Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Technology and Science in Your Writing

Are you a scientist or an engineer? Have you a degree in astrophysics? Ever built a rocket or even a digital watch?

Some writers are experts on science and technology. Some, like Lydia Kang The Word is My Oyster, is a physician as well as a writer and can tell you which drug will knock out a character for a few hours without killing her. She'll even answer your fiction related medical questions on her blog.

Writers with scientific expertise have an advantage over the rest of us, but even PhDs with specialties in hydroastophysicalinterdimentionaldynamics don't know everything under the sun and moon. Then there are those of us with no scientific or technical background whatsoever. We're often called English Majors.

But no matter your background, at some point you are going to want to write about something you don't yet know. The adage- "Write what you know" is limiting if you forget you are a thinking and learning human being. What you know is always expanding.

At a recent online writers conference, I asked author Tom Grace how he researches technology for his novels. His answer was so fresh! So inspiring! So innovative! He actually goes out and talks to people. (Beats my usual method of poking around the internet.) He even went to the North Pole with a guy who studies the earth's magnetic field. Crazy cool!

Mr. Grace happens to live near a research university and designs research labs professionally, so he has access to some pretty smart cookies, but I'll bet we all have brains floating around our communities just waiting to be tapped into. Most people are quite happy to talk about what they know.

I joked about the internet, but really, it can be a great resource. Just don't let Wikipedia become your one stop shop. It's a nice springboard, but it's not complete and it's not always completely, absolutely, 100% accurate. Did you know that?

YouTube and other online video sites give you visuals right at your fingertips (eyetips?). You want your character to use a Swedish firesteel to light a fire. How can you write an accurate description if you've never seen it done? Bam! Several videos, some with witty commentary, right on your laptop. (Or you could just order a Swedish FireSteel from ThinkGeek and try it yourself.)

Magazines, such as Popular Science, that highlight the latest in technology are super fun and easy to comprehend even for the techno-ignorant, like myself.

And let us not rule out the power of the idiot box. Yes, even TV has something to offer when it comes to shows about science and technology. Let even your down time be for learning. You never know when an episode of Mythbusters or Futureweapons (is that one on anymore?) will pique your interest when it comes to your writing. Just keep a scrap of paper handy in case there's a need for spontaneous note taking.

When we next discuss science and technology, we'll focus on believability, world building, and fantasy writing.


Lydia Kang said...

Hey I came to read this post bc the title intrigued me and there was my name!
Great post. It is great to have friends so you can pick their brains about their field of expertise, especially for these areas.

Missantrhopics said...

I have a terrible habit of over researching. I look up to find half the day has evaporated as I niggled over the finer details of open heart surgery.

Was a happy surprise to see the Tardis at the end of your post. I heart Doctor Who so much.

karabu said...

Dang, I was afraid I may have to eventually *shudder* talk to people. I'm running into sci-ency questions that are so obscure, I don't know how to look them up. Chatting up someone in the know would be a heck of a lot faster than getting my own PhD in . . . well, probably several different fields.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

@Lydia~ I couldn't resist plugging your blog in this post. You're an amazing fount of information. :)

@Missanthropics~ I over research too. It really sucks when the only thing that results from the all day research is two lines in your novel or worse, you don't even use it!

Yay Doctor Who! I named my first daughter after one of the companions from years ago, Nyssa. :)

@Kara~ What, you don't want to walk up to some expert in their field and say, "Hi I want to write a story. Tell me all you know about jet propulsion in space"?

Well, if I happened to be at a party and the scientist was there, then I'd do it. But cold calling would be freaky.

@Everyone~ How about sitting in on a college class?

Ask around among friends and see who knows people with various expertises. Maybe dinner parties can be arranged. Bring your tape recorder and notebook.

Just ask questions and that can get most people blabbing away. I'm super shy, but sometimes I just pretend I'm not. ;)

Lisa Rusczyk said...

Great post! (English major here)

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Thanks Lisa!
Yay, me too. :D

Christine Fonseca said...

I love the whole mak it believable thing...very necessary!

Amanda Borenstadt said...

So true, Christine. We lose our audience if our technology and science sound dumb.

karabu said...

Hey, I promised to share this great book here. It's called "Physics of the Impossible" by Michio Kaku and it breaks down a lot of Science Fiction stuff and explains the theories of it and how close we are to some of the technology.


Also, I realized at our last Astronomy workshop that I DO know an expert who could answer a lot of my planet questions, and he even said he's happy to answer questions by e-mail! He may not have meant the kinds of questions I have, but I guess I'll find out!

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Thanks Kara. :)

Yeah, totally write to him. If he doesn't know something, he probably knows somebody who does.

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