Making it Real – How To do Targeted Research

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can get lost in research for years on end.  It’s the perfect excuse to climb down a hole and pull it in after me, the hole in this case being interesting factoids that had never come my way, or narratives of exploring strange lands, or…

After a while, if I give in to my inclinations (has happened once in a while) my loved ones gather around the hole shutting down “are you still alive in there.”  And once or twice they’ve tossed down a rope known as “the book is way overdue and we need the money.”

The funny thing is, when I climb back up, I find I still don’t have what I need to write the book.

We won’t talk about my Shakespeare trilogy, because I’d been interested in Shakespeare since my early teens, and reading stuff about his time and his bio was just normal, and led, in turn to knowing a lot of things I didn’t even know I knew and which I dropped in carelessly.

But even there I ended up having to do specific research, like when I found out that the book needed a whole heck of a lot about clothes.  I had to buy a book about clothes in Elizabethan England.  (The good side of this, of course, is that it came with patterns, which, when the younger son got bitten by the Shakespeare bug in the performing version, allowed me to make him an entire wardrobe to perform as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.  This is the kid who is 6’4″ now, so at 10 he was the size of most 13 year olds, and the school had nothing that fit him.)

Anyway, this is my method: if I am asked — as I was recently — to write something set in say the time of the revolution, the first thing I do is buy one or two general interest books, preferably ones well thought of.  Then I buy a biography or ten written by people of the time.  And then I outline the book and decide what targeted research I’ll need.  Will they sit down at table?  Will there be a tavern scene?  All of those have books written about them.  I find those and read them for the specific scenes I need.  At this time, too, to “soak in” the feel of things I start watching documentaries about that time and place.  This gives a “texture” to the book it would otherwise lack.

Of course, my books change as I write them, so sometimes I’ll find I have to write a scene that wasn’t in the outline, like horse shoeing or perhaps riding between two specific scenes.  At that time, I will put notes all over the book that say “look up x” — most people use something to bracket those, that isn’t used in normal writing, so that we can do a final look see and make sure we got them all.  I use curly brackets — and also, my monitor gets “porcupined” with sticky notes with things like “try to find book or website or reenactor who knows about x.” and “I’m almost sure the description of horse shoeing in the blah blah novel is wrong,” but it’s all I could find “so, replace it when you figure out the right one.”

After I’m done, there’s an other checking the facts and feel time.

That’s about it for historical books.  For non-historical books, particularly space opera things get trickier.  Needless to say I’m not going to research brooms, burners or flyers when most of their tech relies on anti-grav which can be miniaturized into a hand-carried gadget.  There was a leap somewhere along the line that we can’t see.  It would be like a cave man writing about the modern era and researching how to build airplanes.  If they could do it, it would already exist.

But even in space opera, or fantasy, you’re going to run against real-life, verifiable situations.  And if you fob those, your readers won’t believe you about the bigger things.  So, I spent a considerable amount of time, with the help of one of my first readers, trying to figure out if an oxygen tank would explode in a certain situation.  I also studied what to do when submerged in something opaque, like sewage, and how easy it is to lose your bearings.

The little things are what makes the reader by the big things.

Then there’s how people act in certain situations.  I lived through one (or a series of small ones) revolution, but I was a kid, and the revolution didn’t do much but flip the country between national and international socialism.  This means it’s not the pattern for all revolutions.  And it certainly doesn’t give me insight into being on the inside of the thing.

Hence, when writing about revolutions (which is all the Earth Revolution series is about) I read a lot about revolutions.  Not because it’s going to follow any in particular, but because it gives me the feel/sense/texture of what a revolution does, how it happens, the type of people who thrive vs. the type of people who sink, etc.) Again, this gives you, as it were, the touchstone of the possible, if not of the probable.  You find out what might happen in your imagined revolution, in another time.  You discover angles and ideas that would never have occurred to you on your own.  It makes the whole thing more real.

Of course, this applies beyond revolutions.

There are a few other points, but I’ll dispose of them in a list:

1- It used to be said you could play fast and loose with geography and feel of anything but NYC.  That was the city your agent and editors knew and they’d come down on your like a ton of bricks.  Indie has changed things.  You really can’t play fast and loose with any area well known to any large number of people.  You don’t have the time to answer all the irate letters because no, that store isn’t in that street in Chicago, but in the one two over.
So, write about places you know very well, make a place up, or lie about a tiny town in Montana, population 100.  Even if they all write to you, at least there’s not many of them.

