Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres

Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres

by Dan Koboldt, Chuck Wendig

NOOK Book(eBook)

$10.99 $18.99 Save 42% Current price is $10.99, Original price is $18.99. You Save 42%.
View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440353420
Publisher: F+W Media
Publication date: 10/16/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 231,472
File size: 3 MB

Read an Excerpt



By Eric Primm

Stories require a delicate balance between too much and too little world building. Authors must always know more about their fictional setting than the reader, but the story needs only the information necessary to make the reader believe it is real. Authors research and research and research a subject necessary to their stories to increase the verisimilitude. One possible research method is asking an expert, and the following tips will help you ask more efficient questions.


When seeking information, make sure to contact the correct expert. As the world gets more and more technologically advanced, professions become increasingly specialized. For example, while engineers have general knowledge of other fields, an aerospace engineer probably won't know the answer to a chemical engineering question. Just as no one would go to a doctor to learn why a car engine is rattling, they also wouldn't go to a mechanic for a flu shot. Specialization matters. Therefore, seek an expert with experience and knowledge in the relevant field. If your "go-to" expert can't help, it's acceptable to politely ask if she knows anyone who can, but the author needs to respect the expert's right to say no. Finding the correct source is as important as finding the information itself. Some questions are general enough that the expert may not need graduate-level knowledge to explain some basics, but the author should follow up with an expert who understands both the basics and the complexities of the subject. For example, a doctor may be able to explain how brake systems work, but it's best to verify that information with a mechanic who knows for sure. Just like precision jobs need the correct tool, a smart author needs the correct expert.

How the question is asked matters as much as the information you are looking for. Requirements analysis is one phase of project planning. This is an attempt to clarify what is really needed. In the example question "Would water, telephone lines, and other utilities function in a postapocalyptic world without a major power grid?" the requirement is information about how utilities operate. Information about utilities or the definition of a power grid is unnecessary to fulfill the minimum requirement. You could likely get to the needed information with a more general question — "How would utilities and power grids function in a postapocalyptic world?" — but it's a less efficient use of time and the expert's expertise. By understanding what is really needed, you can create a succinct question that allows the expert to provide the appropriate answer. Only meeting the minimum requirement leaves more questions and more information to wade through.


To avoid a vague answer, provide the expert with a little background information. Details direct the expert toward a response that best fits the story. The example question defines a requirement: utility function. But many different methods of failure will cause nonfunctional utilities. As the question stands, there are too many unknowns for a useful answer. This isn't to say it's a bad question; it's an example showing how laypeople often communicate with experts. While the requirement is how utilities function, the phrase "postapocalyptic world without a major power grid" is vague and needs clarification to determine whether utilities could function. In other words, the cause changes the answer. For the example question, clarification of the following questions changes the story as well:

1. What does "without a major power grid" mean? Does this mean that the power stations are no longer working? Or are the power stations working but the "grid" itself — the wires and transformers — are somehow destroyed?

2. What caused the power grid to go down? For example, a hacker shutting down power generation plants has different physical consequences than if an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is the cause of the apocalypse. Whereas a hacker can shut down the generation of power, an EMP will fry nonshielded circuits in all electronics. Massive tornadoes could tear apart the wires while missing the power generation stations.

A plot synopsis is not necessary to answer the question well. A sentence or two should suffice. The expert doesn't need to know about the terrorists' years of being dosed with LSD by the CIA to understand why they distributed the zombie plague upon the world. But the expert does need to know that the power plant doesn't work because instead of doing their jobs, the uninfected workers chose to hide out in their local Costco to wait out their eventual death. (In this scenario, the power plant would eventually shut down, and the electricity used in the utility plants would shut off at some point. But the grid is not affected, and the wires inside Costco are not harmed. Thus, with a few generators, the last humans in Costco can party like Prince did in 1999.) Be careful of providing too much plot detail because red herrings work well for the story, but not for research.


