Writers of fiction are smart peoples and they knows stuff
September 22, 2012 4:09 PM   Subscribe

How does a writer like Kim Stanley Robinson, or any writer for that matter, obtain and integrate the vast amounts of knowledge necessary to create a fully detailed and realistic world on the page?

I’m currently reading Robinson’s novel 2312 and have read and really enjoyed his Mars Trilogy. While it is incredible the amount of world building put into his books, but I am just amazed at the level of knowledge this man has in the various sciences and other disciplines and domains of knowledge. He incorporates neurology, physics, logic, philosophy, astronomy, geography, knowledge of various cultures, agronomy, evolution, astronomy, etc, etc, etc, etc. He isn’t just dipping a toe into these disciplines. He seems to have an extremely firm grasp on general theories and others more obscure.

How does he or any other writer gain enough knowledge in various subjects in order to integrate them into their stories. I know the dude is wicked smart. I read an interview that he used to have a near photographic memory, but I don’t think that kind of memory applies to this type of knowledge. He has a PhD, but it is in English.

When one has this knowledge, how would one know how to apply it and when in a complex stories?

I suspect he knows enough about his science going in to a part of his stories to apply said science. I doubt he is researching the science necessary for the subject at hand as he’s writing it.

Note that I am just using KSM as an example. He is the most impressive and, as I’m reading his book now, the most salient example of this phenomenon I can think of.

I first noticed this a few years back reading my friends first novel. Although a mediocre book I noticed how much general knowledge he had of the world in order to paint his story. I’m also specifically asking about fiction. Non-fiction seems to me to be a much more linear and somewhat more self-directing research activity.
posted by Che boludo! to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Take lots and lots and lots of notes. Organize them well.
posted by empath at 4:13 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Read a lot.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 4:15 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I doubt he is researching the science necessary for the subject at hand as he’s writing it.

I was just at a worldbuilding panel at the World Science Fiction convention and authors do indeed research as they are writing, sometimes extensively. Some of them were talking about finding expert sources for interviews and fact-checking, traveling for first-hand knowledge of locations, auditing college courses, and all sorts of things.

Add that to a very long career and a high level of general smarts and a good memory, and you get someone who can talk plausibly about a whole lot of things.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:23 PM on September 22, 2012

Not only do I happen to know Stan, but I asked him this very question as part of an interview just the other day:

My research consists mostly of a lot of reading, augmented by conversations with scientists, historians, and others. I generally sketch out a story in my mind and then start researching it, and what I learn often greatly alters the initial idea. I keep researching right to the end of the writing, so often the later parts of a book (especially the multi-volumed ones) will seem to know things that the earlier parts didn’t, and this is indeed the case.
posted by gerryblog at 4:31 PM on September 22, 2012 [22 favorites]

That said, I don't know there's a generalizable method there so much as one person really maximizing the potential of their particular genius.
posted by gerryblog at 4:32 PM on September 22, 2012

gerryblog - That's awesome!
posted by Che boludo! at 4:35 PM on September 22, 2012

Yeah, authors very much do spend time researching for stories they're writing or going to write. This is just as true for SF novelists as for, say, historical novelists.

But also, authors with good worldbuilding skills are probably people who are good observers of the world to begin with (or have taught themselves to be, perhaps). SF authors with good worldbuilding are almost certainly the sort of people who enjoy casually hoovering up bits of detail from different fields and noticing narratively-interesting cross connections. It really doesn't mater what's written on their sheepskin.

Also, authors will often seek out others in their writing community with some specialized knowledge. "Hm, in this chapter Space Recruit Bob is assigned to the atmospheric hydroponics crew. I should ask my friend who's an agronomy professor and avid basement weed grower to vet that chapter for plausibility."
posted by hattifattener at 4:36 PM on September 22, 2012

Also, authors will often seek out others in their writing community with some specialized knowledge.

Just what I was about to say -- I seem to recall reading that when Carl Sagan needed a vaguely plausible interstellar transport mechanism for Contact, he called his old buddy Kip Thorne (world-class physicist) and asked what he could come up with. (A wormhole, as it turned out.)