2- No matter how much you research or how well you know something, you’ll get at least ten letters pointing out a mistake.  Sometimes they’ll be right too.  Take the fact I re-read all of Dumas looking for descriptions of the guys, and finding none, went on to write Aramis as blond.  I immediately got ten letters pointing out that Aramis, in Twenty Years After is mentioned as his hair “still being so black.”  I recovered from that one by pointing out that yes, and that was a jab at the obvious fact he was coloring his hair (most color at the time didn’t do blond well.)  You can recover, but you ARE going to make mistakes.

3- Beware things from other research that fall in.  I was researching China while writing the last Shakespeare book, and suddenly there was a wooden bell clapping to signal people should bring out their waste.  This happens but it needs to be weeded.

4- Please, please, please don’t stop writing because you don’t know something.  Curly bracket it and put in “look up later.”  Or write how it feels right, then make a sticky note to correct in post.  Your readers will never know it was all wrong in rough draft.

5- If you know an expert in that discipline or time, for the love of heaven, have him read the d*mn thing when you’re done.  You’ll never be an expert like someone who has devoted his/her entire life to it.

6- be careful of readers’ prejudices.  I got the Musketeers’ Mysteries rejected at a house because I apparently didn’t know Porthos had been a pirate.  (So the editor watched movies, but had never read Dumas) You can go with the writers’ prejudices or against them, and in this case I had no way of doing this, but… when going against what the reader thinks he knows, hang a flag on it.  Ie say things like “It wasn’t that people lived worse while working in the mills than they had in the countryside.  If it were so, people wouldn’t come to the city in droves.  It was that–” and then go on with your dog and pony show.

This is all that occurs to me now.  There’s probably more, and feel free to ask in comments.  Next up Real People!

 

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119 responses to “Making it Real – How To do Targeted Research

  1. Robin Munn

    5- If you know an expert in that discipline or time, for the love of heaven, have him read the d*mn thing when you’re done. You’ll never be an expert like someone who has devoted his/her entire life to it.

    So very true. I once read a Tom Clancy book where he had a computer-based plot, and it sounded like he had just picked up a bunch of buzzwords and had only a vague understanding of how they worked. It’s been a couple of decades so I can’t tell you what it was, or even what book it was, but it was jarring enough that I still remember the feeling.

    Speaking of which, I’m sure you already have people to ask about most computer stuff, but I don’t know what their particular expertise might be — so this might or might not be redundant. But if for some reason you ever need to use either computer programming, or the Linux operating system, in a story, I’d be happy to help you check the details of those particular subjects in as much depth as your particular plot point needs.

    • My husband and younger son are computer people. But thank you.

    • Draven

      Robin, the netforce books?

      The most recent William Gibson series i just couldn’t get into after seeing him describe a render farm as a room full of *people* painting images one pixel at a time.

      • Robin Munn

        No, it was one of his “main” books — the ones actually written by him, as opposed to the ones where someone bought the right to slap his name into the series title. I can’t remember the title, but the plot had something to do with Wall Street and some kind of virus designed to attack the Wall Street computers to throw America’s financial markets into chaos. It wasn’t *complete* nonsense, as I recall, so it would have sounded plausible to a layman — but it was pretty clear that he lacked actual knowledge of how things really work.

      • Robin Munn

        As for the William Gibson one, that one wouldn’t have bothered me if it was clear that he was using an analogy so that his non-technically-inclined readers would get it. I’ve done that before when I’m explaining stuff to people — anthropomorphized the programs. (They really HATE it when you do that, BTW).

        • Draven

          No, it was his very very near future series and yeah, apparently thats what he thought a render farm was.

  2. …I can get lost in research for years on end.

    I resemble this remark.

  3. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Wasn’t there this author who apparently thought that St. Louis Missouri is a very small town?

    From what I remember hearing, he was very upset that people called him on it. 😦

    • I remember a friend mention a novel where the character is driving through the flatlands of Cincinnati. For those who aren’t familiar, the urban core of Cincinnati basically sits on the banks of the Ohio River and along the basin of the Mill Creek, one of its tributaries. Large hills rise up all around. Even the intro to the widely-known TV show “WKRP in Cincinnati” shows the hills pretty clearly in a few scenes. 🙂

    • I remember reading in Stephen King’s novel The Stand about a character driving to Oregon on I-80. (It goes through Sacramento, my hometown, and six hundred miles south.) It was fixed in later editions. Oh, and he has characters from west of the Mississippi referring to “turnpikes” and “wreckers”.

      • Now that’s the kind of lack of research that’s pretty much inexcusable.