Expect to receive more information than will end up in the story. An expert is an expert for a reason; he has invested time and effort into his chosen profession. The information provided will contain nuggets that are important for the world building but may not be necessary for the story. Remember that you need to know more than the reader. It's your job to figure out what is and isn't pertinent. If necessary, ask the expert whether she believes a certain piece is necessary to support the story. For example, in the power grid question, you could ask if Faraday cages would shield electrical equipment from an EMP blast. In answering that, the expert might note that the cage is made from copper. Is that really important? Maybe — it depends on how you use it. Ultimately, the author determines what ends up in the story, but more information allows for better, more realistic choices.

You should not expect a one-stop solution. Asking an expert isn't as easy as googling an answer, but it's an opportunity for a more holistic knowledge than just reading a Web page. Follow-up questions might be required to get the answer that works. If so, patience on both sides is the key. Ask for clarification where needed; this may lead to more questions. By asking an expert, a deeper knowledge of the subject is possible.

Depending on how much information is needed, the expert may point you to a different resource. Experts don't know everything and use resources to bolster their own knowledge. Part of becoming an expert is learning how and where to find the correct information. Take advantage of this by asking for books, articles, websites, etc. on which experts rely. Then, the expert can clarify specific questions about information found in the sources. Going to the same sources as an expert is more efficient and allows you to ask specific questions.

If the expert's reply doesn't answer the question, it probably asked a different question than you intended. In this case, it's likely you didn't fully understand your own requirements. Asking the expert why she provided the answer she did lets you see into her process. So, the next time you ask a question, it will be clear enough for the expert to answer.


Taking into account all of this advice, the example question from earlier should look something like this: "Would utilities function in a postapocalyptic world where major power grids were destroyed by nuclear detonations in the atmosphere? A war between Belgium and Costa Rica escalates to a global conflagration. Nuclear nations set off enough nukes to ensure that the entire surface of the earth is bathed in EMP. Would cell phones still work? Would home faucets have running water?" Another example might be: "Tornados rip through the middle of Kansas, shearing all power lines between Opolis and the Wichita power plant. Would utilities function if all power transmission lines were destroyed?"

To answer the question, utilities require electricity. So, if the power goes down, water will only flow for as long as the pressure in the pipes remains because the pumps will be without power. The electricity required to power switchboards and server farms will eventually run out, leaving phones useless. (For the EMP scenario, all the circuits would be fried by the magnetic blast, thus, nonfunctional.) Either way, if the electricity stops flowing or the paths that the electricity travels are damaged, the ending is the same.

Asking an expert is a powerful, interactive research tool for an author. It can help speed up fictional world building. Talking about ourselves is a universal human trait, and experts are no different. Most enjoy spreading knowledge about where they excel and are willing to help educate others. For fiction, the best use of an expert's knowledge is to make the author think deeply about the story. Because in the end, the more thought-out the author's world, the better the story.



By Gabriel Vidrine

We've read it before: mad scientists, weird science, and horrific experiments. Or maybe it's heroic scientists working in state-of-the-art laboratories who produce miracles in minutes. Both of these portrayals of science are misguided; research just isn't done that way. Here are some common myths about scientists and research.


We're all pretty familiar with CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (the books are actually better than the TV show, in my opinion; Max Allan Collins and Jeff Mariotte are fantastic writers). The criminalists collect their samples from the crime scene, get them sent back to the lab, and within pages (or minutes) are getting their results. Of course, to hold a reader's interest, an author can't really say six months go by while Nick, Greg, and Sara work other cases and wait for the lab to work through the backlog to their samples. But that's really what happens.

Science takes time. Even a fairly simple experiment can take days. Gene sequencing? Even with the best, most advanced equipment, it can take hours. And that doesn't include the backlog, which can stretch that time out to months.


I find this one to be personally insulting. How many books have been published that paint scientists as greedy, amoral jerks who run whatever experiment seems likely to gain them the most money? How many books have an apocalypse caused by the release of a deadly virus by a careless or crazy scientist?

Hey, come on people, scientists are just like anyone else. We go to work, do our jobs, and collect our paychecks. Most of us aren't in it for the fame (haha!), riches (HAHA!), or the power to destroy the human race. We do it for the science. News flash: Science doesn't (usually) pay that well.


