I think “write what you know” can be valuable, but if we all stuck to it slavishly, would the fiction genre exist? How many writers have actually been astronauts or debutantes, or even in situations where we had to fight for our lives? I learn how to make my work more exciting by supplementing my safe modern life with nonfiction, and you can too.
Here are some (relatively lighthearted) works that have caught my interest lately and that I bet, will inspire you. Not only as a reader but also as someone who may have a skill you should talk about and share with the world, these books might just awaken the writer in you!
1. Bedside Book of Bad Girls by Chris Enss
From a serial killer disguised as a psychic who placed a victim on the railroad train to finish him off, to a cigar-smoking gambler who shot a man in self-defense during a game, all the women in this book would make great main characters… although not necessarily protagonists. One of my favorites was Victoria Woodhull, arrested for advocating for “free love,” who fell in love with her husband during a psychic trance, tried to get the right to vote, and exposed a rapist in her newspaper. I believe that the best thing anyone who wants to write historicals or historical-inspired fantasy can do is to learn how viscerally wild, strange, and unexpected history often was, and this book presents a little bit of everything. Plus, some of the sketchier murderesses would make fabulous baddies in a romantic suspense.
2. European Magic and Witchcraft by Martha Rampton
I love primary sources – first-hand writings from a historical period. I can’t get enough of them. This book has 86 of them, with cool old-fashioned words and names and even magic spells. You could take any one of these documents, whether it’s a description of a female magician in Ancient Rome turning into a bird, an epic poem about necromancy, or a medieval tale about knights and fairies, and get inspiration for a short story. I think that’s what nonfiction should do, ideally. You’ll also get ideas for grounding your magic in physical reality, which I think is very important.
3. Sex with the Queen by Eleanor Herman
This book covers one of my favorite topics: well-dressed people being absolutely terrible to each other. From the beginning of the first chapter, the author casually drops wild facts, mentioning that glamorous historical palaces were crawling with rats, the fine wine royalty purchased often froze in the bottles, and proxies standing in for an absent couple at a wedding could seal the marriage by touching feet. Every time I read this author’s nonfiction, I want to write something with court intrigue and forbidden romance.
4. By The Sword by Richard Cohen
I considered stealing this book from the library as a child, which for me was on the same moral level as arson. It’s still that good. It’s not just about swords, it’s about the people and professions who used them- soldiers, gladiators, fencing-masters, philosophers who fought duels in their spare time – and the cultural norms and beliefs that surrounded their fights. If your work is set in a time and place where people carry swords, you should probably read this. If your work isn’t set in a time and place where people carry swords, maybe start an additional project so you have an excuse to read this?
Ennis Bashe is a non-binary poet and YA fantasy novelist. Their poetry has appeared in Strange Horizons, Liminality Magazine, and various zines, and their short fiction has appeared in the Outliers of Science Fiction anthology, as well as Solarpunk Press, Mirror Dance edited by Megan Arkenberg, and The Future Fire. Ennis has received a Rainbow Awards honorable mention and is a Lesfic Bard Awards winner. They are also the author of several queer romance/speculative fiction novellas. In particular, their novella To Stand In The Light features a bisexual superheroine with ADHD, and Graveyard Sparrow centers on a lesbian psychic who uses witchcraft to help manage their social anxiety.