Writers in the Storm

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January 17, 2014

How is Writing A Futuristic Novel Like Writing A Historical?

By Sharla Rae

medium_4548283177medium_4685143595All writers have things about thAll writers have things about the writing business we fear. One that comes to mind is submitting our work to an agent or editor for the first time. Well maybe the second and even the third time, too.

But there's another fear that isn't discussed much.

Switching genres.

Being a historical writer I had plenty of arguments for not even trying to write a futuristic. For one thing, I’ve always thought of historicals and futuristics as polar opposites. Many of my historical and futuristic friends agree.

But I’m also a huge fan of Star Trek and Star Wars as well as futuristic romance. For years, I’ve been gnashing my teeth to write one. But it was too darn scary.

By chance, I had the opportunity to talk to an author who writes both genres. I pounced on the poor woman. She laughed at my fears, saying “Writing a futuristic is writing a historical set in the future.”  

What did she mean? And assuming she’s right, why did I still not dare to go where this historical alien has never gone before? What was holding me back?

For that matter, what prevents so many futuristic writers from writing historicals? Okay, you might legitimately answer the market demands, but we’re talking genres here.

I love historical research as much as I love the writing. I can and have published my historical novels. It’s safe. So right away I know I have to get past the scary stuff.

Some of my futuristic author friends say the reason they can’t write historicals is because they hate research. “We can just make everything up,” they say.

Wait a minute!

Don’t you have to know some scientific stuff? There has to be a little learning curve, right? I was beginning to see a flaw in the “no research” statement but I let it go. I had scarier stuff to worry about.

Who am I to write a futuristic? I’m no rocket scientist. I can barely run the DVD player. Um, okay, I don’t run it all.

Wait a minute!

The futuristic romances I read aren’t all space labs and huge words. And if they were . . . bor-r-r-ing! Another flaw in my thinking? Definitely. After all, just because I researched and wrote about loading a six-shooter doesn’t mean I’m an expert at it. Um, never have done it actually.

And then there’s the lingo. I know Old West vernacular. I practically grew up with it, but when it comes to futuristic speak . . .

Wait a minute!

I have Star Trek manuals on species and space ships, and few for Star Wars too! [I warned you that I’m a huge fan.] Hmm. I even have a book called Astronomy & Space Science, a Harper Collins dictionary/glossary of terms.  Did someone say no research? I’m used to research and this is beginning to sound fun to this old die-hard historical researcher.

How can historical characters and their lack of modern technology possibly equate to spaceman technology?

Wait a minute!

What about the six-shooter I mentioned above? At one time, it was as ground-breaking as a flying car of the future. And I do have all those futuristic manuals to spur my imagination.

But, um, I still have to give my futuristic plot that special Sci-Fi flavor. That means some world building, installing a culture.

Wait a minute!

Culture includes lingo and technology. Got that covered. Then there’s government/law. Hey, on Earth there are more different types of governments than you might realize. Pick one. Knowing and understanding how they operate is all I need to know. Also, I’ve made up historical towns and even built a world around them. Religions? I can pick one or not, depending on the story.

Hey! I can world build!

It helps that I’ve read Fae Rowen’s futuristic blogs, World Building Part I and Part II as well as her WriterStrong blog, World Building Techniques. And then there’s that Writers digest book in my library, Writers Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe.

What about characters and emotional stuff? I know what historical characters went through on a day to day basis, their problems and reasoning. But what do people of the future think about? Worry about? What makes them tick?

Wait a minute!

People of the past were risk takers, adventurers, and explorers, always wanting to improve their condition. Think wagon trains, Lewis & Clark, etc. No one can say “space travel” or “universe” without equating futurisitic characters to all of the above! It’s not the people that are so different; it’s just the place and time!

Next excuse, please. Plots?

Forget the “wait a minute.” This one’s easy. All genres have some form of the same basic 7 plots, the quest, voyages & return, hero’s journey, overcoming the monster, love, revenge, comedy, etc. That’s a comfort, right? Okay, you might argue that the story still requires the futuristic flavor. Not a problem. Just read all of the above.

Note to futuristic writers: You lied! Scared me for nothing! I can research “all” this shit. And it’s really no big deal. I’ve done most of this  when I wrote historicals! And furthermore, you can too write historicals. You might start with my blog: Researching the Historical Novel because, face it, you know how to do a lot of research too.

So how about the rest of you out there in the writing universe? Did I make a good case for how alike these two genres are? Anything to add?

Wanna fight about -- er, discuss it?

About Sharla

Sharla Rae

Sharla has published three historical romance novels: SONG OF THE WILLOW, LOVE AND FORTUNE, and SILVER CARESS. SONG OF THE WILLOW, her first solo effort, was nominated by “Romantic Times Magazine” for best first historical.

