One of the commonest maxims about writing is to “write what you know.” It’s not bad advice, I suppose, but it’s incomplete. What I find far more interesting is the challenge of “writing what you want to know.” Or wish you could know.
And then blend in what you already know.
When I wrote my novel Neptune Crossing, first volume of my long-running series The Chaos Chronicles, I set the story on Triton, moon of Neptune. Now, I have never been to Triton, though I glimpsed it through the eyes of the Voyager space probe. For that matter, I’ve never been in space, either. Nor have I had neurolink implants to let me control machinery with my thoughts. I needed, and wanted, to learn more about these things, especially the surface of Triton. In this case, I read up as well as I could. But there were things I still wanted to know, details about what it would feel like to be there, such as the surface gravity. How to find out?
Well, I thought, Who would know better than a JPL scientist from the Voyager mission? I don’t recall now exactly how I tracked one down, as this was before the internet as we know it (in other words, I couldn’t Google it), but I did find a name, and I wrote to one of the planetary scientists who studied the Voyager data. He was remarkably helpful, and I came away with just those details that would help me make that part of the story feel real to the reader, never mind that it was all made up.
In the course of this book, I had to write a scene that involved my protagonist being thrown into several work situations for which he was ill equipped. I’ve never been in a mine shaft on Triton, and I’ve never ridden a surface mining crawler with control labels worn so badly as to be illegible. How did I research that? Ah—I actually did know something about that. As a college student on summer break, I had worked on an automotive assembly line. Oh yes, I knew all about being put on a job with no training or preparation, and unlabeled machinery that could hurt you. (This was before the U.S. automakers had learned a few things from the Japanese and improved their production methods.) I just had to adapt from that to this.
When I discovered that my guy on Triton had lost his neurolink capability because of faulty medical treatment, what, I wondered, had gone wrong? Well, my general reading in science suggested that nano-agents (microscopic robots) will, in the future, likely be used for medical purposes. Now, I have nothing against this, if it works, but what would they be but tiny computers? You tell me, when did you last own a computer that didn’t crash or misbehave right when you needed it most?
The pattern goes on. In the third book, The Infinite Sea, I plunged my human hero and alien companions into an alien ocean. Before we were done, they had gone very deep into that sea. I don’t know a lot about alien seas. But I have, in the past, spent a fair amount of time underwater as a sport scuba diver and I knew a lot about underwater environments in general. I always enjoyed night diving, particularly the feeling it gave me of being in some otherworldly place. For purposes of the book, I needed some alien science to help me out with things like avoiding bends, nitrogen narcosis, and so on. But where my prior experience kicked in was in crafting descriptions of what it felt like, what it sounded like, tasted like, smelled like, and looked like to be deep underwater with hissing air, a pervading sense of density and wetness, a salt tang, and all the rest. My real-life experience guided me in making a wildly imaginary world feel real, by providing me with concrete details that I was pretty sure would carry over into the new creation.
The last example I’ll give is from my recently published duology (really a novel in two volumes), The Reefs of Time and Crucible of Time. Here I was really pushing the edge of my personal envelope, and for that matter, the hard science fiction or even space opera envelope. In one subplot, I had a war on between two planets orbiting two closely linked stars (probably a binary), with dense, energetic, nebular matter between them. I needed to learn how that might actually work. As it happens, I had attended the amazing Launchpad Astronomy Workshop (real astronomers teaching SF writers about astronomy), and I had a community of experts I could ask. I felt a lot more confidence in my fictional story after learning more about what might be possible in real life.
In subplot two, I put two of our friends into a “ghoststream,” a form of virtual time travel that enabled them to visit the very deep past for very urgent reasons. Now, that’s pretty much out beyond the edge of knowledge, as far as current science is concerned. But I needed some wisps of real science behind it, not to explain, exactly, but to give the reader enough to accept it and go along with me for the ride. As it happened, during the many years it took me to write this story, I attended the Schrödinger Sessions (where real quantum physicists taught SF writers about quantum physics). Wasn’t that a lucky break. I don’t claim that quantum temporal entanglement as I used it in the ghoststream would be approved by my mentors; probably not. But consider, we’re now five hundred years in Earth’s future, and we have the science of the Ffff’tink, and the Ay-oh, and the yaantel, and lots of other alien geniuses working on this thing. Times change, and with it the science! But I doubt if I could have made this nearly as believable without some help from the knowledge I picked up at the Schrödinger Sessions and subsequent reading.
So. Am I saying you’re screwed if you don’t have access to such cool opportunities? Of course not. You’ll have chances to make your own cool opportunities. Maybe they’ll come in the form of classes or studies or reading. Or maybe they’ll come in the form of a casual conversation with a stranger at the dog park. Or they’ll come from a conversation with your dog.
I haven’t even touched on the subject of emotional, spiritual, or psychological knowledge. Those are subjects you can learn a lot about by paying attention to life, and to other people. By being a good listener. No special opportunities required, unless you live in a hermit’s cave. But a desire to learn—yes, that you need. And for sure you need it to tell good stories.
JEFFREY A. CARVER was a Nebula Award finalist for his novel Eternity’s End. He also authored Battlestar Galactica, a novelization of the critically acclaimed television miniseries. His novels combine thought-provoking characters with engaging storytelling, and range from the adventures of the Star Rigger universe (Star Rigger’s Way, Dragons in the Stars, and others) to the ongoing, character-driven hard SF of The Chaos Chronicles—which begins with Neptune Crossing and continues with Strange Attractors, The Infinite Sea, Sunborn, and most recently, The Reefs of Time and its conclusion, Crucible of Time.
A native of Huron, Ohio, Carver lives with his family in the Boston area. He has taught writing in a variety of settings, from educational television to conferences for young writers to MIT, as well as his own workshops. He has created a free web site for aspiring authors of all ages at www.writesf.com. Learn more about the author and his work, follow his blog, sign up for his occasional newsletter, and see all of his books at:
Website, blog, email contact: starrigger.net
Guide to audiobooks: starrigger.net/audiobooks
Purchase The Reefs of Time: http://bit.ly/ReefsKindle
Purchase Crucible of Time: http://bit.ly/CrucibleKindle