what you know.
As writers, sometimes it seems these words are plastered
across our foreheads. But how can you know the imaginary worlds we create
when writing science fiction or fantasy? Obviously, research is the key. Yet, no
matter how much you read, no matter how deeply you delve into other people's
accounts, there simply is no substitute for the real thing.
a poor writer to do?
most of us can never truly live the adventures we thrust upon our unwitting
characters, we can still get a taste of what they experience if we just use our
imaginations and a bit of creative searching. Here are some suggestions offered
by various members of the community, suggestions which most of us can take part
in without serious injury to either ourselves or our bank accounts.
Aliens at the Zoo
you are fortunate to have a zoo near you, you have a wonderful opportunity to
find background material to use in SF stories -- and perhaps even horror
stories. There are aliens in this world, if you just take the time to go and
look at them. Unfortunately, the two zoos that are closest to me are both 100
miles away in opposite directions. Nevertheless, I take what opportunities I can
to go and visit them, especially the much larger Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha,
Nebraska. A zoo with a good aquarium -- or a good aquarium all by itself -- can
offer a wonderful array of strange and exotic creatures. TAKE YOUR CAMERA! You
will want to have pictures to study again, later. Buy one of those one-use
cameras, if nothing else. (Beware of using flash on glass windows, though --
most often all you will get is the bright reflection of that flash.) A digital
camera is (in my opinion) the best bet because it's easy to manipulate the
"creatures" right away. If you prefer to draw, you might want to take
a sketchpad. But be ready to find the exotic, unusual, and bizarre. Look for it.
Watch how the creatures move. Try to catch them feeding, if you can. Study
primates for behavior, cats for grace and fur patterns (imagine them in jungles,
deserts, brush), and birds for the odd, sinewy grace with which some move on
land. And always remember that if you want an alien to resonate with your
readers, there must be something on which the reader can grasp and understand.
Making your aliens "too alien" may not always suit your story.
sitting on the edge of a little boat that's wallowing in the swell. I've got a
steel tank strapped to my back and forty-two pounds of lead hanging from my
belt. I place one hand over my face, holding mask and regulator in place, and
lean back. There's a moment of free fall and then the water closes around me. My
dive buddy is signaling to me. I give him an OK and we deflate our jackets and
begin to descend. One foot per second, no more, gives our ears time to adjust.
Within a minute we're swimming freely, heading for a sunken barge that sits in
the sand, twenty-five feet down. It's full of fish, packed nose to tail in its
rusting interior. My buddy sets off over the decks, looking at the groupers,
assessing them for the table. He'll be back with his speargun on the next trip.
We keep in touch, checking each other every minute or so, exchanging gauge
readings in quick hand signals. I'm on the sand now, still in sight of my buddy.
I'm looking for damselfish and as I catch sight of two under a rotting hull
plate I smile. I have a theory about fish populations, and these velvety black
specimens are exactly what I expected. My buddy has moved to the other end of
the barge. I turn and swim straight up a vertical wall to meet him. We compare
watches and pressure gauges; it's time we were heading back. We swim slowly and
effortlessly back to the boat, add a little air to our jackets and drift slowly
to the surface. As I hand my gear up to the boatmaster I realise the
significance of what I've done. I've been weightless, sucking cold, sweet air
from a regulator. I've trusted my life to a life support system. And
that's probably as close to working in a space suit as I'll ever get.
of my favorite hobbies is going to antique stores, malls and flea markets.
Unlike going to a museum, going to these places lets you touch and handle the
furniture, clothing, jewelry, etc. Some vintage clothing shops will even let you
try on the clothing. What does this have to do with writing? It helps with
description, for one. If I can actually touch and sample items, I can see how a
tool, an article of clothing, or a piece of jewelry would affect my characters.
For instance, I know that the types of clothing worn by women in the 1800's were
not comfortable and limited movement in many ways. Dealers usually don't care if
you sketch an item of furniture, and many times they can tell you stories behind
their merchandise. I'm an avid collector of cabinet cards, old photos taken in
the late 1800's and early 1900's. I probably have close to 300 of them. They're
great for costume information and character descriptions. Some of them have
names and histories written on them and are helpful for brainstorming character
backgrounds. The photos make me wonder what the subjects were really like. Were
the women really as dour as their photos made them seem? Was the guy with the
waist-length beard a bad person? My picture collection makes me ask, what if . .
find Some Ruins
this: You are sitting on the edge of a massive stone slab. Your feet dangle--you
needed a boost just to climb up here. The slab is as big as a city block,
surrounded by scrub brush and chipped stone, covered with brake dust and soot
from the nearby expressway. Tall columns rise up from it; one of them has fallen
and split into the discs it was formed from, like the spinal column of a giant.
Each disc's diameter is more than your height. This building was enormous, but
it is not the ruins of some modern marvel, felled by an earthquake. This is the
Temple of Zeus, and while you stand on it, you are in ancient Greece. I found
the experience of visiting the Greek ruins inspiring. The huge buildings, the
beautiful carvings, the rooms with running water and sculpted gardens, all of
them manufactured without our modern conveniences. And they stank of age, of a
culture that flourished and created in a time completely different from our own.