When she’s not writing and researching ways to bedevil her book characters, Sharla enjoys collecting authentically costumed dolls from all over the world, traveling (to seek more dolls!), and reading tons of books. You can find Sharla here at Writers In The Storm or on Twitter at @SharlaWrites.

photo credit: Mondo Tiki Man via photopin cc
photo credit: williamcho via photopin cc

28 comments on “How is Writing A Futuristic Novel Like Writing A Historical?”

  1. Hi, Sharla Rae! OMG, this is so me...I write historical mysteries, and yet I'm a total Star Trek geek. When I would contemplate writing a sci fi story, I'd think all these same things! I don't even read much in the way of sci fi, but I love Asimov's short stories and novellas, and Ursula LeGuin. Before reading your post, I was thinking all of the same things: historical and scifi are diametrically opposed, I'm not equipped to do it, and so on.

    But now, you've given me a lot to consider! Thanks for a fab post. 😀

  2. Oh and we can't forget Catherine Asaro. She's straight Sci Fi with just a titch of relationship in the mix. It's nice to know I'm not alone out there K. B. 🙂 I've written one chapter and am hoping for the best.

  3. Anytime you have a story set in a different time/place/world, it's all about world building and doing just enough research to get the flavor of the setting and how it affects the characters. Historical, sci fi, paranormal, fantasy, futuristic, etc are all about world building. For that matter, even most modern-day novels need some world building whether that world is a hospital or the Navy SEALs or a police station or a mansion in Paris. Basically, you have characters who won't be that different in each era or place--it's called human nature. They just all have slightly different problems to face by injustice, prejudice, tyranny, etc are age-old problems. So, yeah, genre switching can be scary, but once you break it down to it's most basic elements, the stories aren't that different.

    The real problem with switching genres is branding, website, etc. That can be daunting.

  4. You've hit the nail on the head with the branding. I need to set up a website but I don't want to brand for only one genre. It's too limiting.

  5. Sharla, I am of a mind that what we call futuristic is actually history repeating itself. Think of the opening lines of Star Wars ..." A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away." George meant us to accept that Star Wars was not in the future, but in another galaxy, it had already happened.

    That and that planet earth is either God's joke or it's where folks are sent when they mess up elsewhere 🙂

    1. I never thought of that but you are right! What fun! When I think about it, a writer can take a piece of our history and set in the future very easily. Different weapons, vehicles etc. but the story is the same.

  6. Those of us who were pioneers in the market defined the futuristic as a historical novel in space. As far as plot and characters went, both were very similar. Only the worldbuilding was different. The science fiction romance, however, wasn't an equal substitution because the novel couldn't be written in any historical period.

    Good things to remember are that TV and movie science fiction isn't the same thing as literary science fiction. If you don't read science fiction, then you have a very good chance of alienating those readers who do because they do know the difference. The tired tropes of TV/movie are also off-putting. They toss your book across the room or delete it when you call an energy weapon a phaser (STAR TREK universe only) or make a simple science error.

    If you write a futuristic, it's always a good idea to have a science-geek friend to vet your science and a regular reader of science fiction to tell you where you've screwed up.

  7. Even writing historicals I'll see distortions of the truth in movies and on TV. If the distortion is really bad, yes, I want to throw a book at them. Then the story is a farce.

    There are a differences between book written by Asimov and Asaro over what romance writers write. These are scientists writing fiction. I've read both and would encourage all futuristic romance writers to read them, not because they want to emulate but to understand where a scientist's imagination took them within their scientific knowledge.

    Having a space scientist for a friend isn't likely for most of us. BUT-- If any of us do have a question that demands interviewing a real scientist, there are space museums we can refer to. With historicals I have often resorted to museums all over the country and have found many times the people involved in the museums have actually written books on my topic or can put me touch with the authorities on the subjects. I have visited a couple of space museums and I think they will prove very useful by way of real people who can answer questions and their book stores.

    I implied in my blog, writers "do" have to research and it's been pointed out that even writing a contemporary, we need research. But we don't want that research to be more important than the the story itself esp in Sci fi. Most times, my research does not appear in my books at all. It does, however, prevent writing something so stupid that the reader throws the book across the room. 🙂

  8. Thanks so much for this piece. I'm an unpublished writer and none of my stories seem to fit within a specific genre that I can think of, which is one of the things that puts me off continuing past a certain point - or sharing. This was a very timely piece - thank you.

  9. Honoria, Try to join a critique group. When it comes to writing a "good" crit group will keep you on the straight and narrow o so many levels.

  10. Great post, Sharla. I write in both genres, started with futuristic and sci-fi romance, then graduated to writing medieval fantasy. Not so far from each other, since one of my futuristic series features a planet in a medieval stage of development. Of course, aliens come on the scene... But I find many similarities in world building. A mix of research, logic, and extrapolation. Creating people forged by their environment, their beliefs, their upbringing. The human saga is the same no matter what the time or technology, and human feelings have not evolved much. Good and evil, love and hatred, compassion and greed. No matter how much we "evolve" these do not change much. Unfortunately. I believe they are imprinted in our DNA.
    Thanks for a great post.

