The Terrible Case of the Research Jitters

As one of the most influential genres in all of the written word, science fiction has become the genre of the speculation. For humans, speculation and inquiry are the two most important aspects to our intellect because it leads to the discovery, and invention of the most amazing things ever created.

The genre is so embedded into the culture of humanity that we have been taking ideas from science fiction stories and creating innovations for the last century.  Science fiction is so important to write that the following quote is the only reason I need to write as much of it as I can:

Rod Serling‘s (narrator of The Twilight Zone) definition is “fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.”

What if the world looked like this?

While most speculate the first true science fiction book, I would like to contribute the circle of contributors. These writers have made the genre what it is today, a magnificent support for the advancement of humanity.

Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Jonathan Swift, and many more have opened a door to eternal truth and speculation. You see, science fiction answers the ever-asking question–what if?

What if there were giant holes in the universe that had such a high density that its gravity simply took everything  near it and obliterated it. Black holes-the existence has been known to man for only a short time. Yet, the idea that black holes exist was formed in a fiction book. It’s crazy to think that some of the marvels like the submarine were one imaginative objects in the plots of books. It is here that I begin my attempt at a very science-y fiction story.

Earlier this week I described the setting for a horror, and the important of setting in place in that genre. When it comes to science fiction, however, it is the research that creates the most believable story. There is no need to put the  most extravagant idea down on paper and expect it to be invented. What makes science fiction loved by millions is its ability to be realistic and potentially happen in the future. For most writers, the constant research is just a part of the job. However, for the science fiction writer, a background in the science is almost mandatory. Arthur C. Clarke is one of the big three of science fiction and his background in radio and satellite communication allowed him to write phenomenal books that transformed the genre. 2001: A Space Odyssey opened our eyes to the future of space travel, AI, and remarkably–tablets used by thousands around the world today. He had such an influence they named the geostationary satellites after him.

It makes sense that the writer of science fiction should first and foremost be a scientist, but where does that leave the rest of us? My degrees will be in literature and writing, not physics and bio-mechanics. So, what gives me the right to say I can effectively write science fiction on things I don’t understand completely. Well, the answer is in the research. While I may not do as much research for say a romance story, I will always do research for my stories. It is a dedication to learning and Socrates’ philosophy that we are all ignorant. The world is waiting for me to discover the truth in it, and I will be damned if ignorance stops me from writing the story in my head.

This takes us to my research. For some non-writers, it may seem like a simple task of googling a few facts and then pounding out a novella. Regrettably, too many people have the mindset that it isn’t difficult to write about things if you know a few facts. However, this is not the case when it comes to writing. If I am taking a test on say the most conductive metals, I could just rattle off silver, copper, and gold. If I want to write a story that uses this simple fact, I must understand what it means to be a conductive metal, how it behaves, and which ones do what better. Not so easy, huh? This research may take a few minutes to an hour, and only provide me with enough information to write a sentence or two.

Depending on what type of science fiction story you’re writing, the amount of detail will vary as well as the amount of research needed. Immersive fiction will require much more research and development to create entire worlds and races that are foreign to our own existence. At the same time, interactive fiction will require significant research just for a small amount of detail in the actual writing.

I wish I could ask the big three of science fiction what they did when they were writing outside of their field, but alas it would be pointless. I must find my own way of developing the science aspect without the years of experience. Lucky for me, learning is a game in itself, so I have some fun late nights ahead of me. For science fiction writers out there–how do you cope with the research jitters?

Do you take it one step at a time or lose yourself in the science to write the story?

Share how you do research for a story, and HAPPY READING AND WRITING!

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Terrible Case of the Research Jitters

  1. I have one small quibble, about SF requiring a background in science. This puts some of the better sub-genre writers in SF out of the field, particularly the AltHis writers like Phillip K. Dick and Harry Turtledove. Unless you consider history to be a science (and trust me, THAT is a long argument that there’s just not enough drinks being served at your college pub to get you through…), such a statement excludes these folks from consideration.

    That said, yes, I do agree that part and parcel of any SF or speculative story is the research, and sometimes you have to research your subject until either she or you cry.