      • Well, in my area, a “wrecker” means the really big tow-truck for semis. But you know because of context “Geez, they had to call out two wreckers just to start getting the pile cleared out. No wonder traffic’s backed up to Oklahoma.”

    • LOL. I-70 going into St. Louis is six lanes each direction. And still backed up every morning and evening.

  4. Martin L. Shoemaker

    A friend recently asked me about camels. I’m not even writing a camel story, I just wondered what the answer was. So I started researching.

    Four hours later, I wanted to write a camel story. As mammals go, camels represent an extreme of adaptive evolution. If I wrote an alien species as adapted as camels are, I’m not sure readers would believe it.

    I’m sorry, what was the question? And say, did you know that camels can be crossbred with llamas (via artificial insemination) to produce sterile camas?

  5. 1- It used to be said you could play fast and loose with geography and feel of anything but NYC. That was the city your agent and editors knew and they’d come down on your like a ton of bricks. Indie has changed things. You really can’t play fast and loose with any area well known to any large number of people.

    I once read a story where the characters took a leisurely Saturday morning drive from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to a river southeast of Athens, Georgia. Uh-uh. Not going to happen, not even if it’s in the General Lee with the Bandit at the wheel. A character’s trip from Savannah through Augusta to the same location wasn’t as bad.

    That was amusing, but something that really irked me once was a “water world” type story with the Atlantic not far from Atlanta and Athens a coastal town. Except, even if all the natural ice in the world melted, the coast would me much further south at the Fall Line. That’s where it was the last time there was little to no planetary ice. All the author had to do was a quick search on how high seas would rise if all ice melted, then load Google Earth and check elevations. If the author had, they would have noticed that Atlanta is higher than Athens, so if the sea is lapping at Atlanta, then Athens is sunk – literally.

    2- No matter how much you research or how well you know something, you’ll get at least ten letters pointing out a mistake. Sometimes they’ll be right too.

    Finished a book set in 1952 or 1953, and there was a scene where a character had butterfly closures on his face. Huh? Tried to find if they were available in 1952 and struck out, but I think they didn’t show up until maybe the 1960s or 1970s.It was the 1970s before we heard of them locally. Until it was fine suture. I don’t quibble because it might have dated to the early 1950s, but I go “Hmm . . .” Then, in a funeral scene, the crowd fans with program cards. But I don’t recall such, at least around here, until the 1990s. Anachronisms? Beats me. But it threw me out of the story.

    • Yeah. And let’s talk strawberries. I used them in No Will But His to motivate the character (long story) but when it reverted and I came to publish it on my own, I didn’t REMEMBER my research (an additional point is that you really should type your research out and file it. I have mine in notebooks. About 100 notebooks, that cover everything and are in no order. Yeah.) So I said “were there strawberries?” I searched and the net was positive no, there weren’t. So I changed it to (imported) oranges. A year later, I found my research notes and traced the book I’d got the strawberries from (I apparently had exhaustively researched this) and then I went back to the net, through a different angle. Yes, there were strawberries.
      So, keep your research.
      BUT might strawberries throw someone out? Likely. You just CAN’T account for everything the reader thinks he/she knows.

      • I had a bad habit in school of just reading and never making research cards. Then, when I wrote the paper, I’d flip to where I found it and note the page. Didn’t work so well when doing a non-fiction booklet and I vowed never to do it again.

        Some research I did keep, though. Like trying to locate Tama. But my file cabinet is crammed full of stuff and . . .

        Well, it’s in better shape than my PDF files, which is just folders with info dumped in them.

        A request: Could you possibly point us to some place with research recording tips? Back in the 1970s it was all index cards. What’s the standard now? And is there something better?

        • Uh. I actually can’t. I used to use a scanning pen to keep stuff directly from books, but since I never organized it…
          Does anyone have suggestions?

          • Hmm… I was writing a reply outlining my own thoughts on what people might try, but then I realized that I was outlining a wiki. So I guess my suggestion is find a wiki service and populate it with your research.

          • Uncle Lar

            A dedicated archivist, be worth the cost.
            Just think, no more files that mysteriously vanish without a trace.

            • Sir, you don’t have the time!
              I need an assistant. HORRIBLY. But no gelt.

              • Martin L. Shoemaker

                Or not enough gelt. Not when you factor in government interference.

                You might have to adopt a new child to serve as an assistant.

              • Uncle Lar

                You are very lucky that I am a packrat and don’t throw anything away my fine young Portagee.
                And yes, much as the man was an idiot, he who shall not be named was correct in saying you need a minder. It’s just that there are so many things going on in that head of yours that things get lost in the shuffle.

