Thursday, November 29, 2012

Always Open to Learning

The older we get, the more we need to remember how much we still need to learn.  We understand that in theory, of course.  But, in the past few months, I’ve been putting int into practice in unusual ways.

First and foremost, I’ve been studying via Coursera (  That’s an amazing program where Ivy-League professors offer classes online -- for free.  Often class size is 50,000 and up.  I’ve completed an Introduction to Sustainability, (U. Illinois Urbana-Champaign) am completing a refresher on Greek/Roman Mythology(U. Penn), am about to complete a world History Since 1300 (Princeton).  The Introduction to Astronomy class just started, and next year, I’ll be studying topics such as -Neuro-ethics and Philosophy.

Why?  Some of these topics, such as Sustainability and Neuro-ethics only interest me, they make me more hire-able in my freelance life.  The Greek/Roman Mythology course gave me an astonishing amount of inspiration in the revisions I’m doing on an urban fantasy trilogy whose central character is a harpy.  History always fascinates and inspires me -- especially the way humans keep making the same mistakes.

I realized not only how much I mis-remembered from covering some of those topics many years ago in school, but how much I never knew in the first place!

It’s amazing how much it has supported my writing.

And then I had seal training.  As in how to feed and work with gray harbor seals.  Not in the sense of teaching them tricks (those are usually sea lions, not seals), but in feeding them, giving them medicine, and disinfecting everything at the National Marine Life Center (, a wonderful organization that recently got approval for NOAA to accept seal patients.  They’ve got two now (follow the link and get the information on the organization and photos/videos of the animals), and there’s a lot of work, especially feeding and scrubbing things.  Unlike situations where the animals will remain in captivity and need to be socialized, NMLC’s mission is to rehabilitate the animals for release back into the wild.  Contact needs to be limited, so the animals won’t seek out humans once they’ve been released. It’s a whole different approach. It’s difficult, because not only are the seals adorable, but they have an incredibly quick learning curve. You realize how much more adaptable the seals are to a shifting environment and personnel around them than most humans are.

I’m part of the team that writes press releases and other promotional materials for the organization; in the Sustainability class, I submitted three chapters of a mystery novel set in a marine life hospital.  Putting on the yellow bib (feeling like I was in a Gorton’s fisherman commercial), scrubbing, tossing herring into the tank, learning how to clean the tanks for the endangered Red Bellied Cooter Turtles that are part of the Head Start program -- all of that was background research. 

It’s like researching the background for any book -- unless you’re willing to get your hands dirty, your feet wet (and in this case, smell like herring), the writing will lack something. 

To me, it’s important to get the details right.  The realistic foundation has to be in place for the imagination and the fictional elements to fly.  When I read a book set against a background or a geography I know well, I can always tell if the writer’s bothered to do the physical research or if it’s all theoretical and from books.  As someone who spent over 20 years working in theatre, I can tell when a writer sets a book on Broadway and only went backstage after a show one night at a regional dinner theatre.  There’s nothing wrong with dinner theatre--but it’s an entirely different experience on Broadway.  I can tell when a writer who’s set a book in New York City and never visited.  Less-experienced writers get a lot of the geography wrong.  A good writer, most of whose books I adore, set a trilogy in New York City and it was obvious, even though the writer did meticulous research, the writer never visited.  It missed the emotional geography. There are SOME writers who can pull it off -- but most can’t. 

I wrote those initial three chapters BEFORE I got my hands dirty and smelled of herring -- I have a lot of rewriting ahead of me.

It’s exciting.

The coursework is demanding -- added anywhere from 12 to 36 hours to my week when they overlap.  That's on top of everything else that must get done in a week in order to survive.  AND get the writing done, because I don't buy the "no time to write" excuse.  The time spent learning the nuts and bolts of daily life in a small, passionate, committed organization was time not spent doing freelance work that immediately pays the bills.  But it’s all worth it.  I know more than I did; I realize how little I know.  I’m hungry for more.

--Annabel Aidan is a full-time writer publishing under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction.  Her paranormal romantic suspense novel for Champagne is ASSUMPTION OF RIGHT, combining witchcraft, theatre, and politics.  Website:


Rhobin Lee Courtright said...

I completely agree about learning and how it adds to writing. I'm glad to learn about Coursera. Thanks! Harvard also has free online classes on their website.
What a great opportunity to learn first hand about seals!

Big Mike said...

Interesting website, and you're right. We take for granted how much we learn across our life time. Every time I teach my grand daughter something new I am amazed at all she has to learn, and if this country survives the coming storm, what she needs and is exposed to in her world will be so much more than ours.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Very interesting research. I agree, the emotional geography is essential to a story the reader can live in.