Guest Post: C.S. Boyack – The Importance of Research in Speculative Fiction

Today Craig Boyack, author of C.S Boyack’s Experimental Notebook and his newest release, The Playground, is visiting Journey to Ambeth with a fantastic post about research. As he says, writing speculative fiction means that you can do pretty much whatever you choose within a story – however, for it to be effective, there has to be some basis in reality. That’s where research comes into play.

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The Playground - available to pre-order now
The Playground – available to pre-order now

People don’t often realize how much research goes into speculative fiction. Obviously we’re making some pretty fantastic stuff up, but there are points where it has to be grounded in reality, and/or history. This is where research is required.

The heroine in The Playground is Dr. Gina Greybill. She’s an oncologist who survived her own bout with cancer. There are a few futuristic items in play here, but her life gets turned on its head by a paranormal encounter.

As she adapts to her new circumstances, she has to deal with the big issues behind the story and needs more information. Having recently been exposed to the paranormal world, she thinks an oracle of some kind might be able to help her.

It turns out, oracles are in short supply. There is one in North Korea, but no chance of contacting her. This leads to a scheme to contact a dead one. I spent a long time researching the trances of Edgar Cayce. Cayce has his fans even today, and I want to keep a smidgen of reality to this part of the story. Several days of effort led to a few paragraphs in the story.

The Playground becomes a chase for the maguffin. Of course it involves competitors, and tension. I wanted the characters to wind up in New Orleans. I can’t just hop in the truck and drive down for a fun weekend.

Google Earth became my best friend. I used street views, and more to make sure the area is as realistic as possible. The names may have been changed, but the places in the story are real. I used the same approach in Memphis.

I did some looking though the seven deadly sins too. These made great encounters for Gina to overcome as lesser demons. You’ll find despair worms and pride crabs in the story.

This may not seem like a ton of research, but it took many days. I’m pretty serious about this part of my work. The Playground has a paranormal bent, but it doesn’t matter if it’s science fiction, or fantasy. Readers need some things to ground them into the story. This makes them more willing to accept the fantastic things that go on.

In speculative fiction you can make the world any way you like. It’s a bad idea to change
absolutely everything. The readers will have a hard time keeping up. I like to keep trees pointed toward the sky, water flowing downhill, and day vs night. Glaciers are for mountains, and lakes are in the low places.

A bit of additional research helps with these concepts. I could have made up my own seer. I could have used a fictitious city. Any kind of creepy monsters could have filled in the gaps, but relating them to the seven deadly sins makes them more familiar. By researching these items, it helps ground the reader for the amazing things that occur.

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CS Boyack PhotoI was born in a town called Elko, Nevada. I like to tell everyone I was born in a small town in the 1940s. I’m not quite that old, but Elko has always been a little behind the times. This gives me a unique perspective of earlier times, and other ways of getting by. Some of this bleeds through into my fiction.

I moved to Idaho right after the turn of the century, and never looked back. My writing career was born here, with access to other writers and critique groups I jumped in with both feet. I like to write about things that have something unusual. My works are in the realm of science fiction, paranormal, and fantasy. The goal is to entertain you for a few hours. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Craig

Check out my novels here: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00ILXBXUY

48 thoughts on “Guest Post: C.S. Boyack – The Importance of Research in Speculative Fiction

  1. Totally agree with you – without some form of common ground readers would quickly give up.
    For me, it’s about the psychology of my characters – no matter that they are interacting with fantastical beasts/situations, I try to write them as real people, with hang ups and flaws that influence their reactions and relationships.
    I’ve become something of a psychology nerd, even without formal study in the field.

    1. I love that angle too. Stories are about people, and they’re read by people. Even if the main character is a space amoeba, it better have human thoughts and reactions or readers will give up.

      1. I admit one of my favourite SF authors (C.J. Cherryh) successfully writes aliens with really alien psychologies, though many of them are based on concepts we’d recognise, like a hive mind, or pack mentality. That makes them accessible even while being alien.

    2. Yes, that’s so true! I do the same thing – to me, it seems more normal that a person thrust into a fantasy world would freak out a bit, rather than taking it in their stride. I just commented to Craig that an element of reality is the point where the reader and the story meet – without it I’m not sure you’d get the same connection.

      1. Hah, Helen, that “freaking out” thing is the whole premise of my first book, Seventh Son! And yes, I agree thoroughly with what everyone’s saying.

      2. Yes, it’s a great discussion, isn’t it? Craig’s written a first rate article and it’s so true.
        And Seventh Son is on my Kindle, waiting to be read – really looking forward to it 🙂

      3. Different stories need different grounding points. If someone is thrust into a different environment, their reactions are everything. If they grew up in that environment, the dragon migration might not even get a skyward glance. I’m writing one where the MC is thrust into an alternate reality, and it’s important for him to react like a modern person would to what he finds there.

