Reach for the Stars

Last Saturday I took a class at my local writing center entitled “Nearby Stars and Exoplanets,” by Dr. John Aguiar. Wow! I’ve done a bit of personal study in the last decade on this subject, and on space exploration, as well as our own solar system and how it works, but it’s been a while since I last read up on the subject. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to see just how many new discoveries have been made. At one point in the presentation, Dr. Aguiar showed us a slide of some of the surprises discovered by the Kepler mission, which focused on a relatively miniscule cone of space (3,000 light years) over a period of several years. In that tiny segment of what first appeared to be “empty” space, it found thousands of exoplanets. Thousands. And that finding likely severely undercounts the actual number. After the power of speech returned, I commented that we aren’t alone after all. Dr. Aguiar joked that it was actually starting to feel a little crowded.

Of course I’ve never thought we were alone, but that’s a topic for another post.

I’ve said before that as a writer, I don’t want to be constrained to what I already know. My imagination is bigger than that, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Besides, there are plenty of experts out there to help me get the details right. The trick is to find one who is willing.

The novel series I’m currently working on is based on backstory that involves the effects of solar weather on the Earth. I am certainly no physicist, so way back when I began sketching out the details of the backstory (which is foundational to the rest of the series), I searched the Internet for articles and resources that would answer my bazillion questions. I “met” (online) a few professors who helped me design my worlds, but one expert in particular—Tom—was instrumental in guiding the structure of critical space weather elements on which I would rest the entire novel series. Despite his integral role in a major governmental program, and international speaking and collaboration commitments, he always managed to find time to answer my questions. Even after I edged into confidential territory and he had to redirect my curiosity into more public access areas, he continued to provide indispensible input. I couldn’t have built a believable story without his help. Tom has moved on to other projects, and now I usually direct my questions on similar subjects to my friend William, an engineer who works with satellites and related systems.

My point is, don’t be afraid to ask questions. If one source is unable (or unwilling) to help, find another one. It’s like querying; if we send to one agent or editor and they say no, we send to another. Right?

Do know, though, that some genres of fiction may involve security issues related to your questions. One doctor friend refused to give me information I could use as a plot device to kill a character in an undetectable way, not because he thought I planned to actually kill someone, but because it would be a really bad idea to put something like that in a book that millions of people will read. (Yes, millions. Think positive, right?) Rodney William Whitaker (writing as Trevanian) had a footnote in his novel Shibumi to that same effect. Tom couldn’t answer what, exactly, it would take (as far as space weather) to bring down a country’s electrical grid, for obvious reasons. Back then, I also asked questions of a banker friend about how bad things would have to be to shut down world banking. She looked at me with a sort of horrified expression and said, “You should be careful, Drema. Asking questions like this will bring the men in black sedans to your door.” Maybe that’s why the electric company did not respond to my requests for a tour of their power station.

Whatever you want to write about, there is someone out there who can answer your questions, or tell you where to find resources that will serve the same function. There’s just no reason in this day and age, when we can talk to people from all around the world without ever leaving our comfortable desk chair, why a secretary (or a housewife, or a retail sales associate, etc.) should not write a science fiction novel, or a murder mystery, or whatever she wants. If the story concept excites you, I say go for it.