For the last three years, I have been writing a series of modern paranormal fantasy, apocalyptic science fiction, action and adventure novels. Specifically, I have completed Hell Holes: What Lurks Below and Hell Holes: Demons on the Dalton, and I am currently writing Hell Holes: To Hell and Back. Now you might think that research is only needed for writing non-fiction, and that it is not necessary for writing fantasy and science fiction where we have the freedom to “make things up out of whole cloth”. After all, these genres often involve the development of completely imaginary worlds, such as vaguely medieval for fantasy or the far future for science fiction.
However, I find that performing a significant amount of research brings three major benefits:
- When writing speculative fiction, keeping the mundane (i.e., real) aspects of the book highly realistic makes the fantastic (i.e., unreal) parts, which requires the reader to suspend disbelief, more believable.
- Ensuring that the real aspects of the book have high fidelity to reality means that readers familiar with those topics will not be jarred out of their reading enjoyment by inconsistencies between the book and their personal experience.
- Finally, I often find that understanding some topic mentioned in the book suggests interesting additions and changes to the plot and the characters’ actions.
Luckily, we live in a time in which research is remarkably easy, especially when compared to when I first started writing some fifty years ago. Back then, I was largely restricted to relying on the local library and looking up things in books using the card catalog to find things. Today, the first and primary tool of choice is Google. I use basic Google to learn textual facts, Google Images to learn what things look like, Google Videos to see how tasks are performed and hear what things sound like, and Google Maps to see where things are, and Google Maps Street View to see what places look like. For example, when I was writing Hell Holes: Demons on the Dalton, I used Google Maps Street View to drive the same parts of the Dalton Highway as the characters in the book.
My second main source of information were my subject matter experts. This included a geology professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and two former members of the military including a former pilot of the type of helicopter used in the book and a former Marine Corp Lieutenant Colonel. The base historian at Eielson AFB was also extremely helpful. These experts saved me from several serious mistakes. They also made several suggestions that made the military parts of the book more interesting as well as more accurate.
While the first Hell Holes book was written from the first person point of view of a male character, the second book was written from the point of view of a strong female character. To prepare for this change, I spent about nine months reading nothing but paranormal fantasy books having strong female lead characters and written by female authors. This led me to several observations. Female authors typically spend considerably more time describing characters including what they look like and what they wear. They also tend to spend more time addressing how their lead character feels rather than just what they think. By keeping these and other observations in mind, I was able to write a second book that one of the reviewers noted: “it’s amazing that a book written by the same author (Donald Firesmith) can fool one into thinking that it’s written by a completely different person. Such is the strength of the writing that the new “author” (Dr. Menendez) shines through and her personality and writing style is quite different to that of the other journal’s surrogate author, her fictional husband.” Rather than skill, I primarily credit this positive review to the research I performed into the difference between paranormal fantasy books written by male and female authors.
Finally, nothing quite equals personal experience. Last summer, I traveled to Alaska to see several places in the book series first hand. I spent an entire day at Eielson Air Force Base touring all of the major locations in books two and three. I also rented a car and spent another day driving up the Dalton Highway to the Yukon River, which included the site of one of the major scenes in book 2. I also toured the University of Alaska, where book 1 begins. Finally, I took a tour of a pair of U.S. Army managed tunnels into the permafrost, where I learned several interesting things I would not have discover otherwise: (1) that permafrost smells remarkably like dirty gym socks and (2) that when the ice sublimes, it leaves behind a superfine layer of brownish dust that will float in the air when disturbed.
In conclusion, I find that research can be a critically important part of writing modern, paranormal, science fiction and fantasy. In addition to making your writing more realistic, it makes your book’s fantastic events and your character’s strange abilities more believable. It can be a source of story ideas, and it can also be both very interesting and fun. Currently, I am researching small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and variable-yield, thermonuclear weapons for Hell Holes: To Hell and Back. I can hardly wait to learn what the next topic I will be researching.
About Hell Holes: When hundreds of huge holes mysteriously appear overnight in the frozen tundra north of the Arctic Circle, they threaten financial and environmental catastrophe should any more open up under the Trans-Alaska Pipeline or any of the many oil wells and smaller pipelines that feed it. An oil company sends a scientific team to investigate. But when the geologist, his climatologist wife, two of their graduate students, a local newspaper reporter, an oil company representative, and a field biologist arrive at one of the holes, they discover a far worse danger lurks below, one that threatens to destroy all of humanity when it emerges, forcing the survivors to flee south towards Fairbanks.
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Author Bio: A geek by day, Donald Firesmith works as a system and software engineer helping the US Government acquire large, complex software-intensive systems. In this guise, he has authored seven technical books, written numerous software- and system-related articles and papers, and spoken at more conferences than he can possibly remember. He's also proud to have been named a Distinguished Engineer by the Association of Computing Machinery, although his pride is tempered somewhat by his fear that the term "distinguished" makes him sound like a graybeard academic rather than an active engineer whose beard is still slightly more red than gray. By night and on weekends, his alter ego writes modern paranormal fantasy, apocalyptic science fiction, action and adventure novels and relaxes by handcrafting magic wands from various magical woods and mystical gemstones. His first foray into fiction is the book Magical Wands: A Cornucopia of Wand Lore written under the pen name Wolfrick Ignatius Feuerschmied. He lives in Crafton, Pennsylvania with his wife Becky, and his son Dane, and varying numbers of dogs, cats, and birds. His magical wands and autographed copies of his books are available from the Firesmith’s Wand Shoppe at: http://magicalwandshoppe.com.
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