Research … when you can’t just make it up

Some people think writing fiction is easy, because you just make it up, right?

Not if you want it to make sense. Even the made-up parts have to be grounded in physical and emotional reality, and that requires thinking through the details – and sometimes research.

As a writer, I want the reader to identify with the characters and imagine herself / himself in a scene. How would I feel? What would I do? If I don’t provide enough realistic detail, it’s hard to picture the scene. And if the details are confusing or jarring (that’s just wrong!) the reader crashes out of the imagined world. When I get into a story, I want want to get into it. I don’t want constant little aggravating questions popping up, plot holes and wait-a-minutes, and that’s not how it would happen. Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” only stretches so far before it tears.

That’s especially true for readers who know something about the particular subject. If the scene in one of my stories involves farm animals, for example, or steam engines, a foreign language, physics, or guns, you can be sure that I am very conscious of the fact that some readers know a WHOLE lot more about the subject than I do! I cannot become an expert in everything, but I have to do enough research to make the scene work without provoking a more knowledgeable reader to throw down the book or click away in disgust. Writing a chapter goes slowly as I wander with my browser learning about 18th Century inoculations, Lorentzian traversable wormhole theory, and how to handle a six-horse team like you see in the Budweiser Super Bowl ads (except in 2021). Fact-based fiction is an adventure in learning.

And I do try to keep even the fiction consistent and “fact-based.” That’s often overlooked in science fiction for the sake of drama, to get on with the story. Patrick Stewart once said in an interview that he asked the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation how fast the Enterprise was supposed to be traveling at “warp” speed. He was told that the spaceship travels at the speed of plot. I understand the need for impossible physics to tell lots of stories with the same cast and crew, popping around from planet to planet where humans are just fine walking around and breathing the air. But for Traynor’s World I took the trouble to imagine more realistically a single world that would be human-habitable but not exactly the same as Earth. That means at least a slightly different gravity, atmosphere, rotational period, orbital period, and biomes. So, I had to work out a calendar, for example, and a table of equivalency to Earth years, which I have to consult from time to time (so to speak).

Making stuff up can be hard (well, kids know that, when they are questioned by parents), and sometimes it takes serious research.