Black holes, blood spatter, and relativity … Oh My!

(the header photo is the death of a star in the Taurus constellation. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/CXC/Univ. of Ariz./Univ. of Szeged See NASA terms of use)


“Hey, Babe? Will you come here? I want to try something.”

*grins* When my husband hears these words come out of my mouth I think he wants to run and hide. Mostly because it means I’m hip-deep in a fight scene or something equally painful and want to see if a move I’m trying to write will actually work in real life. Or I can’t figure out how to write it and need to try it on someone first.

He’s a good sport though, so most of the time he plays along. And I’m always careful!

This isn’t the only thing you hear in our house. Other gems include – “Do you think that…(insert something impossible here)?” and “How would one – hypothetically – do (something illegal or dangerous)?”

My husband and roommate are good sports and it no longer fazes them when I ask random questions or start discussions about the pattern of arterial blood spray. The same goes with most of my friends, especially ones who work in cool fields like for the coroner’s office. *grins* I didn’t even have to preface my text with “I know this is weird, but what does congealing blood feel like? I figured you’d be the person to ask.”

I love writing science fiction, and part of the reason for that is the research. I wasn’t ever all that great in science classes in school, but I did fairly well and though a lot of things – quantum mechanics, string theory – go right over my head, I think I’ve almost got a grasp on relativity.

Black holes, faster-than-light travel (and all the inherent problems), transparent aluminum, new forms of weaponry. You wouldn’t believe all the cool things that people are working on these days! Most of it right under our noses. I love reading about this stuff, and even more, I love finding ways to work it into my writing in a way that makes it just a little more understandable to the average reader.

Knowledge and research is something I grew up with. One of the common responses in our house growing up to the “What is that?” question was “Go look it up.” *laughs* At first, that meant hitting the gigantic dictionary in the corner or the shelves of encyclopedias. Now it means hopping on Google. My family values knowledge, but even more than that, we value the ability to find out the answer.

Because sometimes it doesn’t matter if you know it or not, the important thing is knowing where to find the answer.

Which brings me to a somewhat contentious point. There’s a lot of discussion about if writers should “write what they know.” Now the bulk of this is really for another post entirely, but I can say here and now that I don’t agree.

I say write what you want. If you don’t happen to know it, you’d damn well better find out what you’re writing about first. Once you do know it, write away! Do it well; do it without apology. There is always a chance you will get it wrong and there’s an almost certainty that someone out there will take great offense to what you’ve written. But if you don’t? What are you missing out on? What chance at knowledge is slipping away from you because you were too scared, or too intimidated to jump headlong into a subject you didn’t know at all? What amazing, brilliant piece of writing just vanished into thin air because you decided to play it safe?

I don’t want to play it safe. I want to learn things and share them with everyone else. There’s little I love more than saying “I don’t know” to a question, followed immediately by “let’s look it up!” And then that fantastic moment of clarity when I’ve just learned something new.

What about you? What crazy, insane things have you researched? Do you think people should just write what they know? Or take a leap and forge into unknown territory?

K.B. Wagers


8 responses to “Black holes, blood spatter, and relativity … Oh My!

  1. Raymond Bolton

    I couldn’t agree more. I confine the phrase “Write what you know” to characters’ emotions and inner workings. We all have the darkest machinations and the more noble aspects of mankind within us, and it’s those things that lend realism to even the most fantastical plot.

    Right now, however, I’m researching the lethal aspects and obtainability of radioisotopes like cesium 137, americium 241 and cobalt 60. Also, how to obtain thermite, C4 and detonators. My antagonist, you see, is building a dirty bomb. For my last novel, I learned a great deal about the availability of various biotoxins. But that’s what one does when one writes thrillers. I won’t be surprised if someday I find myself on a Don’t Fly list or sitting in an interrogation room at some airport, *grin*, explaining why I’ve downloaded so many government documents on these subjects.

    By the way, what does congealing blood feel like?

    • Sort of like Jell-O *grins* Or more solid tapioca pudding.

      One of my favorite stories is Jonathan Maberry talking about how he’d done so much research for Patient Zero with the CDC about creating a “zombie virus” that he’s ineligible for any sort of federal biological/disease work. (I think it’s on his blog, but you’ll have to search for it on your own.)

  2. Jar O' Marbles

    What crazy things have I researched? I get paid to research so…let’s see…

    Armageddon survival kits.

    Which dog breed runs the best.

    and a wide variety of bizarre diseases

    I have more, but lack of caffeine has rendered me momentarily brain dead.

  3. Hee. “Hey, babe, come here, I want to try something” has been heard twice already in my house this week.

    I’m all about the leap (as you know) and I’m lucky to have a martial artist, a professional hunter with a serious weapons fetish, and a survivalist at my disposal when brains must be picked. Oh, and the husband who doesn’t might being a test dummy, especially if it involves a kissing scene. 🙂

    Yesterday, I researched cannibalistic snakes, age progression software, sniper rifles and long-range assault weapons. I’m always digging up some weird detail or another on the Net, and I joked the other day that if Big Brother is tracking my google searches, it might look like I’m up to no good.

  4. When I used to write for a living, I usually knew next to nothing about my subject and would have to research deeply but quickly (depending on the deadline/subject).

    If I was doing a personality profile, it was like becoming a short-term stalker. I didn’t so much care for that as for the actions that person took or programs he or she supported. Those were a lot of fun to research, and I felt like a bit of a genius at least for a little while.

    Good post, sounds like a fun household. Mine is more like a puppet show….

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