David G. Johnson and a friend (Yes, that is a suit of Chinese Armor)
As authors, one of the long-standing bits of guiding wisdom in our business is the old adage “Write what you know”. This is solid advice, tried and true, as the most engaging classic works of fiction have come from authors who have so immersed themselves in research of their period, or who lived and breathed in that period, that their very words come alive with the images, sounds and smells of the world of their novels. J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the great masters of this, but the depth and vividness of his work stemmed from the fact that he first created a people and a language, fully developed and real, and out of that poured naturally the stories of Middle-Earth.
Example after example could be laid out along these lines, but in truth if we as speculative fiction authors, and in particular Christian speculative fiction authors, our ability to “write what we know” at some point hits a wall between reality and fantasy. So when our stories take place in the world of science-fiction or fantasy, how can we do all that is possible to fulfill the requirements of the old adage while writing in a speculative fiction genre?
After much time in thought and consideration of this question, here are my thoughts and suggestions.
Know your Bible. If we are truly going to write with the tag of “Christian” author, we owe it to ourselves, our readers, and most importantly to God to first and foremost be diligent students of His word. If we want to make sure that what we write glorifies Him, then we need to know Him. If we do not want our work to become the subject of rejection and criticism by our fellow Christians, we need to understand where God’s Word weighs in on the ideas and concepts we present in our fiction. If we don’t know the Bible first and foremost as the foundation of what we write, we cannot truly present ourselves as “Christian” speculative fiction authors.
Know your world. I cannot overstress the importance of worldbuilding in creating a tangible, believable and consistent speculative fiction setting. The degree of worldbuilding required largely depends on the specific sub-genre of your fiction. For stories set on Earth but in an alternate history, alternate future, etc, much of the foundational worldbuilding is already done. Geography, races, nations, history, religion, food production, waste removal, international politics, etc. are all elements present in the real world and don’t need to be invented. This, however, does not make the burden less on the authors who choose this setting. If anything, the speculative elements require even more detailing because they will significantly alter how certain aspects of the world do work, and these are elements which will have to be strong enough to draw your readers out of their comfortable understanding of reality set in this world and into your world with all the implications thereof. Skimping on thinking through how the speculative changes you introduce to our known reality would impact that reality is a recipe for a cheesy, shallow world which will not engage and immerse your readers into your world but will leave them feeling cheated, like watching a shadow-puppet show when a live performance was what was billed.
Fantasy and science-fiction authors have a different but equally demanding task. If your setting takes the readers to a whole new world, then all of the things we take for granted on our world have to be taught to your readers so they understand this new world. First off, however, you have to know your new world. If you have not thought through things like politics, food production, waste removal, indigenous flora and fauna, mankind’s interaction with nature, different cultures, languages, history, etc. of your world, you will not be able to deal with them vividly and consistently, and your readers will feel like they have been led into a shaky house of cards instead of a beautiful, vibrant, living world. Unless you are writing a world so alien as to be nearly unrelatable to your audience, there will be some elements which will duplicate or approximate things in our own world. That point leads to the third area.
Know your reality. Go. Get out of the house. Travel. See sights. Dig ditches. Ride horses. Climb mountains. Fly in airplanes. Play with animals. Smell flowers. Touch trees. Go to a concert. Visit a bar. Walk the streets of a strange city at night (with safety in mind always of course). EXPERIENCE LIFE! There are going to be aspects of reality that cross over into your fantasy setting. How can you accurately set a scene in a bar if you have never been to a bar? How can you describe a riveting horseback ride cross country if you have never been on a horse? How can you describe the strange feeling of being surrounded by people who don’t speak your language and whose language you don’t speak unless you travel? Imagination only goes so far, and authors who try to write about real-life things that they haven’t personally experienced, will NOT pass the “sniff-test” of discerning readers who have had those experiences. If you do not make chances to get out of your writing studio or home or wherever you have settled and experience life, then you will not be able to realistically write about the world. Again, however, with us possibly writing about things we either economically can’t afford to experience or physically have no chance to experience, how do we do that? On to the next point.
Know your contacts. Do not be afraid to find and seek out the experts to get realistic answers to your questions. I cannot stress enough how poorly “winging it” is going to come off in your writing to readers who do know the reality of what you do not. If you are writing an alternate history where things diverged in WWII, talk to veterans. Talk to folks who lived through that time. Retirement homes are filled with people who have all the time in the world to talk to you and who would love nothing better than to tell you their stories. Most people don’t realize the wealth of information our elders have that we just don’t normally take the time to tap into. I have such a vivid picture in my mind of what WWII was like because when I was younger I used to cut lawns for several WWII veterans, and after the work was done they almost always would invite me to pull up a lawn chair, grab a glass of lemonade and just talk. I have a vivid notion of life on a battleship during Korea from my father. My own stories often involved horses, so while I have ridden horses before, I don’t know all the ins-and-outs of care and feeding of horses, but my brother and sister-in-law own a horse farm, so they are my “equine consultants” when I come up with horse-related questions outside my knowledge. While I have a perfunctory knowledge of Hebrew, I use Hebrew as a basis for one of the languages of my fantasy races, so my friend and fellow writer Zerubbabel Emunah, an expert in Hebrew language and culture, has been an invaluable resource for my research.
