The Death [of a] Star

Writing means learning, because “write what you know” only gets you so far. And so that means research.

Do you know how a supernova works? It’s one possible way a star’s life can come to an end—a violent, catastrophic, glorious end. That much I know. But beyond that…

So over the last few days, doing research has meant all sorts of fun exploring astronomical phenomena having to do with novae and supernovae, including gamma bursts, accretion disks, star clusters, pulsars, binary systems, even the “Chandrasekhar mass limit”—a term I will not be using in my prose. After all, I’m a novelist, not a physicist!

Getting back down to earth, it’s also meant learning about various forms of energy production, as well as flight technology (or the lack thereof in an otherwise modern society—which is turning out to be a bit of a trick to make plausible). And very much back down to earth, I’ve been reading up on epidural hematomas (a kind of traumatic brain injury), since I have a character who—well, that would be a spoiler, wouldn’t it.

A word to the wise: it’s not enough to rely on google and wikipedia, as helpful as they are, especially when it comes to highly technical matters like medicine or astrophysics (which kind of is rocket science). So that means calling in the experts. And that’s where it really gets fun: talking (or at least emailing) with friends who know all sorts of things that I sure don’t about such topics.

And no doubt about it: it’s worth it.

  • I’ve learned more about how cultures develop energy sources from a single paragraph in an email from a friend than I ever did in twenty-two years of formal education. (Granted, I studied music and theology, although I’m pretty sure I got an A in “Rocks for Jocks”—I mean, Geology 101—back in my college days… not that it helped me understand mining or the importance of hydrocarbons in starting an industrial revolution…)
  • I’m getting closer to nailing down the workings of a significant stellar event that occurred prior to the start of the story. This part is taking some doing; just like writing the darn thing means multiple drafts, so I’ve gone through multiple versions of what exactly happened in the past and how it’s all playing out during the time of the story.
  • That business with the epidural hematoma? Thanks to a tip from a friend in the medical world, figuring out how that works means I should be able to sidestep the tired trope of the character who is mortally wounded but manages to talk and talk and talk, conveniently offering up their significant story revelations before expiring (like the coloratura soprano who sings beautifully and delicately—and for a seeming eternity—as she lies dying on the stage).

All this means I’ve been doing more reading and studying and pontificating than actual writing lately. But the research is worth it, right? And yet we can all point to huge scientific errors and implausibilities and plot holes and general sloppiness in books and movies and TV shows that we love—in spite of the fact that TIE Fighters wouldn’t really make that awesome sound as they zoomed by… So is it really worth it? Or should I just pretend there’s sound in space, make that supernova behave however I want it to, and let my dying character hang on as long as the plot requires?

Well, if nothing else, I appreciated reading this from my personal physics answer-man:

“As for your questions, congrats… you’ve already performed more due diligence than JJ Abrams did for either Star Wars or the Trek reboot. Watching the astrophysics in those just makes my teeth hurt…”

So yeah, it’s worth it.

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