Novel Nutrition: Research Vitamins

VitaminsOne often overlooked aspect of Novel Nutrition is Research Vitamins. Even before you start to feed your characters backstory, and before you exercise the plot, make sure they are getting their vital nutrients by providing quality Research Vitamins. Without research, characters might end up doing impossible things, like break the laws of physics, or violate the rules of magic, or find themselves riding a horse that’s faster than an airplane.

While movies violate the laws of physics and probability all the time, this is often done for the entertainment value of the audience. But other times it shows they didn’t research the subject they are addressing. Case in point, I always fall back on the comparison between two movies. fireball-mdArmageddon (1998), and Deep Impact (1998). These two movies came out in the same year, and deal with the same subject. An asteroid large enough to wipe out 98% of life on Earth is headed straight for us, and the only way to stop it is to send people into space to land on the asteroid (or comet) and blow it up with a nuclear bomb.

As an astronomer, I was hyper aware that both of these movies showed significant disregard for the laws of physics. First of all, a nuclear blast can’t atomize enough of an Earth-killer asteroid to save the whole planet. It might decrease the level of death from 98% to 70%, and/or make the recovery time of the Earth to a life sustaining environment faster, but NASA does not consider this as a viable method of actually saving the Earth from such an event. Instead, a nuclear blast, or sustained thrust of some kind, could push the darn thing out of the path of Earth. Of course, the sooner that can be done, the easier it is to do, and the greater chance we have for success. Still, this was done for entertainment value. No one wants to watch a movie where the plot is that an asteroid will probably destroy the Earth in 20 years, and we have three chances to stop it, each five years apart.

But there were several other laws of physics broken in these films that didn’t seem to change the value of the entertainment. First, in Deep Impact, the more scientifically accurate of the two, the asteroid is always seen in the same spot in the sky, night or day, anywhere in the world, during its entire approach. Nothing could possibly do that, and I don’t understand why the director or writers chose to do it that way.  Still, the only people who probably noticed such a blatant disregard for reality were those who study the night sky and the movement of stars and planets and such.

Earth InternetThat brings us back to novel Research Vitamins. If your readers know their stuff about your subject matter, they will enjoy your book, only if you know enough about it as well to write it. The old saying “Write what you know” is less applicable today, but only because it is so much easier to learn about things. So today the phrase should be “Know what you’re writing about.” The internet is a fantastic source of information. You can find enough on most subjects to easily gather enough information to make the book enjoyable for all readers, including those who have studied the subject matter, or live in the town your characters visit.

The deep dive on a subject matter can only be credible if you take Research Vitamins on a regular basis. If your characters live in a specific town, a real town people can visit, it will be more real for you and the readers if you’ve been there more than once, or do research on it for every scene. Do you know the area? Can you drive around it without a map? No? Then make sure you consult a map frequently when your character is driving around their home town. No, you don’t name every street, but you need to know how long it takes to get from Jim’s Hardware to the Shady Oaks neighborhood, and you need to know whether either or both of them are in gang territory, the slums, or the rich end of town. It changes the way the scene plays out.

magic wandWhat about magic? Why would you need to research magic? Fantasy readers expect magic to behave in a certain way. Every world of magic follows different rules, and a few have been popular without appearing to follow any rules. But if you plan to write more than one book, and want to improve your chances of getting people to recommend it to their friends, you should know before you start writing the difference between an orc, an ogre, and a goblin. Do elves have pointy ears? Are they half an inch tall with wings, or six foot six and so beautiful that everyone falls madly in love with them on first sight?

I’ve recently had the pleasure of listening to several different children’s fantasy series, and they all seem to follow the same rules for what kinds of creatures there are, and how each of them is expected to behave. Of course, the most interesting stories there are when there are one or two creatures that don’t behave the way they are expected to. In Tales of the Frog Princess (by E.D. Baker) dragons are known by all humans as brutes, bullies, and dangerous creatures. Well, until a princess gets turned into a frog and then meets a dragon, and gets to know him. In the Enchanted Forest Chronicles (by Patricia C. Wrede), princesses are supposed to be captured by dragons and rescued by princes, until a princess would rather live with a dragon than marry any of the princes she’s ever met.

dragon-on-a-leash-mdBoth of these story lines could take place in the same world, with a few minor alterations. The two have very different writing styles, and both are enjoyable. They both have a magic forest, a princess dissatisfied with her life and disdain for the average prince. They both have strong female lead characters as well. The point is, both authors did their research before they wrote. It’s quite clear they are playing from the same rule book, and both of them know the rules before they break them. My favorite fantasy novels are about people who break the rules initially, but find that in the end, their journey was simply more interesting than anyone else. After all, a princess can only marry a prince who rescues her. Its just that these princesses needed a rescue of the different sort.

In summary, without enough Research Vitamins, the characters will be weak, and Plot Exercise will only make them tired to both the reader and the writer. No matter what world your characters are in, you need to know enough about that world to write as if you know it well.

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