    The work I’m currently sharing with the world now did require a certain amount of cross-curricula studies. In addition to looking at the literature in terms of assumptives on how fast and hard radical climate change could hit, there was also a lot of literature to be poured over in discussing the geopolitical and economic shifts tied to climactic changes, and from there tying how hot it would need to get for this to happen and that to stop happening.

    But before any serious study could be done, I needed to do one thing first: Have a story. Because the sad truth is, all the brilliant study in the world is not going to save a bad piece of writing. I had to come up with the story’s main points in a generally envisaged setting, then adjust the tale depending on what the research gets; research without a good work to tie it to gives you just a thesis paper that may not be worth much to look at.

    In terms of asking the giants of the field about their process, there was at least one that left some very helpful notes that showed his process. Isaac Asimov, one of my patron saints, left a few collected essays on writing where he gives a lot of detail about his craft, and most of his collected stories included intros and lead-ins that discussed his process as well. Also highly recommended is Robert Heinlein’s GRUMBLES FROM THE GRAVE, another master course from an SF master.

    • Ah I see I have found a formidable debater in the midst of readers. I seem to have unintentionally left out an important disclaimer before starting this post. While science fiction tends to have it’s origins rooted in actual science and benefits greatly from much research on the subject before writing, there are many other genres that require an insane level of research.

      Anything involving history–Even if you are doing an alternate history (as you stated)–it is almost as important, if not more important to understand the real history first.

      Fantasy-It’s not factual research like SF or Historical, but knowing the myth and being well-versed in other writer’s creations help not to copy them too much.

      Westerns- These require you to know lore and fact in an attempt to either be historically accurate or capture the magic of the west in your story.

      Crime/Mystery-If you don’t know the work of those before you or basic knowledge of the major rules of the genre, your story will be laughed at like a kid with a pizza face and braces.

      And many more I’m sure I’m not thinking of. In other words, touche, my friend. I did not do the subject just without mentioning these other amazing genres that require just as much research. I do want to comment that while you don’t have to be in that field to write (as many writers come from non-Literature careers) it doesn’t hurt to know a thing or two about it.

      Also, I must check out these lovely texts you have so generously pointed out. Issac Asimov is an amazing writing. I proceeded to buy two of three books in the Foundation series, and I started the second book (forgot to buy the first one). It was thrilling. I need to go back and read the first one to understand everything, but he is quite the fountain of knowledge for all things SF.

      Thank you so much for pointing out that I didn’t mention these other genres. I don’t want to seem one-sided in my argument.

  2. Like JD said, you need to start with a good story premise and work through the details when you need to. With historical writing, as in SF, this also holds true. When I started writing the stories I finally got published, I started with the premise. As the story progressed, I realized what I didn’t know, so went to the library, museums & archives to learn what was happening at the time my story was set. Eventually, I had a good handle on the background stuff and was able to proceed with the story. I still ran into snags every once in awhile, when I came across a task that I didn’t know how to do, but my character needed to know, so it was back to hitting the books, again.

    WIth your SF, it should work the same way. If something is happening in your story, or about to happen, check out whether it is possible using today’s technology and if not, find out what conditions might make it possible. I have a friend who investigates UFOs and paranormal phenomenon. He has an astronomy degree and was pretty good in science. He is often asked at SciFi conventions to talk about the science behind Star Trek. According to him, there are really only two things that we do not have the technology for or the physics to make work – the teleport system and the faster-than-light drive. The teleport can work if you have enough computer brain capacity to hold the billions of bits of information that goes into breaking down and rebuilding a human form. So far, we do not know enough about the universe to fold space or whatever is necessary to travel fasten than light. You can always make assumptions that in such-and-such a future, all the inks have been worked out of said systems. After all, it’s been done before. Depending on what you need to know about the science of your story, you should be able to find the necessary information to make your story work. It will just be a little time consuming, but I have confidence that you will be able to learn what you need to in order to make your story great. 🙂

    • There is so much information here! I definitely think it’s a good idea to research as you go, but I like to plan ahead of time and know what I need in the future to help the writing process move forward. It helps to get through the beginning if you kind of know where it will end. 🙂 Thank you so much for the tips I will definitely use them while writing this story. Right now the details are holding me up, but eventually I’ll get out of that slugging beginning stages of the story and get to the action!

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