This past winter, I was hired to write a tie-in novella for Vampire: The Masquerade.
I decided to write about sheep.
I invented a small farming and arts commune based here in Portland, Oregon, and I filled it with oblivious humans and romantic vampires. It was inspired in no small part by all the farming memoirs I have ever loved: James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life, John Connell’s The Cow Book, Sue Hubbell’s A Book of Bees, and so many more. It was a way to show off everything I had absorbed over the last decade, every fact I found entrancing and hadn’t seen in the fiction I was consuming. It felt unique. It felt vital.
I was very proud of myself.
My editor wasn’t impressed.
When he read the first draft, he told me to tone down the animal husbandry. He said it would be boring to everybody but me. And it was boring, but not in the facts. It was boring because those facts weren’t in service of the story. It was too much like a book report.
This is what I have learned about sheep, I was saying, and here is the thinnest of narrative threads connecting it to what you’ve bought this book for. I’d lovingly filled that draft with wonderful, unexpected details I was sure would intrigue, beguile, surprise. I didn’t want to cut a single one; they were all accurate, and, to me, necessary.
But here’s the thing: I’m not a shepherd. I was not writing a manual on how to keep sheep or how to winter a garden. I was writing a story first and foremost about vampires, and the story wasn’t working.
I had to do better.
My favorite books have always been the ones rich with detail. Details about how people survive, what they eat, how they are shaped by their environments. Now that I’m an author, I want to communicate that same deep knowledge. I want to tell you stories where all those little details are integrated, elegantly, into a lavish whole. I hold myself to particular standards of accuracy, standards I was sure I was meeting when I wrote that first draft.
It’s not easy to write like that. We all have a tendency to parrot what we read in fiction when we write our own, moving farther and farther from the original source of the ideas we respond to. When there is too much to know, or the deadline is too tight, or we don’t know that there are questions to be asked, writers reach for tropes and common knowledge. Some of those substitutions are intentional, but they also paper over the real, creating a shorthand that slowly eclipses and replaces the complexity and variety of life.
Authors can and do counter this with research, endless research. We do the reading; we calculate how many people could have been supported in a village of such and such size with so much arable land nearby, where they raise such and such livestock and crops. We check our spaceship designs against the realities of physics, and try to bend the facts as little as possible. But there is so much to cover, so many gaps to fill to build a world. Sometimes we choose what details we elide and parrot; sometimes our biases choose for us. The vast scale of the stories we want to tell and the world we live in means that there will always be more to learn. We will always miss something.
Luckily, a story is not a term paper. It is not an encyclopedia. Even the longest of epic fantasies can’t ever really contain a world. A story is always bounded by the frame of plot and genre and personal taste.
The trick, then, is in knowing what to pay attention to.
The weekend after my first book came out, I took a class on pig butchering. My classmates were a mix of hunters and hunters’ spouses, a few foodies from various backgrounds, and me. We spent two mornings breaking down, step by step, three sections of hog (which means one and a half animals). We pulled out the leaf lard over where the kidneys had been (it makes great soap, I’ve been told, and perfect pie lard), took out the sirloin, split each half into half again, front and back. We took turns using very sharp knives to delicately peel muscle groups apart, something called “seam butchery”.
It is very easy to get lost in the weeds in seam butchery. I spent half an hour piecing out tiny muscle groups in the shoulder, instead of just cutting straight through, the way that I was taught.
The results of my labor were sent to the trim bucket to be made into sausage.
I felt like a failure. I’d been determined to master a task in two days that can take months or years of practice. I don’t know why I expected that of myself. There wasn’t enough time, and that wasn’t the point of the class. But I still kept aiming at perfection; I didn’t know what else to do.
Regardless of my feelings, though, the sausage was delicious. Perfection was unnecessary. What mattered was the end product.
At this point in an earlier draft, I started listing off authors I viewed as having more “truth” to their work, a better rendering of facts. I wanted to prove that it was possible to succeed at the task I’d set for myself. But such a list isn’t helpful; it only organizes books that contain details I happen to enjoy into a seemingly objective ranking. By design, it implies that most other books fail in some way to be correct.
Instead, I want to take a step back, find the commonalities in what moves me, the specificity of what makes me love something. What I’ve been responding to all this time, all the authentic-feeling details that make a work sing to me, is not perfectly done research. It is humanity. These authors I love know their sources well, could even be said to inhabit them, but they are also, by necessity, translating their knowledge for our consumption. They are grappling with their research in an extremely personal way as well as relating what they’ve learned. They are re-combining their accumulated facts with what they want to communicate.
