Research in Writing: Reality vs Perceptions

I don’t think any sensible person would question that a responsible writer should do their homework and research any facts that go into their writing, even if what they’re writing is fiction. However, over the years, I’ve learned that getting it right doesn’t always mean that the people reading the story will think you’ve gotten it right. The reason is that not all readers have done the homework and come to a story with a set of preconceived notions. If you violate those preconceived notions they may actually think you’ve made a mistake.

For example, I’m an astronomer who works with telescopes for a living. When I say that, I know a lot of people might picture this dude from a Bud Light commercial a few years back:

In fact, we don’t wear lab coats. We don’t spend all night standing at the back of a telescope. Telescopes have been using digital cameras, feeding pictures into computers since the 1980s. Even in the days when we did work at the telescope, you were more likely to find us wearing heavy coats and we’d be working in the dark all night long blasting loud music to try to keep ourselves awake. In fact, this is what the control room at the 4-meter telescope on Kitt Peak looks like:

And you’ll notice there’s not a lab coat in sight. Why would there be? It’s not like we’re working with dangerous chemicals or anything.

I play with this very idea a bit in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt when gangsters from a Mexican cartel show up at the story’s observatory to track down a missing drug shipment. They come to the place with preconceived notions they gained from television, but learn that the real astronomers they meet aren’t much like what they believed.

I run into this dichotomy when writing weird westerns and steampunk. People think they know the history of the old west because stories like the Gunfight at OK Corral or the life of Billy the Kid have been told in numerous movies. Even I get caught off guard. A while back, I was watching Doctor Who’s version of the Gunfight at OK Corral and they introduced a character named Phin Clanton. From all the movies, I knew Ike Clanton and his brother Billy, but who the heck was Phin? Sure enough, I looked it up and Ike and Billy had a brother named Phineas who was not at the famous gunfight. In tribute to my newfound knowledge, I gave Phin a role in Lightning Wolves.

In the end, this raises something of a question. Is it better to write to the facts, as best as they can be known, or to write to people’s perceptions? My take on this is that you should absolutely do due diligence researching the facts. You’ll bring an air of authenticity to your work and you’ll likely be able to bring better and richer details to the table. However, you should also see if pop culture has addressed your topic and how it’s been portrayed. If the facts seem to contradict what you’re seeing in the more pop cultural references, you may want to find a way to address the dichotomy in your story. Otherwise, you might get a rejection from a well meaning editor or a poor review from a fan who thinks you got the facts wrong despite your hard work.

Good Writing Requires Good Reading

I feel like I’ve been reading a lot since this year began. I agreed to moderate a panel at the Tucson Festival of Books in March, which required me to read books by each of the panelists. Soon after that was the voting deadline for SFWA’s Nebula Award and I wanted to read as many of the nominated works as possible before I cast my ballot. This was a great exercise because it introduced me to quite a few good books. The ones below are a sample of those I read for the Festival of Books panel.

The stack there is nothing compared to my Kindle, which feels like it should be bulging at the seams from all the great books I added to it. This has proven to be a great time to do some extra reading, because I’ve been working on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel. It might seem counter-intuitive to be busy reading when I’m also busy writing, but in my mind, the two activities go hand in hand and one is actually essential for the other.

I’m not the only one who says this. In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests that anyone serious about writing should have a book along so they can read in any spare time available. I was in the audience at a writers event in Tucson some years ago when Ray Bradbury suggested that someone serious about being a writer should read one poem, one essay, and one short story every single day.

It might seem like it’s tempting to steal ideas from writers when you do so much reading. I’ll be a little provocative and suggest that’s exactly the point of reading so much. Okay, yeah, lifting whole passages from another book into yours is plagiarism. Don’t do that! That said, when you’re writing, you might have difficulty finding just the right way to describe a series of events, knowing how much detail to include, or making a character feel really alive. By reading others, you can see how other writers have solved those problems which might suggest solutions to you.

The converse of this is also true. By reading a lot, you see pitfalls other writers have stumbled into and paths you don’t want to go down. In fact, while reading the Nebula-nominated books and stories, I become aware that even the best authors write passages that don’t work for me. It allows me to see that the piece might work in spite of a slight stumble. Sometimes when I think about something that looks like a stumble, I realize “fixing” a minor problem might result in either clunky prose, or might cause the writer to tell an entirely different story than the one they set out to tell. It also reminds me that I don’t have to be a perfectionist. Imperfect books are sold and even get nominated for awards all the time!

At this point, it might be tempting to invoke Sturgeon’s Law, which usually claims “90% of everything is crud.” Often a stronger word than “crud” is used, but that was Ted Sturgeon’s original word and I’ll stick with it. It’s become fashionable in fandom to bandy this “law” about and cynically state that this applies to any set of books or movies you might want to name. Now, I’m here to say that of all my reading in the last three months, hardly any of it was crud. Most was quite good. Some wasn’t quite as much to my taste as others. Some of the stories and books worked better for me than others, but I saw value in all of it.

