Hunt and Gather

I’m thinking about writing a new book, and thus, I’m in hunter-gatherer mode.

When I was in college I had a poetry prof (actually a Jungian psychology prof who was also a poet, and taught poetry in the Interdisciplinary Studies Department), who explained that being a poet was more than, you know, writing poetry. To be a poet required a certain way of looking at the world, the careful cultivation of disciplined attention. I’ve found that the same thing applies to being a novelist — at least, to being the kind of novelist I am.

I’m kind of a kitchen-sink novelist. When I encounter some interesting tidbit of research or news or folklore or legend or scurrilous gossip, the story-making engine in my brain automatically starts trying to find ways to weave that into whatever story I’m brewing at the moment. When I wrote my novel Spell Games I knew it would have con-artist stuff in it, so I went digging around for lots of books and stories, non-fiction and otherwise, about confidence games and scams and methods of cheating and deception. That was directed research; that was the “hunter” portion of the process.

But I was also alert to serendipity. I read an article in the New Yorker, I think, about people who gather incredibly valuable mushrooms, and can theoretically make thousands and thousands of dollars in a short amount of time, but in a very strange and competitive market. I thought that was interesting, and filed it away in my brain. After that I started seeing mushroom stuff everywhere — mushroom toxins, mushroom medicines, strangely poetic names for mushrooms, etc. That stuff just happened to be in my path, so I picked it up; that’s the “gatherer” part of the process. The directed research and the serendipitous discoveries all mulched up together, and I wound up with a book full of stuff about con artists, but also full of stuff about fungal magicians.

All my books have been that way. I’ll start reading about Aztec mythology and stumble across stuff about poisonous frogs and it all gets mixed together. Or I’ll research the symbolic meanings of bridges and stumble across stuff about apports and psychogeography and start to see how those things can connect. Or, with the novel I’m thinking about now, my “hunting” has been reading a lot of good romance novels to see how the structure of romance novels work, and the serendipitous “gathering” has included everything from bizarre cultural events to mumblecore cinema to weird love songs — and my brain is drawing lines from one to the other, making connections, making it all fit together.

It’s a wonderful experience. It’s a lot of fun. It never stops surprising me.



5 Responses to “Hunt and Gather”

  1. April 14, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    I love how you put this. I totally do the same thing. When I’m working on a book I’m either actively searching for info I need or simply absorbing things that make it into the novel.

  2. 2 mlronald
    April 15, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    I’d never thought of it as hunting and gathering — I’d always thought of it as chucking things in the stewpot — but that’s a metaphor that makes a lot of sense. There’s a difference between active research and passive accretion of new material, and it’s fascinating how one leads into the other.

  3. 3 Tim Pratt
    April 15, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Stewpot, pot of chili, compost heap, mulch pile… so many delicious and/or smelly metaphors!

  4. April 15, 2009 at 7:36 pm


    I’m curious, often where research for novels/fiction/poetry crosses the boundary between “informative, concrete, helpful, and inspiring” to “distracting, mystifying, and abstract.” It’s not a hunting/gathering division, but there’s a point where it happens. What to do with this knowledge? Who knows, but interesting questions all around.

  5. April 15, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    Really interesting way of looking at it. I think I’m more of a gatherer who hunts only after figuring out what I’m lacking. Like, these mushrooms would be great if only I had an antelope to go with them.

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