Written for the Tor/Forge May 2010 Newsletter
THE MOTORCYCLE WAY TO COMPLEX PLOTTING
Writers use various tools in their work. One of my tools is my motorcycle.
Well, plural: my motorcycles. Bikers learn quickly that if they expect to ride every day, they’d better have two. (And that’s if they’re Japanese, as both of my current rides are. More exotic bikes tend to be two-wheeled versions of owning a Lotus Elan.)
It’s a bit of an overstatement when I say I ride daily, but most weekdays I make a run from our home in the country to my post office box in the center of Chapel Hill, about a 40-mile round trip. My wife has a car and drives it whenever we go somewhere together, but I haven’t driven a car since 1986 or ’87. That was to carry Larry Niven and his luggage to the airport, something I couldn’t do on a motorcycle.
And there’s the real beauty of a bike for a writer: you’re alone. You know how rare it is to be really alone and how valuable that can be.
People who drive cars can do a lot of things that engage their intellects beyond their immediate physical surroundings. Cell phones and texting are modern examples, but fiddling with the CD changer, reading a newspaper (really), and chatting with a passenger (or screaming at the kids/dogs in the back seat) all take you out of the experience. A serious-minded driver can even zone out listening to recorded lectures on Greek philosophy.
A biker can get a helmet with a cell phone (or CB), just as most bikes will carry a passenger…but nobody expects you to do that. Windrush makes even an MP3 player doubtful at best. (My hearing loss from Nam makes it impossible.)
A (surviving) biker is in the moment at all times. Is that car at the intersection ahead going to start across? Will there be a garbage truck stopped around that curve, like there was last week? Is this rain starting to freeze?
Or even: Holy Crap! The woman beside me is pulling into my lane to get around the bus ahead of her!
Even when riding on a lovely day and a familiar road, my conscious mind is wholly focused on my immediate physical surroundings. It’s amazing how much complicated work your subconscious mind gets done under those circumstances. It’s even better than sleeping on problems.
I create complex plots and my prose structure tends to be very tight. Part of the reason I can accomplish those things is that when I pull off my helmet, I suddenly see how to combine three clumsy sentences into two clear ones, or I realize that if I transfer a bit of business from Hedia to Alphena, everything will work.
Hedia to Alphena? They’re two of the four viewpoint characters in my new Tor fantasy, The Legions of Fire. This novel uses a setting very similar to that of Ancient Rome–and by that I mean the real Rome, not the cardboard fakery you get from Hollywood or HBO. I know the background pretty well (you can find my translations of Latin poetry on my website), but fitting my usual considerable amount of action into a world so complicated took all the help I could get. My bikes provided a lot of that help.
But besides those practical reasons, a long sweeping curve on a bright Spring day makes me a much happier writer than I would be otherwise.
–Dave Drake, May 2010
The Legions of Fire (0-7653-2078-9; $25.99) is available from Tor.