How to research science for a book when you’re not a scientist

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Speculative fiction author Laura Lam describes how she got the science right in her feminist dystopian thriller Goldilocks

I limped my way through high school science, and maths was torture. I always wanted to be a writer.

In retrospect, I think I actually would have been a half-decent scientist, but high school didn’t give me a sense of what you could actually do in the sciences. I didn’t realise science can be creative. But I threw myself into the writing, and I don’t have any regrets about that either. I have published six books, with another two on the way, and I lecture part-time on the Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University.

I write fantasy and science fiction, and my latest book, Goldilocks, needed a lot more science research than I’d ever had to do before. It’s about the first all-female space mission to an exosolar planet 10.5 light years away that is humanity’s last hope – Earth only has 30 years left of habitability due to climate change.

It’s sort of like The Martian, but with a group of women and a more contemplative tone. My main character is a botanist, and other women on the ship are a doctor, an engineer, a pilot/engineer, and the woman who owns the company that built the spaceship who is also an architect. I am none of these things. Here is a list of the things I had to learn and research:

• Astronomy
• Astrophysics
• Cyanobacteria and cyanophages, plus astrobotany
• Space law
• Theoretical space tech that’s currently impossible, e.g. warp drive
• Cryonics
• Infectious diseases and vaccines
• The effects of climate change and potential solutions
• Astronaut training, NASA’s history and future plans
• The effects of space on the human body

So, how do you even get started when you don’t know a lot about science? For me, It’s all about research skills. Figure out as best you can what you need to know to narrow down the field. I started listening to NASA podcasts – Houston We Have a Podcast has a whole episode on how astronauts prepare for a space walk and what they actually do on a space walk. I watched NASA live streams. I found books, peer-reviewed scientific articles, and documentaries to get at least a general overview of different subjects. I threw myself into everything space for about six months. Astronaut memoirs were a good nexus of describing several things I needed to know in one volume (and they’re aimed at laypeople—bonus!)

At the same time, I asked scientist friends and acquaintances for help. A lot of them were very generous with their time and if they didn’t know something, they knew someone to ask. But I needed to have specific questions to save time and not overburden them. So I did my own research on what astronauts would eat in space and decided on algae. I asked a scientist ‘what’s something that could make algae fail and how could you fix it?’ and learned about cyanophages. A friend did a science read for me too – I highlighted all the bits I wasn’t sure about, and she went through them and gave me comments and suggestions. I always offer to take friends for a meal or buy them a bottle of whisky as thanks.

What if you don’t know any scientists? Again, you can try emailing people with targeted questions. That’s what I did when I emailed a professor of space law and asked him if you could legally steal an exosolar planet. He was fascinated by the question and sent me back my answer. In my experience, people like it when those outside their expert bubble express an interest in their work. Be polite and grateful.

In some respects, not being a scientist can be a boon for you as a writer. I figure if I wrote it down in a way I could understand, then most other laypeople would too. I’m sure, undoubtedly, there are some science things I stuffed up, or that require quite the suspension of disbelief. I wove in enough to give the story veracity but hopefully without overwhelming the story itself. You will likely learn things that never make it onto the page – the iceberg effect. But that’s also fine, as that bed of background info will also help you create the story.

TLDR: research as much as you can yourself, take notes, come up with targeted questions for things you can’t discover, politely email experts and hope they reply. Repeat as needed.

Goldilocks by Laura Lam is published by Wildfire.

Website: http://www.lauralam.co.uk/

 

If you're interested in feminist dystopian fiction, read how Kate A. Hardy writes hers with a twist of hope.