Ever wonder why scientists are putting human genes into plants and animals? No, it's not for fun, or because we're amoral, weird, or evil. The reasons depend on what gene we're talking about, but there's almost always a logical reason, like trying to understand cancer or improving the food supply. "Frankenanimals" or "Frankenfood" are not "part-human" or "part-animal," though some mice are considered "humanized" (due to the expression of human-like genes in some tissues).

This does not mean that the strawberry you are eating is part fish. DNA is DNA, and a "fish" gene is not inherently "fishy" any more than any of your genes are fundamentally "human." There are many gene sequences, called conserved, that are extremely similar across multiple species, so the DNA itself is not human or animal.

So while that strawberry is expressing a protein normally found in fish, it is not "part fish." It's not ridiculous to put some gene into an animal or plant it normally wouldn't be found in; that "fish gene" actually protects that strawberry from a killing frost and has nothing to do with "being a fish." Scientists don't do ridiculous experiments. There's not enough funding for that.

When I read Kim Harrison's Dead Witch Walking (Harper Voyager, 2008) I nearly threw the book across the room when I realized her apocalypse was caused by an attack of the killer tomato. While it is true that animal and human genes are used in plants or bacteria (and yes, sometimes animals like mice or rabbits), it is not true that a human virus put into a tomato plant can kill the vast majority of humans on the planet.


