Writing Science in Fiction

Carol Potenza, author of the Tony Hillerman Prize-winning mystery Hearts of the Missing, is no stranger to infusing her fiction with science, and she's sharing her resources with us! After you've read (and taken notes), comment below for a chance to win a copy of her debut novel!

We’ve all seen it. A scientific plotline so strong it triggers journalists to hurry off and interview scientists, asking question after breathless question: Can dinosaur DNA be extracted from blood-engorged mosquitos trapped in amber millions of years ago? (Unfortunately, no.) Could AI—artificial intelligence—escape the confines of its program and cause worldwide havoc? (Maybe. Think computer viruses.) Could the details of a poisoning within a cozy mystery be so accurate, so easy, that copy-cat deaths are attributed to the book? (Yes, but would that make the author an accomplice to murder?)

Readers love real science. And when real science is twisted into believable fiction, it can drive the plot in a best seller or result in word-of-mouth that keeps a book in print long after the author has attained complete equilibrium (died). But realistic science can be very difficult to twine into your story if you don’t know where to look for facts and research backing it up.

So how do you as the author become the expert? Begin with the resources listed below. I’ll focus on the “squishy” sciences—those involving biochemistry, biology, and blood—because that’s my area of expertise, but all STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) are included. I’ll skip archived newsprint, reference books, and libraries. These are outstanding and well-known resources and I don’t need to reiterate their value. And I’ll caution you about Wikipedia. While it might be a great jumping off point, use it at your own risk.

Let’s start with the Internet because much of what I’ll highlight is online. I’ll follow with live assets that are closer than you think.

News Apps on your Phone

They can be set to filter stories to your preferences and are a great resource for up-to-date news. The downside? Many articles don’t have references for the science presented. So if you want more information, the best place to go is…

Google Scholar

This search engine is designed for scholarly and academic literature. Use keywords and publication dates to sharpen your focus. Add “review” to your search thread and you’ll find papers that have already gathered and summarized the relevant literature. Many scientific journal articles are free to view and download, but some you’ll have to buy before you can read the full paper.

Insider’s tip: Google Scholar Alerts will keep you apprised of newly published literature in your subject of interest.

Science Headline Websites

Subscribe to sites like Science Daily, Scitable, LiveScience, and EurekAlert! Explore each of these websites thoroughly and you’ll find loads of helpful offerings. For example, the Science Daily site gives you hundreds of newsletter choices, including ones that focus on topics as diverse as ancient DNA, wearable technology, and bioethics.

TED Talks

Technology Entertainment Design. Recorded talks on thousands of topics by experts in various fields. Free online, translated into more than 100 languages, and envisioned to spread ideas. To give you an idea, here are some examples of what you might find: Your Fingerprints Reveal More Than You Think, How Vultures Can Solve Crimes, and Why Eyewitnesses Get It Wrong

Professors and Experts at a Nearby University (Or Even at a Distant One)

The only people who like to talk about their work more than authors are scientists. Like us, their work consumes them. They have to stay up-to-date on the literature, write up their ideas as grants, and teach their field. They have knowledge you can tap into. If you’ve found a scientific topic that interests you or are having a difficult time digesting data in a publication, reach out to an expert via email. Part of their job is public outreach, so it’s a win-win situation for both of you.

*  *  *

Whether I’m researching a topic for a lecture, or weaving science into my fiction, these are some of the resources I find useful. I hope you do too.

Read an excerpt from Hearts of the Missing!


Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Hearts of the Missing by Carol Potenza!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

Hearts of the Missing Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at http://www.criminalelement.com/writing-science-in-fiction beginning at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) December 5, 2018. Sweepstakes ends at 1:59 p.m. ET December 19, 2018. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

Comments

  1. Laura

    I love this post! Like literature, it drives me bananas when I see bad medicine in books or popular tv shows. You should do a de-bunking column about science in books!!

  2. Daniel M

    sounds like a fun one

  3. John Smith

    I’ll have to take a look at Google Scholar!

  4. Marilissa Cram

    Thanks for posting all these great resources! I’m looking forward to reading your book this Winter Break!

