Non-fiction fuel for a fiction writer

Maybe it makes no sense, but here it is: I love non-fiction, and I read more of it than I do fiction. Now that may not be saying much, since I don’t have much reading time and reading often only makes me want to go write, rendering me an embarrassingly slow reader. It also doesn’t help that I book hop, depending on which topic has lassoed my mind at the time.

Why non-fiction? Because I can take questions, curiosities and theories, infuse them into characters and stories, make them real, and experiment with what might happen as a result: What happens when someone possessing sordid truths has the opportunity to really bring them to the people? (Novel #1.) What ramifications are there when a culture forgets its past, and the people forget their story? (Novel #2.)

I can take remote or lost cultures, or experiences that most of us will never have, and transport myself and my readers there, bringing myself and my readers either whimsy or terror: What would it be like to live in a town where singing together by lamplight in a friend’s living room was a normal thing? (Novel #2.) What would it be like to live your days believing you needed to return home by dark, because of what soared through the woods? (Novel #2.) Or how would I find my way after being wrongfully arrested as a threat to the government? (Novel #1.) What if you had ideals as strong as an oak’s roots, but you had to choose between prioritizing your family or your beliefs? (Novel #2.)

If you’re a non-fiction nut like me (or just trying to veer from your usual preference), here are some books that sent my imagination flaring:

Non-fiction influences for my first novel

The Social Contract, by Jean Jacques Rousseau


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I read this one shortly after I quit my job at CNN. I came away from that (amazing) experience with so many questions, one of which was: If there is really only one right political system for humanity, why do so many remarkably intelligent people completely disagree on which one it is? I found Rousseau’s approach to human nature interesting, and perplexing at times. You know a book is good when you find yourself writing notes in the margin back to the author: “But what about this? What about this?” People kept asking me if I was doing homework while I was reading this one. Nope.

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, by Ryan Holiday


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This one I devoured in college, I think. (My brain hoards information for years–just ask my husband about my weird memory–letting it all percolate together and mix with other ideas.) When I worked at CNN, I saw how the tactics Holiday described could potentially work. However, I did come away from the reading with many questions, not the least of which was: Are you lying about this book, Holiday? Are you manipulating me right now, to spike your sales?


Hook, line, and sinker.

A First Look at Communication Theory, by Em Griffin


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Yep, a textbook. My textbook from my communication theory class, which was absolutely fascinating. In fact, some of the theories presented in this book dovetailed with Ryan Holiday’s modus operandi described in Trust Me, I’m Lying. A couple of the theories that really stuck with me were Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral of Silence theory and Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory. I sold back a lot of my textbooks when I graduated, but I kept this one and have referred to it as I’ve written. I need to open it up again.


Non-fiction influences for my second novel

My second novel is a world away from my first (I promise I’ll share titles and descriptions eventually, it’s just not time yet). The first is social science fiction with strong political and philosophical themes, the second is a mystical, soulful fantasy, set in a tiny mountain town with a quiescence whispering of forgotten wisdom and secrets kept with tight lips.

The Foxfire Books, by Eliot Wigginton and his students


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There are twelve or thirteen of these amazing books, published in the 1970s by a teacher and his students, who aimed to document and preserve the ways of their Appalachian culture before they became lost to time and memory. Obviously I haven’t read them cover to cover (I flit from one to the next depending on my curiosity or writing needs), but I delighted in the way the students transcribed their interviews with the people of Rabun Gap, writing their speech with such exactness. You can hear their accents just perfectly. And the culture of candy pullin’, barn raisin’, singins and wakes ignited a longing in my own heart for the comfortability of true community peppered with quirky characters. Some of my favorite sections to read were the ones about haints, wakes and burial customs.


Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane


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I came across this one via an article in The Guardian, and wanted it ever since. A longtime perambulator and nature writer, Macfarlane has spent years collecting words for landscapes and natural phenomena, words that often are members of dying languages and on the brink of being lost forever. What an utterly poetic (and important) project! One term I particularly loved was from a Peat Glossary that Macfarlane inherited, which contained terms from Scotland’s Isle of Lewis: Rionnach maoim,“the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day.”

Can you not picture that completely clearly?

I’m still in the beginning of his book (and will be for awhile, probably), but I loved this section (yes, this entire section is too good and true not to share):

In 1917 the sociologist and philosopher Max Weber named ‘disenchantment’ as the distinctive injury of modernity. He defined disenchantment as ‘the knowledge or belief that…there are no mysterious or incalculable forces that come into play, but rather one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.’ […] Weber noted the widespread reduction of ‘wonder’ (for him the hallmark of enchantment, and in which state we are comfortable with not-knowing) and the corresponding expansion of ‘will’ (for him the hallmark of disenchantment, and in which state we are avid for authority). In modernity, mastery usurped mystery.

(Emphasis mine.)

As we have enhanced our power to determine nature, so we have rendered it less able to converse with us. […] We have become experts in analyzing what nature can do for us, but lack a language to evoke what it can do to us. […] Language is fundamental to the possibility of re-wonderment, for language does not just register experience, it produces it.

