I’ve spent a huge portion of my adult life researching the writing of engineers. I won six national awards for that work, including one from IEEE. You’d think nothing could be farther from writing a middle-grade or YA fantasy. When I wrote my first novel, however, I realized I was still doing some of the same work. First, I was making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. And second, even more important, I was trying to understand the workings of power.
The Familiar and the Strange
The research I did borrowed heavily from ethnographic studies. To learn how engineers communicate, I hung around engineering facilities for hours on end, watching them work. I observed them in their natural habitat, in the wild, so to speak.
Ethnography tools were useful because engineering writing is a social practice. The value of a text lies in how engineers produce, receive, and use it. Did the test report help the company develop a better product? Then it was a good report. Was the work order unclear? Then it was badly written even if the grammar was perfect.
When I write fiction, I think about things like characters, plot, and style. The articles and books I wrote about engineers at work always described characters and a fair amount of plot, though I must admit the style I wrote in was pretty dry. Academic writing is the anti-preparation for writing fiction, and I won’t go into engineering style.
Making the Strange Familiar
As I wrote, I also often invoked an ethnographer’s saying: Make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. I had to make the engineer’s work life familiar to an audience of English professors who taught tech writing at universities. Most of them had not only never written an engineering report themselves; they’d never met anyone who had. Not surprisingly, they struggled. My job was partly to help them by making that strange life familiar and understandable.
Making the Familiar Strange
But my job was also to make readers notice things that were so familiar, so mundane, that we usually ignore them. An engineer makes post-it notes and sticks them all around her computer screen. If we dismiss actions like that, we lessen our understanding of how that engineer is using writing to shape her own knowledge.
So how is negotiating the strange and the familiar like writing fantasy? My middle-grade book, Finders Keepers, is a secondary world fantasy. I made up its world rather than setting my story in a real time and place. But I had to make that strange world feel familiar enough to the reader that they saw it as real. Additionally, that secondary world gave me a chance to focus on plot and character issues we might ignore in our own world and make them noticeable.
For instance, the main character’s father is dead and his mother has vanished. In our world, he and his 16-year-old brother would be whisked off into foster care, but in the world of the book, there’s no such social welfare system. So we see both of them struggling toward the self-reliance that all adolescents struggle toward, only in a heightened way. And we see their concern for one another, made sharper by the way they have to depend on each other. That shows up more strongly in the strange world of fantasy.
Most engineers work in hierarchical, for-profit companies. Power is always an issue. Who’s entitled to make decisions based on what? How can an engineer get what he needs or wants in order to continue doing something he’s interested in? How can a lab tech sabotage or help the engineer whose tests she conducts? And of most interest to me, how do people use written documents to construct and enact power?
So power was always an issue in my academic research. It turned out to be an issue in my fiction too.
Any time you construct a secondary world fantasy, you immediately face with questions of power. Who has it? How did they get it? Do they hold it justly or unjustly? Or, in one of the most common questions in fantasy, who should rule the kingdom?
In Finders Keepers, powerful people are those with money (not much strangeness there). The people with money also govern and aren’t much interested in changing things. So when the world is in crisis, the main character has to find a way to get around powerful people. He can’t rely on them. He has to construct power of his own.
Parts of Life Connect in Unexpected Ways
By the way, I see this examination of power as a common thread that runs through both my writing and my interest in politics. In life, as in my fiction, I care deeply about who should rule the kingdom.
After I quit academia and took up writing fiction, I was surprised the first time I realized I was still mulling over the same issues. How do ordinary things matter? How do strange things make sense? How do people work in and around power structures? Maybe I keep coming back to the same questions because they’re the ones we all need to answer for ourselves.
How about you? Do you find that parts of your life connect in unexpected ways?