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Writing Life: A Spoonful of Sugar

May 22, 2010

On Thursday, in Kater Cheek’s intriguing riff about the influence of agriculture on society, she included a quip about the drudgery of research.  Research is, unfortunately, one of the most common inspiration-killers for writers.  How many times have you been skimming along blithely through the creation of a story, only to suddenly slam face-first into I Don’t Know Anything About That?

Most everyone knows how crucial factual accuracy is to science fiction, but not many people realize that fantasy often requires extensive research as well, particularly epic fantasy, which has begun to veer more and more toward historical fiction.  Many people respond to their dread of research by choosing to write in subgenres that require less of it, but there is another way to look at the problem.

Novelists as Teachers.

Two weeks ago, UC San Diego put on an event entitled Galileo: Between Science, Science Studies, and Science Fiction.  Using Kim Stanley Robinson’s new science-fantasy novel Galileo’s Dream as a jumping-off point, this 2-hour talk and Q&A explored the life and contributions of mankind’s first scientist.  This event demonstrates that there is, to quote Clarion Foundation Trustee James T. Shea,  “a growing awareness in higher education of the role that science fiction can play in making science more understandable, and also how it can help the public more readily understand science and technology.”  As an avid reader and writer of historical fantasy, I’d like to expand that statement to include speculative fiction as a whole.

Entertainment is often the most effective way to educate, since new facts, particularly controversial ones, often need to be presented as furtively to adults as medication to toddlers.  Intellect has always been seen somehow as the enemy of morality.  Unlike Galileo, most of us do not live in danger of being executed for blasphemy, but it’s still difficult to truly educate in an age when schools “teach to tests,” scientific/medical research is driven by profit, and entertainment caters to rather than strengthens attention spans.

Speculative fiction presents a unique opportunity to weave interesting facts about science, sociology, or history into the context of a tale that is not only entertaining, but nonthreatening.  It’s “only pretend,” right?  Even in Galileo’s time (as Robinson mentions in the UCSD talk), often the only way to spread the word about new scientific discoveries was to present them as an evening’s entertainment, “one possible way” in which God might manifest His power.  When we loosen the clenched fist of authority, our audience relaxes as well, and a relaxed mind is an open mind.

Research as Exploration

In order to educate your readers, first you have to know something, and therein lies the drudgery.  Or does it?  Last Saturday’s post covered the active pursuit of inspiration, and that philosophy applies to research as well.  Curiosity is a natural human trait, as watching any four-year-old child will tell you.  Only repeated squelching by authority figures, combined with a tendency to become “set in our ways” as we age, can cripple our natural drive to learn.

In your approach to research, try to tap into your inner four-year-old.  Instead of thinking of research as assigned homework, try to approach it as a way of following your own curiosities and satisfying them.  There is no higher authority telling you what your fiction needs to address.  No one ever tied Kim Stanley Robinson to a chair and said, “You need to write about Mars.”  He has made a career out of writing fiction about facts that fascinate him, and in the process he’s won pretty much every major speculative fiction award the industry has come up with.

So instead of circumscribing yourself by trying to do research to shore up a story you’ve already started, why not take the reverse approach?  If you want to create a masterpiece that’s threaded through with intriguing facts, why not start with the facts?   What have you always secretly wanted to know more about?  What documentaries mesmerize you on the Discovery Channel?  Do you ever find yourself pausing to look longingly at the cover of a book on display in the science or history section of the local bookstore?  Use your fiction as an excuse to pursue these interests.  Chances are you’ll find the seed of a story in there somewhere, if you keep your mind open.

Learning Should Be Fun.

If you approach research as homework, it’s likely to show in your writing.  You’ll feel obligated to trot out your “important” facts as often as possible, and your reader will greet them with the same amount of enthusiasm you demonstrated when you dragged yourself grumbling to the library.  One can always recognize the true enthusiast by his or her fiction.  Battle scenes sing with a fiendish, violent glee.  Alien landscapes haunt the eye with their desolate beauty.  If you have fun with your research, your reader will have just as much fun learning what you have to teach.

As a way of helping you to discover and explore your own academic interests, the Clarion Blog will be devoting every Thursday to a sort of “SF&F School.”  We’re in the process of collecting experts on various subjects so that each week we can present a bit of history or science in the context of speculative fiction.  Next Thursday we have a physicist on call, so science fiction writers, stay tuned!

If you’re interested in the Galileo talk, by the way, it’s available either via the Jacobs School of Engineering website or via YouTube.  Kim Stanley Robinson, Clarion graduate and instructor, begins his portion of the presentation about thirteen minutes in and talks for around a half hour, but there are over two hours’ worth of information on the video about Galileo, astronomy, and the pursuit of science itself.  Enjoy!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2010 10:24 am

    Research can be a pain and a time eater … but the web makes it so easy now, especially if you don’t live near a good library.

    Fortunately, I have a good world-building one in the basement, but I still go to a near-by college library to putter in the stacks every couple of months.

  2. May 28, 2010 11:30 am

    It’s always interesting to realize how much I need to know about a subject before I can feel confident to write a short story. Research for a novel is a little intimidating.

    In your approach to research, try to tap into your inner four-year-old. Instead of thinking of research as assigned homework, try to approach it as a way of following your own curiosities and satisfying them.

    This is a useful way of looking at it. I remember some writing book or teacher saying Write what you know, when instead, the idea of Writing what you want to understand sounds so much more satisfying and motivational.

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