Wow! Where to start?
It was a pure joy to meet you and talk with you at AggieCon. Thanks so much for the reading during the Pern panel, too. I missed the one on Friday.
Got a question for you. I was there when you were talking to Holly (AKA “NASA Girl”). You guys lost me in about three nanoseconds. I never once wondered how many gozillion mile per ounce of anti-matter anybody”s ship got or how they could come down through the atmoshpere without getting cooked. What are your thoughts in that regard?
How important is it to know the workings of real rocket science to make a story believeable for those who know/don’t know?
It was good to meet you, too! I always love meeting future writers. (I start sucking up early to get autographed copies of their soon-to-be bestselling books.)
As to your question — most of the time it either doesn’t matter or it matters a whole heck of a lot. For instance, if you were writing a story about a new science fiction invention — let’s say, the automobile — you probably wouldn’t worry so much about the details of its mileage as the fact that it could go as much as 20 miles an hour. If you’re writing a story where the damsel in distress who is tied to the railroad is saved by the good guy in his new automobile, it becomes important to think about the speed of the train, the speed of the automobile, and the distance that you need to cover. Otherwise, who cares?
However, if it *does* become important to your story, there are several tried and true methods for dealing with this:
1) Tell a different story (this is the whimp out approach)
2) Steal liberally from someone else’s research (this is the “where someone has gone before” approach)
3) Cultivate a brainy friend and engage them in doing the difficult physics for you (this is a very popular approach)
4) Learn it all yourself (I do this but I’ve got a Mechanical Engineering degree and sixteen years in the software industry).
5) Fake it (this is the “famous television series who would sue me if I used their real-name” approach). Use lots of high-tech sounding stuff without researching it a bit (warning: people like me (and perhaps Holly) would either spend our time laughing on the floor or frothing at the mouth depending upon how outrageously wrong you were).
I must admit that I use a combination of (4) and (3). I tend to shy away from (2) because it’s so much fun to do the research.
The cool thing about research is that sooner or later you’ll find yourself taking some evening classes and you’ll find all sorts of new ideas coming to your mind!
As for how important is your rocket science? Again, that depends upon how much of your story hangs on the rocket science. If you want to tell a story about the first men on Mars you’d better get your science straight. If, on the other hand, you’re telling a story about the first gardener on Mars and he’s waiting for the daily rocketship, you don’t have to sweat it nearly as much (in fact, “The daily rocket arrived …” may well cover the issue completely).
Nowadays, a lot of the norms of s-f have been well established. People believe that spaceships go whoosh! in space and fight dogfights like WWII fighter planes (they don’t). Still, there’s a lot you can get away with.
Read in the field helps a lot. It’ll give you an idea of what’s required and what you can get away with.
I hope that helps!