Is that an awesome poster or what? It just radiates demented testosterone. Crazy stuff. You see it on the internet making the rounds. I don’t know who did it, but it’s cool. The idea has been around for a while. There’s a Gary Larson cartoon about a western saloon with a saddled grizzly bear tethered next to the horsetrough – the implication being that the rider is really tough.
Yep, I wrote an entire book about Bear Cavalry.
That’s kind of peculiar. Even more peculiar, I really want you to buy it.
But here we are, and I thought, this might be a good subject to use to talk about my process as a writer. So I thought I would dissect The Bear Cavalry, A (Not) True History of the Icelandic Bear and explore how that came about.
I find, as a writer, that I’m kind of nihilistic. I’m not sure that’s exactly the right word, but it will do.
Basically, as a writer, I’m not chasing an audience. I just write what I really want to write about. Simple as that. Does it interest me? Is it fun. I mean, let’s face, it’s not as if anyone in the world is sitting there waiting for my next story or novel. I’m cool with that. If they aren’t, then I’m free, aren’t I? I can just happily do whatever I want! Whenever I want! Yay me!
So what motivated me to write about bears, apart from that very awesome piece of art?
Alternate History. There’s a forum online for alternate history. I’m a world builder at heart, historian by nature, so as soon as I heard about it, I joined right up. It’s a nice place, well policed, possibly over-policed, but fairly civil and quite pedantic. It’s basically nerd central. There’s a lot of ‘What if the Confederacy won the Civil War?’ And ‘What if Hitler got the Atom Bomb?’ stuff. That bores me to tears. But there’s a lot of interesting discussion.
It’s a nice place to take an idea, put it forward, and have people shit all over it. Sometimes that happens.
Anyway, so one of the things that comes up is ‘What if there were bear cavalry?’ Because, I guess, I’m not the only one who saw that painting. Mostly what happens is that everyone takes a giant dump on the idea and how impossible and ludicrous it is… as if we don’t spend 90% of our time on this forum talking about impossible and ludicrous things.
I took that as a challenge.
It was impossible. It was stupid. It was recklessly dangerous and impractical for a whole bunch of reasons.
So I decided to work out a pathway where it could plausibly happen. Or at least could sound plausible. It was a challenge.
It was that simple.
Apparently, I’m just exactly that random.
I wrote a novel once for a guy named Bill Hillman, an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, because I’d had a very nice visit with him, and he ended up in the hospital shortly after. He didn’t ask for it, I just thought it would cheer him up.
I wrote a short story as a ‘take that’ to a writers group that I was dissatisfied with. I just seem to go any which way. I dunno, being random may be satisfying. But I suspect it hasn’t done my prospective career as a commercial career much good – but then the business side of writing is random and arbitrary, so it balances out.
It was a challenge, it was an intellectual exercise, and it involved research. You dig into something, and you come up with all these fun facts – like the Icelandic Council in medieval times was forced to come up with laws to regulate bears, or the fact that the wall street bear market actually traded in bear meat, or the peculiar hijinks of European nobility.
There’s a lot of satisfaction in taking something that seems impossible or implausible or ridiculous, and making it make sense, making it seem real.
So I researched, and I built this pathway, this alternative history, where Vikings acquired black bears from North America. Where they domesticated them, and eventually started to ride them like ponies, and where they eventually wound up being used as a cavalry force in medieval wars. All of it so seamlessly woven into real history, real biology, that if you didn’t know better, you’d just assume that was what happend. Voila!
I love doing stuff like this.
I like making things make sense. Come up with a theory as to where Godzilla came from and why he’s a living nuclear reactor? Deconstruct Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian language? Design an ecology for a Greenland without an icecap? A plausible history for H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu cult? How about explaining muppets as biological animals with an evolutionary history and a weird affinity for language? I’m totally there.
