The old adage, “Write what you know,” remains one of the soundest pieces of advice you can give a writer, be the recipient of that wisdom a novice, a veteran—or yourself. Nothing eases the agonies of creation more than the ability to draw on first-hand experience. But two provisos should be added to the age-old counsel: One, personal experience too often proves a disguise for self-indulgence; witness the sea of personal memoirs currently drowning us, as if no worlds exist beyond a dysfunctional childhood or a sick parent. Two, if you don’t know something, you can learn it.
Luckily, there is a fairly straightforward cure for both self-indulgence and ignorance: research.
This year, by a strange alignment of the heavens, I’ve had two novels published on two very different themes. The first, called Firebird, is a scientific suspense novel involving a race for nuclear fusion between two giant laboratories, a fictional one in Texas, the other the real-life ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project currently under construction in southern France. The second novel, titled The Course of Fortune, is a three-volume historical epic set in the sixteenth century Mediterranean and climaxes at the 1565 Great Siege of Malta.
By training I am a physicist and, as it turns out, essentially grew up at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, where my father worked during the 1960s. In embarking on Firebird, I was very much on home territory. Nevertheless, while I might have been able to write a novel about fusion based solely on my knowledge of physics and my memories from boyhood, it would have been neither a good nor authentic one. Science, more than any other activity, teaches you to doubt your own convictions and bend over backward to prove yourself wrong. Keeping an open mind that there may be a lot more out there than you think you know is the first step in undertaking research for any project, scientific or literary. Nowadays, the second step may be to realize that you can’t learn everything online.
For Firebird, I wanted to convey the atmosphere of a big scientific laboratory, but I had never worked at one and you can’t feel virtual labs, or smell them. To remedy that deficiency (and to do some genuine scientific research), I got myself invited to PPPL for a year, where I went through the training courses, ate lunch with colleagues, listened to their stories, sat with the crews as they ran experiments, smelled the acorn oil used to lubricate the generators. Nothing could substitute for the on-site research, which added immeasurably to Firebird’s authenticity.
Although The Course of Fortune is a historical novel, I applied much the same attitude toward researching it. The Great Siege of Malta was one of the most momentous and fiercely contested sieges in history. In the summer of 1565, between 30,000 and 40,000 Turks and Barbary corsairs invaded the island of Malta, which was defended by some 600 Knights of St. John, and another 6,000-8,000 mercenaries and untrained Maltese militia. After four months of the most vicious and ingenious fighting imaginable, the Turks gave up, having lost perhaps 15,000 men. When you first encounter the Siege of Malta, as I did accidentally while researching another possible novel, your first reaction is to disbelieve it.
My approach might seem extreme to authors who have been raised online, but once a sufficient amount of research has been carried out, it will guide a novel, especially a historical one. In that sense, The Course of Fortune turned out to be one of the easiest things I ever wrote, despite its one-thousand-page length. Certainly, the research alone does not itself determine a work’s artistic success; nevertheless, it is only after you know the sights and sounds of your imagined or recreated world, its smells, its customs, the books its citizens read, the music they listen to, the food they eat, the oaths they swear, can you make it as real as the world we inhabit every day.
About our guest blogger: Tony Rothman is a physicist who has specialized in general relativity and cosmology, although he is interested more broadly in fundamental questions. Most recently he has been teaching at Princeton University. He has also written ten books for the general public and hundreds of articles. He can be found on Twitter, Facebook and his own website. Tony Rothman will be speaking at the Lawrence Branch of the Mercer County Library in Lawrence NJ on Tuesday, June 30th at 7:00 PM.