Veronica Scott, award-winning author and SciFi Encounters columnist for USA Today’s Happily Ever After blog, discusses her various research methods and explains why info-mining and plotting go hand-in-hand.
Even when the world you’re writing about doesn’t exist, you can still do research to make the underpinnings of your story ring true to the reader.
For my ancient Egyptian paranormal romances, the need for factual underpinnings is pretty obvious and the sources are simple to find. Not only do I do major research online, I also maintain an extensive library of scholarly and popular tomes. Televised programs from National Geographic and The History Channel about the meticulous attempts to reconstruct the technology of ancient Egyptian boats and chariots have given me marvelous details to work with. And nothing is as cool as visiting museums to view artifacts first hand.
One might think that for my science fiction romances, there wouldn’t be much I could research, since the action takes place in the far future, in a world that doesn’t exist. My theory is that human beings aren’t going to change all that much, no matter how far in the future we go, which means there are many aspects of our life on Earth that I can extrapolate for my plots.
I have a series set on an interstellar cruise liner and in the latest novel Star Cruise: Outbreak, the characters must deal with a mysterious disease.
I’ve talked elsewhere at some length about all the research I’ve done previously into the subject of ocean-going cruise ships, and the sailing experience from the standpoint of the passengers and the crew. This current novel was sparked in part by the episodes of norovirus that break out from time to time on big pleasure vessels. I was intrigued by the idea of an alien disease that starts out looking like a norovirus but is actually something much worse.
When I’m researching, I typically begin with a general Google search, to see what’s out there on the overarching topic. I have an idea in mind, but I keep my plot options open based on what I find. For this novel I needed an alien disease or malady, but since it was going to be acting on the human body, I wanted to keep the details believable. I’ve always been fascinated by Legionnaire’s Disease. (Not giving any spoilers but if you read the novel, you’ll see where aspects of that come in.) So I looked into the symptoms, the causes, the treatment, the original cases (newspaper reports for example), and similar diseases. In general what I found confirmed my thoughts but also told me for purposes of a science fiction novel, I needed more aspects to the problem. I couldn’t get enough plot mileage out of transplanting the one disease to the future. So I researched Ebola and brain eating amoebas. And along the way I went into much more depth about the pathology of noroviruses.
Often as a book progresses and the plot unfolds, I find I need to stop and do more research. (I’m a total pantster, can you tell?) In this case, late in the novel, I had a reason to become better versed in blood types and the inheritance rules governing them. I had to abandon one nifty plot device because of what I found but I gleaned other details to add to the book here and there.
I had to research the medical procedures for emergency surgery procedures on a patient who has suffered a penetrating abdominal wound. Reading this type of thing (and looking at the pictures) isn’t my favorite activity, but the medical articles were matter of fact and scholarly, and I came away with enough high level detail to enable my fictional doctor to operate.
Two of my main characters have PTSD, so I spent time researching that as well. No magical, futuristic hand-waving and “problems cured”. I wanted to be respectful of what our veterans, and others who survive traumatic experiences, go through in coping with PTSD.
Lest you worry that all of my research for this book was medical in nature, there’s a meditation garden in the novel so off I went to read up on those, and then of course adapted to fit my futuristic world. I have a lengthy scene with the ship’s chef and did some research there (but also channeled my hours of watching reality cooking shows – see, I wasn’t wasting time, I was RESEARCHING LOL.)
As you can no doubt tell by now, I lean heavily on internet searches that take me into fascinating nooks and crannies. I follow threads mentioned in my initial Google results to more obscure places, where I often locate intriguing details that enhance or inspire plot developments.
Other resources an author can explore:
The romance author community itself is incredibly helpful and collegial. I can’t speak to other genre communities since I don’t write anything but romance. Fairly often I see requests for specific, limited help on the various email loops and Facebook groups. Research, not plot! People ask about geographical details, regional slang, medical conditions, ‘what if’ questions, “who can I talk to about…”, where to double-check proper forms of address for English nobility, good research sources for life in 1600’s Norway – the list is endless. You don’t need to go it alone and if you aren’t a member of any online groups, I suggest you seriously consider finding your “tribe”, even if you lurk 99% of the time. There are many specialized groups within the romance world and a lot of knowledge.
A related point is that many romance readers expect and appreciate the details of worldbuilding in their preferred subgenres to be cohesive and as ‘right’ as possible. (Yes, most of us happily suspend disbelief about how many handsome Dukes there were in the Regency period, and how well they waltzed.) And the author has to bear in mind the popular perception of “how things work,” based on decades of movie and television procedurals.
An author can also try to locate an authority willing to talk to them, or act as a story consultant. I haven’t done this myself since ultimately I’m writing in the far future but I know of many authors who have. I did debate asking my own doctor to take a look at Star Cruise: Outbreak, more for the tonality of the medical profession than to vet the symptoms and progression of my alien disease, but ultimately I decided not to. Much as I admire her, she’s not a romance author. If I’d been writing an outbreak in the current day Southern California, I might have! Again, romance author groups and loops can help you here, on recommendations for who to approach as an expert.
The one semi-serious caution I’d give is that research can be a lot of fun and if you’re not careful, you can follow too many fascinating threads and get distracted from the book you’re writing!
What’s the most unusual topic you’ve ever researched for a book?
Star Cruise: Outbreak – April 2016
She saved countless soldiers in the wars … but does she have the weapons to fight an outbreak?
Dr. Emily Shane, veteran of the Sector Wars, is known as “The Angel of Fantalar” for her bravery under fire as a medic. However, the doctor has her own war wounds–severe PTSD and guilt over those she failed to save.
Persuaded to fill a seemingly frivolous berth as ship’s doctor on the huge and luxurious interstellar cruise liner Nebula Zephyr, she finds the job brings unexpected perks–a luxe beach deck with water imported from Tahumaroa II, and Security Officer Jake Dilon, a fellow veteran who heats her up like a tropical sun.
However, Emily soon learns she and Jake didn’t leave all peril behind in the war. A mysterious ailment aboard the Zephyr begins to claim victim after victim … and they must race against time and space to find the cause and a cure! Trapped on a ship no spaceport will allow to dock, their efforts are complicated by a temperamental princess and a terrorist–one who won’t hesitate to take down any being in the way of his target. If anyone’s left when the disease is through with them…
Bio: Best Selling Science Fiction & Paranormal Romance author and “SciFi Encounters” columnist for the USA Today Happily Ever After blog, Veronica Scott grew up in a house with a library as its heart. Dad loved science fiction, Mom loved ancient history and Veronica thought there needed to be more romance in everything. When she ran out of books to read, she started writing her own stories.
Three time winner of the SFR Galaxy Award, as well as a National Excellence in Romance Fiction Award, Veronica is also the proud recipient of a NASA Exceptional Service Medal relating to her former day job, not her romances! She recently was honored to read the part of Star Trek Crew Woman in the audiobook production of Harlan Ellison’s “City On the Edge of Forever.”
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