Camels, Kitchens, and Executions

In most of the pictures I’ve seen, the camels look like they’re smiling.
I found this image at Wikipedia, and its rights for use say: Approval for the use of this photo can be found at Dubai construction update Part 7 Page 12 at Post 223. Imre Solt’s exact statement is: “I, Imre Solt, put all my images found on the Dubai Construction Update sites on the GFDL (GNU Free Documentation License). I agree to the terms that my images may be freely redistributed and used, that they may be freely modified (and modified versions may also be freely redistributed and used), that any redistribution must include the full text of the GFDL itself, that the work (and modified versions of it) must be attributed to me (the creator), and that the images can be re-used for commercial purposes (as long as the use is under the terms of the GFDL and that the full text of the GDFL goes along with the work). I acknowledge that I cannot withdraw from this agreement.” He gave this statement on 17 August 2007.
There, I’ve fulfilled his wishes, I think.  Thanks, Imre Solt.

The novel I’m currently working on screams for more information on various subjects, and not just in the sense of underlying metaphors, mythologies, or fairy tale roots.  The following are just a few of the things my book and characters insist that I’m woefully naïve about, need to experience, or better inform myself of.

  1. Sometimes the fact that I seem to have a passion for characters that live through disturbing circumstances leads me to grisly places.  Lately it’s taken the form of reading books like Public Executions and watching videos on the holocaust and other atrocities.  I find this simultaneously depressing and inspiring.  I also think my capacity for the morbid might be going out of bounds.
  2. Some experiences can’t be gained by reading about them, especially if one is seeking a novel description or understanding.  How does a camel’s fur feel or smell?  Do they have slitted eyes and how do their pupils respond to the light?  What does their gait feel like?  Do they yawn or have any other movements or expressions I should know about?  I know I can’t afford to put off my book until I can arrange an expedition across the desert, but the most I can summon from my “knowledge” about camels seems to be that they have humps for water storage and that having one spit on me isn’t desirable.  Then there are all those questions about the desert itself.  I lived somewhere that was technically desert once, but that hardly included miles of rolling sand dunes and blistering heat, and my family stayed in one place and had the bonus of running water and electricity.  The best I’ve been able to do in terms of authenticity so far is give myself a case of mild heat stroke at work before going home and writing the account of my character’s experience with it.
  3. Safran’s father was a culinary expert/genius in his time, and he passed his love for the craft and some of his knowledge to her.  This might be the stumbling block that breaks me.  Sure, I can console myself with my first hand experience of the way kitchen crews gossip and play, and the basic principles of how cooking works, but today’s kitchens and food stuffs are a poor representative for what I’m trying to create.  Think for a moment about the differences in food availability, storage possibilities, and wood burning stoves (I’m guessing) of long ago vs. the flat tops, gas powered burners, ovens, and fryers of today.  Also, how does one scrub a pan if a soup or sauce burns or crusts?  Would the scrubber use a piece of hide, some sort of brush or sponge?  What would the dishes and pans look like and be made out of?
  4. “Feral” children.  See my blog post A Perspective on Feral Children for a rambling explanation on why this is so important to me.  In brief, when I pursue this topic I feel I not only have to be aware of things like critical periods of development, the different circumstances which create feral children, their role in previous media, and not only the length of time the child was deprived of normal society, but when in their lifetime the deprivation occurred.

My list isn’t comprehensive.  These little issues are only the beginning, and I can’t even begin to express how much admiration I have for authors who actually write historical novels, science fiction, or thrillers with legal and psychological ramifications.  My mind boggles at the idea of writing a textbook.  How do you do it, writers?  I must confess I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.

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9 thoughts on “Camels, Kitchens, and Executions

  1. I agree research can only take you so far. You need to talk to experts in the above posted fields. For example, do any zoos in your area have camels? If so, call the zoo and make arrangements to talk to the zookeeper in charge of the camels. You may even get to touch the camel and interact with it. As a journalist, I’ve discovered people are always eager to talk with you about their work. Your research should lead you to names of people working in the above areas. Call or email them. It takes a little effort on your part but it will enrich your story.

