Mette] Yeah. In addition to that, I dedicated the book to my best friend in high school who… She and I were originally rivals and hated each other when we first met which was when we were in ninth grade. We only became best friends two years later. So the two characters are very much based on this very specific relationship that I had in my life, then sort of played onto a larger historical stage.
[Brandon] I found… Now this is going to be kind of a weird one. But one of the things I found when I started writing is that I had kind of been doing this for years. The thing I had been doing as a kid is… You guys all know my story, you listeners, I’ve told it too many times. But I discovered fantasy novels when I was 14. I just fell in love with the entire genre, I started reading, and one of the things I started doing immediately was rewriting the stories when they didn’t do what I wanted them to.
[Brandon] This was a challenge for me, because I didn’t want to undermine the rest of the story. So I had to come up with hacks to the story that made what I wanted to happen happen behind the scene. So I’m basically doing like something like Wicked or like Ender’s Shadow…
[Howard] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?
[Brandon] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, where I would write parallel novels to the novel that’s going on. Where I’m like, “Well, this character actually is doing this behind the scenes.” It became something that was very common for me to do in books. Well, when I started writing my novels, I started writing a story behind the scenes where characters that were not on screen started doing things offscreen and it spun into this entire story behind the story which is kind of the deep web of the Sanderson novels, the cosmere and Hoid and all this stuff. But again, if you look for the original inception, with me reading Dragonriders of Pern and saying, “Well, I really think this character’s doing this other thing offscreen,” and writing a whole story for them.
[Mary] I would like to read that at some point.
[Brandon] Well, this was all in my head. I didn’t write any of this down.
[Mary] Darn it.
[Brandon] So this wasn’t actually writing practice, but it was something…
[Mary] Yeah, but it was still…
[Brandon] It was the tuba around my neck, I mean, that donkey I assume, he didn’t know how to use this tuba, but he could learn to use this tuba. That’s the whole point of it. It’s not that I was writing, but I found something in my life before that was a real help… Something I’d already practiced a lot that I could transition into writing.
[Mary] Yeah. The obvious one for me which everyone knows is the puppetry. Because I spent 20 years learning how an audience responds in learning how very subtle changes in dialogue or body language or just blocking, that these would have an enormous impact on the way a story was perceived. I use that all the time. But it is not… It is not something that I sat down and I went, “I think I’m going to be a puppeteer so that I can later become a writer.”
[Howard] That’s my music education in a nutshell. I studied music composition and sound recording technology, and I loved science fiction and fantasy since I was, well, about the age Brandon was, 13, 14 years old. I remember talking to some of my composition… Music composition professors about how the narrative arc that they were describing in music… “Well, you know, you’re borrowing that term from literature. The things that you are teaching us, they’re going to work across both domains.” Most of my professors were like, “No, they’re not. You’re being… That’s… It’s… They’re really quite a bit different.” 20 years later, when I started… It wasn’t 20 years. 15 years later when I started cartooning, I was able to look at those things and go, “Oh. They’re actually a lot more similar than my composition faculty wanted me to believe.” In addition to that, many, many, many of the things that I had failed to learn as a musician about refining a theme, grinding on a melody or a harmony or something until it’s been fully explored… These were not things that I did well because they were kind of boring to me. I just wanted to come up with a new idea. When I started the cartooning, I realized, “Oh. Here’s this skill that they kept telling me I needed to develop. I’m just going to develop it in a new field because I know that this skill exists. I know that it’s a thing that needs to be done. I’m just going to learn to do it in a completely different domain.”
[Mary] A lot of times I think it’s also things… Taking life experiences that may not directly translate into a writing skill. It’s like… Yes. The fact that I can translate puppetry into a writing skill is useful, but there’s also things like with Mette’s book Iron Mom, she translates her life experience with becoming a triathlon athlete, and she takes that with her completely separate experience with being a writer, a fiction writer, and combines those into creating the narrative nonfiction. So you can also look at events in your life that will… That you can mine. I was actually having this conversation with Patrick Rothfuss. He was… One of the things we were talking about, that every writer we know, in the moment of trauma has this thing where you step back and you’re like, “Now remember this. Remember.”
[Brandon] You’re going to use this.
[Mary] I can use this. That this is… In some ways, it’s a distancing technique that allows us to survive the moment of trauma. But it’s also because as writers we know that this will be useful later.
[Brandon] Yeah. The story I tell in Steelheart tour, told every day, was about how the story came to me, was because someone cut me off in traffic and I thought about blowing up their car with superpowers, and I’m like, “You’re lucky I don’t have superpowers. I’d destroy you right now.” Then part of me was horrified that that was in me, the greater part of me was like, “Oo, that’s a story.”
[Brandon] We are going to stop for the book of the week, which is Dangerous Women, an anthology that George RR Martin put together with Gardner Dozois. They do these anthologies pretty consistently. They’re kind of like rock star anthologies in the science fiction and fantasy world, although this one goes much broader afield. There’s no necessary genre slant to it. There’s contemporary, there’s historical fiction, and things like this. It does contain a new story in the Song of Ice and Fire setting, and a new story by Jim Butcher in the Dresdenverse about Harry Dresden’s assistant. It contains a story by me, called Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell. I was very flattered to be invited into the anthology. I kind of wanted to be in one for a while. So when George asked me, I was ecstatic. It has a wonderful audiobook. My story is read by Claudia Black, who is an actress who was in things like Stargate and Farscape and stuff like that. My assistant really geeked out when he heard that she was…
[Howard] She voiced the DragonAge videogame and… I’m jealous. Very jealous.
