The availability factor
Whenever I do a reading from The Icon Thief, I like to joke that I wrote a novel about the Rosicrucians mostly because they were available. Other conspiracy thrillers had already sucked most of the pulp out of the likes of the Freemasons, the Illuminati, and the Priory of Sion, and although the Rosicrucian novel was a genre of its own as late as the nineteenth century, there hadn’t been any examples of it in a long time. There was also a huge amount of material—not all of it particularly interesting—on Rosicrucianism and its relationship to later occult and artistic movements, so I knew early on that I’d have my choice of sources. And I suspect that if I’d done some digging and discovered that there wasn’t much there, I would have chosen a different subject entirely. The shape of that novel, in short, was largely determined by the access I had to the resources I needed: I knew before I even began laying out the plot that I wouldn’t suffer for lack of background. The same is true of many of my short stories, the majority of which were inspired by an existing book or article that offered up an abundance of useful, concrete ideas. In many cases, the plot was explicitly tailored around the facts that I had at my disposal, and if I ended up focusing on one area rather than others, it was because of the tools I happened to have at hand.
The question of availability—or, more specifically, of whether or not you have a reasonable expectation of finding the materials you need—governs a surprising amount of creative work, both in the arts and in other fields. In The Art of Scientific Investigation, W.I.B. Beveridge tells us: “The great American bacteriologist Theobald Smith said that he always took up the problem that lay before him, chiefly because of the easy access of material, without which research is crippled.” It’s a strategy that has affinities with bricolage, or the art of making do with whatever is lying around, and it also reflects the sifting and filtering process required to distill any body of information into a readable form. (“The output an ounce, the labor a year,” as Mayakovsky says, and it only works if you have plenty of ore in the first place.) There seems to be a critical mass you need to reach before you can start serious work on any project, and although much of it has to be spun out of the creator’s own substance, like Whitman’s noiseless patient spider, it doesn’t hurt to have a ready reservoir of ideas from the outside world. Making anything worthwhile is hard enough as it is, so it helps to know from the start that you have access to a decent body of material. And this can come from the details of your own life as much as from anything else: “Write what you know” is less an admonition from up on high than a practical guideline for ensuring that you have enough with which to proceed.
Of course, there are risks to this approach, since it can lead to an excessive focus on the obvious. In his valuable book Discovering, Robert Scott Root-Bernstein writes:
Where does one find problems? Not where answers already exist. There is an old story about a drunk who loses his key in a dark alley. A policeman wandering by later finds the drunk on his hands and knees under the street lamp at the corner. “Hey! What are you doing there?” “Looking for my key.” “Where’d ya lose it?” “In the alley.” “Then why are you looking under the lamp?” “It’s too dark to see in the alley.” Like the drunk, too many scientists choose their research projects within the sphere of existing light. They are scared to be ignorant, scared to founder. They are what Peter Medawar calls “philagnoists”—lovers of their own ignorance. Not so the best scientists, who seek out the unknown. Peter Carruthers, head of theoretical physics at Los Alamos, speaks for many when he says: “There’s a special tension to people who are constantly in the position of making new knowledge. You’re always out of equilibrium. When I was young, I was deeply troubled by this. Finally, I realized that if I understood too clearly what I was doing, where I was going, then I probably wasn’t working on anything very interesting.” Don’t be paranoid of the void.
Later on, Root-Bernstein adds: “There will be a crowd searching under the light. If you assume that keys to understanding nature are fairly randomly spread about, your chances of finding one are much better out in the dark because you’re likely to be the only one searching there.” The problem, then, is how to reconcile this with the availability factor, and as with most aspects of the creative process, the key lies in striking a balance: the excursions we make into the unknown are most likely to succeed if we’ve tethered ourself to a stable body of known facts, particularly if it happens to border an area of darkness. And such islands of material are more common than you might think. As a writer, I’ve learned to focus on information that is available but obscure: the world is full of ideas or subjects that have been explored up to a point and then abandoned, or relegated to a forgotten corner of intellectual history. It’s why I’ve made a point of seeking out the books that nobody reads anymore, or using a single idea as a wedge to pry my way into a body of knowledge that I wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t been looking for it. Again and again, I’ve been amazed to find ideas that were neglected, or known only to specialists, that provided a foundation for fascinating stories. It’s a big world out there, and not every lamp has a crowd beneath it. If half of being a writer is knowing where the lamps are, and being able to recognize one when you see it, the other half lies in pushing past that circle of illumination into the shadows. And you’ll have better luck if you move from the light into the dark, or the other way around, than if you focus solely on one or the other.