    • Much to my surprise, about a month ago Mr. Wonderful found a camel ranch in my state and he is offering to call them for me. I didn’t know camels could live up north, so that shows the depths of my ignorance right there. I’d been thinking about planning a trip to Arizona, where I might be able to experience a type of desert, maybe risk my life in a sand storm, and stare at camels in a zoo for a week (maybe I’ll multitask and visit some Anasazi ruins if I get there). I suppose I should worry less about coming off as strange or creating an imposition. It’s pleasant to know that most people would probably be enthusiastic about my interest. I’m not the most outgoing person, and I have to admit that I’m a bit terrified of…what? I don’t even know. I’m being completely irrational about this, so thank you for the reassurance.

  2. First of all, great title. 🙂

    Second of all, writing about things we’ve never experienced can be tough. That’s why I stuck so close to home with my first book. Well, except for the science fiction part of it, but I figured I could create that with less worry. And it seems the more we research something, the more we need to find out. One Internet link leads to another and another and so on and so on, until you have so much information, you don’t know what to do with it all! So I think we all feel your pain. 🙂

    • One thing definitely leads into another. On the internet, the temptation is even worse, and then there’s the added question of “Can I even trust this?” It’s a starting point. Ideally I suppose I want enough information to link and support my story, rather than it turning into an educational treatise sans citations. I’ve already gone on a ramble about feral children I had to cut, but then I got a reader who asked me why one of my characters, when looking for a maidservant, was only considering females. I blinked and thought, “Wait, I have to lay out the traditional norms in most older cultures, too?” I suppose I ought to have been glad that my male reader saw no reason why the character shouldn’t think of boys as candidates for a housekeeper, but I was completely floored that they weren’t aware of the general power structures that coexisted with castles and fiefs. I get differing opinions on the same things, with one person saying, “That’s overkill, and I don’t need to know that,” and the next insisting that there isn’t enough information. Sigh. I know I can’t please everyone, but there has got to be some sort of balance.

  3. Re: the kitchen details. I think Chinese people cook very much the way they used to, particularly in the villages. My daughter had a good friend whose mother grew up in a village. She and her brother would scrounge wood for the wok fire every day. Didn’t need whole bunches the way we use in fireplaces or wood stoves. Just a hot quick heat. Food would always have a smokey flavor, of course. Also, the implement used to clean the wok, including stuck on food, is a brush made of wood. The bristles are from some kind of plants that has very stiff twigs. I have one ’cause you can still get these things in wok stores in Chinatowns. So, that might help. Also, archeology profs at local colleges might know some things to put you in the right direction.
    I get myself so hung up on being authentic that I completely abandon any historical fiction. Not a good way to write.

    • Thanks for the info! I’ll definitely keep it in mind. I’m thankfully not going for anything historical, because I am writing fantasy and there isn’t necessarily a particular time period. However, it’s obvious that I’m not dealing with modern inventions, and I need ways to get around that. I think the novel will also be enriched if I can drop the occasional detail to help explain to some extent how people get by without modern plumbing, factory manufactured products, and other technology, and how their cultural mindset shapes their world.

  4. Good Post. Made me think some. I write speculative fiction set in historical worlds so do a lot of research and there’s a ton of stuff I just don’t know (or even understand once I read it). My current strategy is not to even try to be an expert, only know enough details to fake it really well. What I like to do is find first hand narratives or details from second hand sources that are strong in sensory/imagery and sprinkle these in the story. It gives it a real feel when I’m done. Also I feel your pain about giving too much details vs. not enough. Its just a judgement call. Great post!

    • I’m definitely a faker. 🙂 Maybe it was the occasional anthropology or history class that converted me somewhat. One of them had me read a book on a rainforest tribe, for instance, and when one of the members left the rainforest with the anthropologist for a day, and they could see the landscape spread out before them, the tribe member thought the elephants were “gnats” because they were so far away. He had never seen anything from that perspective before, only from close up. Anything small was thus consigned to bug status. He couldn’t believe the anthropologist when he was told that he was looking at an elephant until they got closer.

      It’s the above sort of scenario that fascinates me and makes me think much deeper about how I’m presenting a character’s perspective or thought patterns. Their way of life is often so much different than mine. How does their knowledge of the world and resource availability change how they address practical problems (like scrubbing a pan). How does their perspective differ, and if they reach a different perspective from their culture, how does the culture they’re in react?

      On one hand, stories have to contain enough familiarity to remain relatable to a modern reader. On the other, they have to be different enough, “novel” enough to intrigue and amuse while still remaining plausible. It’s a very tough balance, but predictable and commonplace are two things I want to avoid.

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