Category Archives: Research
Those who know me would realise that I raise an eyebrow at the mere mention of the Rules of Writing. You know the ones; thou shalt not use passive voice, thou shalt avoid ‘that’, ‘as’, ‘just’ and ‘there was’, thou shalt not use adjectives and yay, verily, thou shalt not use adverbs. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. They are sensible guidelines to consider, NOT “rules” Somebody was supposed to have said, “There are three rules to writing. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.”
BUT… the title says it all, doesn’t it? There is one rule you break at your peril, and that is
Do Your Research
I was involved in an interesting discussion with writers of science fiction, based on a blog post about whether the ‘science’ was important in science fiction. Specifically, the author discussed a scenario in a novel where a spaceship in deep space begins to slow down when the engines fail. There was some to-ing and fro-ing over how important it was that this would not happen. Without any drag in the almost complete vacuum of space, inertia would keep the ship travelling at a constant speed unless something else intervened. It transpired that the writer of the novel had based her ‘research’ on a few science fiction movies. This is not a great move when you consider films like Star Wars, where basic physics is either misunderstood (this ship did the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs) or ignored. Think fighters zooming around in space as they would in atmosphere, and making a quick trip to Bespin without a hyperdrive, just to mention a couple.
People who read science fiction tend to be interested in science. Authors should at least do their readers the courtesy of trying to get it right. I grew up on Asimov and Clarke, who made sure their science was plausible, and basic facts of physics were either adhered to, or if not then explained. Jack McDevitt does the same. Somebody is going to say, but what about faster than light travel (FTL)? That’s impossible. Sure. But that’s a recognised trope in SF, commonly used in space opera to move the story forward. And as I explained here, planet hopping might not be as silly as it sounds.
A similar thing can be said of historical fiction, which I have also written. Before I wrote about a lad beheaded with a sword – just for fun – I found out how this could be done and what would happen. If you’re interested, here’s the answer – murder by decapitation. When I needed to write a scene where muskets were used, I researched muskets. Here’s the post about that. Writers of crime novels face the same situation. You’re going to kill somebody. Is the mode of death feasible? How long does it take? What evidence is left behind etc etc.
I suppose not everybody will agree with me. After all, the story is the thing, is it not? And since I’m a Star Wars fan, I can hardly disagree. But I still think Lucas et al could have done their homework and come up with something more accurate and still just as exciting. Even a few nose thrusters in the fighters would have helped. And maybe the hyperdrive could have been damaged, in need of repair, but still barely operational. Sure, there’s a little more room in speculative fiction for invention. After all, it is ‘fiction’. But I think there’s a limit. Even when I wrote Black Tiger, which is about a were-tiger, I took care to find out about real tigers, the legend of were-tigers in India, and the role of tigers in Hindu theology.
So what do you think? Am I being self-righteous? Do you expect to find real science in science fiction? Real history in historical novels? Or doesn’t it matter to you?
Today I’m welcoming Mary Pax to my blog. As well as being a writer, she has a passion for astronomy and I’m green as grass that she has actually had the chance to use a big telescope in an observatory. Here’s her story.
Thanks to Greta for graciously inviting me on her blog today. It’s a pleasure to meet all of you. I have a passion that competes with writing.
Every Memorial Day weekend, I dig out my winter gear, and head thirty miles east to Pine Mountain. The observatory sits at 6200 feet. The summit is 6400 feet, and it’s almost always cold. I drive out there most every Friday and Saturday night to give star tours and peer through telescopes.
It’s something I never imagined I’d be able to do. I don’t have a science degree. I never owned a telescope before volunteering there. I never even looked through one before. I knew almost squat about the sky — the Big Dipper, Orion, and how to find the North Star. That was it.
Pretty sad for a science fiction writer, and astrophysicists to bounce story ideas off of are hard to come by. So when we moved to Central Oregon four and a half years ago and I stumbled across a help-wanted ad for the observatory, no experience needed, I felt destiny grabbed me by the throat. How could I pass up an opportunity like that?
I couldn’t. I sure was nervous when I started. I’d followed the Cassini mission for years, so knew a lot about Saturn. The rest I learned that first summer. I would ask questions and listen to my fellow volunteers. Some nights they’d make me operate the 10” dobsonian telescope outside. My job was to point it at Jupiter and the Moon. Both are hard to miss, so I could handle that. I’d break out into a cold sweat whenever anyone asked to see anything else though.