I mean, if you have a giant and a goblin, are they just there, props in your fantasy world? Shouldn’t they have their own world views, their own diets, lifestyles, approaches to hunting? How do they organize their societies, with their different physical advantages and limitations? How do they ensure the next generation? What’s important to them? Who are they as real people?
Look at Tolkien’s Dwarves, living in their mountains, carving out all those great big tunnels, mining for gold. Well, you know what? Carving a tunnel into solid rock with hand tools is just brutal, difficult, time consuming, back breaking work, lifetimes of it. What are they eating? Who is raising the food? Why would they live in holes in frigging mountains?
There ought to be a little more to it.
Maybe it’s an upbringing working on cars at Dad’s garage. Or maybe the carpentary my grandfather taught me. Or maybe I just didn’t get enough jigsaw puzzles as a kid. Who knows. But I love pulling things together and trying to make it make sense. It just feels… elegant.
Now, let me take you in a completely different direction, into the craft of writing.
“A man walks into a room.”
That’s just boring.
The trick with writing is to be interesting. Information is simply information. It’s about putting a spin on it, tarting it up, giving it a bit of sizzle. There’s readable writing, and then there’s boring writing. Don’t be boring.
Back in my university days, with student journalism, it was all about ‘leads.’ Or maybe ‘ledes,’ although that sounded pretentious to me. It was all about getting that opening sentence, the perfect lead in. I knew people that really sweated over it.
I don’t really care about the opening sentence. It should be good, it should sizzle. But it’s not magical. The opening sentence is misplaced attention. If you do it right, it takes care of itself. But it’s not the thing.
The thing is to make it interesting. Always ask yourself, what’s the most interesting way to play this. If you’re doing a short story, it can be the point of view, the dialogue, the characters the starting point.
When I’m doing a novel, what I ask myself at each scene, what’s the most interesting way to play this.
“A man sits in a restaurant.”
Is he late? Is the waitress tired of him nursing a coffee? Does he like this particular restaurant because his family is gone and the noise of parents and children makes him feel less alone? Is he waiting for someone? Are they late? Is he irritated?
Nothing is ever simply the thing. It shouldn’t be simply the thing. There should always be more.
Each scene should engage, or surprise, or subvert or reveal or conceal. Do something with it. You’re telling a story, not writing programming instructions for your blu-ray.
So onto Bear Cavalry.
I’d basically done a lot of research, learned a lot of fun facts, and came up with a nifty alternate history across five or six hundred years from domestication to war.
How do I make that interesting? How do I make it fun?
I could just lay it out, let it sit there.
Or maybe write it as a magazine article, or as a faux academic paper. Academic papers are pretty dry though. And the subject matter is colourfully bonkers. How do you deal with something that’s visual, and crazy and plausible all at once?
I thought, do this as a documentary. Write it like a script, but more than that, write it like you’re watching a documentary, with edits and clips, interviews, graphics, captions, the whole nine yards.
And in particular, write it like a Morgan Spurlock documentary. The guy who did Super Size Me, and Where on Earth is Osama Bin Laden. Spurlock does these funky, lighthearted, off kilter documentaries, full of sly humour and genuine affection for his subject matter.
He became the voice in my head, narrating the documentary, wandering through the madness of bear restaurants, and crazed royalty, the viking raids, the little ice age, and the whole tapestry.
I tipped the hat to another bizarre documentarian, Robin Leach, and offered a little tribute to T.S. Elliot and his Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock instead of Spurlock, and it basically wrote itself.
That’s a thing, if it’s interesting, if your angle or your character is interesting, then it’s not just interesting for the reader. It’s interesting for you to write, it’s fun to write.
In the end, I am really proud of my Bear Cavalry. It was fun, it was funny, it was brisk, and full of interesting details, plausible, with moments of poignancy. It’s completely unlike anything else you might read. It’s definitely not a standard form of novel or novella. I couldn’t imagine the mainstream buying it. But it’s so cool, it ought to be wearing sunglasses.
I invite you, check it out.