Monday, July 5, 2010

Drake on Classical Lit for Genre Writers

On Tor.com, David Drake (The Legions of Fire) discusses how reading classical literature in its original languages informs his writing. Excerpts:
All this is my whim, a way I've chosen to spend my time. It's no better than tying dry flies or keeping up with indie bands: it's just different. ... Though I don't mean that other writers should do what I do, my writing gains a lot from this classical background.

Classical literature is a great source of plots. History in general is, of course, but the classical period provides a lot of well documented but little-known events. I don't think anybody would have known that I used Polybius' account of the Rhodes-Byzantium War as the background for a novel if I hadn't said so in the introduction. ...

More important than plot sources, classical literature brings me in intimate contact with a foreign -- the Latin word is alienus, alien -- culture. When I read Ovid, Juvenal -- any classical author -- closely enough to really understand what they're saying, they provide ways of thinking which are startlingly different from my own.
Read the whole thing. Drake isn't the only one to sing the praises of old books. C.S. Lewis famously urged bibliophiles to consume a volume written prior to their births for every contemporaneous one they picked up. I've never quite reached Lewis' recommended allotment, but reading outside my time period has lead to some unique discoveries. While making my way through Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, I was surprised by a description of mouse-pelt-wearing savages that seemed yanked right out of Byzantine history. (In a lecture at the Odyssey writing workshop, he confirmed that much of the inspiration for that work had come from Constantinople's rich and bloody heritage.) Perhaps I ought to consider picking up a copy of Virgil next time my reading list begins to bottom out.

(Picture: CC 2008 by
quapan)

14 comments:

Deka Black said...

For me, a great source is the legends of my natal land, Cantabria (a small region, in the northern coast of Spain). We have plenty of them.

And in written works, , Robert E Howard. Michael moorcock, Jack Vance... too many, i fear ;)

B. Nagel said...

In the original languages, eh? Looks like my Shakespeare studies were all for naught.

But seriously, I do think classic tales are fantastic source material. I just don't know that everyone has the time or skill to learn an extra language. I know just enough Spanish to get into trouble, and that's after classes in high school and four semesters at college.

Deka Black said...

Well, if help in any way... my english is 100% self taught, or almost. With a little help for my girlfriend. The rest, patience and practice. And jack vance books

pattinase (abbott) said...

As a student late in life, I read many classics in my forties and I am glad I did. In my twenties, I wouldn't have gotten as much from them.

Loren Eaton said...

Deka,

Folklore is a great source of story ideas, particularly the sort that isn't well known. I think that Grimm, for example, is completely mined out.

Loren Eaton said...

B.,

In "the original Klingon," huh? Classic.

Unfortunately, I don't think most Americans will go to the trouble of learning any second language, much less a "dead" one. A shame, really, especially since I myself fall pretty squarely in that category. I picked up a little Spanish in college, but never kept up with it. Now, my wife not only can speak some Spanish, she also knows a little Greek.

Loren Eaton said...

Patti,

As I revist some stuff from high school now, I'm also finding that experience to be true. For some reason I lacked the insight to understand the nuances of those works back then.

Deka Black said...

Loren, true. a great source. and free of copyrught issues , if this bothers you.

About the learning of a second language... i suppose the trouble arise when one is traveling to another countries where do not speak english.

That, and in the case of my country, well, plenty of spanish are easy to please if you are able to express in a understable (i'm sure this word is bad written) way.

Unknown said...

I've always been a fan of old stories, even before I knew I was supposed to be snooty about them. I read collections of fairy tales (Andersen and Grimm, yes, and also my mother's "world tales" collections), the Mabinogion, the complete works of Poe. I think a lot of the old stories shaped the way I think about writing.

Loren Eaton said...

Deka,

Ah, copyright! I hadn't even thought about that. Good point.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

Every genre writer needs to read Poe -- no exceptions. He's wonderful and terrifying, beautiful and horrible. In other words, absolutely perfect.

Deka Black said...

Poe? First time i read Poe was back when i was 14 years old (that's 20 years ago), I remember very wel the story: The Golden Bug.

Loren Eaton said...

That's a good one, but to really get the feel for his horror works (which is what seems to have endured over time) check out "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." Pure, spine-shivery awesome.

AidanF said...

I've mostly managed (I read well, but speak like a two year-old) to teach myself a second language. I like the subtle ability to pick up on a different culture and different ways of thinking of things that you see in other languages/cultures.