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📚 Scavengers, Shipwrecks, & Surcharges: 7 Insights to Prompt (our) Writing
A weird fact or insight for every day of (the first week of) November, just in time for National Novel Writing Month... or Essay Camp 👀
I’m not going to make another attempt at National Novel Writing Month. Last year, I really enjoyed doing it withand the other folks in the Obsidian Discord (join us: here’s the year-round writing challenges thread), even though I’ve never won Hitting 50k words of fiction in a month wasn’t really my goal: I was aiming to beat my previous best for days-in-a-row writing, and seeing how long I could stay on track with my wordcount… but I know myself, and this year, my head isn’t in the game for fiction. Having a 3-month-old baby at home with me all day is limiting my attention span in a very real way, and I’m disinclined to beat myself up over it or set myself up for disappointment.
So this year, instead of starting a novel using a detailed plan or plot outline, I’m going to comb through the vault of notes I’ve compiled over the years. I’m going to put together lists of quotes I’ve earmarked as being potential jumping off points. Hopefully it helps with Summer Brennan’s Essay camp, which I’m planning to do along with at least one other Obsidian user () who rolled a custom vault structure for it.
& I’m sharing it now in hopes that it helps you or someone you know with their own November writing.
1. Accounting is the OG Purpose of Writing
Proto-cuneiform was not a written representation of the syntax of spoken language. Its original purpose was to maintain records of the vast amounts of production and trade of goods and labor during the first flowering of the urban Uruk period Mesopotamia. Word order didn't matter: “two flocks of sheep” could be “sheep flocks two” and still contain enough information to be understood. That accounting requirement, and the idea of proto-cuneiform itself, almost certainly evolved from the ancient use of clay tokens.
— K. Kris Hurst, Proto-Cuneiform: Earliest Form of Writing on Planet Earth (2019)
This interests me for a number of reasons, namely:
it reminds me of the memes about not needing to see vowels in words in order to decipher texts.
it’s a useful explanation of why writing emerged around the time of hierarchical cultures engaging in agriculture.
it’s a useful way to connect knot-based records (quipu) with glyph-based records.
it’s a good reminder that although phonics is super important for teaching modern English, it’s not inherent to recorded communication, and it’s a good explanation of why phonics came later.
But for writing-a-story purposes, it mostly inspires me to imagine other ways that the need for accounting records might have evolved in an isolated population with different starting circumstances than the Inca or Mesopotamians. What if there’s no clay, and the traditional materials like pulp/leather/cloth are too precious to use for casual recordkeeping?
Another thought this inspires is noting that my accounting notes are probably my most important notes, in terms of making sure my life stays good — I’d rather be boring at dinner than run afoul of the IRS…
Speaking of dinners, tho:
2. Small Congregations have Higher Engagement
As sociological studies have demonstrated, such circumstances, in which congregations are kept relatively small, generate a particularly high level of commitment among the congregation members, as the small size allows them to build social bonds with a significant percentage of their fellow worshippers, unlike in congregations numbering in the hundreds or thousands. Furthermore, one’s commitment to a group can be enhanced by repetitive participation in ritual activities, especially initiations.
— David Walsh, Military Communities and Temple Patronage: A Case Study of Britain and Pannonia (2020)
My head went straight to Rome when I read this, particularly in the context of the early Christian cults, but the more I think about it, the more it made me reflect on modern communities — particularly the evolution of communities surrounding modern notetaking apps used for personal knowledge management. The “RoamCult” is best known, but this recent Fast Company article (which I was quoted in!) describes the Obsidian community a somewhat cultish as well.
As Twitter undergoes its metamorphosis, I’ve noticed the tenor of engagement changing there as well. Fewer of my friends seem active, most of what’s crossing my feed seems optimized for engagement, etc. Folks keep talking about how BlueSky and Threads are all exciting and new, but as I remind myself of the above studies, I wonder how much of that has to do with newness and how much of it has to do with size. Are smaller communities just… better? Once they reach a certain critical mass, of course? Certainly, there are reasons to prioritize depth of relationships over having lots of acquaintances… but most of my interactions with religious folks in America indicate that people are a lot more worried about the dropping numbers than diluting their sense of connectedness to their fellow-travelers. I suspect this has something to do with Christianity being fundamentally evangelical, but the tension between “community withering up and dying” vs “community expanding too much to maintain social bonds” is an interesting balance to consider.
Speaking of balance…
3. Some Symbiotes Outlive their Partners
Why would you evolve such an over-engineered, energetically expensive fruit if gravity and water are your only dispersers, and you like to grow on higher ground? You wouldn’t. Unless you expected it to be eaten by mammoths or ground-sloths.
— Whit Bronaugh, The Trees That Miss The Mammoths (2011)
My son loves osage oranges. They’re roughly the size of a softball, turn into a pulpy mess when you smash them, and are so annoying to eat that not even the squirrels and birds and ants won’t bother to scavenge them, not even after a car has smashed them open.
