Fantastic History #37: Lean into your Strengths by Julie C. Day

What is the secret to writing a story with a rich, well researched world? Deep, abiding weakness.

While I learn quickly, I forget just as swiftly. All those names, dates, specific chemical bonds, burial rituals, details of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and understanding of the role of women in the ancient world swirl into an impressionistic mess. This is the sort of issue that hits many parts of my life, including my ability to write fiction. But that’s not my only writerly weakness. As a writer I have an abundance of tone and pretty, pretty sentences that power up the creepy and unsettling. But plot—dear, Lord—plot is never a straightforward exercise. And worlds, settings, that accurate description of architecture? None of it is going to slip easily onto the page. When I first started writing fiction my detail-deficient brain and plotless soul meant putting together a setting and story arc was hard. And then—thank, God, finally—I learned to embrace these weaknesses with almost boundless enthusiasm.

Lean into your strengths as a writer. That’s one of those pearls offered up to new and aspiring authors. Definitely a good suggestion, but I’ve discovered the converse is even more useful—lean into your weaknesses and leverage them as strengths.

Have a hard time with plot? Build a situation and a world full of specific details, details tied to scientific knowledge, historical facts, and a meticulous, Google-maps-inspired understanding of a specific location. Use all those details as thick bumper-guards that will direct your imaginings. And that’s plotting covered…

Thankfully, the power of details is a multi-pronged organism. As it turns out the most powerful crutch for a writer with a poor memory is the factual world! The known details of the Sumerian religion, a catalog of bioluminescent organisms, the lifecycle of the corn borer moth, my brain is ready to take it all in—on a temporary basis. But because the information is at its root fact-based, I know I can always return to the well and refamiliarize myself with the content. With the right level of organization, nothing is ever permanently lost.

As well as an MFA, I hold a Bachelors and a Masters of Science. I studied Microbiology in college and worked in biotech for awhile, but when writing fiction, but I can’t rely on any of that specialist’s knowledge—bad memory for details remember? But here is where my weakness leads to my most powerful strength. There is something about my magpie approach to creation, the need to read and reread information on so many disparate subjects, that encourages the collision of the unexpected and the seemingly unrelated. Which is exactly how the setting and concept for my upcoming novella The Rampant came about. What is my novella’s setting? you ask. Well, dear reader, it’s a stalled Sumerian Rapture in near-future Southern Indiana.

Of course, it is.

Some of the authors I envy for their—assumed—vast knowledge and associated retention: C. J. Cherryh, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula Le Guin. But that is just never going to be me. When I started to plan The Rampant I was leery of any strict adherence to Sumerian practices and beliefs. Even with spreadsheets, bookmarks, and notes, cracks were a forgone conclusion, and whether my readers notice or not, my OCD-esque writer brain wants all those details sorted and correct. The layout of a lecture hall at College Park? The active season for grasshopper nymphs in New Hampshire? All those other story details from all those other stories? Yeah, I’ve got notes on that. But getting all those Sumerian gods, demi-gods and the associated details right? Well, that was a recipe for a never-ending cycle of stuck, and a huge distraction from the emotional heart of the work.

Riffs, impressionistic memories, concepts: those are the type of recollections my brain pulls forth. A merging of the Sumerian with my childhood memories of Southern Indiana—scaffolded with yet more research—now that is my natural medium. By melding those two bodies of knowledge—one containing all the excitement of the newly learned and the other containing emotional truths exhumed—well, my distractible personality was all in!

Sometimes my research involves reading old travel guides, books on ancient languages or translated texts not available online. In the case of The Rampant, I got lucky. To a large extent, the internet more than met my needs.

A sample of the research involved in composing The Rampant:
Tibetan coracles, because I needed a hand-built boat that utilized stretched hide.
• (Self) consciousness and the animal world, because…story reasons.
• The changing racial demographics of Columbus Indiana
• The Sumerian culture and religion.
• Translated Sumerian texts.
• Bioluminescent organisms.
• Beehive houses.
• The visual details of mummified bodies.
• The format of Christian catechisms.
• The lifecycle of corn borer moths.

Outside of piracy, the proliferation of electronic versions of books online is one of the wonders of the digital age. Of all the items I found online, Thompson’s 1903 The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia: being Babylonian and Assyrian incantations against the demons, ghouls, vampires, hobgoblins, ghosts, and kindred evil spirits, which attack mankind, tr. from the original Cuneiform texts, with transliterations, vocabulary, notes, etc. was the most inspirational. It’s from Thompson’s translation of “The Seven Evil Spirits” that I uncovered one of the novella’s key characters, the Rampant. And yes, Babylonian is different from Assyrian which are both preceded by Sumerian. But here is the beauty of cultures both ancient and new, things blend and morph and bleed between their supposed edges. As Thompson says in his notes on “The Seven Evil Spirits”:

This story is the sixteenth tablet of a series called the “Evil Demon Series,” of which we have an Assyrian with a parallel Sumerian text. Presumably, therefore, it was a very ancient legend.

For me that was enough to consider it a Sumerian reference. In fact, this particular text helped form the basic premise of The Rampant: the end times have stalled because one of the Seven Evil Spirits has decided to hide out instead of joining the rest of his brethren on Earth. Now humanity is stuck in a seemingly never-ending apocalypse. Sickened by the ongoing misery, our protagonists, sixteen-year-old Emelia Bareilles and Gillian Halkey travel into the Sumerian lands of the dead, determined to force a change.
Not that Thompson’s book contained the only translations I read. The Oxford University’s Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, which included an online searchable collection of translations, was also hugely beneficial. Late in the process, I used the Text for the novella’s epigraphs. But first came my browsing of content which included the first known reference to Gilgamesh, the Sumerian poem “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether @orld,” along with another Sumerian poem “Inana’s Descent to the Nether World.” My underworld, including the Sumerian Netherworld, started to take shape from these ancient fragments.

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I make no claim that I’ve recreated the Sumerian land of the dead in The Rampant. For me that really wasn’t the point. But what I did—what I attempted anyway—was to craft a fantasy world in which the Sumerian elements I referenced felt accurate to those with a far deeper knowledge than my own. And isn’t that what storytelling is all about in the end, that feeling of reality the reader experiences—both physical and emotional—despite the clear knowledge that all of it is nothing but one brain’s reaction to words on a page?

Julie C. Day has published over thirty stories in magazines such as Black Static, The Dark, and Podcastle. Her debut collection, Uncommon Miracles, was released by PS Publishing in 2018. Her novella, The Rampant, is forthcoming this fall from Aqueduct Press.

Julie lives in a small town in New England with her family and a menagerie of variously sized animals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and a M.S. in Microbiology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. You can find her at @thisjulieday or at her website. Café writing and long baths with paper books are also a thing.