Enhance your fiction using research and facts - Authors A.I.

Alessandra Torre
April 19, 2024

In a recent First Draft Friday podcast episode, I was joined by bestselling near-future science fiction author Douglas E. Richards to discuss incorporating facts into your fiction. Doug is one of the founding authors of Authors A.I. and is one of our strongest backers.

Here are some key takeaways from my conversation with Doug:

  • Embrace research as a foundation: He believes thorough research is the foundation of any well-crafted story. Dive deep into your subject matter!
  • Stay curious and open-minded: Cultivate a curious mindset and remain open to learning new things. Doug encourages writers to explore various topics beyond their comfort zone, drawing inspiration from fields such as science, technology and history.
  • Integrate facts organically: Avoid the trap of info-dumping by integrating factual information into your narrative in a natural and seamless manner. Let the story dictate when and how to introduce facts, weaving them into dialogue, character backgrounds and descriptive passages.
  • Balance fact and fiction: Strive for a delicate balance between factual accuracy and creative storytelling. While facts lend credibility to your narrative, don’t be afraid to exercise artistic license when necessary to enhance drama and suspense.
  • Consult experts and seek feedback: Reach out to experts in relevant fields to gather insights and ensure the accuracy of your writing.
  • Be mindful of readers’ expectations: Consider your target audience’s expectations and preferences when incorporating factual details. Whether writing for diehard science fiction fans or casual readers, tailor your approach to meet their level of expertise and interest.

It was a great discussion, one you won’t want to miss! Click below to watch our 30-minute recording and hear the questions we answered from the live audience. (Doug chose to do audio but not video for his appearance.) Keep scrolling if you’d prefer to read the transcript.

More info:

Try out Marlowe, our A.I., for a critique of your novel: authors.ai/marlowe/

Check out Douglas E. Richards’ books on BingeBooks.

Enjoy the show? Check out our past First Draft Friday episodes.


Alessandra: Hello everyone. And welcome to First Draft Friday. I am your host Alessandra Torre with Authors AI. And today I am joined by Douglas E. Richards, who is a bestselling sci-fi thriller author. And we are going to be talking all about using facts in your fiction. So welcome to the show, Doug. It’s great to have you here. Do you want to introduce yourself to the audience?

Douglas: Yeah, thanks, Alessandra. It’s nice to be here. As Alessandra said, I write near-future thrillers is what I call them. So science fiction, but kind of set on earth in the near future; kind of like what Michael Crichton used to do. And in fact, I use a lot of factual information. It’s hard science fiction, meaning you use a lot of science facts. And so, today I’m going to talk about not just for science fiction, but for all genres, kind of how to go about that and why that might be important.

Alessandra: So before we jump into that, can you give us a little bit of your history? Did you write science fiction or near science fiction from the very beginning?

Douglas: Yeah. I have a master’s in molecular biology. I was going to get a Ph.D., but I was horrible at lab work, and I have an MBA, and I worked as a biotech executive for many years. And then I had a novel Wire that I wrote in my spare time when I was an executive and it became a New York Times bestseller, so I left biotech to write full time. So now I’ve written like 18 or 19 novels, and they’re all pretty much the same thing. They’re technothrillers or, you know, near-future science fiction thrillers.

Alessandra: So when we’re talking about using fact and fiction, your facts are deep, I’m assuming. How much of what you write, you pull off of your background and what you know, and how much research are you doing for the novels that you write?

Douglas: A ton of research. I mean, the first one was kind of biotech oriented, but after that I got into things that are way beyond my education. I guess the message that I would say to any writer is that human beings like to be challenged. They like to have their minds expanded. I mean, when we were in school, a lot of us rebelled because it was kind of shoved down our throats, but we like to learn and we’re very curious by nature. So if you can throw in facts and information, and if you look at guys like John Grisham, I mean, why was he so successful writing about trial lawyers? Because people knew when they read his stuff that he had actually done this. And so, he had a lot of authenticity to what he was writing, and you knew when he said stuff that that was kind of how it really was, and wow, this is cool.

You and I, when we’re watching a show on Netflix, how often are we going to Google? Like some character brings up an interesting esoteric factoid, and we go, holy heck, is that true? Do mosquitoes actually do xyz, and you look it up. So I think mindblowing stuff is good for science fiction, but not just any facts. I just watched the Terminal List with Chris Pratt. It’s on Amazon Prime and this is written by a guy named Jack Carr and he’s a Navy Seal. He was a Navy Seal for many years, and he writes about Navy Seals. So it’s like really cool because you’re watching and you know this is like real stuff. I mean, obviously it’s fictionalized, but you know a lot of it is true.

That applies if you’re writing hard science fiction, but you could do that in any walk of life. I mean, you can research – and if you’re a romance novelist, for example. You know, I would encourage romance novelists to research — there’s a lot known about human sexuality. What makes us tick? Why are we aroused by things that we’re aroused by, you know? If people are into S and M why are they into S and M? What’s the psychological reference to that? And you don’t have to use all the information you learn, but it does help color how you present stuff.