Last night of the first season, a troop of boy scouts came up. The troop leader was very knowledgeable and had star charts. They stood around, picking out objects they wanted to see, and cheering, “You can do it, Mary.”
That thrill of discovery, even if I’ve seen that object a few hundred times, is addictive. It keeps me going back. The beauty of what lies above us still fills me with wonder.
I just started my fifth summer at the observatory. I love the thrills I give the visitors. I love teaching them. I love sparking wonder in the children. I love when they all go home and I get to try to find new objects or just roam around the skies. I love the quiet under the glitter filled cosmos, the meteors jetting across in splendor, the noisy screech owls, and standing on top of the world. It refuels my creative pools, and is the most awesome job there is next to writing. I love every awesome second of it.
What fuels your writing?
The Backworlds After the war with Earth, bioengineered humans scatter across the Backworlds. Competition is fierce and pickings are scant. Scant enough that Craze’s father decides to hoard his fortune by destroying his son. Cut off from family and friends, with little money, and even less knowledge of the worlds beyond his own, Craze heads into an uncertain future. Boarding the transport to Elstwhere, he vows to make his father regret this day.
For other outlets such as iTunes and Kobo, see M. Pax’s Backworlds Page
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About the author:
M. Pax’s inspiration comes from the wilds of Oregon, especially the high desert where she shares her home with two cats and a husband unit. Creative sparks also come from Pine Mountain Observatory where she spends her summers working as a star guide. She writes mostly science fiction and fantasy, but confesses to an obsession with Jane Austen. She blogs at her website, www.mpaxauthor.com and at Wistful Nebuae. You’ll find links there to connect on Twitter, Goodread, FB and other sites.
Remember that scene in ‘Star Wars: A New Hope‘ when Luke and Obi Wan go into the Mos Eisley cantina? The place was full of aliens. Leaning on the bar, arguing, drinking various foaming substances and playing cool, swing music. If you’ve any sort of interest in science, you’d be like me and go directly into ‘go along for the ride’ mode. It just isn’t probable.
But wait a minute. Just the other day we were told that our very own Milky Way could contain up to 2 billion (yes, billion with a ‘b’) ‘earthlike planets’. Gosh. Two billion planets that could potentially support life like us. http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2011/12/the-milky-ways-two-billion-earthlike-planets-an-update.html
Wait a moment, though. What does ‘earthlike’ mean in this context? The report comes from Kepler’s search for planets orbiting planets like our sun and in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone. Which means the planet is ‘not too hot for liquid water and not too cold’. Kepler can’t actually see any of these planets, their presence is surmised from periodic dimming of the sun’s light as something passes in front of it and from slight perturbations in the sun’s orbit. But scientists can calculate the likely size of the body. For instance, Kepler 22-B is estimated at 2.4 times the size of Earth.
But there’s much more to life on Earth than liquid water and reasonable temperature. The article goes on to quote from “Rare Earth”, a book by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, which discusses in detail what would be needed to define a planet as an ‘earth analog’. Some of the things they list don’t readily spring to mind, such as a giant like Jupiter acting as a mine sweeper to reduce the amount of debris penetrating to habitable zones to pose a threat to life. We also need that molten metal core inside the Earth to generate a magnetic field which protects us from harmful cosmic rays. Then we need a breathable atmosphere, a year length not too much different from our own, and gravity at least 80% of our own. (Less than that and the planet wouldn’t hold atmosphere) I don’t think I’d like to live on a planet 2.4 times the size of Earth. It would be pretty hard to move around.
We just don’t know enough about any of these planets to know if they’re really ‘earthlike’. The point is made that both Venus and Earth are in the habitable zone around our sun and they are much the same size. But we won’t be setting up a colony on Venus any time soon.
Yes, but that’s humans. Getting back to the cantina scene, we are presented with a number of alien species, all presumably capable of space flight. So what about other life forms on these earthlike planets? Sure, that’s possible – but then we come up against the famous Drake equation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation), which considers variables such as technology and the life of civilisations.
Mind you, Kepler’s discoveries are a breakthrough from the time not too many decades ago (maybe only two) when scientists could do no better than to say that our sun was nothing special so other stars would quite probably have planets. The Drake equation dates back to those times. This is such an exciting time to be interested in the universe. I keep getting this feeling that space travel as written in science fiction might not be all that far away. Soon, it seems, we’ll have places to visit, too.
I’m not too sure I’ll be running auditions for a new cantina scene, though.
