Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Science of Fantasy

The best part about writing fantasy is that your brain can envision things that don't (or maybe shouldn't) exist: time travel, zombie apocalypses, aliens, ghosts, etc.

But that doesn't mean you can pull anything out of your tush and throw it on the page. There's a science to writing fantasy. Anything you write needs to sound if not plausible, then possible.

While Evolution Revolution: Simple Machines may seem like a sweet animal adventure story, there's a lot of science and research that went into the creation of this series.

Here's what sparked the idea:

That's my middle son's third grade science homework papers on simple machines. I saw it, and thought, ok, I remember this stuff, but really thought nothing more about it.

Until I saw a BBC special not long after about how squirrels were brilliant puzzle solvers when it came to scoring food. I also learned that female squirrels are smarter (ha ha to my boys who always think they're the smarter ones!), share what they learn, and learn from others. They don't give up until they've solved the puzzle--and get this: they can study a puzzle and figure out a short cut. They think.

Suppose...just suppose they started evolving intellectually...using human things...

Story idea!

But that was the easy part. What kind of squirrel should be in my story? How will he understand simple machines like the inclined plane or lever, and use them? For a 'simple' adventure story, there were a lot of questions that needed to be answered.

Research time.

First I read up on squirrels online and in the library. I had to answer questions like which squirrel species would work best? The answer is the common gray squirrel because they exist in so many countries and in urban, suburban, and rural areas and there was a lot of documentation of interaction with humans. What were they capable of, what physical limitations did they have? While they have dextrous paws with finger-like claws, they don't have a lot of strength so they can't actually manipulate large or difficult things. I collected newspaper stories about their exploits and the mayhem they instigated because my squirrel was going to cause a lot of trouble on his way to growing intellectually.

There are six simple machines- which meant one really long book to explain them all, which wouldn't work for a middle grade reader, or several books. Because there was so much information, I started a note/scrapbook. I collected humorous clippings and pictures of squirrels doing human things: water skiing, cartoons where they think like humans, etc. as fodder to help me write the story of how my main character, Jack, would get into situations and learn.

I almost always incorporate humor into my books, even horror stories. Seeing what squirrels were, and might be capable of doing, helped me to add levity into a story that had a lot of science. Evolution Revolution will teach kids about simple machines and conservation and evolution among other sciences just by reading Jack's story, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun to read. I didn't want it to sound like a textbook.

As any writer will tell you, ideas and problems to be solved in your story pop into your head. One of the big problems was language; how was Jack to understand human language? I made a list of words that Jack needed to learn so the story could be told:

Why does Jack need to know what toilet paper is? It relates to a funny bathroom scene. And while Jack can't speak the human words, he can understand them.

In the second book, Evolution Revolution: Simple Plans, I introduce new characters. One of them is a mynah bird. I needed a vehicle for Jack to communicate with his human friend, Collin, without magic or such. Jack is, and always will be, a normal, common gray squirrel like you find in your own backyard. The one concession I had to make was that different species communicated amongst each other. Fox taunts Jack, Beaver whines, and Owl encourages him. The mynah bird can repeat hundreds of human words. Mina (get it: Mina, mynah moe!) doesn't need to use proper grammar, only repeat words between Collin and Jack. But could such a bird, usually a pet in a cage, survive in the cold north? For that answer I had to reach out to mynah bird specialists. (There is a group devoted especially to them!) I emailed them and got my answer: escaped pet mynahs can survive in the northern US, and had for some time in southern Canada.

There were so many science questions that needed to be answered to write Jack's story. Yes, there is so much imagination in it, like animals working together to save another animal. A hop around the internet brings up stories about a lion saving a baby wildebeest from another lion, or an elephant trying to rescue a man that it thinks is drowning. Think about Koko, the gorilla who uses sign language, or the elephant that paints. Not such a far-fetched story anymore... Maybe animals are a lot smarter than we give them credit for and 'science' has to catch up to my imaginative tale...

Imagine the impossible- because it may be possible...


Look for Evolution Revolution: Simple Plans in January, 2017