In fact, it’s important to realize that “Sturgeon’s Law” was not meant to be invoked about absolutely anything. Originally, Theodore Sturgeon referred to it as “Sturgeon’s Revelation” and it was an argument against people using the worst examples of science fiction film and literature to demonstrate the worthlessness of the genre. His point was you can find bad examples from any art form or genre and use that as an excuse to vilify it.

Sturgeon’s Revelation came about because Ted Sturgeon was not only a great science fiction writer, but he was also a science fiction fan who loved to read. He hoped to encourage people to dive in and find the good stuff science fiction and fantasy had to offer. In short, that’s what I’ve been doing and I hope to see it pay dividends in the writing I produce.

The Horror of Time Management

My daughter recently wrapped up another semester’s midterms in college, which presented her with a nearly overwhelming set of projects and exams. On top of that, she has a job with its own set of responsibilities. At the same time, I’ve been juggling quite a few projects as well. I’m drafting a novel, shepherding an anthology through its final phases of publication, promoting those books that are already out. Of course, I also have the “day” job of operating telescopes. Included in my job duties is oversight of the telescope operation manuals, which keeps me busy by itself. Given our different time management challenges, we had a good discussion about the subject and how to move forward without feeling overwhelmed.

The photo shows me with both of my daughters a couple of years ago at Gator Chateu in Jennings, Louisiana. The picture is kind of a metaphor. If you think of projects as alligators, they’re easy to handle and kind of fun when they’re small. The challenge is when they get big and you have several of them at once!

I’ve been seeing several articles in recent months that suggest multitasking is counterproductive. I can believe it. To extend my alligator metaphor, it’s like trying to go up against all the gators by yourself at once. You’re more likely to get eaten than get something useful done with the gators. Not multitasking sounds great until you’re confronted with the reality of several big projects and looming deadlines.

The first thing to realize is that it’s actually rare for all deadlines to fall at the exact same time. Even when deadlines do occur at the same time, there’s nothing saying you can’t finish one project early if possible. The first thing I like to do when confronted with several looming projects is figure out which things need to be done first. Also, some projects require more complete attention from me while others require me to contact a person and then wait for a response. This part is like getting your alligators into separate enclosures so you can deal with them one at a time.

To step back a little and make this more concrete for writers, this is why I think it’s invaluable for a writer to have good, regular writing habits. For me, it’s much easier to write productively in a small block of time if I have been writing routinely every day. If I take a long break from my writing, that’s when anxiety starts to build regarding what I’m going to write about. That’s when I spend long periods of time staring at the computer trying to figure out what words I’m going to be using. If I’m writing regularly, I can look at my outline, see the scene I want to write, then sit down and get it done in the block I have available. If you write by the seat of your pants, you won’t be looking at an outline, but you might think about the last scene you wrote and decide where you’re going.

Editing and book promotion can both involve some amount of writing emails or making phone calls and then waiting for responses. A daily routine that often works well for me is to wake up, check my email and see if there’s anything I need to deal with right away. I take care of what I need to, and then set aside those tasks that either don’t require an instant response or can’t be finished instantly. At that point, I turn off my email program and turn off the ringer on my phone. I write to the goal I have set myself. That goal varies depending on the project, but it’s often a thousand or two thousand words. Once that goal is done, I turn the phone back on and restart the email program, check for messages and move on to longer term editorial work.

Now, you’ll notice, I’ve not addressed the observatory job. One thing I like about my job is that while I work long hours at the telescope, I only work for about six or seven nights every two weeks. So, all my work taking data at the telescope and drafting manuals happens at the observatory and is only occasionally done at home when there’s a pressing deadline or a safety issue that needs to be dealt with right away. This kind of schedule isn’t for everyone, which means you need to adapt your schedule to your routine. It may mean smaller blocks of time every day for every job you do, or it may mean you do some jobs on some days and other jobs on other days.

After awhile, it starts to look like multitasking, but really I try hard to focus on one job at a time as much as possible.

I also didn’t mention family time in the equation, but for me, that’s perhaps the most important time of all and the least negotiable. It’s also probably a better reason for showing a photo with me and my daughters than a silly alligator analogy. When I’m at home, I typically stop work at 6pm to be available to my wife and daughters as they need. There are exceptions. Among other things, sometimes my younger daughter has after school activities or homework that take her attention for a while. Sometimes she works on that while I work on a project. When I’m at the observatory, I’m away from home, but I make time to Skype with my family every day and I’m available to take calls as needed.