Reviews for my first book, Double Crossing, have touched on page-turning chapter endings, rich settings and historical details. Writers might ask how they can find an easy way to do all that in their own books. I have good news and bad news. First the bad—great chapter endings take hard work in the revision process. And the good news? Research is fun.
Some writers might argue with me over that, but give me a stack of books or photo-studded websites to trawl, and I’m there with bells on! I love research. More than writing? No, but I can’t explain that wonderful “Aha!” feeling when I stumble over a really great detail I can use for my books. Call me crazy. Call me an old-fashioned library hound. But I can usually make a call on spotting a research detail problem in a book—from a modern phrase to an inaccurate setting or the wrong costume for a character. Why? Because I made those mistakes too.
And learned from them. That’s the key, to know better and take the time to do the hard work rather than take the easy way out.
Long ago, I entered a contest with the first twenty or so pages of a novel I planned to write. Lucky for me, well-known author Cheryl St. John judged my entry and pointed out very kindly that I hadn’t researched historic Omaha for the time period. How did she know? She lives there, and has extensive knowledge of that history. I scrambled to take her advice and was amazed at how lazy I’d been, making up things when I had plenty of sources that told me otherwise. And that early start eventually became part of Double Crossing! I’m still grateful to Cheryl for her timely tips. And after selling my carefully researched novel, I asked several other published author friends for some nice “blurb” to help promote it.
One mentioned a tiny detail about using photographs in newspapers. “Didn’t that start in 1872, not 1869?” she asked me. Red-faced, I realized that TINY detail could have undermined all the hard work I’d done in researching other details. She was right—such a small thing, and I’m grateful to her for pointing that out also. I prefer accuracy in books I read, and while few people might have noticed, I feel much better in having my own work be as accurate as possible. To me, it enriches the experience for the reader. I take pride in hearing “I feel like I was right there with Lily on the train, seeing everything!”
A few tips I can give you about research are: ALWAYS try to verify your source—if you find that in more than one place, then it’s bound to be accurate. Key word is try, because sometimes you won’t find more than one. ALWAYS go beyond Wikipedia to find actual historical books on costumes, places, history, etc. My daughter has often told me that she knows people who “fiddle” with Wikipedia and put inaccurate stuff on there. And last, ALWAYS rely on critique partners, friends, family, contest judges, whoever, to catch mistakes. Never assume you are right unless you are certain some detail is set-in-stone accurate. They might be wrong. But chances are good that if more than one person questions something, then so will a reader.
And the key is to keep your readers hooked and returning for more of your hard work. So take your time and produce quality. The devil is in the details, after all.
Meg Mims is an author, artist and amateur photographer. She writes historical mysteries and romantic suspense, and is a staff writer for RE/MAX Platinum in Michigan and for Lake Effect Living, a West Coast of Michigan tourist on-line magazine. Meg had an article about a lighthouse keeper published this past summer in The Chronicle, the Historical Society of Michigan magazine. Meg’s first novel, Double Crossing was also published this summer by Astraea Press.
DOUBLE CROSSING — Book Website Link MEG MIMS — Author Website Link (I hope to consolidate these together soon)
Astraea Press, Amazon, B&N — BUY Links
Having just finished my latest book, Starheart, I’ve been kicking stones and looking under bushes for the next story idea and I got to thinking; where do other people get their inspiration? Dark paths into an even darker wood? Things that go bump in the night? Beasties hidden behind bushes?
I well remember when I first came up with The Iron Admiral. I have a thing for men in uniform and I’ve had an abiding interest in military history so my leading man was going to be an officer. Since I was still working in the computer industry at the time, the idea of a heroine who is a computer expert was something of a no-brainer. I rather wanted my male MC to be a little bit older and very senior because while junior officers get to do all the derring-do, senior men have to make such very difficult decisions. Does he send a battalion here, knowing they’ll be decimated, but trading off the strategic advantage over there?
These decisions must be excruciatingly difficult to make, but it isn’t very sexy. Readers want action, excitement and, in a romance, both the hero and heroine together. Orson Scott Card, in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, cautions writers against having generals and admirals as the MC for that very reason. He cites James T. Kirk, Captain of the starship ‘Enterprise’, who went off exploring the different worlds the ship encountered. He makes the point that “any captain of a ship or commander of an army who behaved like Captain Kirk would be stripped of command for life.” So very true, so if I wanted to have an admiral as my MC, I would have to arrange things so he did have freedom to manoeuvre.
