Curiosity and the writer

by Tess Gerritsen

I’m often asked, "What kind of person becomes a novelist?"  People want to know what we writers have in common, and whether there are special characteristics that make a writer successful.  I give the same answers everyone else probably does: A fertile imagination.  A love of reading.  Sheer persistence.  But I also throw in one more characteristic that others may forget to mention, yet it’s one that I consider vital to the craft of storytelling:  Insatiable curiosity. 

If writers were cats, we’d all be dead.

When story ideas come to me, it’s seldom because I actively went looking for them.  More often, they arise out of some interest that’s completely separate from my job as a writer.  Or I come across an odd little fact or news item that inspires my curiosity and compels me to find out more, simply because I can’t help myself.

Years ago, I read an article about a newly discovered class of organisms called "Archaeons," single-celled creatures so ancient that they probably split off from the larger tree of life at the same time that bacteria did.  They’re sometimes called "extremophiles" because of the hostile conditions in which they thrive, such as in the superheated waters of underwater volcanic vents.  Although I couldn’t see how I would ever use the information in a book, I was so fascinated by these bizarre organisms that I collected a number of clippings about them from various science journals.  They went into my file of "creepy facts", which I’ve maintained for decades.  99 percent of the information in that file will probably never find its way into a novel; I keep it around just because I’m a weird gal and happen to love creepy facts.

Some years later, news broke of an accident aboard Mir space station.  The circumstances were so scary and dramatic that I knew I had to write about it.  I imagined an accident in space, with dying astronauts trapped aboard a space station.  But what would be the circumstances?  Why wouldn’t they just evacuate and come home?  What could keep them quarantined aboard a doomed spacecraft?

That’s when I remembered my old clippings about the Archaeons, which are capable of surviving in almost any environment.  And it occurred to me: what if scientists discovered a sample of such organisms at the bottom of the ocean, trapped there by crushing pressures for thousands of years?  What if such organisms weren’t from earth at all, but had landed here aboard an asteroid?

What if they were actually an advance army of invaders, here to colonize the earth?  Sent up to orbit by scientists and exposed to the microgravity of a space station, they would begin to assume their real form –a form that’s deadly to the human race.

That became the premise of my book GRAVITY.

I never could have written that book if I hadn’t delved into the oddities of Archaeons a few years earlier.  And it was curiosity that made me do it. 

Curiosity can take you places you never expected to go.  It makes you turn over rocks and poke sticks in holes and peek behind closed doors.  It may never lead to a story idea, but so what?  Life is about more than writing books. It’s also about the thrill of discovering some delicious fact that has absolutely  no relevance in your life.

But sometimes, sometimes, an obscure fact will come in useful.  It may not be until years have passed, but that’s the thing about curiosity.  It’s a long-term investment. 

By the time you read this blog post, I will be winging my my way home from Egypt.  At the moment, my suitcase is lying half-packed on my bedroom floor, awaiting the sunscreen and bug spray.  I’m going to Egypt to learn to read hieroglyphs.  It’s an utterly irrelevant skill, and I don’t think I’ll ever use it in a book.  But I’m curious about ancient dead languages, in the same way I was curious about those humble little Archaeons. 

Knowledge is never wasted.  Sometimes it just takes a lifetime to figure out how to use it.

15 thoughts on “Curiosity and the writer

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    One of the things I liked about you immediately, Tess, is that you were clearly interested in everything. And being interested makes a person interesting.

    Practicing law has led me into educating myself about an awful lot of things I’d never have thought of exploring otherwise. A case where a client’s brother was killed in Dubai led me to research Shari’a law before it became a favorite bogeyman of the right wing. I know a lot about how lampshades and yachts are made and more than I ever wanted to know about chicken and hog processing. I know facts about shipbuilding in World War II. Don’t know if I’ll ever use any of this, but you never know…

  2. pari

    I enjoyed this post a lot, Tess. Thank you.

    One of the reasons I’ve embarked on my new series is because of curiosity. I love exploring fauna and flora intelligences and all the debates about them. I will use some of the info in my new books, but not even 1/100th of what I will have read.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Your post made me laugh, Tess – you describe that bizarre process of getting fixated on something so well.

    There’s a reason game shows like Jeopardy! won’t let writers on as contestants. We know just enough about a million things to be dangerous.

  4. Allison Brennan

    Great example of using arcane trivia. I do the same thing, but not on such a fascinating level. I think Alex is right, because I know a little bit about a lot of things, but not enough to be an expert on anything.

  5. Louise Ure

    The trick then — and you do it so well,Tess! — is to take that little bit of sourced knowledge and not only make it plausible, but make it a roller coaster of a ride that we completely buy into.

    Here’s to curiosity!

  6. Rashda

    *Sigh* This post made me miss Michael Crichton. He took interesting bits of science and wove fascinating stories out of them so well.

  7. Dana King

    “Knowledge is never wasted.”

    I must say this once a month (at least) to people, usually younger than me, who express dismay at the amount of time “wasted” on something. My first question is always, “Did you learn anything? Even if it’s just not to do it that way any more?” If they say yes, but so what. I hit them with some version of Tess’s quote.

  8. Jake Nantz

    I love this post, because it reminds me of all of the people I’ve known and loved in my life who ask me, “So where do you put new information when your brain is crammed with all of that useless trivia?”

    I still don’t have an answer, but I can tell you quite a few odd facts while you wait…:D

  9. JT Ellison

    I say time and again that my goal in life is to learn something new everyday. The arcane facts, the weird stories, the suppositions based on an overly aggressive imagination – I do think that’s what we all have in common, and we’re seeking to understand these things on the page.

    And Tess, I loved GRAVITY. It’s one of my favorite of your books because the premise was so unique. Cool to know what the back story is.

  10. Fiona

    Oh yes, life IS research.

    I am using a family trip from 2 years ago to give me the setting for my WIP. I’m glad I took so many pictures and gave in to my kids when they wanted to do some very “touristy” things.

  11. Tom

    “Knowledge is never wasted.” That’s a very consoling thought, Tess.

    And what a wonderful thing to do – to go to Egypt to learn the hieroglyphs! Brilliant!

  12. Becky Hutchison

    “…because I know a little bit about a lot of things, but not enough to be an expert on anything.”

    I so resemble that remark! I’ve always been a generalist because I’m curious about everything. This characteristic led to a tough time picking a major in college. After considering a plethora of other subjects, I chose a different one every year before finally pinpointing anthropology. I thought nothing could be more general than the study of man.

    I’ve changed jobs/careers often because when I feel I’ve learned “enough” about that particular topic, I’m ready for something new. And now that I think about it, I’ve ended up being the generalist or “floating employee” in almost every job, able to step into a vacationing colleague’s shoes at any time.

    I finally decided that writing would be the answer to my curiosity dilemma. Like Stephen, I realized that I could fashion a story around anything I liked, and I could choose any topic I wanted. What freedom!

  13. Flash Bristow

    Gravity is easily my favourite of your books, and although when I try to describe it to people it sounds incredible, the reason I love it is because it is so realistic. There’s no bad science in there. I have a problem with a lot of fiction in that I just can’t believe in it – I only read a very few authors – and I thought Gravity would stretch credibility a little too far for me. Instead it became one of my favourite books. Keep paying attention to those obscure interests, like mummies and puerperal fever – you make great stories out of them and I never know what you’ll come up with next.


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