During my career as a civil engineer and land use planner I learned more outside the classroom than I ever did within. I’m not talking about working in the field on road construction or utility installation—although watching skillful craftsmen at their trade certainly helps to educate an engineer—I’m talking about what I learned by looking more closely at the details that make up our everyday world.
I’ve been known to be, shall we say, distracted by things that are of no interest to my family. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy every minute of vacation with my loved ones—but while they’re browsing souvenir shelves, my attention might be drawn to the building’s support structure—while crossing a picturesque foot bridge, I might be found admiring the beautiful flora while mentally dissecting the bridge’s construction—I could be captured by how cleverly a handicap ramp is disguised as part of the landscaping, I might contemplate the walkways, or whether the trees had been arranged to optimize shade on benches. Oddities might appear in my vacation photos. The picture sequence might be something like: my wife, my kids, a tree grate, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, a retaining wall, Dumbo, Snow White, flower planters … I thought I was the only fool with this affliction, until I found that many of my engineering buddies did the same thing.
Now I write historical novels. And while this profession is somewhat different, my habits haven’t changed all that much. I’m still likely to be drawn to things that others don’t notice—curiosities that relate to my writing. They say write what you know, but maybe that should be write what you’d like to know. Whether I’m at an amusement park, a historic site or at home on the internet, I look for details that will improve my writing. After all, it’s the details that help readers feel as though they are living in the world of the story be it ancient Rome or a planet in some far away galaxy.
I’ve always been interested in history. I want to know how horseshoes were forged in the 1700s. I want to eat in a colonial tavern and taste meals cooked on an open hearth. I want to smell the fresh leather in a shop where shoes are being cobbled and watch grain being milled. I want to hear the music young people listened to before going off to fight in WWII or learn what it was like to work in a factory at the turn of the last century.
Judging from the popularity of stories set in historical times, I suspect there are plenty of other people whose imagination is also piqued by glimpses into the past. So now when I become lost in my historical forays, or return home with photos of sadirons, powder horns and tin toys, I just chalk it up to a writer’s vacation.