If you’ve ever struggled with incorporating science into your writing or wished you had a resource to turn to if you have questions about science, I have the person you need to talk to. Dan Koboldt! His Science in SciFi, Fact in Fantasy blog series is a great place to touch base with experts who can provide those details that add pop to your stories. Plus, the science & technology information is so cool!
Dan Koboldt is the author of the Gateways to Alissia trilogy (Harper Voyager) and the editor of Putting the Science in Fiction (Writers Digest, 2018). As a genetics researcher, he has co-authored more than 70 publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other scientific journals. Dan is also an avid deer hunter and outdoorsman. He lives with his wife and children in Ohio, where the deer take their revenge by eating the flowers in his backyard.
MH: Welcome, Dan! Thanks for being our guest to talk about mixing science in with fiction. What’s your philosophical approach to using science in fiction?
DK: I love reading stories by authors who really know their stuff, whether it’s biology (Michael Crichton), aerospace engineering (Andy Weir), or even worldbuilding elements like linguistics (J.R.R. Tolkien). It doesn’t need to dominate the story, but few touches of realism builds enormous trust between the author and the reader. For my own writing, I look for those little touches.
MH: Can you tell us about the Science in SciFi, Fact in Fantasy blog series you created and host?
DK: Sure. It’s a weekly blog series that I’ve been hosting for the past few years. Each week, we delve into a scientific/medical/technical aspect or science fiction, or a world-building aspect of fantasy, with input from an expert in the field. No two articles are exactly alike, but most of them try to dispel common myths about the subject at hand, and offer writers tips for getting the details right in their stories.
MH: How did you come up with the idea of the blog series and how did that idea evolve into this wonderful series?
DK: Well, I work in human genetics, so I’ve been writing scientific articles for about fifteen years. That experience was my foundation, really, when I decided to try my hand at fiction. Surprisingly, it did not help much, but it gave me something to fall back on while I was developing my fiction craft. I had a lot more success writing nonfiction articles for SF/F magazines, for example, than in selling them short stories. I started putting them up on my blog as well, and people seemed to find them really helpful. I thought hey, this could make a valuable purpose for my blog.
That was fantastic, but now we come to the dirty little secret about scientists: most of us specialize in a specific field of study. We often don’t know any more about other disciplines than the average Wikipedia reader. I knew that in order to cover all of the fields relevant for science fiction — astrophysics, climatology, chemistry, aeronautical engineering, etc — I’d have to find other experts. So I started reaching out to members of the writing community who had the training or bona fide expertise in other subjects. And thus the series was born.
MH: It’s been a true honor to be a contributor to the blog series. How has the feedback and/or response been from readers of the blog?
DK: The honor’s all mine, buddy. I love your articles, especially the one about Jurassic Park. That’s the beauty of this setup: I get to read all of these fantastic essays before anyone else does. Then I get to share them with all of my friends and fellow writers. I’ve learned so much about so many useful topics. So have my readers. It always makes me smile when I hear from a writer who’s just stumbled on my series and loves it.
MH: In your writing how do you (or do you?) separate your research-life from your writer-life? Do you ever struggle to switch gears from research publication mode into creative work?
DK: Frankly, I’m more worried that I’ll be stuck in creative mode when it’s time to write a grant or research paper. The two forms of writing are very different, but I feel that working on my craft in each domain has informed the other. The clear, concise writing demanded by my scientific career is beneficial in fiction. Perhaps even more surprising is how much storytelling can be important when I’m writing for other scientists. The downside is that no matter what type of writing I’m doing, it seems to draw from the same bank of writing energy. Thus, on days when I have to write a lot of work, I’m often too drained to write much fiction that evening.
MH: We had the official announcement recently of the PUTTING THE SCIENCE IN FICTION anthology from Writer’s Digest Books (Fall, 2018). It’s a project based on the Science In SciFi, Fact in Fantasy blog designed to help writers incorporate science into their work and it’s also one that I’m honored to be a part of. How did you get the idea of turning posts from the blog into a book?