4. Scavengers Tend to be Dumb but Nice
Urban foxes are showing the physical signs of domestication, but we didn't breed them on purpose. Their brains are smaller than their wild counterparts — but they're friendlier, which keeps them alive, which gives them more opportunities to breed. A third of an urban fox's diet is scavenged.
— Cass R. Sunstein, Here’s Something We Can Learn From the Urban Fox (2020)
So, one thing to take from this is that domestication does not require intent. But the other thing I’ll note is that this runs directly counter to how human scavengers are often portrayed in novels — where they’re usually hard-bitten, unfriendly folks who live on the edges of civilization and are barely tolerated. Of course in those stories there aren’t exactly many truly wild humans running about, but it does make me wonder what a group of human scavengers existing on the edges of a powerful alien empire that hasn’t assimilated the “wild humans” into their sphere of influence might look like…
Although if we’re treating scavengers as an industry, it’s worth remembering that:
5. A Single Disaster Can Destroy an Industry
It was a disaster of epic proportions, costing the whaleship owners and their crews millions in today’s dollars. It was also a critical factor in the whaling industry’s decline. The story of the disaster has become part of whaling lore, the ships thought to be destroyed and lost for 144 years.
This feels almost facile to say that a lucrative consumer industry can destroy a species — that’s the whole point of having strict hunting limits on animals like seals or elephants or beavers or, closer to home for me, blue crabs and striped bass. But it’s rarer that we get a really great example of one fluke event leading to the destruction of an entire industry. The incident itself is interesting and worth reading about, not least of which because the shifting weather and ice led to the abandonment of an entirely sound ship that was occupied by families. I hadn’t even really known that whole families went out on whaling ships together.
But for November purposes, it makes me want to include a detail in a story where there’s a historical reason for an industry that otherwise feels like it should exist in the world to have failed to develop or died out prematurely.
But what kind of industry might that be?
6. Pinch Points Benefit the Few at the Cost of the Many
Both carriers and terminal operators are bottlenecks in the system, and they profit not just by charging normal prices, but also by imposing a variety of surcharges on anyone who needs their service. This is similar to how airlines will offer a price for a ticket, but then also charge baggage fees, ticket change fees, or administrative fees on top of that. In 2009, for instance, roughly 50% of total freight charged came from surcharges. The ability to extract extra revenue, especially when demand is high, means that we’re not in an all-hands on deck situation, but a situation which is working quite well for some, and terribly for much of the industry and the public.
— Matt Stoller, Too Big to Sail: How a Legal Revolution Clogged Our Ports (2021)
This is the kind of thing that gets leveraged a lot in history. Monopolies aren't really new — consider toll booths, or the kinds of exploitation that controlling the only access to water might have. Range wars in the American west come to mind, but there are other storytelling opportunities here; for example, L. E. Modesitt does a lot with the sociopolitical implications of dams in the Imager portfolio and, come to think of it, the military implications of dams make an appearance in his Spellsong Cycle as well.
One of the things I liked best about the Spellsong Cycle, which is my favorite of Modesitt’s series, was how the protagonist — a middle-aged mom made suddenly powerful in a new world because of her skill at singing — took an absolutely no-nonsense approach to making the land she wound up in tolerable for her. It was a good example of how…
7. Powerful Military Leaders are Hard to Manipulate
“Humans are clearly drawn to these sorts of conspiracy theories, imagining power wielded from behind the scenes, but in actual history, most power is held by the obvious fellows who command armies and rule states and wield that power openly. Because the fact is, the ruler with access to lots of soldiers with weapons generally has no reason to let anyone pull their strings.”
— Bret Devereaux, Hidden String-Pullers, Falling Empires, and Tactics Against Horse Archers (2021)
I recently had a discussion withabout the nature of the phrase “the exception that proves the rule,” so in the interests of communicating more clearly I’m going to say instead that I found this interesting because so many speculative fiction books do showcase things like secret ruling cabals and leaders like this being manipulated… but I’m convinced that the right way to think about these dynamics is something bit more like what was pointed out in his later article about how external policy is often driven by internal politics.
Incidentally, military skills do not equal riot control skills: I’m not sure whether this is because politicians & military strategists too often fail to take “the rabble” seriously, or because managing internal dissent and maintaining enough popular support to rule — legitimacy is necessary even in totalitarian dictatorships to at least some degree — is harder than crushing an enemy army at the border.
This is not an essay. It is, at best, a collection of proto-essays, strung together somewhat haphazardly and expanded slightly from their original form as notes. Nonetheless, I hope y’all find it useful, either as direct inspiration for your own November writing, or as examples of the ‘in-between’ stage of my writing — from inspiration, to interpretation, to idea… and pausing there before it develops into a fully developed insight, like my piece on the practical ways ancient people used religious experts to help them avoid plagues.
If you (or perhaps one of your friends) do write anything this November, inspired by this thread of ideas or not, please consider sharing it here, even if it’s incomplete, even if it’s just a paragraph or two you’re fond of. Isn’t that part of the community-building ritual of a new substack, after all? ;)