Remember, writing a book is more than just sitting down to a keyboard and pouring out your imagination on paper. Writing realistically requires reading (a lot!) and researching and tapping into resources and networking and worldbuilding. Producing quality fiction takes effort, but for the authors willing to put in the time and energy to do all that is possible to “know what you write”, it will be very clear to your readers that you are an author they can rest assured will “write what you know”.
Rev. David G. Johnson
David G. Johnson is an author and teacher with a BA in Asian Studies and a MDiv in Bibilcal Languages who currently resides overseas with his family serving as teachers and living witnesses of their faith. David has been an avid Fantasy and Science Fiction fan for over thirty years and has now turned his cross-cultural experience to the task of blending Fantasy fiction with a biblical worldview in this his speculative fiction series entitled Chadash Chronicles, which mixes the Fantasy storytelling elements of Chronicles of Narnia with the personal spiritual journey elements of Pilgrim’s Progress.
Many people say that authors can’t or don’t do well with more than one genre. You say you are working on fantasy adventure, science fiction, noir detective stories and even have the plans for a steampunk book at some point. What do you think prepared you or qualifies you to write these different types of books?
Well the old adage for writers is to “write what you know”. I think what makes someone a better writer is first being an avid and voracious reader. I grew up on fantasy and sci-fi, so in a way I feel those genres are in my blood. Also growing up my parents loved to watch the old black and white movies and films like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man all were part of my early exposure. I also love to read the noir masters like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, so I am hoping to break into an homage to that genre with a series I am planning called the Nick O’Brien Case Files. As for the steampunk I have a degree in Asian Studies so while I don’t know much about Victorian England other than their interactions with China, I have quite an extensive knowledge of Chinese history during that time period. I hope to bridge that gap and write a steampunk genre novel set in Qing Dynasty China. That is still a good ways off, though, as other projects are ahead of this one.
Tell us a little about your “real” (Non-writing) life — family, job, church life. Does it give you inspiration for your writing? Does it get in the way of your writing, or are there times when you get help, from people or circumstances?
Well, my family and I currently serve overseas in a closed country in Asia as missionaries. A “closed country” is one where missionaries are not officially allowed. As such, we have a normal platform which allows us to stay in country. I teach English at a small school working as a speaking and listening coach. In exchange for a few work hours per week we get visas to legally be in the country. What we do on our own time then is up to us, and we simply choose to spend our spare time in Bible study. I definitely feel living in another culture has helped me be much more poignantly aware of things which might otherwise go unnoticed. As such, when my characters cross cultures this helps me tremendously to paint a realistic picture, pointing out details that readers may not even have thought about being different in another culture.
Tell us about things you enjoy — what you do for fun or personal satisfaction.
Not to sound too cliché, but writing is what I enjoy. When all the work is caught up, my wife and daughter are out for a ladies day out, and I have several uninterrupted hours just to sit behind the keyboard and write, it is like a mini-vacation. I travel to other worlds, to other times and get to be a part of creating amazing adventures. What could possibly be more fun than that?
Tell us about working with any people who help you create your books — Do you use Beta readers? Hire an editor or proofreader? How do you get your covers?
Well my debut novels, the first two, are going through a traditional publisher, so there is a cover team working on those. I do use Beta readers. One struggle for me was finding a way to balance my love of teaching God’s truth as a minister and writing the fiction that I so enjoy. God gave me an idea for the first series, so I am running with that, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t, in my zeal to create a great story, lose sight of biblical truth or write something blatantly contrary to Scripture. To that end, I asked a group of fellow ministers and missionaries to be my beta readers. They read along, chapter by chapter as I write, and point out to me not only grammatical or plot issues but also if there are any places where they feel I may have gotten a little far from Scripture with something I have presented. They have given me a great peace of mind, freeing me to let go and just write.
Have you done anything writing-related, but besides your books, that seemed to get a lot of positive response? Something that encouraged you?
I used to, many years ago, belong to an online group of poets. That was a challenging time in my life, but it was great to push myself and become expressive in verse rather than prose. I have a good number of poems I wrote during those times. In fact, one of the poems I wrote way back then was the main inspiration for my debut fantasy series and is featured at the beginning of the first book.
Tell us about your newest book. Make us want to read it.
Chadash Chronicles Book One: Fool’s Errand and Book Two: Mystic’s Mayhem will be available by the end of 2013 from Tate Publishing. These books combine the fantasy elements of Chronicles of Narnia with the personal spiritual journey elements of Pilgrim’s Progress. That may sound boastful, and I am not at all comparing myself to these authors, merely that I tried in this series to capture these elements from these two great works. C.S. Lewis was a great writer and we all love Narnia, but I feel he didn’t go far enough espousing the Christian themes, and there is really no sense of any spiritual journey in the stories. Pilgrim’s Progress certainly has an amazingly clear spiritual journey, but the thickness of the allegory can put some readers off. By emphasizing the importance of the spiritual journey elements, and wrapping them in an exciting and engaging fantasy adventure, my hope is that these novels create a blend of these elements which is both edifying spiritually as well as entertaining intellectually.
