Saturday, May 22, 2010

Building Spaceships Out of Words

Spaceships or craftsmanship--it's not just doing things well, but appropriately matching materials, tools, techniques, and purpose.

In SFR our materials are the English language and science. We sculpt our materials using tools and techniques such as point of view, plot arc, and sentence structure. I love our materials. The English language can be used to build anything: castles, spaceships, even entire planets. And, if science is employed, the results can be vivid and convincing without ever going through the expense and difficulty of building the real thing. Okay, it's impossible to build a real planet. That's the wonder of words.

But even though words are cheap, they stand in for real materials: "gold" stands in for gold, "iron" for iron, and "silk" for silk. To use the words in a craftsman-like manner we must understand the materials the words stand for. That's where science comes in. The sciences of metallurgy and chemistry tell us what gold is and what can be done with it. A solid gold spaceship makes no sense, neither does solid gold armor, because gold is not just beautiful and valuable. Science tells us gold is dense and soft. Dense means it's heavy. In order to still function, a ship or armor can only have a thin layer of gold. A solid gold ship would be too heavy to move and so is an example of poor craftsmanship. The same goes for a knight wearing gold armor. "Gold" is the wrong word because gold is the wrong material.

As SFR authors, we don't have to actually make the stuff, but only to use words in a way that makes the thing seem real, real enough to be sexy. If accurately shown, the sensuousness of silk and leather can't be matched by any other materials. Knowing what silk and leather are helps the author in exploiting the sumptuous characteristics of the materials. The story doesn't need to have a treatise on the silk industry, but just a thoughtful choice of words, an understanding that silk is not the same as satin and that "leather" doesn't mean vinyl.

Fortunately for us, we can easily research words and the materials they stand for.
A good place to start is with Wikipedia. It's not authoritative, but it can quickly sort out how things are made and out of what kind of materials.

Dictionaries are indispensable and worth spending money on. These treasure troves have hordes of words along with definitions and origins. I have a whole shelf of dictionaries: the Shorter OED, Webster's, Roget's Thesaurus, French-English, Latin-English, and a bunch of other languages. I can look this up on line but sometimes it works best to flip through those marvelous word catalogues.

I love manuals and how-to books. I shop for them at my local used bookstore. Older books are often even better than new ones for the vocabulary of how to make things. My stories have a maritime setting so I've got a whole collection of boating-related manuals including: the Navy's Blue Jackets' Manual, Chapman's Piloting, and The Complete Yachtsman.

More great references are atlases: anatomy, geography, and star charts. I frequently consult Google Earth but also use paper maps, charts, and diagrams.

And I just have to mention field guides. They are great for helping with plants and animals shown in a story. For finding such things as the best time for pirates to attack use tide tables which are often given away free, but the same information can be found online at the NOAA website along with a wealth of weather data.

Despite all the great resources, nothing works better than actually seeing and doing the things that the writing will describe: cooking the food for the fictional meal, making the clothing the heroine will wear, traveling to places similar to the fictional setting. This can be expensive and time consuming and so must be done selectively, but I believe it makes the writing stronger, more believable.

The side effect of knowing materials is both believable plots and believable sensory detail--the smell of hot steel, the roughness of basalt native to Mars, the acrid bite of plasticizer leaking into space rations.


  1. Good post, Lizzie! I totally agree about research. It's so much a part of my plotting. Although I can't visit the planets or on the spaceships I may use, I can create my world via lots of reasearch, coupled with my imagination.
    I really get thrown out of a book if I'm reading and I see mistakes, such as confusing how materials should work, as you mentioned.

  2. Hi Lizzie,
    Thanks for the sensory-provoking article. I was feeling those weights and textures as you talked about them.

    I've searched the Periodic Table to come up with the right metal for my SFR: Osmium, number 76, which now that I take a gander at Wiki again, I see it only works for weapons as an alloy - eek, guess I have to change that!

  3. And then, if nothing else works, come up with something new that will! :)

  4. Great post, Lizzie. You raise some very ponder-worthy points.

    In fiction, I find leather is often the wardrobe choice for assassins and spies. It's almost standard uniform. But if you've ever worn leather, you know it has an odor, it creaks, it's stiff, and inhibits movement to some degree. Hardly a fitting outfit for someone who depends on stealth and the element of surprise to accomplish his or her mission...and survive. If the character must wear leather, soft suede might be more believable than a shiny, noisy leather ensemble. A synthetic (i.e. "slinky") material is an even better choice.

    Doing information research is essential, but adding a bit of tactile research (fabric shops are fabulous for costuming; hardware stores for describing tools or building and ship components) can really make a difference in the realism of the character-costuming and world building.

  5. Laurie,
    I hadn't noticed the connection between leather and spies/assasins. I know that leather is sexy due to the close similarity of the smell to human pharemones. And I do know about the misery of wet leather, and the difficulty of keeping it oiled or greased to keep it water proof. I find it odd in fiction when leather is used when polyurethan is availabe and might be a better choice for items such as boots.
    For other uses such as protective clothing for use on a motorcycle or while welding, nothing beats leather.
    And there is the whole thing about kinds of leather. White deerskin is a lousy choice for motorcycle leathers.
    I wish I had a better fabric shop in my area, but we I do have a great leather supply shop nearby.
    I love finding other people interested in costuming.

  6. Lizzie wrote: For other uses such as protective clothing for use on a motorcycle or while welding, nothing beats leather.

    Oh yes, absolutely agree. Leather is awesome for many circumstances. But IMHO it doesn't work well for a character who must use the cover of dark and absolute stealth to stalk prey and make a silent kill, or to sneak about snapping photographs of secret documents or facilities right under the armed guards noses.

    *creak, creak* Busted! :)

  7. I love creating techno-babble in my books. Almost as much fun as playing with costuming fabric. The fake leather they have now is beautiful to work with. Great for costumes.

    I'm glad you posted this. The more I think about it, the more I realize that my passions, like spices, cooking, sewing and geek-speak, do influence my writing. It's a great way to add depth to characters and settings. Of course, like everything else, it can be overused.


We love to hear from you! Comments must pass moderation to be published. Spam will be deleted.

SFR Brigade Bases of Operation