Good Research Tips
When you're not writing what you know
There were certain lines I never planned to cross when I started thinking of myself as a professional writer. One of them was to keep the genres I loved separate from attempting to make them my work. My theory was based on keeping my play time safe and respected. I am a historian but don’t spend a lot of time writing fictional history. I broke that line for a very good reason early in my career for the sake of my love of local history and to keep stories in the forefront that might otherwise be lost. I’d also planned to support local societies with the earnings, but that means one has to earn something first. The idealism was long gone by the time the children’s books came out. I stuck a toe over the historical fiction line one other time for a novella in my "protest the prairie cover" days—again, mostly for fun and to help my fellow writers, which was the result of that project.
My secret passion is fantasy…not going there! My not-so-secret reading passion has always been science fiction, ala Robert Heinlein who got me through the traumas of middle school and Ray Bradbury who I still think is the most brilliant writer of the twentieth century. It’s basically stories of the human condition put on trial in the most brutal ways. I have been heavily influenced by a movie called The Abyss and a newer one called Arrival. The first story has nothing to do with the aliens who abide deep in Earth’s oceans and use water like we use elements of the Earth’s crust; likewise the second has not much to do with why they are here at this time and in those places. The films have everything to do with relationships and how we treat each other.
When I started thinking about the third story in my Forces of Nature series which began firmly planted on the planet with exploring a younger man-older woman relationship and what marriage is all about in Meander Scar, and moved next to study lost love found and life secrets that color everything about a mother and daughter who reach out to both repel and cling to a man who betrayed them unwittingly in Centrifugal Force, it was a series title that flung me toward the sun. Outer space is not a place I wanted to take my characters but they will not stay grounded. My characters even forced me to meet and describe a race of people from a different solar system and test my world-building skills, which I thought were fairly well grounded (worksheet here).
These off-worlders keep secrets from me, like how they got here, but so far I’m okay with that. After all, the story isn’t really about them. It’s about making choices based on who we are and how we practice our humanity, no matter what heavenly body we call home. At some point in each of the films I mentioned earlier, the main characters realize they don’t have to know everything. Too many details and technicalities can mess with story, depending on your audience.
The off-worlders showed up in a scene that technically took place before this story starts—something I didn’t realize when my male protagonist, Harry, meets them. How am I going to figure out what’s happening? I approach research with the same exactly detail I put into all of my work. Most of the facts of how something works aren’t going into the narrative, but I need to understand them to give my readers a reason to accept their disbelief for a short time. Harry got a whiff of chlorine when he met Tarlig, who at first glance doesn’t look all that different from any other odd-looking scientist. The chlorine odor was explained by his perception that it was associated with cleaning solutions. In reality, Tarlig’s world and make-up use more chlorine than humans use other elements of Earth’s crust and atmosphere. I kept trying to exchange argon, the third most abundant gas that makes up part of our atmosphere after nitrogen and oxygen, but argon is a noble gas, an element that stabilizes, and chlorine is not. What kind of a creature that essentially exists much like a human would be like if it respirated a different atmospheric and planetary element than argon? As I studied the atmosphere and the elemental properties of the noble gases further, I attempted to replace chlorine with a noble gas like xenon or radon, but they don’t have an odor. Come on…it’s so early in the book, I can set this character up any way I want without having to reweave story elements. Besides, it’s fiction! Who’s going to care?
I am. And so should my readers who I want to trust me. It’s not so much a matter of making copper-based hemoglobin so a Vulcan bleeds green or an Andorian whose skin is blue from cobalt. We didn’t care back then how science fiction worked. But now we have space stations where people can live for years, and reusable rocket boosters and all kinds of science that was once fiction but no longer. (They can bury my flip phone with me.)
Tarlig and Verdun’s existence is important to my story only so much as they add to my story arc in a way nothing else can, and move my people to prove their quality…their worth, and why they act and react the way they do. I’m the only one who will care that Tarlig and Verdun will need to have extra heavy lungs to expel what on Earth is an extra heavy element that will burn the lungs of a human. I only care that they smell vaguely like chlorine and want to sell you, the reader, on this tiny little thing that will make them believably different.
There’s plenty of other stuff in the background which involved research—little things like DNA, military stuff, and a pesky little detail about how to put a colony on the moon, but you only need to read the finished project.
Oh, the title? Parhelion – sundogs, you might know them – those beautiful columns of light on either side of the sun, glittering with ice crystals. (Photo from Iowa, 2015, Dave Chesling)