Friday, October 24, 2014


The Shadowhawk looks like this--only way cooler.

For this settings challenge we have to think outside the box, specifically a box that takes the shape of a starship in deep space.  That starship may be a sleek, glistening marvel of space engineering like the Enterprise, or it may be a scarred, battle-weary hulk like the Serenity, but essentially it’s a big tin can in the vastness of black that is space.  If your story is set on a starship, the ship itself is the very limited stage for your action.

First step, sharpen your pencil.  Because you’ll need to draw a picture of your starship, or maybe a few pictures.  What does it look like on the outside?   Saucer and nacelles?  Cobbled together like a flying slum?  What is the floor plan?  How do you get from one deck to the other?  Where are the engines, the cargo deck, Sickbay, crew and captain’s quarters, the bridge?  Where are the hiding places on your ship?  Its weak points?

You need to know your ship as intimately as any captain.  When I was writing STAR TREK fan fiction, I had a ship’s manual for the Enterprise that I used for reference (produced by some engineering-oriented fans with too much time on their hands).  As I was writing the third book in my Interstellar Rescue series, Fools Rush In, I sketched out the exterior and interior of Captain Sam Murphy’s Shadowhawk in as much detail as I could.  Since I’m a writer, not an artist, the sketches were rough, but they served to orient me as I set the action onboard and in the battle scenes with other ships.

Next, you’ll need to know how that ship will be getting around.  Its range determines the bigger canvas upon which your story takes place.  Are you just tooling around a single solar system, or does your ship jump from system to system within a sector of space?  Is the galaxy your oyster?  Okay, how many reference points do you use—planets, space stations, stars/star systems, jump nodes?  You know what’s coming next.  Yeah, you have to map them.

Now my map for Fools Rush In is even rougher than my ship drawings.  There is no “real” reference point, since the characters never visit Earth or any other place the name of which is familiar to us here on Earth.  (The naming part is significant.  Our astronomers have surely seen these places from Earth, but their referents are different.)  The wormholes, called “jump nodes,” by which my ship travels, are located on my map in relation to significant places my characters need to go.  I had to determine how long it takes to get from one jump node to another (the ship travels in ion drive between nodes), so I could determine how much time I had onboard ship for events to occur.

I write science fiction suspense romance, so I had plenty of things planned for my little voyage in space (besides space battles, which I’ll address in a minute), and still I felt trapped in my durasteel box as a wrote Fools Rush In.  What can be done when you face that problem?

Use the whole ship.  Make sure to set scenes all over to give the reader a sense of space where there is little.

Pay even closer attention than usual to pacing.  You can’t afford to wander aimlessly in description or irrelevant dialogue.  Important things have to happen with breathless velocity.

Tension must be maintained.  Both suspense and sexual tension must be heightened at every opportunity.  That doesn’t mean bodies dropping everywhere and the hero and heroine fighting constantly, but use every interaction to tighten the screws.

When all else fails, blow something up.  This is a trick learned from movie blockbusters, and I think it works if you have a hand for such things.  There’s nothing like a good space battle, on the page just as much as on the screen.  I got plenty of experience writing these when I did TREK fanfic, and the lingo serves just as well with other ships.  I just visualize those scenes—Kirk fighting Khan or the Klingons—and try to reproduce the feel of that bridge—the disciplined action, the taut orders, the controlled chaos, the sights, the smells.

Okay, so you’ve kept up the pace on your ship, you’ve blown stuff up, your hero and heroine are walking a razor’s edge and you’re only 150 pages into a 300-page novel.  (Of course, if you’re writing a novella, you’re home free.  Blessings on you.) Time to get off the ship.  It was STAR TREK’s answer, and it’s mine, too.  About this time in Fools Rush In, my heroine, Rayna, takes up her mission to infiltrate the slave labor weapons factory on the planetoid of Lin Ho (against the strong objections of her new lover, Captain Murphy).  Sam himself is soon captured by his former business partner for the bounty Sam will bring from Confederated Systems authorities (He’s a pirate, after all.) 

So the action moves to a broader stage for a while. The Shadowhawk is never far from the scene and returns as the major setting in the last quarter of the book.  She’s been gone just long enough for us to miss her.

Space opera noir--or is it just a visit from Dr. Who?
What, you ask?  No mountain roads?  No honky tonks in this book?  Well, no, but I do try to give my “dirtside” scenes a gritty NYC alley sort of feel.  For that reason I’d call Fools Rush In “space opera noir”, which couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been thinking outside the box.

Cheers, Donna

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Donna. For me, thinking outside the box is half the fun of writing SFR. Unusual settings, innovative tech, the mystery and majesty of space or an alien landscape--there's so much fuel for the imagination in our genre.


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