I have books on my shelves. That won’t surprise anyone – I am, after all, a writer and an academic. I am also a crafter, a translator, an avid reader, a sometime-gardener, a computer-geek-wannabe…
I don’t just have books. I’m surrounded by books. Books spill out of my shelves and onto the coffee table, into the kitchen, onto the floor, the back of the couch, they clutter my desk…
I live in a library.
All that’s missing is a cataloguing system and an agreement from the family to shelves the books back in their proper place.
Yeah. That’s going to happen. When pigs fly.
But that’s not why I like to sit back and look at my shelves. Not because they’re groaning under the weight of books.
It’s because of all the places and people that are in those volumes.
Times, space, distant lands… Colors, flavors, scents.
I can go back to the 19th century in the words of a 19th century author, or allow myself to be led back in time by a contemporary writer and trust her to have done the research. I can be amused by the highly subjective traveler’s account of a medieval geographer, or I can read about archeological discoveries from that time.
Before there was googling for images, there were albums, heavy coffee-table books full of magnificent photographs of museum pieces.
Don’t get me wrong. I google for images all the time. I can spend hours learning the layout of an area so I can write about it, or imprint it on my mind so I can create a landscape from its impression.
Or just because I feel like looking at something other than summer-burned browish grass.
I love my Russian-classics shelves, with their neat arrays of complete-works-of (no, not every single Russian classical author, just the big ones – did I say we were a family of academics?).
I am an avid reader. Which makes me a forgiving reader… with the first book of a new author. And sometimes the second.
But the said academic side of me also makes me a critical and intransigent reader, and some mistakes and awkwardnesses will cause me to ban books, series, or even authors, from my shelves.
Because some of these mistakes can be easily avoided.
Just a little bit of research for accuracy, a reaching-out to a specialist in any given field… Really, it’s easy.
But how about when it comes to imaginary places and imaginary beings?
Who’s an expert on elves?
J.R.R. Tolkien? He was an expert on Middle Earth elves. Are those the elves you imagine?
Who knows werewolves intimately? Maybe I don’t want to know.
And how about people who actually met aliens?
No, not aliens like I once was, card-carrying, documented aliens, or even the undocumented kind… I mean the not-of-this-planet kind.
If you’re a writer, then you probably found yourself now and then sitting in your backyard, or by the fireplace, or staring into space waiting for the traffic jam to clear, and having this strange feeling that you were just about to have an Encounter of the Third Kind.
And then it passes, and you’re almost sorry it was just your imagination.
Because now your brain is stuck in a deep “what-if” rut.
What if you did encounter… a not-of-this Earth alien? What if you did encounter a werewolf? How about a magical being? What would they be like?
I am a big fan of science-fiction and fantasy (just take a look at my shelves – and at my e-book collection). But I didn’t grow up on it. My parents were staunch believers that reading was serious business, and the shelves of my childhood were filled with classics and modern authors.
It was back in France, but most of the books in French were on the shelves in my room. The rest? In Russian. I did grow up split between two cultures (yes, it was as painful as it sounds, at times; and at times, it was like a marbled cake: you don’t have to choose your flavor, you get both).
And I had friends in Germany, where I spent a lot of my vacations.
So I grew up with the understanding that people are very different: city, country, French, Russian, Russian-in-France, Russian-in-Germany, Russians-from-over-there (visitors from the USSR it was). Even the French were not the same everywhere. In Paris, they were Parisian first (big-city people), French second. In the south, they were Southern French with a different way of speaking, and different foods, and more sunshine.
It was always a very small step to go from accepting that there are differences delineated by a random line on a map, to imagining differences impossible to bridge because of basic incompatibilities in biology.
Or rather, the two went hand-in-hand until the time came to verbalize the issue.
How do you communicate with a person?
With language. Words. Meanings.
From a very early age (because I grew up bilingual) I realized that linguistic structures could be obstacles to understanding as much as the basic meaning of words.
But how about when you’re faced with something that has no language?
A horse! I still dream of horses.
How do you communicate – and control – this animal that’s about ten times your size?
They don’t speak.
They don’t understand words. No, really, they can learn commands, but they don’t understand words.
And yet, man and horse has had this millenia-long symbiotic relationship.
I could talk about riding techniques and the fact that a horse is a prey animal and man is a predator, and breeding and all sorts of scientific stuff.
But in the end it comes down to unspoken communication, whether by means of reins and legs when you’re on a horse’s back, or the sound of your voice, or the offer of sweet, crunchy carrots.
And how about dogs? Dogs do learn words. Mine recognizes treat, walk, out, sit, snack, outside… and more. Some we’ve taught him – trained him to obey the commands. Some he’s figured out. If I say treat, he’ll go plant himself by the treat shelf. We did not teach him that.
But mostly, my dog knows love and trust. And however good he is at communicating with his humans (because that’s dogs’ specialty – communicating with humans, it’s been bread into them over hundreds of millenia), he’s still a dog.
He may be your baby, but he’s still a dog.
Our pets are the real aliens in our midst. May they teach us to write about highly evolved non-human beings.
Learn more from Masha by taking a look at her workshop: Parameters of Alienness: the Foreign or Alien Hero
Masha Holl is the owner of Otter Creations. She holds a Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, and has given up trying to outrun an academic fate. She has taught Russian language, literature, and culture, and French language at the college level, and done a stint in college administration. She also works as a free-lance translator-interpreter when the occasion presents itself in areas as diverse as education, medicine, and wildlife conservation. In addition to Language Services and Book Videos, she offers online workshops and creates book covers and graphic art.
She’s also a published author of romantic science fiction. Her novella The Brightest Heaven, and her short story The Joining, are available as ebooks from the usual sources. Please visit her website atwww.MashaHoll.com to take a look at her art.