This year I have been gorging mostly on cake. I’m not getting enough broccoli in my diet and I can feel my body becoming bloated and torpid as a result, my world becoming smaller as I lay waste to the confectionery stand. Soon I will be scraping up the crumbs like an addict, left only to lament the damage I’ve done myself.
I am, of course, talking about my reading habits over the last year. Now I have my Book Log I can review where my mind’s been going over the last twelvemonth, and it’s not an especially pretty picture. There’s not much in there other than cake. That delicious, melt-in-the-mouth delight which gives you the sugar-rush, which can fuel great things but ultimately will leave you craving more and more and more…
Once upon a time I used to work in a library. It was always my great delight to unpack the brand new books, to smell their virgin musk and run my hands lovingly through their indices. My diet was so rich and so varied. One day I’d be feasting on a sci-fi, the next I’d find a history of the railways to distract me. Then a creative writing handbook (I’ve read a lot and I’m still not sure if any of them have actually helped) might be followed by an aperitif of crime and a tiny soupcon of erotica. It was rich and it was varied and I was spoilt.
It’s always been my assertion that wannabe writers must read as widely and deeply as possible, which is why it’s somewhat unnerving to see that my own reading seems to have been shrinking in on itself. This last year has been a splurge of science-fiction with the occasional crime and fantasy novel thrown in. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself – I am, if any such genre-ising can apply to anyone, a writer of sci-fi/crime. It makes sense that I’ve homed in on genres that relate to my work. Indeed, I made a special point of reading a bit of Mankell and Nesbo because I have been known to claim a link between my work and Scandinoir.
Still, I’ve not got enough non-fiction inside me this year. I really, passionately believe that non-fiction – the wider world – is the best inspiration for a writer. I know of a famous science-fictiony-bod who reads extensively on parasites to inform his hyper-organic futures. Others read the scientific or technology news and then extrapolate (‘what would this trend be like if extended to its logical conclusion?’) to fuel their ideas.
For me it’s history. Now I’m sure all you sensible folk out there are asking yourselves how it’s possible to build a future from the long-dead past, but that’s not quite where I’m going. What I’m seeking for – all my life – is to understand how people felt at any given time. To understand life. And these things are remarkably easy to translate into fiction. I’m fascinated by how societies operate under stress, and if you can’t bring elements from a Saxon great hall into an isolated sci-fi future then there’s something wrong with you. Similarly, if you’re fascinated by human rights or the plight of refugees or whatever – what better way to begin a future novel than by having a shipload of immigrants suddenly arriving on an unsuspecting planet?
But that’s me. I’m sure you all have your own interests, all of which shape your world-view and your writing in your own idiosyncratic way. And that’s fantastic. So keep reading. Keep learning, keep finding out more and more about your passion, whatever it might be. Never stop learning, because the true progenitor of fiction is a busy, active and enquiring mind. Cake is great, but remember you also need some broccoli in your life. Something to make you see the world in a different way, something to shift your paradigm. Without fresh injections of knowledge, eventually the flesh will hang heavy on your bones and your work will be as empty as the calories you’re consuming.