Wednesday, May 9, 2012

9. Keeping it Real: how to make imaginary locales seem realistic

In yesterday’s post I told you about the maps I consulted for my fictional works located in Washington, D.C., and New York City. They helped me keep the basic details of my books true-to life. Even in the case of Pandora’s Genes, which takes place toward the end of the present century, knowing what those places looked like back in the 1990’s helped me to imagine what a century of neglect and bad weather would do.

But what about completely imaginary locales? What about, say, fantasy or science fiction locations? One of the commenters on yesterday’s post is an sf writer who sets her stories on made-up planets. She says that having been an atmospheric scientist in real life helps her to construct (in imagination) her locales.

I have never been a scientist, but I’ve read a lot of science and science fiction, and that has helped me have a feel for many possible science fictional locations.
My hard-sf novella THE PTORRIGAN LODE takes place on a space station in the asteroid belt. There are no maps for such a place, but I’ve been visiting such structures in science fiction stories since I was a teenager (for example, in
The Rolling Stones, by Robert A. Heinlein), so  I already had  a general idea of what such a place (one with artificial gravity) might be like.

I did some further research on the web, perusing scientific articles describing the sort of space station I had in mind. I drew my own map of “Station,” so I could keep track of where the main character was at any given time, and how he would move from level to level. And I spent a lot of time inside his head, trying to imagine how it would feel to live in a sealed, closed station, no matter how big it is.

When writing about my fictional space station I did not go into a great deal of detail, because the novella is largely a story of character, but I worked to make those details I included seem plausible and familiar to readers of today. Jay’s small cubicle on Station,  for example, is small and bare, with everything built-in, but he keeps an old-fashioned acoustic guitar on the shiny metal wall.

A few short scenes toward the end of the novella take place inside a small spaceship and on the surface of a tiny asteroid. To create these, I mainly drew on my years of reading sci fi books and watching sci-fi movies. My general knowledge of science let me know what seemed realistic and what didn’t, and my imagination helped me to feel what the characters felt in these places.

I think the takeaway here is that research is essential to constructing the scaffolding of your novel, but it takes hard thought and imagination to bring the story to life.

Tomorrow I will continue with what keeps it “real,” in a discussion of continuity.

1 comment:

  1. I had no idea that much effort went into the pre-writing stage. It makes sense. I guess realism doesn't just happen!