So, to sum up, if I’m working on several long-term projects with deadlines, I like to prioritize those projects with earlier deadlines. I block out my day so I make progress on all my projects, taking it one thing at a time. I try to build up good habits so that limited blocks of time are productive. I recognize what I need to make myself productive at each type of project and try to maintain those conditions.

All of that said, yeah, I still get overwhelmed at times. Sometimes then, the best thing to do is take a break, go for a walk, clear my head and look at it all afresh. Sometimes then, those alligators don’t look quite as big as I thought the first time and I’m able to wrestle them into their compartments and get on with my life.

Steampunk Art Fest and More Aliens With Tentacles

Today, I’ll be in El Paso, Texas for the Steampunk Art Fest, being held at Barmen Kitchen and Patio at 4130 N. Mesa from 2 until 9pm. Although work at Kitt Peak National Observatory will call me away, the fun will continue on Sunday from 4 until 9:30pm. There will be a fire show, live music, and a costume contest, plus steampunk artists. I will be there today and will have a selection of my books available and will be happy to chat with you!

This past week, I’ve been catching up with some 2016 films I missed. One of them was the fine science fiction film, Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. It tells the story of twelve mysterious alien spacecraft that land around the world. Every few hours, the aliens open the door and allow people in to talk to them. Adams plays a linguist attempting to understand their language while Renner plays a physicist.

The aliens in the film prove to be a fine example of aliens with tentacles, which I wrote about back in February. These creatures have seven legs and look like giant octopi or squids.

Another fascinating aspect of these aliens is that they don’t perceive time linearly like humans do. This leads the characters to ask whether they would make the same choices if they knew the future as they would if they didn’t. I don’t want to give away too many specifics because that risks spoiling the movie’s central mystery. However, it struck me that these aliens are not unlike the character Legion in my Clockwork Legion novels.

Legion does see time linearly like humans, but he is a living consciousness transferred into a vast computational array with tremendous predictive abilities. Legion’s appearance on Earth helps to give rise to the steampunk alternate reality. In my case, I worked to avoid the deus ex machina kind of plot where Legion simply tells humans how to build advanced technology. Rather, I use Legion as a means to clear away all doubt. Humans design the machines and Legion tells them whether or not they’re possible. This in turn means the leaders of society are willing to fund those inventions ahead of their time. Of course, another aspect of Legion is that he doesn’t always make the best choices about which humans to talk to.

If you’d like to meet Legion, be sure to check out the novels at:
http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Queen Mary Ghosts

Back in 2012, I wrote a guest post about a strange, possible ghost encounter I had aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach for Gayle Martin’s Accidental Ghost Hunter Blog. I’m sorry to say, Gayle is no longer maintaining the blog, so the original post is no longer available. I’m reposting it here so it’s still available for your reading enjoyment.

These photos are from a ghost tour my daughter and I took during Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium held aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach California on Friday, January 13, 2012. The strangest incident that happened was when we went to the first class swimming pool aboard the ship. It’s a noted “hot spot” for ghost sightings. The first photo shows the pool.

Off the upper balcony, we went into the women’s dressing rooms. I snapped a photo of the corridor. When I took the photo, I thought I saw a person in the flash and indeed, there is a strange, almost human-shaped shadow in the photo. I assumed it was one of my fellow tourists, but when I walked up the hallway, I didn’t pass anyone or see any other people ahead of me in the corridor or the dressing rooms. I did get a serious case of the willies as I walked further down the hall and the hairs raised on the back of my neck.

When I downloaded the photo onto my computer, I assumed the shadow I captured was some strange trick of the light. However, I then did a simple brightness/contrast adjustment and adjusted the color curves a little in Adobe Photoshop and the image below popped out. I should note, the hallway was completely dark. The only illumination came from my flash. If this was a fellow tourist, they were standing in the dark with this apparently non-nonchalant pose. They had no flashlight and the flash didn’t seem to illuminate them.

Another place that felt very eerie to me was the old boiler room. This photo was taken just outside the boiler room.

Inside, the boiler room, I took several photos. I kept feeling like I was seeing something move outside the corner of my eye. The one thing that I may have captured is the green glow in the lower left hand corner of the bottom photo.

I’m a professional astronomer and writer. I’m also an admitted skeptic. I’m hard pressed to say these photos serve as hard evidence of ghost encounters. Despite that, these photos do raise questions for me—especially the one taken in the dressing rooms. That said, incidents like this do provide inspiration for writing books like The Astronomer’s Crypt.

Worlds of Words

Last weekend, I was at the Tucson Festival of Books, which brings together authors of every genre imaginable from around the world to talk with readers about their work. The entire University of Arizona mall is taken up with tents occupied by vendors selling books and exhibiting products, services, and information. There was also an area called Science City which focuses on STEM literacy.

