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.

ApolloCon 2012 report

I enjoyed ArmadilloCon so much last year,
I thought I’d try out Houston’s version.

After driving to Houston and getting checked in and typing up my last critique for Saturday morning’s Writers Workshop I was pretty wiped, but I managed to make it to a couple panels.

Friday
Of Blood Spatters and Fingerprints: Clues to Fool the Savviest Fan
Martha Wells, Patrice Sarath, Bill Crider, and Ramirez 
A discussion of how mystery writers work clues into their stories without telegraphing the ending. It’s tricky walking the fine line between believability and predictability to create a satisfying mystry. All writers being different, many approaches were discussed.

Cue the Evil Laugh: Lessons Learned from Evil Geniuses
Tanya Huff, Rosemary Clement-Moore, Rhonda Eudaly, and A. Lee Martinez

 All about evil villain stereotypes and how smarter villains make for a better story. This was a lively panel where villains and villainy were discussed. Personages mentioned ranged from Thantos to Wile E. Coyote. Everyone agreed that good heroes need strong villains, and villains need to be relatable (you have to understand their motivations). Martinez has the theory that villains are often likeable because of their committment to their goal and their crazy ways, like how the riddler MUST frame everything in a riddle even when it makes things more difficult for him. Interesting. Glad I stayed up for this one!

Saturday
Writers’ Workshop

I spent the morning in the Writers’ Workshop led by Martha Wells. It was a good solid critique session with three other participants in our group. We had time, after talking about our stories and chapters, to talk about some of the larger issues regarding world building and publishing.  Very worth my time and you can’t beat the price!

I spent the afternoon on the science panels. Being in Houston, a couple NASA people were kind enough to grace ApolloCon with their expertise.

Saturday Science with Paul Abell 
Dr. Abell is the lead scientist for Planetary Small Bodies assigned to the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate at the NASA Johnson Space Center. Wow! What a title. He gave a really interesting talk about the study of NEO (i.e. asteroids), and he brought slides!

100 Year Starship
Al Jackson, Stanley Love, Paul Abell, and Todd Caldwell

He was dressed slightly more casually for the con.

This panel took a little while to find its feet, but once it got going there was an interesting discussion about the science and challenges and rewards of interstellar travel.

Enter the Dragon: SpaceX and the Future of Manned Spaceflight
Al Jackson, Paul Abell, Stanley Love, and Scott Padget
A discussion about how private space companies will shape the future of crewed spaceflight and space exploration. This was a lively panel with some real world information and anecdotes from the people who make it all happen.

I finished off the afternoon with Austin (both Jane and Texas!) author Patrice Sarath. She read an excerpt from The Crow God’s Girl, her stand alone novel of the Godarth Wood Series. The excerpt sounded quite intriguing, so I have yet another book to load onto my Kindle.

I made sure to stop by ArmadilloCon’s Party since I’ll be seeing them next month!


 Sunday
Writing 101 
Tanya Huff, Kerry Tolan, Bev Hale, and Julia Mandala
Billed as tips from pros on how to get started, stay motivated, and how to see your Big Idea through to the end. The wide-open topic seemed well suited to the first panel of the morning. It was fun with lots of real world writing advice and encouragement.

The Best YA You and Your Teen are not Reading
Patrice Sarath, Bev Hale, and Katy Pace
Well attended and in a small room, which happily encouraged more of a group discussion. Very enjoyable and now I have another long list of books to read – I may have to delegate some of these titles to my daughter!

Authors and books mentioned included (but were by no means limited to):

The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
Divergent and Insurgent by Veronica Roth
Scott Westerfield (Uglies, Leviathan)
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
M. T. Anderson and Paolo Bacigalupi