Write What You Know

While this advice is almost a cliché, it is also true. Most of us write what we know, or we learn about it well enough to fool most, if not all, readers.

I know two people who write with characters in the military. One of them is ex-Navy. The other has a mother who retired from military and is a volunteer for Soldier’s Angels, among other things. Both have knowledge beyond the layperson, and neither has a problem letting me know if I make a mistake.

Not that I write about the military, but if I did, I’d run it by them for critique.

Science fiction has a basis in fact, but any time you run into an alien civilization or culture, we lose most places where we can reference something. And it has to be human, in some way, shape, or form. A science fiction writer must abide by the known science at the time, but after that he’s free to build whatever or whomever he wants.

I miss the days of Martians. So many of the classics I read have them featuring prominently.

The question then runs – what about fantasy writers? What is it about them that gives us a reference to write about dragons, vampires, or magic? These things have never been proven to exist… Proven being a key word to use. I suppose no one can prove without a doubt that there is a god out there, either, yet religion thrives outside the fantasy field.

Is it a coincidence that L. Ron Hubbard, science fiction writer, also created a religion? Or is it simply something that stems out of the mind of an extremely creative person to get others to buy in? Did he believe any of it, or did he just build it and they came?

I forgot who said it recently, but an agent asked at a gathering where the speaker was telling the hapless authors to give credentials about their work, what credentials gave her authority to write about vampires? She never got an answer. The speaker changed the subject. Lovely.

What references can I provide for my science fiction and fantasy forays? I love to imagine what isn’t there. That served me well as an engineer to design new products and redesign to improve existing ones. It also lets me paint pictures with words of things no one has imagined yet. I’m not going to put that on my fiction cover letters, though.

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And the winner is…

Dawn Embers! Woo- big round of applause. Wait, you can’t hear it on this post? Imagine!

Speaking of imagination, do you ever wonder how far you can suspend a reader’s believability? It’s not a consistent question. I have friends who don’t read science fiction or fantasy at all because their believability can only stretch so far. Some read a few parts of it, but there are tales where the reader simply puts the story down because it’s too far out there.

But how far is too far? If it’s an individual line to draw, how do you know if you’ve hit it or crossed it? I wonder if other universes have pervaded people’s expectations, especially when one of my fellow writers told me he couldn’t get into my story because Star Trek said only 1 out of 30,000 planets was inhabitable.

Really… Star Trek? I don’t think they’re talking about life the way I was. They’re very focused on M class planets (read: places where humanoids can breathe). If you take out those requirements… well, Mars might look awesome for habitation! The other element not factored in there is time. If you’re looking for traces of life, who is to say that it’s still there or the planet is still habitable at this moment?

And how is it on Star Trek that all of the species breathe the same kind of air? Isn’t that just spooky? They all like the approximate same ambient temperatures. They all have languages translated with the Universal Translator, even ones they just met. Don’t even get me started on warp drive, either.

Who’s believable now?

Research

Got sidetracked on research. It’s a wonderful thing, but it can take up a lot of time. I think I got carried away on this one.

It started with a short story I wrote about an intelligent species who flies- and is nearly human sized. A friend and I began debating whether or not it could really happen – well, not in our world – but using the physical laws of our world.

Mostly, we’ve been looking into wingspan versus overall weight. I think I might have gone too far, but there is so much uncertainty, that I justified it that way. Now I’m going to have to look at it and see if I can make a better focus of it.

My engineering background both aids and detracts from my fictional abilities in that every now and again I just try to follow the natural laws of our world. Ah well, I can’t complain.

Tools of the (Science Fiction) Writing Trade

Okay, I suppose it could be used for fantasy, too. Tolkien was revered as world-builder, even to the point of making real languages for his fictional characters. He did it before we had such tools as the internet to find helpful resources, or computers to type things on, or so many advantages today’s writers (and the fan world) take for granted.

Other examples of created languages include Star Wars and Star Trek, of course. It’s different to hear them on TV and expect them, but people really do create them for stories and books for a more realistic feel.

The Language Construction Kit

It’s organized as an outline, so you can get as crazy or detailed as you like. You can use it to provide a background, a more realistic form of naming strange characters, or just another way to annoy your English teacher during class. (Last example is not recommended!)

Linguistics is not my particular strong point, so a couple of the questions are lost on me. (Is your language inflecting, agglutinating, or isolating?)  For the most part it is very straightforward and inviting. I find it difficult not to dive right in and try it out!

Power of Description

When reading, sometimes I take in the amount of description and say, “wow, i’m there.” Other times I feel like “where’s the story?”

Description is a difficult part to get right. Some people want to know every single detail, but a lot of us want the story to move forward. The question is, how much is enough and how much is too much? I find myself struggling with that time and again.

Science fiction and fantasy need a different amount of description than some other genres (say, chick lit). When I build a world from scratch, you’re probably going to want to know whether my critter has blue fur or brown scales or even different facial features. That doesn’t mean I need to spend time talking about my fantasy (human) protagonist’s long, dark, wavy hair every few paragraphs.

A lot of times if a detail isn’t used to further my story, I leave it out. I know I need more description in some of the my work, but it isn’t hurt me to get the story out first, then figure out the details that need to be woven inside.

The trick is balance, I think. Then always checking the story after the changes to be sure it still has the plot somewhere and not hidden by all the descriptions. Writers simply can’t describe their world for ten pages and expect the audience to hang out waiting for action. Then again, if we throw them the details in chapter 22 about the critter they’ve been traveling with for the entire book, it’s too late.