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.

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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!

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  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

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