Excerpted from "Putting the Science in Fiction"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Dan Koboldt.
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. HOW TO ASK AN EXPERT by Engineer Eric Primm, 7,
2. RESEARCHERS GONE WILD by Microbiologist Gabriel Vidrine, 11,
3. PROPER LAB TECHNIQUE by Nuclear Chemist Rebecca Enzor, 14,
4. ORGANOGENESIS IN 3D by Toxicologist Megan Cartwright Chaudhuri, 18,
5. MEDICAL MISCONCEPTIONS, PART I by Nurse Karyne Norton, 21,
6. MEDICAL MISCONCEPTIONS, PART II by Nurse Stephanie Sauvinet, 26,
7. THE SCIENCE OF TOXINS AND POISONING by Toxicologist Megan Cartwright Chaudhuri, 30,
8. THE MANY FACES OF DEATH by Science Reporter Bianca Nogrady, 33,
9. A WHIRLWIND TOUR OF THE HUMAN GENOME by Geneticist Dan Koboldt, 37,
12. THE SCIENCE OF JURASSIC PARK by Microbiologist Mike Hays, 48,
13. ZOMBIE MICROBIOLOGY 101 by Microbiologist Mike Hays, 52,
14. ROGUE VIRUSES AND PATHOGENS by Biomedical Researcher Lee A. Everett, 57,
15. PLAGUES AND PANDEMICS by Microbiologist Gabriel Vidrine, 62,
16. WRITING MENTAL HEALTH IN FICTION by Psychiatric Nurse Kathleen S. Allen, 67,
17. BIPOLAR DISORDER by Psychiatrist Jonathan Peeples, 72,
18. SCHIZOPHRENIA by Psychiatrist Jonathan Peeples, 77,
19. MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT MEMORY by Behavioral Neurologist Anne M. Lipton, 82,
20. DEMENTIA MYTHS, PART I by Behavioral Neurologist Anne M. Lipton, 86,
21. DEMENTIA MYTHS, PART II by Behavioral Neurologist Anne M. Lipton, 90,
23. CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT BEYOND PERSONALITY QUIRKS by Educational Psychologist Maria Grace, 98,
24. THE HORIZONS OF NEUROSCIENCE by Neuroscientist Paul Regier, 103,
25. WILDLIFE BIOLOGY by Wildlife Biologist Rebecca Mowry, 108,
26. WRITING OUTSIDE THE HUMAN BOX by Biology Professor Brie Paddock, 113,
27. WHAT BUGS ME ABOUT INSECTS by Entomologist Robinne Weiss, 116,
28. PORTRAYING WOLVES FAIRLY AND ACCURATELY by Environmentalist William Huggins, 120,
29. GENDER DETERMINATION IN ANIMALS by Entomologist Robinne Weiss, 124,
30. OUT IN THE COLD: POLAR ANIMALS by Biology Professor Brie Paddock, 128,
31. TENTACLES: FROM OCTOPUS TO ALIEN by Marine Biologist Danna Staaf, 132,
33. YOUR SCIENCE FICTION CELL PHONE ISN'T COOL ENOUGH by Tech Consultant Effie Seiberg, 141,
34. CGI IS NOT MADE BY COMPUTERS by Video Game Developer Abby Goldsmith, 145,
35. WHAT'S POSSIBLE WITH CYBORGS AND CYBERNETICS by Neuroscientist Benjamin C. Kinney, 149,
36. BELIEVABLE NANOTECHNOLOGY by Physicist Dan Allen, 154,
37. CRAFTING HOLOGRAMS by Engineer Judy L. Mohr, 159,
39. NEAR-FUTURE SCENARIOS FOR HUMANS AND PLANET EARTH by Science Reporter Bianca Nogrady, 168,
40. THE FUTURE OF ENERGY by Geophysicist K.E. Lanning, 172,
41. EARTHQUAKES: FACT VS. FICTION by Structural Engineer Amy Mills, 176,
42. IMAGINING CLIMATE CHANGE by Geophysicist K.E. Lanning, 180,
43. HOW THE OCEAN WILL KILL YOU by Marine Biologist Danna Staaf, 183,
44. HABITABLE ATMOSPHERES by Atmospheric Scientist Lynn Forrest, 186,
46. GRAVITY BASICS by Physicist Dan Allen, 193,
47. REALISTIC ASTRONOMY by Astronomer Tom Benedict, 198,
48. IMAGING OVER LONG DISTANCES by Engineer Judy L. Mohr, 203,
49. RELATIVITY AND SPACE-TIME by Physicist Dan Allen, 207,
50. MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT SPACE by Aerospace Engineer Jamie Krakover, 212,
51. REALISTIC SPACE FLIGHT by Pilot and Aviation Journalist Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, 217,
52. WASTE MANAGEMENT by Environmental Scientist Gareth D. Jones, 221,
53. ENCLOSED ECOSYSTEMS AND LIFE-SUPPORT SYSTEMS by Biomedical Scientist Philip A. Kramer, 225,
54. FASTER-THAN-LIGHT TRAVEL by Physicist Jim Gotaas, 231,
55. CRYOPRESERVATION by Research Biologist Terry Newman, 235,
56. THE WEAPONS OF STAR WARS by Engineer Judy L. Mohr, 240,
57. HOW TO DESIGN A PRACTICAL SPACESHIP by Engineer Eric Primm, 244,
58. EXOPLANETS AND HABITABILITY by Physicist Jim Gotaas, 248,
59. PRINTING THE FAR FUTURE by Aerospace Engineer Jamie Krakover, 252,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Angie0184 less than 1 minute ago
This book was a font of information, I really liked how entertaining it was, so that the information that was provided in it didn't get bogged down by being dry. It was presented in such a way that the sections were really organized so if there's a particular topic you're specifically needing to find more information on, you can go directly to that section of the book, or read straight through like a novel, depending on what you have time for. It was both entertaining novel, and source of information. I really enjoyed reading this book and will be telling the friends of mine that are aspiring novelists that this book is a table side must have when writing. Thank you for the opportunity to read!
Dhammelef 9 days ago