Macfarlane’s book is reminding me to pay attention to the little details that aren’t so little, the daily magic and wonder happening around me when I’m outside with my son, and channel that into writing my second novel, to help make its little mountain town delightfully real. Even just the article about Macfarlane’s book caused me to consider the irises blooming in my yard and wonder how to describe their scent.

Do you have any book suggestions for me?

Comment with your favorites–fiction or non–and I’ll add them to my to-read list. When I’m fifty-seven years old and I finally finish it, I’ll rave to you about how great it was and you can look at me with a blank expression because I’m so late to the party. Deal?


Happy (?) Freedom of Information Day


Image credit: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog

Did you know there was such a thing? I didn’t until this year. Freedom of Information Day is observed (if you knew about it) on the birthdate of James Madison, who was a big advocate for openness in government. Take a look at some of the things he wrote or said on the subject of transparency and power:

Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
And several more, because I can’t pick a favorite:
The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.
The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.
No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.
Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.
The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.

FOIA Changes

On Freedom of Information Day last year, in a move that may be considered ironic, the White House made a change that exempts its Office of Administration from the Freedom of Information Act, claiming “the cleanup of FOIA regulations is consistent with court rulings that hold that the office is not subject to the transparency law.

The oft-quoted axiom goes, “Knowledge is power.” So whoever possesses one possesses the other. When we contemplate our governors versus ourselves, the people, which party has more knowledge?  Who’s got the advantage, here?

Does transparency really matter?

Example: It was reported last autumn that 90 percent of those killed in recent U.S. drone strikes were not the intended targets.

Whoops? (More stories related to drones here.)

But this information wasn’t open–it was classified, and the only reason we know about it now is because of a whistleblower. This kind of information is integral to how we interpret issues and how we communicate with our leaders regarding them. What other stories are out there, buried and guarded deep, that would fundamentally rock our reactions to the issues to which they pertain?

What do you think?

I don’t mean to be overly simplistic, as there is a place for secrecy in government as well. But where is the line? How should it be drawn, and should it be drawn in sand or carved in stone? I don’t have the answers–that’s why I wrote my novel, to process and think and hopefully generate discussion among my readers.

But here’s the clincher, at least in my mind: Even if there was adequate transparency in government, how many of us would care? Or would we care to know more about information that really only amounts to pop culture trivia rather than information that affects our very freedom and future?

What good does government transparency do if the people could not care less about their leaders’ actions and agendas?

We could have a government that is transparent, opaque or translucent. But what does it matter if we, the people, don’t care?

Government surveillance: Does your leader have five eyes?


[Image credit: Privacy International]

Government surveillance is one of the biggest themes in my first novel. In the story, it’s treated as a very negative thing, though I understand that in the real world, it is a very nuanced, complex subject, with decent arguments made from many different viewpoints.

There’s no news here: Government surveillance has been going on for a long time.

CISA (Cybersecurity Act of 2015). It passed in mid-December, to little fanfare (unless you specifically keep an eye on these matters). Like many things, it was slipped into the giant budget bill that OMG we have to pass now otherwise the government will shut down. (Anyone getting tired of this scenario?) Even Congress wasn’t able to read the text of the bill until 48 hours or so before they passed it, though I doubt that they’d have read it if there had been more time. (Sometimes I wonder if the only person who actually does comb legislation in Washington is veteran reporter Jamie Dupree.)

Because of the last-minute timing, members of Congress “are not even going to know what they’re passing,” White said. “We don’t have time to get an informed vote, they’re pulling a fast one on the Senate.”

(from The Intercept)

Convenient. When something happens that makes this issue blow up, these legislators can hold up their hands, claim innocence and play the blame game. “We didn’t know–they didn’t give us enough time to read. And we had to pass it–I mean, the government was going to shut down.”

Anyway, this sneaky little thing called CISA slipped into the budget bill and now is law. Basically, it expands the government’s ability to watch. Because privacy. And because security. And–because.

Then there’s The Five Eyes Alliance, a clique of countries committed to helping each other spy on their own citizens.

Say you’re the NSA. By law, there are certain sorts of spying you’re not lawfully allowed to do on Americans. (And agency rules constraining you too.) But wait. Allied countries have different laws and surveillance rules. If there are times when America’s spy agency has an easier time spying on Brits, and times when Britain’s spying agency has an easier time spying on Americans, it’s easy to see where the incentives lead. Put bluntly, intelligence agencies have an incentive to make themselves complicit in foreign governments spying on their own citizens.

(from The Atlantic)

So, there are “rules” and “limits” to surveilling your own people. Rules that are so handy to recite during PR storms, to offer a little pat of comfort on the people’s heads. (“No, calm down everyone. Our practices are incredibly limited in scope. See? Here are the rules that limit us.”). But they’re rules that can be circumvented.

Like a poorly knit sweater, there are plenty of loopholes.

As of this writing, my stance is this: If you can trust your leaders… you fill in the blank. It comes down to your view of human nature, I suppose. There’s a reason why we say that power corrupts.

The leaders in my novel cannot be trusted with this power.

Can yours?