DK: I have to credit my agent, Paul Stevens of Donald Maass Literary Agency. We met up during World Fantasy Convention, and he asked me if I’d ever thought about developing a nonfiction proposal based on my blog articles. I’d done some research on nonfiction proposals in the past, with the idea that I might try writing one about genomics. But that idea didn’t excite me enough to pursue it seriously. A Science in Sci-fi book aimed at writers, however, sounded like a lot of fun. We had most of the content already written, too. But I only really wanted to do a book if we could get the right publisher behind it. Writer’s Digest was the obvious choice, and Paul knew some people there. So he pitched them the idea, and they said they’d like to see a proposal. We took that as a good sign.
Then I went to all of my blog contributors to ask if they’d be willing to take part in this crazy venture. Every single one of them said yes. That kind of surprised me, actually. Then again, my contributors are the best part of the blog series and the entire book experience. You guys are the best! Paul and I worked on the proposal over the course of several weeks. It was a learning experience for both of us. But again, I guess we did something right because Writer’s Digest made an offer. Part of me still can’t believe we pulled it off.
MH: If a writer or a reader has questions about a science topic they want to write or have read, how can the blog or the book help them?
DK: The goal of each article is really to do two things: First, to debunk common myths/misconceptions about the subject at hand. And second, to provide some initial guidance on writing accurately about it. For someone who doesn’t have a strong technical background in say, astrophysics, the blog and book will teach them enough to be dangerous.
MH: Are you currently looking for new posts for the blog? If so, how can a science professional or a writer with an interesting idea for a post contribute to the blog?
DK: I’m always on the lookout for writers who have expertise in a relevant topic, whether that’s science, engineering, history, or other some aspect of SF/F worldbuilding. I should point out that we generally need contributors who have education and/or proven expertise in the subject, not just someone who’s read a lot about it because they have a hobby interest. There are exceptions, though. I had a statistician come talk about woodworking, because he sent me photos of some of the things he’s made and it was clear he’s way above the 101 level of craft. If you’re interested, you can reach out on Twitter or visit the Contributors Information Page: http://dankoboldt.com/for-contributors/
MH: In your book series, Gateway to Alissia, you do an exceptional job of mixing science, technology, magic, history, cultural anthropology, military science, and geography into the stories. How do you do that so well and do it so well across three books? Where do you turn for technical help to turn those great ideas into awesome and credible stories?
DK: Thank you for saying so! I do a lot of my own research — hazards of the day job and all that — but I also have a growing set of writer friends I can approach for expertise. If I have a military question, I might kick it to Michael Mammay (my CP who was a longtime officer in the U.S. Army). And if I have a microbiology question, I ask you!
That’s why building friendships in the author community is so valuable. Everyone is good at something.
MH: Any advice for us middle-grade authors on how to use science in our fiction or to spice up our nonfiction?
DK: Yes, I advise you to pre-order the book! *grin*
MH: Any advice for young writers who may love STEM and want to write about those topics?
DK: I really encourage anyone who’s interested in STEM to think about pursuing it as a career, and to start early. There are 9 million STEM jobs in the US, and that number will only grow. Writing is a valuable skill to develop because communication in technical fields is really important. If you learn to write well, and you put in the work to pursue an education in STEM, I think your future is very bright indeed.
MH: Before I let you off the hook, I have to ask one very critical question. If you could pick one science superpower, what would you chose?
DK: Unlimited grant funding!
Thank you, Dan, for your insight into how science can add layers of awesome to our writing and reading. Best of luck with your Gateway to Alissia series (The third book in the series, THE WORLD AWAKENING, was recently released to high praise!) and as the editor/contributor of the PUTTING THE SCIENCE IN FICTION anthology. I also wish you continued success with the Science in SciFi, Fact in Fantasy blog series.