My Worst Writing Fear
(This post first appeared in Kay Theodoratus’ blog — http://kaytheod.blogspot.com/)
I am a veterinarian and a biomedical researcher. The goal of scientific research is to decipher the workings of the natural world. Accuracy in the collection and interpretation of experimental data is the fundamental basis for scientific discovery and advancement. So, what is my greatest fear as a writer of fiction, science fiction to be exact? The fear of getting something scientific wrong. How can I get something wrong if I am writing fiction? Good fiction is based on reality. Are the characters and their actions realistic; do they evoke emotion and caring in the reader? Are the settings well-drawn and believable? In any genre, if the reader cannot buy into the characters, the setting , or the action, they will suspend belief and, potentially, their reading.
But science fiction is fantastical adventure, whether set in the past, present, or future. It bears no relationship to “reality,” does it? Tell that to Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, nineteenth century writers who accurately predicted many of the scientific advances of the twentieth century. Did they get some of their predictions wrong? Of course they did. Verne, in Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea, amazingly envisioned and described the SCUBA apparatus in 1870, yet, in the same novel predicted that humans could never harm the vast diversity of creatures that lived on earth. Don’t we wish the latter prediction was true?
If greats like Verne and Wells could make errors, why is that a fear for me? Scientists can and do make mistakes in carrying out experiments and drawing conclusions. Mistakes, when recognized, can be important to teach us what is correct. Yet, I am still afraid to make scientific errors in my fiction. An example: In the beta version of my recently published novel, The Galactic Circle Veterinary Service, a friend and colleague, also a veterinarian, picked up two errors: one the misspelling of a horse’s bone, the other the wrong term for a dog’s anatomical structure. Well, shoot, who but a veterinarian would even know? Doesn’t matter. I would know. I learned such things in school and there is no excuse for getting them wrong. I was embarrassed even though those errors never saw the light of day.
I approach my writing as I approach a scientific research problem. I exhaustively investigate what is known, then use that to predict what might be. If I don’t get the current science right, what I propose for the future doesn’t work, for me at least. In Galactic Circle, a future plague has a basis in what we know now about microbiology and biochemistry. Even the alien life-forms affected must fit within a logical and consistent biological scheme of the universe, or the disease can’t work, and my story is less believable.
So I fear someone reading my work (especially other scientists) and finding the error that makes them say, “Boy, did he get that wrong.” The old saw says, “Write what you know.” I’m supposed to know science and medicine. If I make basic mistakes with current science, it tells the reader that I don’t know my subject. Might as well put the book down now! My science fiction is based on good science. I will continue to research my subjects ad nauseum before I prognosticate the future of that science. And I’ll continue to make sure that someone reads my books who can catch my inevitable errors before they go to print.