Also (with no disrespect to KSR and other world-builders) remember that your world doesn't usually have to pass muster with experts in every single field it touches, just with the general reader, so you need to be plausible rather than 100% accurate. I'm currently reading The Intuitionist, which is liberally doused in elevator engineering terminology. I have scant idea of how much of it is genuine, and for the purposes of the story it doesn't matter much.
posted by pont at 4:46 PM on September 22, 2012

Constant note-taking, for one, even when you're not working on a project.

Pulling up my Evernote, I have interesting articles on: that "real life warp drive" article that was going around, an article on night terrors and how real they can get and what life is like if you have a chronic case, a BoingBoing post on demonic sigils from god knows where, a serial killer around the time the Ingalls family was in Kansas or whatever, a post on "adversarial mind-reading", and so on.

While I'm not using them now, I can already see the story potential or usefulness in all of them (which is why I saved them in the first place).

To give you an idea on one I did use, I read an article on the "toshers" of Victorian London and it gave me an idea for a story set there.

I'd already read The Ghost Map so I had some familiarity with the London sewers and the folk that worked around it. Then I dug into various sources, the Wikipedia article on the London sewers, pictures people have thoughtfully posted, and some supporting sources on that era just to get look and feel right. Then I read (or had read) various texts on fictional city-building (Damnation City, though focused on the White Wolf roleplaying games, is a great "how to build a believable city" resource just as an example).

Then, all I had to do was insert the story in there, plucking useful details I'd picked up from my sources as needed.

Of course, the most important rule is the "If they've come with me this far, they're not going to care about the oxygen tank"* rule.

*(If you've seen Jaws...well, if you haven't, go watch it, it's one of the great movies and I'm going to spoil it here, but if you've seen Jaws, the oxygen tank at the end? It's probably not going to explode, it's just going to hiss out air. Which Spielberg knew, and when it was pointed out to him, he supposedly said what I quote above).
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:51 PM on September 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

M. John Harrison (who damned well knows) on worldbuilding:
Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.
posted by waxbanks at 6:32 PM on September 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

As an aside, authors can go wrong. Robinson, for example, totally erred in his idea that windmills could help heat up Mars.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:27 PM on September 22, 2012

This is going to sound flip, but it's likely true.

They fudge a lot.

Also, they probably hav good spreadsheets and documents full of notes, as well as an assistant for research and other tasks.

There's really no reason to think that writers have vast stores of knowledge of other fields just sitting around in their brains before writing a given work that features that sort of knowledge. You can familiarize yourself enough by spending twenty minutes on Wikipedia, for most things that are worth writing about for a general audience.

Beyond making sense, it doesn't really matter. As long as you're buying it, it's fine.

Based on working in film and TV, I have to say you'd be surprised how much more readers care about this stuff than writers do. Books might be a little different, but I bet not by much. This is especially true for hard fact and science type stuff. Most of that is technobabble. Being internally consistent matters, but it doesn't much matter if the science at the bottom of it is factually correct.
posted by Sara C. at 11:10 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I remember reading as a teenager that Ayn Rand took seven years to write The Fountainhead. It took that long because she was working on other projects as well, but during that period she was also researching architecture (reading histories and biographies) and working as a typist in the office of a famous architect. So, whatever my personal thoughts about Ayn Rand's worldbuilding, I remember being very impressed with how willing novelists were to get their hands dirty. Prior to that I had assumed novelists just knew things from their regular lives, and happened to have more exciting lives than anyone I knew.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:28 AM on September 23, 2012

From my own experience as a writer, I fact check everything and make copious notes and citations, none of which ever appear in my stories. The ability to recognize a fact that needs to be checked is what separates a good writer from a hack.
posted by SPrintF at 12:51 AM on September 23, 2012

I mean, it looks like a lot of stuff? But... So, he spent the 00s writing the "Science in the Capital" series, which weren't nearly as complicated, and surely by the end, he was accumulating this stuff in notes. Then Galileo's Dream came out in 2009, and then he probably finished 2312 a year ago or so, given how slowwwww publishing is. So even if he just spent two years on it straight—unlikely—that's still two whole years of note-taking, scheming, scene-writing, assembling, tinkering, etc.

