I enjoy reading non-fiction. Sooner or later you have to look up stuff for what you’re going to write, but in between books it’s good just to read anything that comes your way and looks interesting. Sooner or later you can use it – and if you don’t use it directly, you at least feel you know what you’re talking about.
I read New Scientist quite regularly – I’m still making my way through the Christmas/New Year issue, which always has something amusing in it, such as what cheese does to you overnight. I’m just reading the article about robot actors. I got a real taste for layman’s science when I was working on my second book, Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science and really had to understand what my heroines had achieved. I used children’s books that could explain it in simple terms and dictionaries of physics, biology, etc. That was around the time I started to read New Scientist and found an article about Hedy Lamarr who, apart from being a beautiful woman and actress, was an inventor. She created a communications thing to help in the war effort, based on the way a pianola works, and while it wasn’t used till after the war, it did end up forming the basis of the mobile phone. She got a much-belated award for services to science.
You never know what you’ll find that helps in the writing and meanwhile you have a lot of fun.
I pick up most of my books in second-hand bookshops, Collected Works Bookshop in Melbourne and remainders book stores – you know, the kind which open up a few weeks before Christmas to sell off stuff and close by about February? It’s amazing what you find there. Among other things I’ve found a history of coffee, a history of chocolate, of sweets and a history of tourism. Tourism was fascinating, from Romans trotting around the empire to mediaeval pilgrims and Thomas Cook’s arrangements for people to go to temperance meetings. There was a wonderful story in the book about the White Ship, a ship which was supposed to carry the heir to the throne of England and his mates back to England after partying in France. This was the son of Henry I. The night before the voyage, lots of booze was sent to the ship from the party. The sailors got drunk, the ship smashed on the rocks and the passengers were drowned. They were, in fact, a lot of the young aristocrats of England. As a result of this incident, the new heir was Henry’s daughter Matilda, the mother of the future Henry II. This led to a civil war between her and her cousin Stephen. Eventually, he got to be king for life and her son became the next king, bringing us the Plantagenet dynasty, and what followed on from that. So our European history is the way it is because a bunch of sailors got drunk one night early in the 12th century. I found that delicious and thought, one of these days I’m going to play around with the alternative universe history that comes from this. Not yet, but eventually….
I’m reading a book called Drinking For England, a history of boozing and lechery in England. Oh, that Prince Regent! I recently finished a history of the Roman games, which taught me that in ancient Rome, executions in the arena happened at lunchtime. That stuck in my mind more than anything else in the book, though I am certainly impressed by the rest of it. Think about all those stories of Christian martyrs being thrown to the lions – and then get it into your head that it was just not all that important to the Romans, just another lunchtime event while you waited for the gladiators, who were what you'd really come to see. While the martyrs were singing hymns and facing their deaths, in the stands above people were rummaging in their picnic baskets for the last of the olives and debating whether they should take the chance of losing their seats by going to the lavatory or finding the Roman equivalent of the hot dog stand. The richer patrons, of course, had a season ticket and went off to a much better lunch somewhere else.
In other words, that scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which the rebels are sitting at the games, buying hot nibbles from Brian and sneering at the Judean People’s Front was not that far off the mark. Of course, the Pythons were a pretty scholarly bunch. They met at university and at least one of them, Terry Jones, is still writing very enjoyable books of history (get hold of his book on the murder of Chaucer if you can. He sure convinced me Chaucer was murdered!).
I have just started to read a book about clothes in Anglo-Saxon England – fascinating! And perhaps useful for my next book...