This morning, while doing the dishes, I was listening to Stan Rogers’ “Barrett’s Privateers.” This is a song so chock full of specific and oblique naval references that it should be completely incomprehensible to the average listener. While rinsing out a big pot, I had a vision of Stan talking to his brother Garnet after finishing all the laborious research involved in making this song accurate and Garnet saying, “Stan, I don’t know why you worked so hard on this thing, no one is going to *get* this song. It’s way too personal.” (In all fairness to Garnet, I doubt he said anything remotely like this and I have no idea why my imagination picked on him except that I always suspected that the two of them must have talked music a lot since they are both in the business.)
“Barrett’s Privateers” is one of the songs Stan Rogers’ most remembered for.
This made me think of when I finished the first draft of a religious, political cyberpunk future fantasy/detective-noir novel. Despite the fact that I was very seriously pursuing publication (I even had an agent at this point), I had serious doubts that a book that personal – that full of things that amused only me, would have any kind of universal appeal.
Perhaps “universal” is too large a term, given that there’s probably only as many people out there who know my name as do Stan’s, but the point is, that both he and I achieved a surprising amount of success by writing about our own personal fetishes – him about historical boats, me about religion.
This is something that has always struck me as sort of counter-intuitive about writing. In a lot of ways, it’s the information that turns us on individually -- the kinds of things we're likely to bore people with at cocktail parties -- that makes the most interesting reading.
When I teach, I sometimes talk about this phenomenon as “arcane knowledge.” These are the kinds of little details that you put into your stories that make up the whole “write what you know” axiom. When writing SF/F, most of us don’t have personal experience traveling faster than light or conversing in Elvish (okay, some of us might have done the latter), so we can hardly be expected to “write what we know.” Yet, I think that when an author adds details about the things that they *do* know (the ins-and-outs of ham radio operation, weird esoteric bits about church history, etc.) that a reader clues into the sense that they’re being let into “arcane knowledge.” They get a sense that the story “rings true.”
Obviously, a writer can overdo this – that would be infodumping.
But, I think sometimes that authors are reticent to fully embrace their own obsessions for fear that no one will “get it” and that they won’t be able to appeal to a broad range of readers. Well, as my mother has said, “you can’t please all the people all the time,” and thus very few writers ever are truly universally appealing.
But, after listening to Stan, I've decided that there is a great deal of magic to be had in delving deeply into one’s own thing.