He also has two benefits: one, he learned about discipline and research while getting a PhD, and also, he now has the benefit of having done this for about three decades. Writing in general, and putting together writing into a thing we call a book, is a skill you develop over time, through practice, like woodworking or ceramics.

When you're putting together a book, your brain is churning along in the background. When you have a thought, an image, a piece of logic, you write it down. (My iPhone Notes app has dozens and dozens of little half-baked ideas and whatnot that then, when I sit down to work, get shoe-horned into my book.) In this way, all the things you read and see and think about end up as the product of the back of your brain that's working even when you weren't.

When I read and reviewed 2312, I was really conscious of what made him write the book, I feel like, and what came perhaps first. I think (SPOILERS--trying to be as unspecific as possible here) he was fixated on or excited by perhaps five or so visual/scientific ideas in particular: the "animals raining" in their bubbles, the trip beneath the surface of a planet in the endless tunnel, being trapped in a hole with an animal, the reclamation of drowned land, the creation of hollowed-out asteroids as ships—and I think he really wanted that scene where two people were trapped floating in space together. (Also: probably the space elevator.)

These are a collection of images and ideas that read like early notes of ideas: "Yes, I want a city propelled around a planet in twilight! So how would that work? What kind of system would be created in case of disaster?" And then: "Well what if people on their way to post-human-hood made spaceships? What kind of ships would they be? How would they differ?" That's what's so lovely about him: that these striking, visual ideas are then committed and kept intact and used to assemble a world. But easily each could have sprung from a flash of insight in the shower, or while on a boring train ride, or something inspired by reading.

Only together, and put down well, do they begin to illustrate a whole world. And not necessarily a probable world, in any event! What he explains about the science and finance behind these situations is not necessarily complete—or even coherent by any standard. But it doesn't matter, because he pulls it off, and it is, after all, fiction.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:12 AM on September 23, 2012

Writer here. I'm on AskMe taking a break from writing my current project, which is a screenplay based on the life of a real 19th century historical figure. (I know you asked about fiction rather than non-fiction, but writing a drama based on a real-life figure is in many ways like writing science fiction. You have to invent dialogue and scenes that dovetail with currently accepted facts.)

I started by reading a general book on the subject. The general book helped me figure out which scenes I'd be including, and who the supporting characters would be, which let me zero in on much more specific questions I needed to ask.

For example, the 19th-century historical figure spent his childhood in Hungary, but I decided that I'd be picking up his story later, when he had already moved to Austria. So I needed to know how a 19th-century Hungarian who was trying very hard to fit into Viennese society might behave, but I didn't need to know what he would have eaten for dinner when he was 10-years-old and still living in Budapest.

Some of this I was able to glean from biographies of my character, or his own memoirs. Other details I've picked up from reading memoirs of his contemporaries, or (in at least one case) asking AskMe for help.

I don't know if I'm typical, but I very definitely DO continue to research as I go. You can outline your story before you start, but you never know exactly where it's going to take you or what details you'll need as you progress. Right now, stacked up next to me on my desk, are five biographies of my subject and two collections of his writing. I'm constantly referring to them as I write. Sometimes I'm looking for a specific fact; other times, I'm just feeling stuck, so I flip through them for inspiration.

If I do it right, people who read the script (and, if it gets made, see the movie) will think I must be an expert on 19th century Vienna, but my knowledge is kind of like a movie set. The part you see on screen looks incredibly detailed-- but if you could just peek off camera a bit, you'd see that the corridors don't lead anywhere and the doorways are just painted on.
posted by yankeefog at 8:06 AM on September 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Note also that you can create the appearance of knowing quite a lot about a topic by doing some light research and eg. cherry-picking a couple of quotes from 16th century Japanese poets. This creates an illusion that you know a lot about a topic that may not be entirely accurate.
posted by Andrhia at 5:07 PM on September 23, 2012

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