When is Enough, Enough? Researching Fiction

For the past couple of weeks I have carried on with research, trying to determine exactly what catastrophe will have hit the earth of my post-apocolyptic novel, and what exactly the impact on Earth of that catastrophe would be. I want my disaster to be a solar or astral event or a combination of these. I’m not sure why, it’s just a gut feeling I have of what would best suit my ideas for the book.

I have read three very interesting texts on the subject: two were explorations of the theory that the human race has been decimated by a solar event in the past, the other one simply detailed the myriad of ways that the universe could devastate the Earth.

Aside from the readings, I have emailed one of the authors with questions (no response to date), and spent a lot of time on the internet. I’m so stuffed full of newly acquired astronomical knowledge that, just like the supernovas I’ve been reading about, my head could explode at any moment.


I still don’t have the answers I wanted. What I’d really like to know is how could a person survive a super solar flare, a gamma ray burst or a galactic superwave? And, what would life be like for those survivors in the aftermath? Not only have I not found the answers, but I haven’t found any clues that could lead me to them.

Where does that leave me? I figure there are two logical conclusions.

The first is that I haven’t researched enough and I need to keep looking … but where?

The second conclusion is that there is no answer. I should move on.

I had a similar dilemma in my first book. In that story a race of aliens need to abandon their soon-to-be-destroyed planet so they send a scout (meet my antagonist) to Earth to check out its suitability. Being me, I wanted my story scenario to be plausible (yes, I wanted my novel about how a boy accidentally implants an alien into his grandma’s body to be plausible! That sounds daft even to me!) A quick bit of research taught me that it takes an awful long time (as in many lifetimes) to travel from a planet outside our solar system to Earth, even at the speed of light. So I agonised, and researched, before I had my alien race develop the technology to create traversable wormholes across space (and it is theoretically possible – I know because I spent too many hours on internet sites reading, and watching videos, about wormholes.)

What I forgot somewhere along the way is that I am creating fiction. I have watched Star Trek and seen the Starship Enterprise travel from one side of the universe to the other. How do the writers of Star Trek get around the time problem of space travel across gigantic distances? Why doesn’t the Starship Enterprise arrive at its destination with only skeletons on board? Answer: Warp drive. And what is warp drive? Fiction, that’s what it is. Because half of science fiction, is fiction.

So I think it’s time for me to move on. Ninety-nine percent of my potential readers are going to buy into whatever Earth setting I describe as the outcome of my catastrophic solar event.

Has anyone else got themselves so bogged down in research and concern with plausibility that they forgot they were writing fiction? How much research is enough?


16 thoughts on “When is Enough, Enough? Researching Fiction

  1. I think you got there, Suzanne. What we do is write fiction. FICTION. That is – we make it up. The thing is, when we make it up, we often pre-empt reality. Look at Jules Verne. There was no way he could research space travel, it hadn’t happened, but what he came up with was so near reality when it happened, it seemed that a few years later, we followed him. Space ships were surprisingly similar, and he was right in the time it took to get to the moon.
    The thing is, if it hasn’t happened before, then the research isn’t there. In that case, your guess is as good as any. Don’t get bogged down. Just go and write the story. When you can use knowledge to make a point do so, otherwise, make it up.
    I found an interesting concept with my initial proof reader. She questioned everything. Could this happen? That? Each time I could say: “Yes, I did the research.” But then I realised she never queried when a dragon flew into my story. Eventually I asked her why not.
    “Because everyone believes in dragons,” she said.
    “Oh, I am allowed to make it up,” I said. “Put in fairies, elves and dwarves.”
    She shrugged. “Well it is a novel, and that means you can.”
    So do it. Good luck.

  2. Thanks for pointing this out. I look forward to sharing your thoughts with my crit group. It’s so important that a fictional universe makes sense, but it sounds like many of these details will fall into place as you write. I say, let it marinate and dive into the writing.

    • I think you should write now and later make the necessary changes in the first edit. Also remember if your scene isn’t set on this planet, you don’t have to abide by earth’s rules for things such as gravity, day hours etc. The major point there is to make your set decisions about the rules of nature, and then be consistent, unless you are putting in an adverse phenomenon to push the story ahead. In that case, you make up the rules. However think through your changes for the obvious down the line changes.For example, if you decide to have five moons, realise that the night darkness will be compromised.
      However have fun, because it shows in your writing.

  3. Even fiction writing involves a lot of research, because as an author you need to have enough credibility. Just in case you touch on enough science or fact and a savvy reader or two starts to second guess you.
    There is some creative license, sure – if Stephen King says a guy shoots a tanker truck with a handgun and blows it up, many people just keep reading. I, however, look at those around me and say, “That’s impossible. Mythbusters agrees, you can’t even blow up a car gas tank let alone a tanker truck.”
    But there it is – no one really cares if its impossible. They just keep buying the books.

    • I love mythbusters but fortunately most people don’t have the resources to recreate their experiments or we might all be in a lot of trouble. If the day ever comes when Mythbusters challenge any part of my writing, I will be a happy girl – whether they prove me wrong or right, because I will have made it!

  4. I think getting bogged down with research would be very easy to do, especially with the sort of story you want to tell. At some point readers are willing to suspend belief, as long as there are no gaping holes in the plausibility. Maybe one of the unknowns could be the very fact that your protagonist (and his people) survived the cataclysmic event. Perhaps he/they carry a mutation that he’s unaware of. Maybe a subplot could be his mission to find out why he/they survived, and you could just make up the reason.

    In the book The Fault in Our Stars, author John Green told a realistic story – a teenaged girl battling cancer – but he took fictional liberties with the topic, inventing experimental drugs and various pieces of equipment the girl used to help her breathe. It can be done, because it’s your story and readers will trust you to provide the explanation, even if it’s a figment of imagination. You’ll know how plausible it is when you pass it on to your critique group or beta readers.

  5. I think you can create fictional scenarios that are so vivid your readers will go along with them whether they find them plausible or not. Do we really want everything to be plausible in a post-apolyptical novel? I’d like to think we’re then beyond the usual laws of physics!

  6. Occasionally while reading, I come across a scenario I find questionable. Being a researcher, I check it. Invariably the scene is accurate and/or scientifically correct. Go figure. From that, I think you can write what you like. Very few people have the energy to do the research. If someone questions it, ignore. You don’t have to answer to anyone.

    • Thanks Derin for that insight. I guess in the final analysis that the research done and level of plausibility sought comes down to personal preference. The writer’s level of accuracy vs artistic licence with the facts becomes an integral part of their writing style.

  7. Well crap, SJ, I want to read both of your stories. Crack the whip on those books.

    I think every author should research like you have, because plausibility is important. Stop researching when you feel exhausted or satisfied, and then, let imagination takeover. We write fiction, but are readers still have to relate or most will not read it. If it’s not believable fiction (Buahahaha) people will not like it.

    Use your blog page to solicit research help.

  8. I know exactly waht you mean. I’m struggling with how factual and how fictional I can be in a kids book I’m writing. I live in a small city and many will be descended from the early settlers of the 1880s.

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