Managing Research in General: Researching Exoplanets and Interstellar Travel in Particular

Check out Icarus Interstellar

Ah, research! necessary and dangerous territory. In general I try to keep research to a minimum, so that I can keep my fiction writing at a maximum. My motto is “Just enough and no more,” but it can be hard to stick to when the world, the universe, the galaxy, and beyond is so fascinating.

After I get an idea that sticks around -a little zygote of a story- I’ll do just a smidge of preliminary research, something to help me set the story in a particular time and place and nail down the main characters. This week I’m writing a story about people traveling to an exoplanet at sub-lightspeed on a generation ship. There is enough basic information just within the genre tropes to get me started, so I didn’t do any research until I hit the halfway mark.

From xkcd!

Since this is a science fiction story, I need to make it plausible. I’ve now come to the point in the story where certain elements of the plot are constrained by the the reality of space travel as we know it. I’m researching while I draft. Whenever I come to a detail that I don’t know, I put in a place holder (like [XXX]) until I can come back and plug in the details.

Now, I’m not an astrophysicist or an astronomer. My background is in English lit, so I’m never going to write stories with hard science as the centerpiece. For me, it’s  about learning enough to make the world of the story plausible. But I do love science and reading about it, so the trick is to not get sucked in. Really. It’s hard. Below are some of the goodies that I came across in my cursory research about what it would take to actually travel outside our solar system to an exoplanet. There is so much fascinating stuff. I could so go down this rabbit hole for weeks, but I’m just going to leave it here and get back to writing.

Exoplanets are any planet that orbits a star outside our solar system. We’re discovering new ones every day. Most of them are larger than earth, sometimes they’re called “super-earths.”

Tragically, I don’t have an iPad, but if you do and have ten bucks burning a hole in your virtual pocket, you might want to consider  Journey to the Exoplanets, a “book app” by Scientific American and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Drool. Drool.

There’s a fair amount written about what it would take to travel to one of these planets. Universe Today has a piece about traveling to our nearest star in the Alpha Centauri system, and Kurzweil’s  website has an article about traveling to Tau Ceti. I don’t know if the intrepid characters in my story will be going to either of these systems, but after reading these articles I decided that wherever they’re going they’ll be going via a nuclear pulse propulsion ship.

This method of space travel is still theoretical, but there is a wealth of information about it out there. Icarus Interstellar has all the information I’ll need for this little story (and plenty more to fuel dozens of other story worlds). I’ll be building my ship using Project Icarus‘ handy “Colonized Interstellar Vessel: Conceptual Master Planning” document.

As far as where my characters will end up, I’m still shopping for planets from the dozens of exoplanets listed on the Planetary Habitability Laboratory’s Habitable Exoplanets Catalog. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

The key for me, is knowing enough about my characters and story, so that I can do focused research. Even though I’ve gathered just enough information to create a plausible world for the characters in my story, the biggest challenge some days, is to step away from the research and back into the story. So, I’ll just leave this here for you. Check out the links, explore. It’s back to the word mines for me.

Of Libraries and the Books that are in Them

My hometown library when it was new.
It looks much the same today.
When I was growing up, Tuesday was library day, or maybe it was Thursday. I can’t remember now, but I do remember going with my mom every week without fail. I grew up in a small post-industrial town south of Buffalo and north of Pennsylvania surrounded by farmland. Its heyday, as a center of tool and die, brick, and furniture manufacture was history long before I was born. But Western New York was a lovely place to grow up, and Jamestown had an excellent library.

My mom dumped me in the children’s room (fine with me) and went off to collect her reserves and pore over the new book shelf and maybe read a few pages of the New York Times. Once I was finished assembling my own pile of books, I would swing by the little art gallery or maybe fiddle around with the microfische machines or just go directly to bugging my mom. 

I have always loved reading. Earning my English degree forced me to read broadly and taught me to read deeply. Throughout my education, including my masters in Library Science, I assumed that everyone read for the same reasons I did, to encounter great thinkers’ thoughts directly on the page, to wallow in lavish prose, to savor poetry. For me, reading is an adventure, as with all good adventures, I thought some exertion should be involved. I still look for books and authors that will challenge me, show me new horizons, maybe even change my mind. 

After I got my MLS degree I moved to New York City to work at the central branch of the Queens Borough Public Library. Living in the city was eye-opening, so was working in a big public library. I discovered that I was only one kind of reader, and that people read for a myriad of different reasons. *

Queens is an incredibly diverse borough, and QPBL carries a huge range of material. I remember looking at a spin rack of Korean romance novels. Inside, the back covers were covered with Korean symbols that the readers had penned. I asked the librarian who worked in that department about it. She said that each reader would write their Korean initial in the back of the book once they’d read it, so that they wouldn’t read it again by mistake. I thought, how satisfying could a book be if you could accidentally read it over and not know? Yet those books were read to pieces, the back covers of every one filled with readers’ marks. 

It slowly dawned on me that I had a very narrow idea of what I thought reading was. Like most unexamined definitions, it encompassed exactly one person, me. Sure there are like minded souls out there, but there are also rafts of readers who seek entirely different pleasures than I do. 

As Shakespeare said, “There’s more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” ** 

This understanding has made me a better writer. Right off the bat, I know I’m not trying to write for everyone. I think, I’m not so much trying to find an audience as I’m trying to find my tribe. Fiction or non-fiction, no matter the genre, all a writer can do is try to reach across time and space, to connect with those readers who seek to share the same challenge or solace or sense of humor with them. I’m looking for that reader who will share my world for a few hours and mark the back cover of my book with their initial. 

* Of course, people come to the library for more than just books. They come to to get music and DVDs. They come to learn English or Spanish or Farsi. They come to look for a job, to surf the web, to learn to type, or sew, or meet friends. They come to play computer games. And if they don’t have a home, they come in just to sit in the air-conditioning, and that’s okay too.

**  Hamlet (1.5.166-7)

Thinking Deeply

This cake’s done, but my story isn’t ready to come out of the oven yet.
One of the things I forgot to list in my gratitude post was how writing stories forces me to think deeply about the story, about the world, about myself, about everything really. What I love about writing science fiction and fantasy is that it forces me to imagine what it means to be human in a universe populated with other – other what? With the Other. There’s nothing like creating a world that is alien (either alien of our own making or otherworldly) and thinking how we would behave around those Others. 

This is the part I think of as cooking the story, and it’s what I mean when I say the story isn’t “done” yet.
“You’re finished,” my mom used to chide, “cakes are done.”

Maybe I should call it baking a story. In any case there’s a lot of head work before a story is “done” enough in my brain, by which means it has arrived at the point where I can begin writing.

It’s why a lot of writing looks like this —
— though most of it still looks like this.

How to start thinking deeply in genre:

In fantasy you must establish the rules of the world of the story. If there’s magic, how does it work and more importantly what are the limits? Because there’s the rub as Shakespeare would say. And it’s the rub, the obstacles that the characters must overcome that give your story its teeth. In science fiction the rules and limits align with what we know of the natural world, sociology, physics. 

Just remember the reader doesn’t really care about the rules, not the way you do Don’t waste pages laying them all out, turning your story into an instruction manual. The rules matter to your characters. Decide them then internalize them so that the world of the story can become compelling to your reader through your characters’ thoughts and actions as they moves through their world.