          • No help here. I use Levenger’s note pads and take notes on those, write the citations down with the quote, and have margin notes with archive, file box, or other secondary identifying info. The top of the pages has sections for topic, subtopic, project, and page of notes. I usually add more, then store the pages in big three-ring binders with paper-board tabs. *leans over and counts* Five for non-fiction, plus a big plastic bag that is probably misc. notes or a book draft that I’m not going to look at. Oops, seven, because there are two in the end of the desk. Plus page markers on books that I own and have annotated.

            • I was thinking about a three-database system, with source; information; and keywords. One you entered a source in the source database, you enter the page and information in the information database and link to the bibliography and keywords databases. One immediate problem with that is you have to carry a laptop everywhere, or enter the information twice. Another is that it doesn’t address where to find the source, whether it’s in a special collection or in your file cabinet.

              Maybe it’s time to see what kind of open source software is out there before I try rolling my own.

          • Alan

            The path from random piles of stuff is, I think, through figuring out a taxonomy for the stuff — which I haven’t, yet, satisfactorily. I keep realizing that if I organize it this way, I won’t be able to find it searching by that parameter. And no time to create or maintain an exhaustive database.

          • TRX

            I use appropriately-named text files. They’re fast, simple, and free-form. If I need to include pictures I might use a word processor “document.” You can search across the directory with whatever tools your OS provides.

            Over the years there have been many “information management”, “knowledge base”, “outliner”, and “organizer” programs, but they all wanted me to take too much time to learn them while restricting me to doing things their way.

            • How, though, do you keep up with the text files? Serious question. I have some public domain PDF references scattered about. If I hadn’t had my Tama information in a special envelope, i doubt I could have put my hand on it the other day.

        • aacid14

          For stuff that is one page or that you keep the book, a photograph of the page in question can work. When I have to do photosurveys for work I take photo of identification of subject and then do what I need to. Could do same with cell camera and books.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        David Drake talks about the editors who objected to him saying Roman Shields were made of plywood.

        Note, plywood is “laminated wood” and Roman Shields were made of “laminated wood”. 😉

        • And Weber and Ringo revisited that point in the first of the Prince Roger novels, IIRC.

        • My husband used to drive his friends nuts by saying the Romans invented hamburgers. Then a few years after he graduated from college, there was a big story about Roman travel food, including ground beef patties in between bread.

          Now we use the term “Roman hamburger” for any thing that doesn’t sound true, but is completely true, like the fact that Mark Twain wrote about surfing.

      • aacid14

        Sometimes the truth isn’t what people have swallowed thru the sippy cup of popular culture. That is one area I will admit I wonder about from time to time. For example, in the real world when you see ambulances with what are intended to be ekg tracings, most of the time they mean nothing. But people see it and associate it with EKGs. Or if you write a story in NH and use the right 10 codes for police you confuse everyone (10-4 is repeat, 10-5 is received).

    • This is the problem with those who say “today’s kids” don’t need to memorize stuff in school because Google. You need a certain level of base knowledge to even begin asking Google certain questions.

      • Oddly, what caught my attention with the first was I’d been to the river in the story. Keyed on Muscle Shoals a moment later.

        The “water world” story threw up a flag because of the Fall Line and some half remembered trivia that it was beachfront property in the Cretaceous. While we all make mistakes, I felt that since this was a key part of the story, maybe the author should have done a quick check.

        • Yeah, not a minor detail like “the nazis in the Last Crusade are wearing medals that didn’t exist till 3 yrs after the quest for the Grail is supposed to have happened.”

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            My Dad commented on the German Jeeps used in the first Indiana Jones movie.

            Not only hadn’t the Jeep been invented yet, it was an American invention. 😀

            • aacid14

              MiG-28. Top Gun.

              • What got me in Top Gun was the way they sliced and diced San Diego. I could set aside my knowledge that the beachfront cottage was up in Oceanside (I was working in Oceanside when it was shot and had to detour around the area,) but his ride home left from a gate at 32nd Street, the hill was on First Street just north of downtown, the road he was on going past the end of the runway was a frontage road (that had been the main road in the 50s, before US-395) then somehow teleported over to I-5, which he had to do if he was going to get to ANY beach north of Miramar.

                (I also knew that the O Club in the movie was neither of the clubs that existed at the time because I had worked as a busboy at the Officer’s Club one summer. Yes, there was another O club in a Quonset near the flight line, but they actually built a fake club in another Quonset that was being used for storage. The kind of furniture and the atmosphere they got right for the bar, so that didn’t bother me.)

