Discovery Through Story Research

They say to write what you know, but if all of us only ever wrote what we knew, there would only be about seven interesting books on the planet.

If I only wrote what I knew, instead of what I thought was interesting, I would never have learned about two awesome little creatures called the tardigrade and the Pompeii worm.

These two little guys are extremophiles, which means they have unusually high tolerances for temperature.

In the case of the tardigrade, it can survive just about anything you throw at it, including a decade of dehydration, freezing to one degree above absolute zero, and the vacuum of space. Oh, and they can also survive direct, unfiltered radiation from the sun — a radiation that would cook a human alive.

One of the characters in my book Genesis Plague is an evolutionary microbiologist. It’s my job as a writer to create a passable facsimile of a person in said profession, or at least one that doesn’t ring abnormally false, even after a bit of scrutiny.

If I wrote what I knew, that character would have been a risk-averse claustrophobe with a four year associates degree instead of a globetrotting evolutionary microbiologist. Which of these sounds more fun?

Enter the internet, that vast trove of everything that could either accelerate one’s destruction or open up a world of possibilities that before could only be uncovered with laborious trips to the local library or university. And to get to those places, we actually had to go…outside (dun dun DUNNNNN!).

Well, no longer. Now I can wear pajamas and read about extremophiles like the uber-resilient tardigrade with peanut butter smeared on my face without suffering the disapproving looks of a librarian.

I also think writing is more enjoyable when it’s a process of discovery, because a lot of that enjoyment will (should) transfer to the reader.

However, using what you know to influence your writing can certainly imbue your story with authenticity. It comes from a place of true knowledge that pure narrative invention can’t touch.

Story research can also guide the plot in new directions.

What a writer thinks should happen and what real-life nature makes happen are two entirely different things. Certain facts and details about the way plants and animals behave (for example) can have a tangible impact on how a scene plays out in a book.

While writing Mission One, I did plenty of research about space travel. It turns out I had very different (read: uninformed) ideas about how the crew would get to Titan compared with what could actually happen.

Discovering the limitations and possibilities of space flight sculpted that portion of my book, and made it a little more authentic.

I still took some liberties, sure. If I was ever faced with a scenario where I could have been technically accurate or I could have written a crowd-pleasing scene, I appealed to the crowd.

That’s just good policy, and it’s also a whole lot more fun.

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