[Brandon] It’s got a… Go look at the list of readers for this thing. You’ll be amazed.
[Mary] It is an A list of readers.
[Brandon] Anyway, so Dangerous Women is out now on Audible and Howard’s going to tell you how you can get it.
[Howard] Audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30-day free trial membership, pick up a copy of the George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois anthology called Dangerous Women and get to listen to awesome narrators cover the work of awesome authors.
[Brandon] Now one of the big questions I get when I’m doing Q&As, a lot of people want to know, do I take people from my life experience and put them in my stories? Which is a… Both an easy and a hard question to answer. Because the answer… The simple answer is yes. The more complex answer is yes, but. That but is I don’t actually generally take a given person and write them in unless I’m tuckerizing them for fun, like, “Hey, here you are.” Normally, there is an aspect of a person when I meet them that will be very interesting to me. The example I often use is my friend Annie who is 6 feet tall as a woman. I had never realized how much trouble this could create for a woman in life. When I first met her and became friends with her, she talked about it all the time. I’m like, “Wow. This is really something that you think about and talk about.” That’s a cool conflict. It’s a… It’s something I’d never considered. It became a character conflict… Just a character quirk. It’s not the main thing, but it’s part of one of the characters in my first novel, Elantris. It’s these sorts of things. When I chat with people and I meet people, I am like, “Oo, that aspect of you is one of these dials that I can stick on a character that I can twist and try and figure out who they are.”
[Mary] Yeah, I can…
[Howard] You are far kinder than I am.
[Howard] Sometimes I’m sitting in church doodling and I will see somebody’s face and I will realize, “Yup. I’m going to use that. I’m sorry, your nose now belongs to me.”
[Mary] But that’s just an aspect of the person.
[Howard] It’s still just an aspect. Then there was the time I got rear-ended and the passenger in the car that rear-ended me, she was just an absolute harridan, and I memorized her from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet, put her in the comic, and killed her.
[Howard] That felt really, really good.
[Mary] Yeah, that can be satisfying sometimes. For me, it’s… I will likewise take aspects of people. For me, the place that it turns up most often is that the romantic relationship between any two characters in my books is at least somewhat based on my relationship with my husband. They say write what you know and this is something that I know. But none of them are Rob. All of… There are aspects… Most of it is in the way my characters relate to him or something that my character finds adorable. Oo, since this is in audio, I can actually give you something that is in Without a Summer that is… It’s really hard to convey in text, which is that Vincent makes this little noise when he’s conflicted. It was something that Rob did and he was not aware that he did it. It’s like he holds… I describe it as it’s like he holds his breath and it leaks out imperfectly. It sounds like this “eeeeee.” He had no idea that he did it.
[Mary] It was hil… Yeah.
[Howard] Um, honey. You have a tell.
[Mary] I told him about it, and later realized that I shouldn’t have, because he’s trained it out now. It was so useful.
[Mette] Too bad. I spent about five years learning how to play the piano as an adult.
[Mary] Oh, wow.
[Mette] Not lessons. I didn’t do it because I particularly wanted to learn how to play the piano, but my second daughter is brilliant musically. The more advanced she became, the more I realized that we didn’t have anything to talk about. Which was really difficult for me. Like I’m an artist of one kind, and I could talk to her about music in so far as it had parallels to writing, but there were a lot of ways in which it didn’t have parallels. So I ended up figuring as long as I’m driving her to lessons, I asked one of the teachers, “Would you mind teaching me as well? As long as I’m here for Sage, can you put me on your list?” So I spent five years practicing every day and learning how to play the piano so that I could have some basis of a shared communication. I thought that I was doing it only for my daughter, but in The Rose Throne, one of the princesses is good at music, and no one else is good at music who’s around her. Like there is this whole kingdom where nobody does music. There’s a specific magical reason that this is true. But I was only able to create this character because I had spent all of that time learning. I’m by no means an expert, I can barely plink out some church hymns. But I know enough about music that I’m able to create a character who is a musician.
[Mary] Holy cow. I’m sorry. I’m just having that moment of realizing, “Oh, that’s why I write so many characters who are artists, because I was an art major in college.” Right. Oh, look at that.
[Howard] I love the moments in the prose that I write when I get to describe sound. Because as a sound engineer, I know why sound does the things that it does to us. So I can talk about the emotional reaction that the characters have to the sound, but I can also lay out the physics in a way that is entertaining and helps drive the story forward. That’s fun.
[Brandon] I’ve heard it said before, it’s often attributed to Stephen King but I don’t know if it’s actually him that said it, that the last thing that a writer should do is become an English major. Now I violated this and went and became an English major. Because it made the homework easier because I was doing it already. But the adage goes that you should study something that fascinates you so that you will become a better writer by incorporating that into your writing. The point of this podcast is to say that you’re already doing this. If you’re sitting there… You heard the adage write what you know. You may not have lived in a fantasy or science fiction world or done any of these sorts of things. But there are elements of your life that will make for fascinating reading to those who have not experienced it, which you can use to make your characters come alive, make them more real, to add that extra layer of fascination to your writing. You are well on your way already by having life experience to adding your unique voice to your prose. So. This is just a kind of a heads-up. Go and do it. Every writer does. I think it’s something we all do instinctively, but we could even do it better.
[Brandon] Now. Mary. Writing prompt?
[Mary] Yes. What I want you to do is to look at your own life. Take something that seems completely unrelated to your writing. Whether it’s taking out the garbage, childhood swim lessons, something and find a way to incorporate it in the next thing that you write.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.