I love walking through the festival and seeing the books for sale and meeting the authors exhibiting their wares. Bookmans Entertainment Exchange is a chain of used bookstores in Arizona and one of the sponsors of the festival. They had a large tent and it was especially fun to go in and discover they had a copy of my novel Owl Dance for sale. What’s more, it was sitting on top of a copy of Bridges of Longing by my friend Marsheila Rockwell. As it turns out, I’d just spent time visiting with Marcy and her husband Jeff Mariotte a few minutes before at a tent where they were selling their books.

Fun as it is to visit the vendors, my favorite part of the festival are the tremendous panel presentations. On Saturday morning of the festival I joined J.L. Doty for a panel on Scientists Writing Science Fiction. I discussed how science influences my writing and editing. For example, science brought me together with Steve Howell of NASA Ames Research Center to assemble Kepler’s Cowboys, a collection of stories about planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. I also noted that working in science doesn’t always influence my science fiction. The 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak is a big, spooky building, especially at night and it inspired me to write my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. We also discussed bringing the discipline we learned in science to our writing. In that context, Jim mentioned how he writes without an outline. On the other hand, I do use outlines. In both cases, we think carefully about what we’ve written and plan our next writing sessions so we do any required research ahead of time.

I also moderated a terrific panel on building fantasy worlds. The panel included my friend Gini Koch. I was also delighted to meet Samantha Shannon, Erika Lewis, and Brian McClellan. We discussed the process they go through when creating their alternate worlds and how they keep track of the places within those worlds so they’re believable to the readers. I thought it was especially interesting to hear that Samantha was a fan of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, because I saw some influences in The Mime Order. That said, she noted that she’d actually removed some of the more overt influences because she didn’t feel they were working in the context of her work. The photo above was taken after the panel was finished and we gathered to sign books.

By itself, a terrific weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books would have done a great job of recharging my batteries so I could continue work on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel Owl Riders. However, just a couple of days after the festival, I was delighted to find a new review of book two of the series, Lightning Wolves posted at Geek-o-Rama. Reviewer Katrina Roets wrote, “Do you want to know how you know that you’re really enjoying a book? It’s when the power goes out and you curl up on the couch with a flashlight so that you can keep reading. Seriously. This happened to me last night.” Knowing that I wrote fiction that kept a reviewer reading through a power outage gives me a great, warm fuzzy feeling and makes me ready to write even more.

Nightmare Scenarios

As a horror and science fiction writer, one of my jobs is to concoct nightmare scenarios and present them as realistically as possible for your entertainment. In my new novel The Astronomer’s Crypt, I had great fun imagining anything and everything that could go wrong on a night at a remote observatory. I imagine everything from a dangerous storm, to people being hurt by the large machinery we have, to strangers who might appear on the mountain. I even imagine ghosts and an even more terrifying monster. As it turns out, I actually do work at an observatory, and one of my jobs is to make sure visiting astronomers stay safe. One of my duties is to give a safety presentation where I warn people about dangers they might face in an observatory environment. This includes staying away from areas where they could be hurt by machinery, watching for areas that are known to be slippery, and taking care if they go outside in strong winds. The safety presentation doesn’t include ghosts and terrifying monsters, because although I can imagine those things—have even had moments where I wondered if ghosts might exist—they have never done me, or anyone else at the observatory, any harm.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in light of some of the recent politics in the United States. In many ways, it’s the job of legislators and the executive branch to imagine every nightmare scenario possible. However, their job is more like mine as a telescope operator than my job as a horror writer. They should look at the reasonable and creditable threats to people’s health and security, act on them where necessary and give people appropriate cautions. The scary part to me is that the current administration is acting like the worst kind of horror writer in that they have been presenting absolutely every scary thing they can imagine, whether or not it’s reasonable. For example, the recent travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries feels like it would be as responsible as me telling visiting astronomers to avoid every Latino they might meet on the mountain because a suspected illegal immigrant once pulled a knife on a couple of staff members, then ran away. Yes, there are scary people and there are desperate people, but they are rarely scary and desperate because of their skin color or nation of origin.

SummersLightningWolves

This line of thought takes an interesting turn, because in my Clockwork Legion novels Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves, I imagine Russians coming to America and influencing people to support them with the help of an alien swarm called Legion. Of course, there have been allegations that the Russians attempted to influence the most recent American election and there might have been improper contact between Executive Branch officials and members of the Russian government. In the worst case, this could be a serious nightmare for America and is plausible enough to deserve serious inquiry, yet this nightmare scenario is regularly replaced with worries that a transgender person might be in the stall next to your daughter at school.

Of course, perhaps the greatest nightmare scenario of all would be living in a United States where people are not allowed to question the President and the press are barred from open inquiry. I would rather face the worst nightmares of The Astronomer’s Crypt than live in that world.