          • In the early 80’s TV show “Tales of the Gold Monkey” IIRC the pilot main character (his name escapes me at the moment) is supposed to be a veteran of the Flying Tigers but they hadn’t even been formed yet.

          • Joe in PNG

            The widespread use of MP-40’s in Indy’s world is also rather interesting.
            My favorite is Indy starting of a gunfight with a revolver, and then having it switch to a semi-auto after he shoots it.

    • I know that butterflies existed in 1959 because a Naval Hospital somewhere in the Bay Area put them on me when I fell against a sharp rock at the age of five and split my leg open. (Not sure which hospital it was, at that age it was just “The Hospital,” a place of dread to be avoided, no matter how much ice cream they fed me after taking out my tonsils the following year.)

  6. Pingback: Making it Real – How To do Targeted Research — madgeniusclub | Miller's Tales

  7. When I did “Big Blue” there was a lot of military stuff in it. I mean a lot. Some I could pull from my own experience but given the rather limited nature of my service, I needed a lot more.

    That’s where social media (and a really great set of friends) came in. I had kind of a general framework but when I needed something specific, I could go online and say “Hey, after the rest of the crew has abandoned ship, would it be possible for a single person on the bridge of an Arleigh Burke class destroyer to ‘drive’ it for a short time, particularly to aim it to ram at a slowly moving target?”

    And, soon, I would have answers, often well beyond what I needed for the scene, but that simply becomes grist for the general mill.

  8. Martin L. Shoemaker

    The flip side: UNtargeted research is a good source for story inspiration. I have had times where I didn’t like where the story was going next, so I started researching. Soon I found a fact that started the brain going again on a new course. Those stories went on to great success. Never would’ve happened without that unplanned research.

    But of course, you can’t plan on that.

    • I’ve grown to love YouTube, even though I’m more of a reader. You can look at all of it. That can inspire, but to save it, I write it up so it’s searchable.

      I just have one “notes” document per book, and I copy stuff into it in no particular order, because all I’m going to do is ctrl+F on particular terms when I’m looking for it.

      • Martin L. Shoemaker

        I’m not even that organized. My notes go at the end of the document. When I’m ready to use them in the book, I cut and paste them where I’m working, and then write the text that requires them. Then I cut them out.

        If I expect to need them again, then I leave them at the end until I do.

        • I’ll do that with shorter, legal pieces, but it feels too messy for longer documents. I don’t know why. Also, I want to keep the notes forever and usually regret it when I don’t. I’ve certainly regretted not saving links. You think you’ll find that liquefied mud video again when you need to discuss it with a beta reader, but noooooo…… You don’t.

          • The problem usually being that you don’t actually remember the name of the video, and it’s possible no one commenting on it calls it the same thing you do.

            • And one is apparently unable to replicate the original search terms. In the day job I keep my lists of search terms. I’ve started doing it for the fiction, too.

  9. Uncle Lar

    I love the authors I work with to death. They keep my life interesting with middle of the night e-mails or sometimes phone calls.
    Hey Uncle Lar, so-and-so needs to make an emergency trip to Portugal and he’ll need weapons. What would he carry, and how does he get it through security?
    Hey Uncle Lar, my steampunk aviatrix is building an airship in the 1890s. Can she use aluminum in the construction?
    Now the weapons question I answered off the top of my head. The one on aluminum took a couple hours of research. Interesting that before the modern day extraction processes were developed aluminum was actually more precious that gold. Napoleon III of France is reputed to have held a banquet where the most honored guests were given aluminium utensils, while the others made do with gold. But after about 1895 with the advent of the Hall-Heroult process that all changed and aluminum became a common construction material. So if that particular story ever gets written you know where that throw away tidbit came from.

    • Aluminum for aviation purposes soared even more with invention of duralumin, which were aluminum-copper alloys that are today referred to as the 2000-series alloys. 2024 is even referred to sometimes as the “aircraft alloy” given how much was used for that purpose. It was also common for the skins of classic aluminum travel trailers from the 1930’s through the 1970’s, such as those produced by Bowlus, Airstream, Streamline, etc. Modern Airstreams are produced from the less-shiny 3003 alloy, but the modern Bowlus is using shiny Alclad 2024 like in days of yore.

      • When I was working in the Production Control office at Reliable Castings, I remember seeing 2000-series alloys in some casting specs, but don’t remember which ones. Most of our castings were 900-series alloys.

