ConFusion 2015, Panel 5: Researching the Imaginary

[This post is part of a series which collects and expands upon notes taken during panel discussions at the January 2015 ConFusion science fiction convention in Dearborn, Michigan. The index page, which links to the other posts in the series, is here.]

Panelists: Sarah Gibbons, Jen Talley, Michael DeLuca, Brigid Collins, Courtney Allison Moulton

(I tried to find a link to information about Sarah Gibbons, but I can find no information about her online anywhere)

This panel focused on how to research things that don’t necessarily exist. Research is a vital part of writing a story. Even if it is the flightiest of unicorn- and dragon- laden high fantasy, it is important that it be internally consistent and that the narrative flow logically from event to event. And if the story contains “real world” elements, these should be as realistic as possible within the narrative framework.

The panelists agreed that the research value of the internet is huge, but that separating the signal from the noise can be difficult. Two resources which came up immediately were the Michigan Electronic Library and Project Gutenberg.

Wikipedia is the 900 pound gorilla in the room, but because of its open nature it is not so useful as a primary source. But thanks to the “related links” section at the bottom of each page, it can serve as gateway to primary sources. Given the open nature of the internet as a whole it is also important to double-check the primary source against an additional (non-Wikipedia) source.

Here are my thoughts on some specific points the panelists brought up.

Translations reflect the times in which they are translated. Languages evolve over time. Words that were common in the 1700s are long out of use now. New words are added to the Oxford English Dictionary every year. Social values change, words take on new meanings and lose old ones. On a meta- level, the text of a translation can provide useful information about the era in which it was translated. The 1885 translation of Crime and Punishment will convey different information than the 1992 translation. (Corollary: translations also mirror the parent societies of the language into which they are translated. A French translation and a Hindi translation of the same source will not yield the same outcomes.)

The value of observational research is huge. Research is not the same as experience. It is one thing to read about New Orleans; it is another entirely to visit it. Observing the thing you intend to write about will give you the ten thousand little details which may not have made it into another person’s notes. These details can take a story from the abstract to the immediate. I’m not reading about people in the French Quarter, I’m sitting in the Cafe du Monde watching pigeons fight over the crumbs of a discarded beignet, while the humidity makes a sunny day smell like rain. This leads to the next point:

The rationale of research is verisimilitude and plausibility. Does the story seem real, and does it feel like it could actually happen? Are things internally consistent? Does one event lead logically to the next? Do my theories about future nanotechnology lead logically from the current pool of scientific information? Even if you can’t precisely research something because it simply does not exist, you can come arbitrarily close. For example, you may not ever get a chance to eat dragon meat, but you can find iguana and alligator on the menu at some restaurants. Now you can describe a meal made of reptile. This emphasizes…

There is no such thing as too much research. The more detail you add, the more you immerse your readers in your story. Breadth and depth are equally important. Even if you are writing a short story which takes place over ten minutes in a barber shop, placing that shop in a particular place and time grounds it and makes it more accessible. Visit a barber shop like the one in your story. Get a haircut. Talk to people. Hang out for a couple of hours. Explore the neighborhood. What does it smell like? Who are the regulars?

Have I answered the question I set out to ask? You can abandon research at any point, but it isn’t really complete until you can answer this question with an unambiguous “yes”.

As a writer, showing your work can be a fun thing for readers. This goes over and above the “acknowledgements” section at the beginning or end of a book. As a reader, I love seeing the work that inspired and informed the book I am reading. Peter Watts is the first who springs to mind, with his novel Blindsight. He has an extensive bibliography, both in the book and on his website. He even put together an in-universe presentation explaining some of the science!


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