    1. Thanks Vijay. I'm a new at changing genres so I'm sure those of you who have done it could add a lot more. But I think no matter "what" we write, it's the craft rules that come into play and those don't change. That's what I had learn in order to overcome my fear of changing genres. 🙂

  11. One of the wonders of the Internet is that it is fairly simple to find a scientist or an expert.

    I've not kept up with the resources and experts for science fiction writers, but in the mystery genre, there are sites and listservs run by cops, forensic scientists,etc., where a writer can ask a question, and an expert will answer. I'm sure there are similar sites for sf. If I were looking, I'd start with locus.com and the SFWA blog.

    One of the caveats I'd put out about the futuristic is that there is no market for them with the big publishers since the late and unlamented Leisure died. You will either have to find a small online publisher or self-publish.

    One exception is sf erotica.

  12. I'm hoping the markets will change Marilynn. With movies like Gravity and the latest Star Trek, we can hope they start a new craze. But as always I it's the chicken or the egg coming first question. Maybe it will just take one great book to change the marketing outlook.

  13. You make some wonderful points. I have several problems with most 'futuristic' romances, and the idea that you can just "make stuff up" is one of them. Too many futuristic writers are basing what they write on sci-fi movies and television, so they just recycle those plots & characters. Virtually every time I read a futuristic story, I find myself thinking, "Yep, this is a 'Star Wars' rip-off. This is a 'Firefly' rip-off. Oh, hey, a "Battlestar Galactica" rip-off!" *Yawn*

    I read both historical fiction and science fiction, and I expect both to be accurate. If they're not, I usually don't finish them.

    If it's futuristic romance, the plot emphasis should be on ROMANCE. Too many of these books are just science fiction stories with romance as a handy plot element. In romance, the main conflict and subsequent suspense should be between the hero and heroine: will they be able to overcome whatever keeps them apart & find their happy-ever after? Futuristic romance often focuses on OUTWARD conflict between the evil gov't-mastermind-corporation, etc, and as a result, there's no real spark between the hero and heroine! The romance should come first, but it usually doesn't.

    The main thing holding back the futuristic romance genre is the poor writing. Not long ago, I read a blog by a futuristic writer who asked, "How can we attract more readers to the genre?" Her suggestion was to design more romantic covers. Personally, I believe the way to attract a larger readership is to write better books. If a book is well written, anyone can read and enjoy it, even if it's not mainstream. Books like the Harry Potter series, Gabaldon's Outlander series, and "The Time Traveler's Wife" are proof of that. If you write a really great book, people will read it. And writing a really GREAT book means making sure all the elements are strong: plot, characters, GMC, and accuracy.

    The fact that so many read futuristic romance, even when it's not very good, is proof that there's a market out there. If we start holding this genre to the same standards of composition that other genres maintain, then futuristic will become a very profitable market. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to reach that point. Articles like this one will surely help.

    1. You put into words what I hadn't thought about, Kaye. Since my "day job" is a "hard scientist" I am very picky about the SF and futuristic romance authors I read. I didn't realize that, although I am willing to "bend" physics in an alternative universe, there are things I just won't buy, like inconsistent realities. And you're right, there are not nearly enough good, let alone great!, SF romance authors to choose from.

      1. I absolutely agree Kaye. I don't plan to write straight Sci Fi. I'll leave that to better scientific minds but am working on a futuristic romance. Romance readers want to be able to suspend disbelief but are most interested in the relationship. So my research, I hope will keep me out of hot water with the purists but the science is only a small part of the story. Reading the straight sci fi novels though, esp. written by the scientists, I think does give a new futuristic writer an idea of boundaries.

  14. Great post, Sharla, as always! You've taken the fear out of trying to write a different genre, whether sci-fi, paranormal or whatever. Thank you for your insight.

  15. I write futuristic and historicals all the time. In fact, I prefer anything other than contemporary, regardless of which direction on the timeline it flows (forward, backward, sideways...). It's not just the research (which I love), but the consistency within the worldbuilding that makes it work.

    When writing Science Fiction, I incorporate details that are, at best, theoretical. But as long as I can make it sound plausible, my readers are happy to suspend their disbelief.

    It's the Otherworldliness I enjoy, to explore a world/culture/life that is very different from my own. (Can you tell I have a penchant for escapist fiction?)

  16. Great post! After plenty of research I finally overcame my fears and began working on my first historical (western). I have always been a big fan of sci fi too and you've given me some great thoughts to consider.

  17. Great arguments, but one minor quibble. I've written historical mystery novels and short stories. I then tried my hand at a short science fiction story. It took me half as long to write the latter, even including the time I spent checking the science. I had no worry that I would get a letter, or ten letters, taking issue with the (period) clothing I used in the SF, or the food, or the breed of animal, or politics, or etc. I would argue that there's far more freedom in SF writing than in historical writing if you as an author want to present the past as accurately as possible.

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