Which is all to say that this quest for authenticity does not have a perfect scorecard end. It can’t. Honestly, it shouldn’t. The world will always be far too complex to be mastered by a single mind, a single work. That is the beauty of it.
And so the point of all these details, all this inhabiting of skills and circumstances, should not be to prove that the author has done the research—it’s to be the scaffolding of a translation and transformation of ideas. This is what my character knows about sheep, I will say, and here is why it matters.
The point is to tell a story.
I’ve picked up a lot of skills over the years. In high school, I taught myself to sew, to embroider, to sculpt. In college, I learned how to bake bread and how to make a glass bead and how to weave on a four-shaft treadle loom. After, I added knitting, mead-making, and quail-rearing to my repertoire. I am a magpie for crafts, obsessed with the alchemy of hands-on creation.
I did it all because I wanted to. It was fun. I wanted to be the sort of person who could do those things. And along the way, I picked up details.
I’ll never know what it’s like to have to weave for my livelihood, and I don’t know how to shear a sheep, but I do know that the rhythmic motions of working a loom are an effective pain reliever for menstrual cramps. I know what muscle feels like before it has stiffened with rigor mortis and then relaxed again. I know that if you want garlic to grow from a single clove into a full head, you need to plant it in the fall, so the cold can shock it. I hoard those little truths, parcel them out into my stories, try to give the magic of the mundane pride of place. I don’t let my characters stand on a static set. I give them skills and gaps in their knowledge, spool out everything that would mean. I build out their worlds—not, perhaps, to logical completion, but to experiential completion. In The Luminous Dead, Gyre couldn’t tell you, going in, what happens to somebody left in the dark, in isolation, for even a few hours. But by the end, you’ll know the impact.
And it won’t take a book report to teach you.
If research is nothing without integration into the story, if it falls flat without the writer translating it into something personal, then research is a tool. An invaluable tool, often a necessary tool, but it is not the point of the story.
Let’s step back from the temptation and pride of being the smartest in the room for a moment.
There is a very good reason authors turn to cliches, to “common knowledge”, to tropes. It has nothing to do with laziness or scope overwhelm or lack of access to source documents. It has nothing to do, even, with simply not being interested in real-world parallels. Familiar elements are shorthand that allows us to reach the marrow of the story that much more easily. When we give you a world you can recognize, that you already know the rules of, we can slide directly into the moments that most fascinate us all. Parodies are in constant communication with their source materials. Horror takes our understanding of a setting as given, so that it can manipulate our expectations to create dread. When we want to read about a princess falling in love with a mermaid, we don’t always want to read about the tariffs in place at the harbor where they meet.
Sometimes, though, we do. And sometimes we want both; we want tropes to give us space to explore details beyond the book report. We want to find out why a vampire—predatory, inhuman, enticing, according to common knowledge—would keep sheep in North Portland.
A year after my pig class, my husband unexpectedly brought home seventeen pounds of pork shoulder. I hadn’t butchered anything other than a duck and a few chickens since then. But the muscle memory was somehow still there; we carried on a normal conversation while I broke down the pork, packaged it, and labeled it. It felt easy. I felt confident, in a way I don’t often get to feel. I could improvise, I could analyze, and I could also just make dinner.
It wasn’t a course of study anymore. It wasn’t proof that I had done the reading. It was part of my life.
What was lacking in that first draft of my novella was not any mastery of the facts. It was the settling in, the integration of those facts into the fabric of the narrative. I had to stop trying to show my work and instead go deeper, to my characters’ experience of those facts.
There are still sheep. There are still asides about how to winter a garden, scenes that revolve (at least on the surface) around the drama of lambing. And there is, somewhere in all of it, a scene in which our narrator describes, without passion, every step of butchering an animal. It reads like a book report, but this time, it’s intentional. She is distraught, fearful, angry. She has been betrayed, and she is barely in control of her pain. Every fact she relates, every cold step she takes, is there not to teach you about how to take apart a lamb; it’s to show the breakdown of her psyche.
She isn’t doing the work—she is relating it. She is using research and knowledge to an end, translating it into a shield for her broken heart. It is the character who has done the reading. The author is no longer lecturing.
And that makes it a story.
© 2020 Caitlin Starling