Poughkeepsie, Schenectady, and Wal*Mart

Posted by on December 10, 2009 in how to, life in klaskyville, uncategorized | 13 comments

Many people ask writers where they get their ideas. Most of us writers have developed stock answers (including the snark that makes up the subject of this post.)

Yesterday, I had about a dozen ideas for new stories.

Yesterday morning, Maria V. Snyder and I headed down to the National Geographic to see the traveling exhibit of Terra Cotta Warriors from China. (Maria doesn’t live in the area, but she lives close enough that she can travel down here for a lovely evening of gossip, dining, more gossip, drinking wine, and more gossip, before heading to the exhibit the following day…)

I’d braced myself for disappointment at the exhibit. In China, there are 6000 terra cotta warriors, all guarding the tomb of the first emperor who unified China (around 221 BC.) The exhibit has 15 of them on display. A friend who saw the exhibit in Los Angeles said that it was just impossible to imagine the power of the 6000. The Washington Post museum critic said that the artifacts weren’t as interesting as the write-ups on the wall.

And yet, I was captivated by the exhibit. I kept needing to remind myself that these statues (and related artifacts) were made by actual humans 2200 years ago. That a real person carved the individual strands of a horse’s mane 2200 years ago. That a real emperor believed that his soul would be serviced by these creations 2200 years ago.

The curating was very good in this show. The explanations on the walls did a great job of explaining what the first emperor did, to change social structure, to gain absolute control. I found myself sketching story ideas, character details, themes, etc., all in my trusty notebook. (I don’t think I’ll ever write historic fiction based on this era – I don’t know enough of the details – but some of the fantasy-society ideas triggered by the show…)

So. Poughkeepsie. Schenectady. Wal*Mart. And the National Geographic.

Mindy, off to write down some more ideas


  1. A friend of mine went to China and saw the much larger display/exhibit and sent us pictures. Wow. Just Wow. (I wrote a short article with pictures for my husband’s website– if anyone wants to see pictures:



    I hope the tour comes close to Austin. I’d really like to see it.

    (For larger pictures, click on each picture.)


    • Alas, you’re out of luck on this tour… I’m pretty sure that DC is its last stop in the States, and then it heads up to Canada.

      Your pictures are impressive – that’s the one thing that’s lacking in this tour, is the overwhelming feeling that you get from all those bodies in once place!

  2. It sounds like a neat exhibit! You do make the most out of living in this area.

    I consider that what makes us spec fic writers is how real life gives us story ideas that most people would consider bizarre. My parents got divorced after 28 years of marriage. A mainstream writer might have been motivated to write a novel with divorce as the plot catalyst. I wrote a novel about a species that mated– purely pheromones, no choice involved– in which individuals were stuck for life with whoever they got.

    Can’t wait to see what you will come up with from terra cotta warriors!

    • I go through phases, where I feel like I’m really getting “my money’s worth” living here, and then there are times when I could be living in the Middle of Nowhere. I prefer the former, but sometimes Life gets in the way πŸ™‚

  3. Awsome post!
    But now I want to write First Emperor fiction too πŸ™

    • Write away!

      Seriously, one of the things that’s always intrigued me about writers is how we come up with different stories from the same set of inspirations!

  4. I saw that exhibition at the British Museum, and adored it. The thing that always comes home to me whenever I study real history (just saw Tutanchamun yesterday) is how much richer life is than the majority of novels. Three snippets I took home were the grave robbers stealing, not gold, but scented oils and perfumes, that grave robbing was widespread enough to occupy a lot of beaurocrats, and the way that the images of conquered enemies were worked into everything – the handles of staffs, sandals, footstools… the better to crush and humiliate them.

    • I’m often struck by the precise meaning of “nasty, brutish, and short” – the notion that people *expected* to be enslaved, and that the fate of slaves was often terrible. Our modern bureaucracies might astonish ancient rulers (an entire Cabinet position, to administer transportation?) One of my favorite parts of worldbuilding is exploring what is different, what is *important* in the made-up culture.

  5. When my husband and I went to Hawaii a few years ago I came away with two ideas for two very different alternate world histories, one of which was inspired by the visit to the Bishop Museum there. Museums are *best*. πŸ™‚

    • I used to wander around the Smithsonian every Sunday afternoon, on a study break from law school, sketching out story ideas in my notebook.

      Gee. Maybe that’s why I don’t practice law any more. πŸ™‚

  6. So where does Schenectady come into this? Did I miss something? (Again…) I grew up there, you know…

    • There’s a long tradition of SF authors being asked where they got their ideas, and Harlan Ellison once said “Schenectady.” Or “Poughkeepsie.” Or both. Or neither. It may be urban legend, by now!

      • Ah…I get it. And what about his mother in Oswego? (Or whatever the Marx bros quote was)