When Nonfiction Becomes Fiction…and Vice Versa


I am the faculty sponsor of the Rough Writers, the student creative writing club here at Southwestern Adventist University. We’re pretty open and loose about what people can bring to the group to be critiqued, and inevitably there is at least one or two writers in the group whose favorite genre is fantasy. Many would-be writers have this mindset that fantasy would be easy to write it because it’s all made up, but according to many experts, including the revered Robert McKee, fantasy is actually one of the most difficult genres to master. Why? Because even though there are no established rules, you MUST, as the author, establish those rules at the very beginning of the book, and then are duly bound to adhere to those rules.

One of my three anthologies of short stories. Get 'em free on Smashwords or for 99 cents on Amazon.
One of my three anthologies of short stories. Get ’em free on Smashwords or for 99 cents on Amazon.

But that’s only loosely what I wanted to talk about today. I am most interested in talking about research, especially when it comes to writing fiction. Even if you’re writing fantasy, you will need to do research, for in order for the world you build to have any plausibility, you have to base it on some basic physical laws, established norms or known peoples or races. A good example of that is my story, “A Hole in the Sky,” which was included in a short story compilation and was a result of a world-building exercise that Rough Writers did a few years ago. We argued quite a bit about what the world would be like, and because half of us wanted to write science fiction and the other wanted fantasy, we agreed that it would be a world where both science and magic could exist. What that also meant was that what could be explained through magic by one race would need to at least be attempted to be explained by someone else. There were five races on the world, and what was fun, for my part, was when my characters came in contact with each of the races in turn. One race lived on islands in the sky. Another lived deep beneath the ocean. A third lived in caves, while a fourth lived in trees. The fifth group was a gypsy race. It’s a fascinating exercise, but it’s amazing how much research goes into something like this. And the more I write, the more research I find myself doing.

I have another book that I someday hope to write, which is also a blending of fantasy and sci-fi, called Brindlestar. The premise is that earth start a colony on a planet that orbits three suns. Sometime later there is a cataclysm that destroys much of civilization, and much what is left of their civilization is caught in a 17th century culture. That is, except for a collection of scientists who hide underneath a mountain and kidnap children to raise as their own high-tech army in hopes or bringing modern civilization back to the planet. The biggest thing that’s held me back from writing this book is the extensive research I would need to do on celestial mechanics–how a tertiary star system would work–to make the story plausible. But I hope to put it together someday.

The book I am working on now is probably the most researched book I have ever done. I have read four books on Nikola Tesla, several textbooks on physics and other books on science in preparation for writing Tesla’s Ghost. Doing research like that makes it sound like I am trying to earn a degree in physics or write a master’s thesis. But it’s critical that I understand, as the writer, the basic principles that are unclear to me, especially as they become a part of the story. One particular part of the puzzle eluded me for a while until I read a website about Tesla, and then it clicked. I had read that Tesla had powered his lab with wireless electricity and that he had demonstrated its use countless times in public and in photographs. And yet, no one has been able to duplicate its use today. I couldn’t understand the disconnect. And then I learned that the wireless electricity he used in his lab was based on electromagnetism and had a limited distance. Now that same principle is being used to recharge smart phones and was demonstrated in 2011 powering a TV set. (By the way, just a reminder that you can get a sneak peek of Tesla’s Ghost by clicking on the header above.)

The big difference between nonfiction and fiction is what you do with the information. For example, I like to take a historical event, and even though it’s been explained and elaborated on ad nauseum, extrapolate a possible alternate reason or connection that hasn’t been considered. Fiction is where imagination comes into play, and I think there is a lot to be said for taking facts, then adding imagination to come up with some really powerful stories.

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