My latest book takes place in medieval Germany during the 14th century during the height of the bubonic plague, commonly known as the Black Death. The protagonist is a heartbroken young man who joins the Brotherhood of the Cross, flagellants who wandered from town to town, beating and whipping themselves as penance for their sins and the sins of others. The idea for this story sprouted almost three years ago when I was living in China. I was sitting in the back row of a crowded bus on my way to work, and during these trips, the ebook app on my phone was my constant companion. For reasons I still cannot explain, I had downloaded a 19th century nonfiction book called The Black Death and the Dancing Mania by Justus Friedrich Hecker from Project Gutenberg. I still remember the exact moment I read about the Brotherhood and their wanton exploits performed under the guise of penitent humility and I thought, “I’m going to write a book about these people.”
The trouble was, I still had to finish the sci-fi/horror story I was working on at the time, and next on the docket was an industrial disaster story that I had already started conjuring from creative ether. That book, set on a doomed oil rig, was a tremendous challenge, so much so that I enlisted the services of a real-life oil driller as my co-author. Even with help, writing that book was incredibly exhausting, but the completion was all the more rewarding. Of course, my imagination had little time to pat itself on the back, since I immediately threw myself headlong into my medieval plague story, which is now in the final editing stages. As work on this book wraps up, I am gearing up for my next leap into the abyss, a mix martial arts/demon possession horror thriller.
I have never worked on an oil rig; I’ve never even seen one with my own eyes. The last history class I took was more than a decade ago during my junior year of college, and I’m pretty sure it only covered the 20th century. Until a couple of weeks ago, I had never watched a UFC match from start to finish. Yet something has compelled me to write stories in these worlds which are quite foreign to me.
My previous books, a supernatural horror/action trilogy and the aforementioned sci-fi book, took place in more comfortable territory. My imagination leans heavily towards the Gothic side of things so writing stories like this did not present nearly the same challenges as my later books. I did fire off a quick novel a couple of years ago about a movie prop swordsmith in Southern California, and even though I had never been to California or visited a fantasy convention before, it wasn’t too difficult to research and write.
I don’t know why my imagination hates me and enjoys watching me squirm. I wish it would command me to write stories about grim, Gothic-tinged worlds since that’s where my headspace usually is. But as uncomfortable and challenging as these writing projects have been, I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything. No one climbs a treacherous mountain and reaches the top, then looks down and says, “Well that was a waste of time.” Being stretched and pulled and emerging victorious is an incredible feeling, which naturally propels me to seek out other challenges. After the MMA fighting story, I’m planning on writing a nautical adventure set on an alien world. The last time I was on a boat in the ocean was when I was seven years old.
My challenge to you as a reader or writer is to not stay safe. That doesn’t mean you should abandon your niche, especially if you’ve built your name into a brand. As a lesser-known author, I have the freedom to experiment, though I plan to follow the same path even if recognition comes my way. So if you’re into high fantasy, steampunk, YA dystopian, or any genre that thrills your imagination, that’s great, but consider stepping out of your comfort zone once in a while. As a reader, you might discover something fresh and exciting, because it’s easy to get bored with stories that follow the same pattern. As a writer, the experience will certainly strengthen your semantic skills and will give you greater confidence. If you feel pulled in a strange direction, don’t fight it. You may not even particularly care for the setting of your story; I wasn’t especially interested in the world of oil drilling until I started researching it, and while it gave me a greater appreciation for this vast industry, I let my attention turn to the Middle Ages for my latest book. It’s almost like creative polygamy, but hey, when the relationship has run its course, no reason to hold onto the threads. Just file it away under “Good Writing Memories” and move on to the next project.
Go and seek out strange new literary worlds. There is a whole universe full of them.