One of my best friends wants to write her first science fiction novel. She’s been thinking about it for years, and recently she texted me saying, “I’m overwhelmed by how much I don’t know about the moon and space! Did you feel this way about time travel, even though it’s more fiction-based? If so, how did you go about overcoming it?”
That was an interesting question to answer because on the one hand, I did have a lot more freedom in how to depict time travel in Fellow Travellers precisely because time travel does not exist. I did some research on how time travel has been depicted in literature, what “rules” of time travel have been used in the past, but I wasn’t compelled to follow any specific physical laws.
There were several other things besides time travel that did require more precise research. Little historical details had to make sense based on when the time travellers were time travelling. Geographical and climate details about the region around Nanda Devi National Park where Bindra was raised had to be at least passably accurate. But the thing that had me “overwhelmed” by how much I didn’t know had nothing to do with time travel at all—it was the train crash.
The plot of Fellow Travellers revolves around a train and whether or not it crashes in 1984, and in writing the book I started to realize I didn’t know anything about train crashes. I’ve never even been on a train. This wasn’t a huge problem when I was drafting the book and I didn’t ever expect it to be published, but as soon as we started developmental editing it was clear that the gaps in my train knowledge were a problem. But this was a research problem, and research problems can be fun to solve.
I’ve learned that the first step to solving a research problem is figuring out where the most accessible/applicable answers are likely to be. If I just Google “train crash,” I’m going to get a lot of answers but most of them are not applicable (because they’re recent, and my train is running in 1984) or they’re not accessible (because they’re from news sources, which might be behind a paywall or might lack detail). So from the beginning I decided I would go to my favorite source of accessible/applicable answers—the United States Government.
The National Transportation Safety Board is responsible for investigating transportation disasters, and because the NTSB is a US government entity, their reports on rail disasters are open to the public. From their reports on train crashes from around the same era as mine, I was able to put together a more believable chain of events and include more bureaucratic details to enhance the realism of the government disaster reports my characters would be reading.
So that helped solve one problem, but I still had difficulty describing the interior of the train and how my characters would move through it—and particularly the control compartment of the train’s locomotive—because again, I’ve never been on a train and my experience with what they look like on the inside is limited to that one sequence in White Christmas.
I was saved in this problem when I learned that some people in this world are train simulator enthusiasts and will sometimes post videos of their train simulators on YouTube. In terms of needing to know the exact interior design of a Dash 8 locomotive, YouTube is a surprise treasure-trove (I decided to invent a locomotive, which I call the DMX90, for the purposes of Fellow Travellers, but I based its design almost entirely on the Dash 8).
Research as a practice is endlessly fascinating to me, and this is just one example among many I hope to detail in this blog. But the point I want to end on is that one needn’t feel overwhelmed by how much one doesn’t know. No matter how obscure you think your question is, the answer can likely be found, whether in reams of government disaster reports or among the YouTube channels of train simulator enthusiasts.