  5. Karen Howard

    Love a book that entertains and informs!

  6. linda gawthrop

    I have a feeling this one will leave me guessing!

  7. aznhoney

    very interesting like it

  8. SAIT MESUTCAN ILHANER

    Would love to read it.

  9. Susan Meek

    I love it when an author uses facts & science, instead of making stuff up. I’ve added this author to my TBR list.

  10. Laura McLendon

    Murder, Mystery, Intrigue, Thrills Too… Can’t wait for this one‼️

  11. Bridgette Kolesarwilliams

    This looks like a great read. I’m sure I will love it!

  12. Kathy

    Great post! I am looking forward to reading Hearts of the Missing. Thank you for the chance to win

  13. Jackie Mungle

    I’d love to win , this book sounds really good,

  14. Maureen McCafferty

    Blood, science, good science. I’m in!

  15. Valerie Welbourn

    Mystery and Science – two of my favorite subjects combined.

  16. Karen Lauterwasser

    Wow – great resources! Almost enough to make me try and write a book. I have an engineering degree, and it kills me (maybe I shouldn’t mention that in front of a mystery writer) when the science or math goes awry. I am as willing to suspend my disbelief as the next fiction reader, but sometimes it just has to be correct. I’ve even noticed errors in non-mysteries (where the error is not really a plot item, but still!). My favorite was a kitchen that had a hexagonal table with five chairs (possible, but rather unlikely).

  17. Deborah Linnell, PhD, LPC, CRC
  18. Beverly Laude

    Great info! I am not an author, but love when authors take the time to do research.

  19. Glen Davis

    Poor science can take a reader right out of the book. A valuable resource.

  20. LESLIE J D'ANGONA

    Love to be entertained and educated while I’m reading a good book. Thanks for the chance to win!

  21. Amy Brandum

    Sounds like a great read! Real sources create the best material. Looking forward to this book.

  22. Ted Berggren

    I love a good mystery backed by science. I’m inclined to research something that doesn’t sound right.

  23. Jayne Homsher

    I love science and combining it with mystery into this novel sounds like it will more than hold my interest!

  24. Chelsey Reed

    Thanks for sharing. Sounds like a good read

  25. Susan Peacock

    Love a good mystery. When mixed with science, you can’t go wrong.

  26. Susan T.

    I love it when books weave in actual real life science into their plots. I have to admit if it is done wrong it drives me crazy! Make sure you get your facts correct or picky readers will notice!

  27. D Krogstad

    Finally someone gets it. Make the story match the science.

  28. Cindy

    I live in New Mexico and love reading about the different parts of this great state! Thanks for what sounds like another great book! Hope to win.

  29. Elizabeth

    I love fiction with real science. Sometimes James Rollins does that.

  30. Rosemary Newman

    Hearts of the Missing looks like a thrill packed science read.

  31. Susan

    I read the exerpt. I think this is going to be one of those books that keep me up all night reading. Can’t wait!

  32. Lesley Kay

    Looks good! Excited to read it.

  33. helen martin

    Love the Southwest setting. Sounds gripping!

  34. Susanne Troop

    Love a good book!

  35. Sunnie Iacovetta

    This looks real good, thanks for the giveaway!

  36. Phyllis Sinclair

    Another pet peeve is bad geography. A book I really would like to read.

  37. Anne

    Captivating and fascinating. Enjoyed this post very much.

  38. Karen Hansen

    Sounds like a book for me, love the science aspect.

  39. Pearl

    Wonderful feature and great novel.

  40. ellie

    Impressive and unique. Thanks.

  41. Maria W

    Love to win this great prize…Thanks and Happy Holidays

  42. Rose Reeder
  43. Lori P

    Excellent article + excellent resources! Ditto for news from social media rather than professional, reputable sites.

  44. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  45. Darcy Strand

    Interested in this one

  46. Keith Reid

    Would love to win

  47. susan beamon

    Good places to look things up. I never use Wikipedia.

  48. Kari

    Love this’

  49. Karen C

    Very interesting learning about Carol’s research process!

  50. Stephen Bristow

    Good sources, but time consuming. It’s best just to know everything from the start.
    Thanks for the chance!

