Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Monday, May 5, 2014

Tip O'Day #462 - No More Lazy Research

Guest blogger Cynthia Echterling on “The Facts, Nothing but the Facts.”

My pet peeves in novels or films include unbelievable incidents, bad technology, and cultural inaccuracies from not doing adequate research. Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of Mythbusters have become famous by debunking this sort of thing for our education and amusement.

When writing my science fiction novel, Torqed: The Search for Earth, a group of characters were planning to defraud an insurance company. They discussed how to switch on Torq's ability to hibernate and trick an adjuster into believing he was dead. All they needed to do was chill him, but in an environmentally controlled spaceport, that wasn't possible. Their first thought was to slip him outside temporarily. Would it work? Would he instantly freeze or would he explode? In many of the SciFi movies I'd seen, that's what happens. Is it accurate? I did the research and the answer is, no. You can survive about 90 seconds. Your lungs would collapse, or rupture if you try to hold your breath. Nitrogen bubbles would form in your blood stream. Your bodily excretions would freeze. You might puff up some, but you don't explode and you don't freeze rock hard instantaneously. Fortunately, you'd be unconscious from lack of oxygen before any of that happened. My characters decide it is not an option.

Crime or espionage stories have people surreptitiously offing someone with a gun using a silencer, and nobody hears anything except a gentle thoop. Not happening. A silencer can only reduce the sound of a gunshot by 20 or 30 decibels. You want to kill someone quietly? Try poisoned blow darts. Keep in mind that, in many countries, blow darts are illegal. If you're planning to kill someone, that probably isn't an issue for you. Just don't plan on buying one over-the-counter from Wal-Mart. As for the poison? Curare is used in South America, but that just paralyzes monkeys. It is rarely lethal and you'd need a large dose to paralyze a human.

Historical fiction is another breeding ground for inaccuracies. Don't rely on what you thought you learned in school, because it may be incomplete, out of date, or completely wrong. For my novel in progress, I needed to research Native American cultures. There are vast differences in social roles, customs and technologies. Did you know that Native Americans drank beer? It was made from corn, potatoes, birch and other substances and often reserved for ceremonial purposes, but not always. Though drunkenness was frowned upon by the Aztecs and could earn you severe punishment, Aztec elites indulged, not by drinking, but by taking their beer through another body orifice (hint: not their noses or ears). While they enjoyed their beer, they were also smoking cigars, eating popcorn and watching ball games. They just didn't have big screen TVs.

My point is, we all make mistakes, but unless you want some factoid-obsessed geek ripping your work to shreds, do your research!

Cynthia (or CD) Echterling is a SciFi and Fantasy author. The link to her SciFi novel Torqed: The Search for Earth can be found here. She is also the author of post-Apocalyptic Scavengers and fantasy Beer Wars.

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