      • Uncle Lar

        And of course Eugene Stoner in the late 1950s used his knowledge of aircraft construction to design a new light assault rifle using 7075 alloy for the receiver. Marketed by the Armalite Corp. as the AR-15 and adopted by the US military as the M-16.
        Aluminum has come a long way since the days of Napoleon’s dinner table.

        • Coincidence time: I was just wondering what kind of alloy was used in AR-10 and AR-15s. Why? A combination of thinking of melting soft drink cans to make a machine shop, realizing that extruded aluminum allot was going to have different characteristics than cast aluminum alloy, and knowing that AR10 and AR15 lowers are aluminum.

    • A while back, I translated a Danish story written in 1869 and published in 1870. The story was set in the far future year of 1969 and featured an airship built of aluminum. Best I can figure is that aluminum was fabulously expensive and the annual production was very small, but its lightweight properties were known at the time, so that detail was intended as one more marvel. (FLYING FISH “PROMETHEUS” by Vilhelm Bergsøe)

    • TRX

      I occasionally audit a forum called “Absolute Write.” There’s a subforum for people to ask general questions. Occasionally there’s something interesting, but most of them are disconcerting.

      Some questions show they obviously have no clue as to how to use a search engine, because typing a handful of keywords into google brings up a useful answer in the first hit.

      Many of the other questions show a fundamental disconnect between their universe and what’s laughingly called “the real world.” A lot of those seem to have the underlying assumption that all the world and all of history was pretty much like what they see on TV. Questions like that, all you can do is shake your head and click away.

      “Only Hindu gods have enough hands for adequate facepalm.”

      • In the first American History course I took in college, the professor started with the Crusades to lead into the Age of Exploration, and he asked if we knew the stated purpose of the Crusades.

        Some guy in the back said “To find the lost Chalice.”

        The look on the professor’s face was priceless.

    • Related to the development of the Hall-Heroult process, Alcoa was one of the first commercial customers for electricity from the Niagra Falls generating station. They realized that, now that they had a practical method to refine aluminum, they needed a lot of electricity to be able to produce aluminum in commercially significant quantities. And Westinghouse’s Niagra Falls project was going to produce electricity in abundance, far more than Edison’s little DC generators (Niagra Falls was one of the biggest reasons AC won the War of the Currents — because Nikola Tesla’s AC system enabled long-distance transmission, and the commercial markets were all down in NYC).

      • RCPete

        Edison’s ghost had his turn to laugh, though. The Pacific Intertie (Columbia River to Los Angeles) is DC. Turns out a long wire is a good antenna, and 60Hz over 1000-ish miles is more expensive due to electromagnetic transmission losses than using DC and whacking great inverters. I don’t do power well enough to guess at the crossover point for DC, but it could be argued that the USA would be better off with 50Hz than 60. (On the other hand, transformers have to be bigger at lower frequencies; WWII aircraft systems used 400Hz AC, because you could use smaller transformers. No idea what’s in use now.)

        • This is a good example of why we should keep research notes. I came across this issue doing GIC research, and all I can remember 60 Hz was one of those engineering decisions were you try to have a best fit for the circumstances. 60 Hz has the advantage of keeping clocks in sync, as long as they’re no blinks.

          Higher AC frequencies result in smaller transformers because the cores don’t need to be as large. Good savings of size and weight. The problem is that impedance increases along with AC frequency. So that 400 Hz in WWII aircraft is a best fit decision: smaller and lighter transformers trumped increased impedance.

    • The pyramid cap on top of the Washington Monument is made of aluminum. In the 1880s it was so valuable that it was on display for a time in Tiffany’s.

    • Alicia Ibarreta

      The Washington monument is topped by a small pyramid of aluminum- it was in the extremely expensive phase back then.

  10. Abebooks can be your friend. As can the internet archive book section and google books, though google pulled a lot of scans. Still it’s amazing what you find.

  11. Linked on the Starship Cat Blog, along with a link to a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago on the research process.

  12. RCPete

    I was thrown out of Michael Crichton’s Congo, circa early ’90s, when the Quest/MacGuffin was to find blue diamonds to use in electronics. Sorry, I know semiconductors well enough to know that natural blue diamond is more useful as jewelry than in an IC. (Diamond as a semiconductor is one of those things with a great future, just around the corner. It’s happening a bit faster than fusion, but…) He also had batteries made with Krylon. Eh? A spray paint brand name?

    I didn’t wall the book, but I didn’t keep it either. I hate that with hardbacks. Crichton’s talk on Gell-Mann amnesia was a bit bemusing, though.