  51. Sue Gosland

    Great resources for what sounds like a great book. Going to have to put this one on my Amazon wish list, if I don’t win. (Which I hope I do!)

  52. Rita Newhouse

    I always prefer to read books from which I can gain insight and knowledge.

  53. lasvegasnv

    interesting info

  54. Christine Robinson

    Very interesting information. Cannot wait to read the book now!!

  55. carloshmarlo

    It boggles my mind when I think about how much work goes into writing a book. Thanks for the chance to win a copy!

  56. Tiffany

    This looks good!

  57. Lana Maskus

    Thank you for the effort of being accurate. When I see incorrect medical or healthcare info or too much leeway being taken with historical facts it automatically turns me away from the writing.

  58. Rita Spratlen

    Thanks for the chance to win this wonderful book. So much information here too!

  59. K

    Good info in the intro to scientific research. And the preview of the book most intriguing.

  60. Sally

    I am so hooked on reading. What a good habit to have!

  61. Nancy

    Sounds like a very intriguing read.

  62. Shelly Garnett

    Research is the best way to get the right information.

  63. Angela Gibson

    This book is going to be great. One more book for my TBR, high on my list!

  64. Christina markey

    I am always looking for the next great red I can’t wait to get my hands on this one!

  65. Karen H

    I love a good fiction novel with a healthy dose of realistic science. The key is scientific accuracy though. Nothing can kill the joy of reading faster than coming across a fact that you know is incorrect.

  66. Lisa F

    Looks amazing! I would love to win a copy of this fantabulous book.

  67. Karen Hester

    Thanks for the resources.

  68. Adam Lynn

    The excerpt grabbed my attention right away. I look forward to reading this.

  69. Wendy Barker

    I loved the comment about scientists liking to talk about their work. I worked in a research lab for many years and we would often get tours coming through. It was always fun to talk to them about the work we were doing and answer their questions. I never tired of it.

  70. Joyce Mitchell

    Interesting – thanks for the chance to win.

  71. Lori Uhlenberg

    That really got my attention!! Can’t wait to read more!

  72. Monica gromadzki

    Yet another good one to read

  73. Elaine Casey

    Looking forward to this. I often find erroneous medical and scientific information in books that I read. If you don’t know or don’t want to take the time to check it out, then leave it out. Bad science helps no one. And since people believe everything they read, and don’t fact check, we have misinformation all over the place now.

  74. Joye

    This book sounds really interesting
    Thanks for the info on different search sites

  75. vshaynes

    I’m a big Tony Hillerman fan, I appreciate the detailed descriptions of the customs and traditions of the various tribes that populate his novels and the creative plots in the mysteries he wrote. I’m looking forward to reading your novel as the excerpt I read along with your description of the resources you utilized to ensure accuracy are tantalizing.

  76. LINDA COSBY

    good information

  77. Linda McCutcheon

    I am a new subscriber and I am very excited about this newsletter and this awesome sweepstakes. The author obviously knows how to get the facts straight for her story. These days that is very rare.

  78. Laurent Latulippe

    Interesting article. I look forward to reading this book.

  79. Mary

    I particularly like the way criminal element presented this book. After The read to take the quiz I was hooked. Can’t wait to read the entire book

  80. Saundra K. Warren

    Sounds like a great book!!

  81. Susan Morris

    The author is correct – readers do like real and factual science in the books they read. This one sounds like a keeper!

  82. cathy j

    I really enjoy books that are based on actual facts!

  83. jackie morris

    love that the book is about native people-and the reservation-not to many books about crime with natives-interesting

  84. Sally Schmidt

    Lots of science. I like that. Sound like a good read.

  85. CarolT

    Good advice!

  86. Sandy Klocinski

    Awesome post! Looking forward to reading Hearts of the Missing. Thanks for the opportunity to win

  87. Robi Malone

    How tantalizing, I read the excerpt and wanted the book in my hand. Looks like an engrossing read. Right up my alley.

  88. Peg Nittskoff

    Okay– so I am deeply intrigued!! Who is the woman in the glass? Can she transfer her energy into animals? I would love to win this book and get some answers..

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