Write what you know is something that has been drilled into my head at every writers' conference, pod cast, and lecture I've attended or watched. But when you love science fiction, unless you are a genius, how can you know everything about the medical, psychological, physiological, and other "logicals" you need to make your reader believe in your world? With this book, you have the tools and the direction to proceed with your writing dreams of creating worlds your reader won't question or scoff at the technology used by your characters. This text covers so many topics from power sources to zombies that every writer will benefit form owning this book and keeping it close by will writing. The chapters have humor to laugh and smile while reading, so you will retain the information inside and be more informed when you set out into the world to research. Readers will know how to ask the right questions so they can get the best answers and get back to what they do best--writing and creating.
SRKirchner 12 days ago
If I ever doubted that I am not a hard science fiction reader/writer, this book definitely convinced me. On the science fiction/fantasy spectrum, I definitely lean more toward the fantasy end. As long as the science is "close enough" (even for things I KNOW are wrong), the story is more important to me. I'm okay with some hand waving and "comic book science" as long as the characters and integrity of the plot carry the story. Overall, this book definitely served that end. It provided just enough information on the various scientific topics for an author to sound like they know what they're talking about or to spark some creative ideas for incorporating science realism into their books without needing a PhD in a dozen different specialties. The best chapters were the ones where the contributor acknowledged that a good story with fantastical "science" is still a good story, but showed some simple ways to tweak that science to make it even more realistic. Where the book fell apart for me is the small handful of chapters where the contributors were downright condescending. Those contributors, including the one on pregnancy/delivery and nanotechnology, seemed to forget that no matter how important the science is, the "fiction" part will still what readers are looking for. Otherwise, they'd just go read a textbook. The popularity of entertainment like Jurassic Park, the Bourne series or Marvel movies show that as long as it "looks good on paper," most readers/viewers don't really care that the science is suspect. Insulting those readers or the writers who did the hand waving doesn't really make me give a crap about your science. And telling me that just because my delivery went a certain way doesn't mean I should write it that way in a book because it isn't the norm makes me think you forgot that this is f-i-c-t-i-o-n. Speculative or otherwise, fiction is limited only by the author's (and reader's) imagination.
YourDreamComeTrue 16 days ago
As a writer, this book is ESSENTIAL to any writer's arsenal. I don't care if you write science fiction or you don't, you NEED this book to go on your personal bookshelf or your reference pile for future stories. I am not a sole writer for science fiction, but let me tell you, this book helped me with a recent science fiction story that I did have to write. Whether or not you regularly write or read science fiction, this book will let you apply its contents into your stories and books for other genres. Trust me when I say this is one of those reference type booke that you don't want to miss out on. And, you don't have to be a writer to read this either! this is a book that can also be read for enjoyment, whether you're wanting to learn about new or possible technology from experts to make your story more realistic or whether you're just wanting to expand your mind because you're hardcore into science.
diane92345 26 days ago
Whether you write mysteries, fantasy or science fiction, Putting the Science in Fiction is an exceptional way to avoid factual errors. But it is also just a great way to catch up with current technology trends. When your spaceship dramatically explodes into a fiery cataclysm, scientists everywhere are screaming (with laughter). Of course, in space no one can hear you scream. However, you should also know that without oxygen, you know like in outer space, fiery explosions can’t occur. To avoid giggling scientists, read this book. The range of subject matter within Putting the Science in Fiction is impressive. From simple lab protocols to poisons, genetic engineering, mental health issues, disasters, rocket science, biology, computer science and more, this book has something for everyone. Each story is written by an expert in their field. Most are less than ten pages long. Even for non-writers, some of the misconceptions exposed are fascinating. Walt Disney probably wasted his money freezing his head. Most of the Terminator series is impossible. However, the storm trooper’s pulse (really an intermittent laser) cannon has already been tested successfully by the US Navy. Unfortunately, Luke’s lightsaber is a non-starter as are all of the rebel’s ships. I guess we know who really would have won the (star) war. Okay, I admit it: I am a total nerd. I absolutely loved this book. I am planning to use it at parties to debunk (okay, maybe ruin) popular movies. However, even as a non-writer, Putting the Science in Fiction gave me at least five great plots for a future bestselling novel. Unfortunately, it won’t be written by me. Perhaps you will write it so I can have the pleasure of seeing my idea in print. 5 stars! Thanks to the publisher, Writer’s Digest, and NetGalley for an advance copy.