What is the “message” of your writing? (For example, is your purpose to encourage old-fashioned values, encourage romance, or do you have different purposes in different books?)
My target audience, truth be told, are readers of sci-fi and fantasy who are unbelievers. I came to Christ late in life, and I grew up with the stereotypes usually laid upon youth who love these genres. Sadly these stereotypes are often propagated by “Christians” who would sooner write off these youth as satanic or deranged because they love to read stories about wizards and dragons. I want to write an engaging story but also to put within that story characters who epitomize what true Christians should be like in their interactions with unbelievers. As a secondary effect, I hope that Christian readers will use these books like a mirror to put themselves into the Christian point of view characters and ask, “Is that how I would have handled that situation?” I hope to model through these characters that Christians are not perfect, but if we are truly walking in love, this is what it might look like.
Tell us one place you visited or person you met, that made a big impression on you, and why.
I would say the person I have been most impressed by meeting would have to be Reverend Justin Peters. Justin has an itinerate speaking ministry where he travels around giving talks and conferences on biblical discernment. Justin suffers from Cerebral Palsy and is almost completely confined to a wheelchair now, yet he does not let this stop him from traveling and teaching the word of God, especially as it pertains to biblical discernment. Not only have I learned a great deal from hearing Justin speak, but I have been personally inspired by his commitment to continue teaching the word of God despite a condition which many people would use as an excuse to retire from society. I pray as age takes over and parts of me stop working like they used to, that I will continue my commitment to my calling just as Justin has.
Tell us one place you want to visit, or person you want to meet, and why.
I would love to go to England/Scotland/Ireland on a castle tour. I write about castles and knights and while I take my research seriously, I am so much a visual person. I have visited the fortress of Suomenlinna in Helsinki, Finland, and have walked on the Great Wall in China and those were great fun and very instructive. I think, however, the ability to walk through, to touch and see and fully experience real medieval European castles, not just their construction but the design of the keeps, walls, towers, towns, etc would be an invaluable aid to my fantasy writing.
Share something that makes you laugh, with just plain humor, or happiness, or because it’s so stupid.
I’m an odd bird with an odd sense of humor. To me a good pun is worth its weight in gold.
Share something that’s amazing, touching, or that makes you angry.
I don’t know if “angry” is the right word, but something that I think is the most disappointing or discouraging thing we have faced working in ministry is encountering Christians in crisis who are seeking for answers. In response, as a good minister, you sit down patiently with them and go through all the Bible has to say about their current dilemma. They fully acknowledge understanding God’s direction or instruction about the situation. The politely thank you and then go out and do the exact opposite of what God has instructed. I really have a lot of trouble knowing what to feel at that point. Pity? Disappointment? Discouragement? Self-doubt at my own shepherding ability? It is definitely one of the hardest things we have faced in ministry.
What’s the worst trouble you ever had with getting a book written (plots, finding needed information, getting a cover done)?
Wow, this is a painful question. I am experiencing it right now. I am no more than a few chapters from finishing the third book in the Chadash Chronicles series, but these other ideas for the next couple of projects down the line are eating me alive. I keep finding myself sitting down at the computer intending to wrap up the next chapter when whamo I am on a research site looking up things for the next book. Distraction and desire to see all the projects I talked about above come to fruition is probably the biggest struggle with settling down and finishing one thing before moving on to the next.
What’s your next project? Tell us so we can’t wait for it to come out!
Well as I said I am finishing book three of the Chadash Chronicles. We will see how things go with the first two books and I will let that decide whether book three comes out from the same publisher, or if I shop it maybe to one of the bigger names in fantasy fiction, or if I take the road of self-publishing. Once that one is complete, though, the project I am so excited about starting is going to be a science fiction/superheroes series. I am planning to write it as pretty hard-science sci-fi as much as possible, i.e. at this point only humans in the known galaxy, first extrasolar colony ship, no three-headed aliens or light-speed drives but incorporating the real scientific challenges to manned missions outside our solar system. Well something goes wrong in flight and some small percentage of the terraforming colonists wind up with enhanced abilities. The story will have multiple levels. One will be how the colony deals suddenly with people who are very different, even “better” in some way than themselves, and the human-natured prejudice and fear which will ensue there. Second will be Earth’s reaction and how to deal with an outlying colony that in some part isn’t fully, or more accurately isn’t merely, human anymore. Third will be the faith aspect as characters of faith struggle to deal with their own questions as well as counsel others through this challenging adaptation to life. And of course, there will be super-villains and super-powered battles too, can’t leave that out, right?
Let me just say in parting I appreciate you asking to interview me and giving me the chance to let folks know about the projects I have coming out. Thank you so much for this excellent opportunity and I pray the Lord continues to bless you in all your work.
Chadash Chronicles Book One: Fool’s Errand and Book Two: Mystic’s Mayhem will be available in December 2013 from Tate Publishing.
You can find David’s missionary blog at: http://2th31.blogspot.com
and his author page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/DavidGlennJohnson