    • TRX

      “The geologists were after what they called Type IIb diamonds. Each new sample was immediately submitted to an electrical test. The resulting conversations were beyond Kruger—talk of dielectric gaps, lattice ions, resistively. But he gathered that it was the electrical properties of the diamonds that mattered. Certainly the samples were useless as gemstones.”

      I dunno. That looks like adequate handwavery to me. No worse than “dilithium crystals” anyway.

      krylon-cadmium fuel cells.

      The web sayeth Krylon, Inc. was founded in 1947. Unless Crichton was making a snide comment about fuel cells (just around the corner, using absurd materials, any way now!) he dropped the ball on that one. Even if it was some kind of brain fart I would have expected one of his editors to flag it.

      • RCPete

        *reads the quote, and decides MC deserved some slack* OK, that’s appropriate hand-wavium; but I was in the “know too much about it” group (a rather small one, but when it takes a good part of your career life, it’s hard to keep that in perspective).

        OTOH, I rather liked several other novels he did.

  13. Joe in PNG

    The Atomic Rockets site ruined me regarding Stealth in Space.
    Hand wave a Star Trek cloaking device in a space opera? No worries.
    Try to go hard science and have stealth spaceships? Nope, I’m out of there.

    • Might be possible in two ways. One is recently discovered methods to allow light to pass around an object. That could prevent a spacecraft detection from occluding stars. The other is the whole premise of ST warp tech. Warp space around it, and it should exist in it’s own pocket universe. The problem then is how would they normally detect a ship in subspace, now a ship in warp can see outside the warp pocket, and how it differs from a Romulan cloaking device. Unless we handwave it to warping space in front of and behind it, and only a cloaking device does the full pocket effect.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        It’s more complex than that.

        Any space ship will be radiating heat (no matter what type of drive you have) and the only known way of preventing that would result in an over-heated crew.

        Of course that “heat” should be detected at great distances.

        • However, you CAN concentrate that heat into a comparatively small space and control which direction it is being radiated. Now, while the drive is in action, unless it’s a photonic drive, I can’t see how you could disguise it, unless you put out a neutral particle beam with homogeneous velocity and no vibrational or rotational energy in the particles, so that the particles don’t radiate or bump into each other.

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            Nod.

            Of course, there’s always the chance that an enemy scout is in the right place to spot your “direct heat” and would warn their main fleet. 👿

            • Alan

              Reasonable story line – scouts and intruders able to use cloaking, but only for relatively short periods b/c of heat accumulation – lengthened if heat can be emitted directionally (IR laser?) when passive sensors say there’s nobody to detect it in that direction. Creates a bias for using cloaking near local star, maybe.

        • Joe in PNG

          The Atomic Rockets link: http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/spacewardetect.php#nostealth

          Note, this place is a bigger time sink than TV Tropes (for SF Nerds, at least).

          • A lot of those objections to space stealth assume that there is a LOT of detection going on. If so, then you’re talking about being in an area that is so strongly secured that it would be unlikely that stealth on Earth would be successful, either. If you’re trying to sneak into a place that is not already super-secure, the odds of doing so successfully are much higher, just like they would be if you were trying to break into a suburban home vs breaking into Area 51.

            There are a lot of points to consider when stealthing your spaceship, however, but given a handful of the people who read here and at ATH, and a few weeks, I’ll bet we could come up with several things.

            For example, since a frequent refrain there was, “…and in the future, it would probably be better,” I can postulate that my neutral particle, homogeneous velocity drive exhaust mentioned above could exist. I didn’t see anything that would detect that, except anything that got actually struck by the exhaust. Then, if you can narrow your heat signature down to a very narrow cone (think laser), then again, the detection ship, or buoy, or whatever, would have to be directly in line with it. And they won’t convince me that the heat from the power plant can’t be shielded to prevent that hotspot that was mentioned in connection with such a heat radiation scheme.

            Then I’ve got shielding and reflective sails to work with, and fiber optic cameras/projectors to deal with occultation issues, and I’m sure I could think of more, but that’s from a few minutes thinking. They apparently haven’t had any real heavy thinkers trying to think of dodges for these things, based on what I read.

            • Joe in PNG

              Nicoll’s Law: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that any thread that begins by pointing out why stealth in space is impossible will rapidly turn into a thread focusing on schemes whereby stealth in space might be achieved.”

  14. And then there’s the examples where they got it so wrong but in a way that agrees with their politics that you know that for those writers their politics superseded verisimilitude.