They filed me with awe, and with wonder. What was life like then? I will never
truly know--their culture is not mine, and never will be. Going to ancient ruins
can give you a sense of what a truly alien culture might be like. But you don't
have to go to Greece to experience this. There are architectural and historical
wonders everywhere, from Revolutionary War forts to Indian burial grounds to
Stonehenge to the great cathedral at Notre Dame to the Buddha carvings in Tibet.
Take a minute to look around the wonders that man created without computers or
technology--you might find something there that moves you
sun is high in the azure sky. Billowy clouds drift lazily. The wind from the
ocean rushes over me. My feet dangle over the bow of the small sailboat. There
is a continuous slap of the bow as we get the incoming waves of the motorboat
that just sped by. I listen to the gulls squawk their protest of the boat
disturbing their hunting ground. With the wind pushing us along I feel the
freedom, the freedom of flight.
boat is small in such a big ocean, but we are protected. The water is my friend.
I know that down below in the depths that I cannot see are the merpeople. Their
watery melody drifts along the waves calling to all that will listen. With them
are all the wonders that the sea can hold, sunken pirate ships, sea serpents,
and of course The Cave of Wonders. In my child mind I knew that these all
existed. I often talked to the waves; they carried my message to the merpeople.
day I knew that I would swim with the dolphins, ride upon a sea serpent's back,
and become the merking's bride.
you look back in your family tree, you'll soon find strange people with odd
customs. You'll learn about history and geography in a way that no course could
teach you. Then there are the investigative skills. A recipe may be the best
indicator of what region your family came from. An immigrant might have one name
in most records, another name on the immigration documents, a third name in
on a Shoestring
panel full of complicated gauges and indicators lies in front of you. Your pulse
races as you snug the harness tight across your waist and shoulders,
anticipating the ride ahead. The pilot beside you nods, and you push the
throttle forward. The noise and vibration is intense as slowly, almost
imperceptibly, you begin to move...The launch of the next generation space
shuttle? Hardly. Most likely you are sitting in the left-hand seat of a tired
old Piper Warrior or a Cessna 152. Most FBO's (Fixed Base Operators) who provide
flight instruction offer an introductory package, a reduced-rate hour or
half-hour of hands-on flying, to let prospective students enjoy the thrill of
flight without spending an arm or a leg. For the science fiction writer this can
be one of the best forty or fifty dollars ever spent. And, while cruising out to
the practice area in a light-plane is hardly a ride on a Saturn V, you will
experience the same sensations an astronaut does: movement in three dimensions,
communication with air-traffic control, atmospheric buffeting, even brief
periods of weightlessness if you ask the instructor to demonstrate a couple
stalls. (Not nearly as terrifying as they sound. I promise.) If you are
interested, simply call around the local airports and explain that you would
like to take an introductory lesson. Look in the Yellow Pages under flight
instruction, airports, or general aviation to find the listings. You might even
mention that you are a writer to the instructor. Chances are the instructor will
be more than willing to give you exactly the kind of first ride you want. One
warning: Flight can be addictive, and if you're not careful, you might wind up
going on to get your license!
was lucky enough to have spent the past few days in Alice Springs (relatively
near Ayers Rock/Uluru in central Australia), and here are a few ideas it
Geography. Flying over the country gave me a fantastic idea of how the land is
laid out, and how one biome/environment merges into the next. Seeing the
underground rivers by the lines of the trees, and different geological
History. Exploring the town, learning about the history of the area in general
and the history of the town itself gave me a huge insight into why towns are
founded and what contributes to their success, and also how remote communities
might have coped without today's technology.
Exploring unknown lands. Hiking in the West MacDonnell Ranges, meeting few
people other than the group I was with, allowed me to imagine being an
explorer or traveler on a quest.
4. Geology/ecology. Guides, park rangers and information
displays are a mine of information about their local area and can give ideas
for how such country came to be, how the flora and fauna have adapted to
survive. Although I travelled some distance for this experience, it's
something you can do in your hometown. Take the time to explore your town, its
history and that of the land around it. What is the geological history of the
area? What kind of plants and animals do you get and why? Why is there a town
there? Flying is not necessary to see the land from above. Aerial photographs
are good, and can probably be found at the local council offices (check the
walls for pictures), libraries, tourist information centres or
geological/geographical survey organisations.
if these aren't enough to shift your imagination into overdrive, don't forget
the following idea.
greatest skill you can learn as a writer is to look through someone else's eyes.
So, take a walk around your block. Look at the place. Try to really see it.
Okay, now 'become' a medieval baron. Take another stroll. Do things look
different? What does the baron see that you ignored?
Or, walk around as a homeless person, or an alien, or a dragon --
whatever strikes your fancy. The
important thing is to look with new eyes at the plain old ordinary things
outside your window. If you can't walk around the block, you can do this exercise
from a lawn chair in your front yard, or from your balcony, or in the college
library, or at the mall. This is the easiest 'research' you'll ever do in terms
of time and money. But it can have profound effects on your understanding of
fundamentals like Point of View.