To come up with a plot, I turned to history. In 1939, Hitler was spoiling for a war. He and his generals were willing and ready, Hitler had signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin and the way to the East was open. He just needed an excuse. The West was still hoping diplomacy would work, British Prime Minister Chamberlain had triumphantly waved the 1938 Munich agreement as he landed back in London. If Hitler wanted his war, he would have to arrange for one. Accordingly, on 31st August, 1939, German operatives wearing Polish uniforms seized a radio station in Gleiwitz, a town just inside the German border, and broadcast an anti-German message in Polish. To make the attack look more convincing, the Gestapo dressed a known Polish sympathiser in the town in a Polish uniform and shot him. German tanks rolled into Poland on 1st September.
And that, dear reader, is how I came up with the outline of what has become The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy. As it happens, Starheart (which will be published next year) takes place in the same universe as the two Iron Admiral books. I’m thinking this next one, might, too. I have the germ of an idea…
How do you get inspired?
Like just about every Australian and many of our friends around the world, I’ve been watching the images of flood in Queensland, at once shocked, horrified and in awe of the events. Whole towns evacuated not once but three times – and yes, the people had cleaned up twice already. An inland Tsunami roared through a town without a river; cars were tossed like corks, shipping containers, pontoons – even a hundred metres or more of walkway being shepherded down the river by a barge so it wouldn’t demolish anything in its path. In Brisbane, Queensland’s capital city, thousands of homes were flooded. In some cases, all you could see in the aerial photos was roofs above the water.
It’s been going on for months now, after a thirteen year drought. At first the rain poured down on the arid inland plains and the vast river systems started once again to flow. The Diamantina and Coopers Creek and others don’t flow to the sea – they drain into the normally dry salt pan, Lake Eyre. The water spreads and soaks in and the farmers rejoice. The land has been given its life’s blood. But at a cost. Whole towns were evacuated, roads cut, stock and crops lost.
Plenty of rivers do flow to the sea and fill their banks and spread and inundate man’s creations, uncaring. The footage is violent and terrifying and deadly; the stuff of nightmare. And wonderful, vivid scenes for the writer. And yes, I’m one of those and some of those things I’ve witnessed at second hand may well make an appearance in a future book. After all, ‘Die a Dry Death’ was littered with things I’ve seen, places I’ve been. But the things that will live on in my memory are the human stories. There are too many, far too many to mention, so I’ll just give a few.
The old couple, probably in their eighties, dishevelled and muddy. She carried a little dog under each arm and held the leash of a third. Her husband carried two more. They’d been given half an hour to get out and took what was most precious to them.
The face of the man who ran the garage at Helidon (I think) in the Lockyer Valley. The wall of water that hit Toowoomba, that inland tsunami, poured down off the high ground of the ranges there, scouring everything in its path. This man managed to scramble onto the roof of his business and watched, helpless, not sure if his own family was safe, as houses, whole houses torn from their stumps, sailed past. He could hear people, kids, inside, yelling for help. That man’s face will haunt me.
So, too, will the face of the Channel 7 helicopter pilot. This man has flown a news chopper for years and he’s seen it all. But in the Lockyer Valley he flew over a little white sedan which had been swept into the torrent. A man, a woman and a child had climbed through the windows onto the roof. All the pilot could do was call for help. He had no equipment, no trained personnel to carry out a rescue. He ferried people from one swollen bank to the other in an attempt to get help to them but by the time he got back the car had disappeared. You could almost see the ‘what if’ in his eyes, ‘what more could I have done? The answer is nothing but I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a hard time persuading himself.
That’s what Greta van der Rol, author, will take from these floods; the people stories. Australia will survive. It always has; the country lurches from one ‘climate’ crisis to the next. As I write, drought continues on the South West coast, while the North West town of Carnarvon had to be evacuated due to (at first welcome) flooding of the Gascoyne River. Let us not forget, too, that only two years ago Victoria was devastated by bushfire. But it has always been so. That’s Australia.
Dorothea McKellar wrote this poem in 1911. We all learnt it at school and it bears remembering:
by Dorothea McKellar
The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins.
Strong love of grey-blue distance,
Brown streams and soft, dim skies -
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!
The stark white ring-barked forests,
All tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains,
The hot gold hush of noon,
Green tangle of the brushes
Where lithe lianas coil,
And orchids deck the tree-tops,
And ferns the warm dark soil.
Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When, sick at heart, around us
We see the cattle die –
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady soaking rain.
Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the rainbow gold,
For flood and fire and famine
She pays us back threefold.
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze.
An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land –
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand –
Though earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.