Writing Excuses 7.32: Astronomy 101 for Writers


The featured guest this week is Eric James Stone, who recently received a Nebula Award for his detailed work that focuses on analog. Translation: he’s the expert the group goes to when it comes to astronomy and its effects within a story’s framework. An added bonus to his repertoire is his recent visit to NASA’s Launchpad workshop.  This workshop focuses on how the moon and rotation of the planet make it habitable for a civilization. It is a good research tool for sci-fi writers, when they are essentially creating life in a solar system far, far away.

The best example they used was Earth. I have not been an avid follower of sci-fi, mainly because I am a fantasy reader through and through. Luckily, the group — catering to their eclectic audience — gave information that I could understand on the 101 level. The first example that caught my interest was their theory of moons and how they affect tides. As a writer, it is always good to know the science behind something, and the moon we have helps predict tides for fisherman. The effects of tides in creation of continents and habitats are also key brainstorming cornerstones in creating alternate worlds.

There is another interesting segment that involved the words “habitable zones.” These zones are best identified by water sources. If there is a degree shift in either direction, toward  freezing or evaporation, water becomes a non-entity. This destroys the potential for planetary habitation. What allows water to stay in its liquid form? Planetary orbits around the sun/gaseous giant and axle tilts along with the stellar life cycle (translation: weather results from both of these factors) create the perfectly flawed necessity for life to emerge from the sludge of creation.

What happens if there are two suns? What happens if there is more than one moon? What happens when the planet has a longer axial rotation? Is a figure eight configuration around two gaseous planets still able to create a habitable zone for characters? These questions and more are answered in the podcast’s 15 minutes. Many are accompanied by examples of successfully accurate solar configurations. George R. R. Martin’s “winter is coming” saying shows the medieval culture exists within the island of Westeros, which differs from the gaudy cities ‘In the East,’ as a result of weather ultimately ruining chances of advancement in technological inventions. The simplistic view that weather dictates the growth patterns of a culture is exactly what the group is conveying to be an essential focal point for any author as they begin to create their world.

Nearing the end of the podcast, the group admits that their knowledge, though extensive, cannot be passed on in one sitting. Therefore they give the audience links to educational sites which, if pursued, will give any author the ability to construct a believable setting.


Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss, narrated by Christopher Slade

Writing Prompt: Your colonists are going to a world whose axial tilt is different from Earth’s. How are the seasons different?

Editor’s Note: Linda K Strahl is a transfer student from University of Wisconsin- La Crosse, where she was studying Archaeology and minoring in Creative Writing. She came to Lewis University in Fall of 2010 to major in Creative Writing. She is at the moment, considering application to a Master Program in Creative writing, after she graduates.

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