Sherlock Holmes (okay, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) used to compare the human brain to an attic. The more lumber and junk one filled it with, the harder it is to find what was actually useful. “A skilled workman,” he told Watson, “is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work.”
I first read this when I was sixteen and was both suitably impressed and somewhat depressed. I was still youthful enough to have an inflated opinion of my intellect and I was curious about everything. I wanted to be a renaissance woman of sorts - knowing about technology as well as art, science and sculpture, embroidery and martial arts, music and first aid, the life cycle of owls and special effect techniques, logic and law, volcanoes and lava cakes. I wanted to know everything and I was just foolish enough to believe I could. Being a genius, I thought, was both attainable and desirable.
But Holmes' theory brought me up short. My ultimate goal was to become a writer. Even in my most far-flung fantasies of Paleontology and brain surgery, writing was always in the plan, and I thought, If Holmes is right, am I wasting my time with these other subjects? Wasting time seemed to me, even then, to be the worst of all crimes.
It bothered me for a while, this theory of the crammed attic and the idea of wasting time on subjects that would only serve to distract. It wasn’t until I was sitting at my computer, in the middle of a fantasy novel and Googling ‘invention of forks’, that I realized something: Writers aren’t consulting detectives. They are storytellers and, as such, need to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of whatever subject they are writing about.
Take, for instance, the story I’m writing now. It’s a treasure hunt story set in modern day New England, involving a Civil War connection. Not too hard, right? After all, I live in New England, I love American history, and this story is set in modern day, so the research should be easy.
So far, in researching this, I’ve found myself googling the following items:
New Hampshire regiments in the Civil War
Current New Hampshire based online news magazines
Trashy romance novel names
How to use a metal detector
The pregnancy cycle of thoroughbreds
Early Colonial buildings
When equestrians first learn to jump
Concussions and their treatment
Hip replacement surgery recovery
Lilacs – native to New Hampshire?
Hymnal production in the US
Basements – did colonial buildings in New Hampshire have them?
Jewelry in early America
Are redheads always pale-skinned? Or can they have olive complexions?
All fascinating things, but fairly far-flung subjects. This short list (and I’m only about half-way through the book), covers American History (Colonial, Republican, and Civil War), Social Studies, popular culture, current events, medical science, equine studies, horticulture, and even martial studies (as it became necessary not only to learn about the names of the NH regiments, but their compositions, deployment, and training tactics).
This led me to a conclusion: Even if I had followed Holmes’ excellent advice and stocked my brain with only those essentials that would allow me to pursue a writing career, my attic, if you will, would look about the same as it does now: a seemingly hap-hazard collection of trivia, dealing from the smallest details (when were umbrellas first used in the Western world? What were they made of?) to larger issues (is killing unacceptable under any circumstances? What is truth?) to the frankly random (most of dental cleaning is done by the toothbrush, rather than the toothpaste). And nearly all of it is necessary, because creating worlds isn’t quite the same as lifting finger prints from the scene of the crime. Sherlock Holmes can concentrate on the finger prints, but Conan Doyle had to ‘commit’ the crime, set the scene, create the characters, place Watson here, Lestrade there, and know not only what the fingerprints meant, but how to lift them, how Watson would see them, what Sherlock would know about them, and why the mysterious woman in green left them behind when she’d been so careful everywhere else. The attic has to be pretty well-crammed with all manner of lumber to figure out all that.
This relaxed me as a sixteen year old. As of today, I still don't know how to sculpt or properly stain wood. I did not become a genius and I've learned, to my sorrow, that there is not enough time in the world to study all the interesting things things in it. But I have also discovered being an author means that I can indulge in whatever subject or event that piques my curiosity, because all of it could be used, in one way or another, in a story. Nothing need be wasted in the Author’s Attic, not even time.