bookscoffeeandrepeat 27 days ago
HELPFUL. Great resource for those writing sci-fi novels. The book offers a first look or basic ideas about certain concepts that can be used as a reference when writing and/or creating a fictionalized & scientific future.
Nicnac63 27 days ago
As a fiction writer, I recognize the importance of authentic writing. Even though I write imaginary stories, they still need to be plausible, and hold an essence of truth. I remember reading a book with a setting in the 1800s. It mentioned a medicine that hadn’t been discovered and named until many years later. Needless to say, my interest waned, because I felt the author didn’t do proper research. Writers should seek a credible foundation for their works of fiction, and this book, with its forty contributors, serves as a valuable tool. It aids fiction writers in overcoming scientific myths and misconceptions by employing the expertise of those in the scientific, technological, and medical fields.
Librarian_V_Reader 28 days ago
Making sure that science fiction stories portray more science fact than science fantasy can be one of the most difficult things for any writer to do, especially if they aren't a scientist themselves. This book aims to help with that. In it a variety of experts give a bare bones primer on a variety of scientific topics, so at least writers won't get the obvious stuff wrong. Librarian: There are dozens of books on writing published each year. Obviously we can't order all of them. If you are planning on ordering a few though, this one is a good one to consider. It's on a topic, that I haven't seen deeply covered before, and written by people who are actually experts in the field. (Plus, with NaNoWriMo just around the corner, the demand for books like this is up.) Reader: Interesting writing book on a topic that I haven't really studied before. I'm glad I picked it up, it will be a worthy addition to my shelves.
conni7 28 days ago
Since this book is published by Writer’s Digest Books, I expect it to be something special before I even opened the cover. I was right! The author, Dan Koboldt, definitely pulled together some of the very best information out there to help anyone interested in writing Science Fiction or Fantasy books make them as interesting and realistic as possible. This is a wonderful resource that would be helpful for any writer to own.
StephanieSauvinet 29 days ago
As a SF writer myself, I have learned a TON from the articles of my fellow contributors. A wide variety of domains are covered and fans will enjoy reading about the SF technologies and Fantasy concepts they love so much! This book is also great resource for writers. We cannot possibly be knowledgeable in ALL fields of science in order to write SF/Fantasy and this book is the perfect answer. It covers an array of scientific topics and gives you the skinny on the science behind them. It allows for someone unfamiliar with those scientific topics to understand some basics, and best of all, prevent glaring mistakes. It debunks a lot of the myths fiction has built over the years and sets the record straight, allowing authors to write believable, science-based novels.
LisaB95 29 days ago
**I received a copy from BookishFirst ** This book is amazing! I am so happy to find that there is someone out there informing writers to get behind the real science in their story subjects. I see so many books where one little thing is wrong that messes up the whole story to me. The biggest, and it’s like a stab in the heart, is for example, there’s a really popular book out now about a nurse working in an ER and a vampire is raiding the bloodbank. First of all, ERs don’t have bloodbanks, labs do. Second, WE ARE NOT NURSES! We are laboratory technicians or technologist. Or clinical lab scientists. We are the ones who type blood and crossmatch it then sign it out to the nurse. We get no credit. We are called phlebotomists or nurses. No one sees us or know we exist. Sorry to rant. But one little google would’ve helped this author. Books I would read, if I see that, I won’t buy. I think this book would be invaluable to authors. I love how it’s laid out and organized. This makes me want to write a book. Who knows, maybe I will
LisaB95 29 days ago
**I received a copy from BookishFirst ** This book is amazing! I am so happy to find that there is someone out there informing writers to get behind the real science in their story subjects. I see so many books where one little thing is wrong that messes up the whole story to me. The biggest, and it’s like a stab in the heart, is for example, there’s a really popular book out now about a nurse working in an ER and a vampire is raiding the bloodbank. First of all, ERs don’t have bloodbanks, labs do. Second, WE ARE NOT NURSES! We are laboratory technicians or technologist. Or clinical lab scientists. We are the ones who type blood and crossmatch it then sign it out to the nurse. We get no credit. We are called phlebotomists or nurses. No one sees us or know we exist. Sorry to rant. But one little google would’ve helped this author. Books I would read, if I see that, I won’t buy. I think this book would be invaluable to authors. I love how it’s laid out and organized. This makes me want to write a book. Who knows, maybe I will