    1. I totally agree. I think an element of realism to even the most extreme fantasy is so important, as it becomes the point where the reader and the story connect. A great post – thanks for choosing me to host it 🙂

  2. I very much agree, Craig. For my first book, which is set in a pseudo-medieval world, I spent hours researching stuff like “how do you start a fire with tinder and flint” and “how do you cook in an open fireplace” (which led to a hankering for my own cast iron dutch oven to try it out with). Unbelievable detail throws the reader out of the flow of a story; it’s got to be right.

    1. I’ve done a ton of similar research. Although I’ve cooked over open fireplaces and in Dutch ovens all my life, starting a fire with flint and steel isn’t quite the same as gasoline and a match. There comes a time where I reach plausible, and move on. Struggling with the flint and steel is believable after a paragraph or two. Reality is that it might take half a day to get a fire going.

      1. Good point about the difference between believability and reality. I think it’s important to have the reality in your head, but you can’t put everything on the page, or you’ll bore the reader to tears and ruin your story. One paragraph on “Joe struggled to light the fire” is good, three pages and half a day of story time is too much. “Reach plausible, and move on” is a great principle.

  3. Agree absolutely with doing good research for speculative fiction or any fiction for that matter. Whatever the genre, the setting is always the writer’s own construction. For it to ring true for the reader, all the details must have consistency, seem authentic in SOME sense.On the other hand, you can get away with a great deal if you are crackingly good story teller 🙂 Good luck with the writing.

  4. Absolutely, Craig. Couldn’t agree more. Thats what makes the difference between good fiction and great fiction. Although, I’d always recommend visiting a setting if you can; my own experience has led me to discover that places aren’t always how they look on Google.

    1. I agree completely. It isn’t always possible to visit some of these places though. Sometimes it’s a financial matter, sometimes it’s because the story is 200 years in the past. Today’s shopping mall is yesterday’s battlefield. I used to do a lot of work with quadrangle maps and aerial photos, so I may understand them better than many people.

      1. You probably do… I have no idea what a quadrangle map is lol! Also, my country is a LOT smaller than yours, so its easier to get around. Some features of a landscape don’t change though, mountains and rivers are still there, but they look a lot different to how they did 200 years ago. Its hard to get everything just right, no matter how hard you try.

      2. I think a big part of that is just BSing your way through. If it sounds plausible the readers won’t bat an eye. In our modern world, river channels get moved, fill dirt adds to the land mass, and old wooden bridges get replaced. As long as the water flows toward the sea we’re golden.

  5. Google Earth is awesome for getting a street view of the surroundings. I love it. And even in fantasy, sci-fi and speculative, there has to be world-building that has roots to pull the reader in. Even on an alien planet I need to feel grounded and know there are laws of nature, etc.

    Great post! Research can consume hours, days, weeks, even longer, but it enriches the story and makes a more believable world for the reader. Great job!

    1. Thanks Mae. There are basics even in alien environments if you do it right. Buildings are still built on foundations in the ground. You can change anything, but go too far and the story fails. A bit of familiarity helps the reader follow along.

  6. Google Maps and wikipedia have been my friend several times in my non-fantasy attempts. Even with the fantasy stuff, I have to research names and creatures. I tend to add animal parts together until I get something, so I research what different creatures can do. A lot of it ends up being spontaneous though.

    1. There should always be research. In this one the physical representation of deadly sins, or the Hoodoo use of psalms took some time. Even The Cock of the South took a lot of research.

    1. Thanks John – Craig’s written an excellent post, and I’m really enjoying the discussion. To add my two cents, for my Ambeth books I based a lot of the locations on real places, most of which I visited in person to get the lie of the land. I also had to research battle sword-fighting as opposed to competitive fighting (though my own fighting background did help a little), plus drew on legends, history and even Mitochondrial Eve for my background story. The names are mostly Welsh, so that involved some language research too.
      For A Thousand Rooms (not yet published) I had to research funeral rites and different ideologies linked to the afterlife, which was very interesting. I find that side of writing a real bonus, as I love learning 🙂

      1. I can understand. One reviewer wrote of my book My GRL that “Mr Howell obviously knows a lot about boats…” I knew nothing about boats before I started the book. 🙂

  7. Historical fiction novels have copious research required when done correctly. Many editors won’t touch them unless you also file an index of your research with references.

    When I’m reading a speculative fiction novel, I’m going into it knowing things may get weird, but it is a much more interesting story to me if I’m I’m grounded by plausibility.

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