    An example; last week on DC’s Legends show they had Einstein, who somehow knew how to build an atomic bomb rather than Oppenheimer, but then he says there is someone else who could build one so I assume for one fleeting instant that the credit will go as due. No. Apparently Einstein’s first wife was his uncredited but brilliant contributor to all of his early work and she (somehow) knew how to make an atomic bomb as well. At the end, the good guys win and Einstein decides to do the right thing and give his ex-wife credit for her work (implying strongly that she did most of it and he was mostly all hype).

    None of that is even remotely true. There is a conspiracy theory that states that but it was easily refuted and in order to know there was a conspiracy theory (which you’d have to if you wrote about it), you’d also have to know it was complete nonsense. But they wrote it anyway. Why? Because it fit with the kinds of stories and the kind of politics that those writers believe in. Rewriting history to give credit where it isn’t due and take it away from those who’ve earned it. Apologies for the rant but it’s just something that gets on my nerves.

    It pushes those who know the truth out of the story, and pushes those who don’t agree with the politics out of the story, serving no story purpose but serving a personal/political purpose.

    • There is a similar “theory” that Anne Shakespeare wrote the plays. Yes, I rolled eyes SO HARD.

    • Joe in PNG

      What about Leo Szilard? Or Hans Bethe? Niels Bohr? Enrico Fermi? Edward Teller? Robert Christy? Ring any bells? No, I guess they don’t know about those guys. That’s some of the absolutely worst lack of research I’ve ever heard of. 5 minutes of Wikipedia could have gotten you a whole lot close to the truth.

      Now if they wanted to be really clever, they could have mentioned some guy name Osterman…

  15. Bjorn Hasseler

    Yep, so much this. Not very many words yesterday because I was busy figuring out Swedish Colonel Gustav Sparre vs Brandenburg Colonel Ernst Georg von Sparr vs his cousin Colonel Otto Sparr. Naturally different sources spell the last names differently, and they all worked for more than one country over their careers.

  16. Somehow I hadn’t managed to “know” until today that St. Vincent de Paul was in the same part of history as the Three Musketeers. He was an old guy, but not that old. So yeah, Anne of Austria kept handing him diamonds and necklaces worth thousands of pounds, like his name was Buckingham, and was eager to listen to the adventures of Brother Pierre Renard, who had to avoid highwaymen to get almsmoney out to the provinces. And Richelieu and his niece both donated big money to help him start a hospital and convalescent home for galley slaves, in Marseilles.

    At one point, though, St. Vincent de Paul got super exasperated and cried out with tears in his eyes to Richelieu, “Monseigneur, give us peace! Have pity on us! Give peace to France!”

    Also, I didn’t realize that he was summoned to the deathbed of King Louis XIII, and stayed the whole week until he passed away. I don’t remember Dumas mentioning that stuff, but maybe I just didn’t read closely enough.

    • Bjorn Hasseler

      Ooooo, additional details on Vincent de Paul. Heh, in the 1632 series, the Catholic church in Grantville was named for him until they found out he was still alive. 🙂

      • Yeah, that was hilarious. And to give credit where credit is due, that’s when I started looking into him a bit, and found out about how he’d been kidnapped and temporarily enslaved by the Barbary pirates. (“Dear bishop, I have a really good reason I didn’t show up for the first day of seminary classes….”)

        But yup, I also didn’t read carefully enough. At the end of The Three Musketeers, Aramis says he’s planning to join “the Lazarists,” which was St. Vincent de Paul’s Mission priest guys.

        I forgot to say that Anne of Austria also put him on her “Council of Conscience,” a sort of regency council. He was appalled by the appointment, as was Cardinal Mazarin. Eventually Mazarin edged him out, but he got a fair bit done before that. (And duchesses threw stools at him in his shabby but excruciatingly clean clothes, and noblemen slapped his face. And he rode across flooded bridges on his crappy old horse.) Yup, it got exciting.

  17. I was just reminded of the Doctor Who movie set in San Francisco… but filmed in Vancouver. Little highly obnoxious things jumped out at me, like the surgeon’s Sausalito home being set on flat ground (Sausalito’s flat ground is approximately one block wide, backing onto very steep hills), or driving through a freeway “in San Francisco” with greenways. SF is about as urban as you can get, and even Golden Gate Park, which is quite verdant, has distinct styles of greenery that are unmistakably local. WHY would you take a place that has so many iconic features and then film in a way that makes it obvious that it was filmed elsewhere? Thank you, 1990s.