I studied psychopaths at length. I read a whole book on psychopathy because a lot of my villains are psychopaths and it really helped me understand. I mean, there’s fascinating stuff that you can incorporate into your novels. One percent of the population are psychopaths. I mean, they’re not all Hannibal Lector. You can see a psychopathy using an MRI. It’s actually physiological. There are really changes in people’s brains. Psychopaths, they have different brains than normal people. They have no empathy, you know, they’re totally cold and calculating, and they’re like wolves and see the rest of us as sheep. And it helps to understand how they operate when you write about them. And so, as a romance novelist, you can write about maybe somebody’s into S and M, you know, the more you can understand kind of the science behind it, and then you can introduce like interesting facts and scientific — slip it in. I mean, you don’t have to beat people over the head with it, which is what I do, but I think it really can help.

Alessandra: And you can use it both to strengthen your world and make it more realistic, but also, do you get plot ideas from your research?

Douglas: Oh, that’s a great question. I’m actually glad you asked that. You do. I mean, that’s the amazing thing in today’s world research is so easy. I mean, it’s still a pain. I mean, you still have to really work hard at it, but you’ve got Google and you’ve got the Internet, you know, obviously there are a lot of books. And as a backgrounder, I think everybody who writes should read books or do research on human nature, human psychology. I mean, just get an understanding of confirmation bias. Just general kind of common things that we as humans do to try to help you understand emotions and ourselves. But you know, especially with hyperlinks, I mean, you can research an area and you say, oh, wow. And you just click on another link that’s inside something you’re reading, and you’re off on another tangent, but the more you can kind of throw stuff into your brain, you know, your subconscious kind of puts it all together.

I have this really good example. So I wrote a book called The Enigma Cube. My idea was I wanted to write a book about what if you could control gravity. I mean, it’d be really cool. You could make something, you know, a trillion pounds and nobody could lift it. You could crush a tank like a tin can, if you could point a gravity ray, right? Or you could have a whole army, you point ray that reverses gravity and they float to the sky. So if you could control gravity, there are a lot of possibilities. You could use it as a weapon, you know, what would that mean? So I’m doing all this research and suddenly I stumble upon the fact that Nazi Germany was studying anti-gravity in 1940. And I’m thinking, what the hell? How is Nazi Germany…? And then the more I read, I found that they were obsessed with the occult and super weapons in Nazi Germany. So like the Raiders of the Lost Art kind of stuff-that wasn’t made up. Yeah, Hitler was really into that weird occult stuff. And the more I read about it, you know, like the whole German army was on speed. I mean, they were on crystal meth and when they did their blitzkrieg, they were all on crystal meth. They didn’t sleep for three days, no wonder they could do a blitzkrieg.

So I thought this is really fascinating stuff. So I said, you know what I’m going to do; I’m going to have a character back in World War II write a journal about some of this stuff so I could introduce this cool information in the book and bring up that they studied. And then it became so interesting, I said, I’ve got to link the two, you know, the stuff I’m writing in the present and the stuff in World War II. And then more research, you know, one thing you can do with gravity, if you could control gravity. Gravity really is a dent in space time. So gravity actually impacts space time; that’s what it does. And space and time – so you could actually, if you could control gravity, there’s very reasonable scientific … Yeah, you could control, you could do time travel. I mean, controlling gravity could lead you to time travel. And I discovered that, and I thought, holy heck, I started off with crushing tanks and floating them in the air. Now I’ve got a story about Nazi Germany, the occult, and linking it — and time travel, so they go back to Nazi Germany. I didn’t know it was going to be a time-travel novel. I had no idea Nazi Germany was going to be in it. I had no idea any of this stuff. But again, you know, it just kind of organically grows out of making sure you do the research.

Alessandra: So let’s back up for a minute. So when you’re looking at The Enigma Cube and you’re doing all of this research, is all of this research happening as you’re writing the book, or you’re doing all of this research in prep?

Douglas: Both. When you come up with a premise, I mean, at least for me, and whatever it is, I mean. If your premise is a romance in Italy, learn about Italy. I’m not trying to say that I’m introducing some amazing stuff here, but you want to research and learn as much and let it kind of take you and give you ideas. But then throughout, I mean, every time you start a scene and you have a new location, new stuff happening, you know, learn about stuff.

Alessandra: So how do you balance that research though? There are so many authors we have that never finish that first draft, right? And research can be such a tempting mistress in terms of pulling away from our writing, so how do you balance that? Are you writing a scene and you stop and you do research, or do you put placeholders in, or you try to do most of your research before? How do you balance all of that?

Douglas: I kind of do it really haphazardly. I mean, there’s no rhyme or reason. When I get to a section where I think I really don’t know anything about this, I mean, I got to a place where I wanted them to be in an abandoned town somewhere in the world. And so, I had no idea where in the world I wanted my characters to be in an abandoned town. So I thought, well, why are towns abandoned? You know, what makes a ghost town? So I’ll do some research, you know, ghost towns, abandoned towns. Then I found out that if you mine something out, you move a town around.

Alessandra: The purpose of the town has gone.

Douglas: Yeah. Yeah, so that can happen. And then I thought, well, you know, what’s like the big thing to mine right now; lithium, because of batteries, you know, everything’s batteries. Then I did research on who are the top lithium producers in the world. Who’s got the most lithium in their countries? It’s China, it’s Argentina. Bingo! I’ll have the setting in an abandoned mining town that was mining lithium in Argentina. And then I could talk about battery technology a little bit, and some really interesting facts about the whole battery world which people are kind of interested in, hopefully. Hopefully, I’m not putting them to sleep, but anyway. It’s just whenever I kind of get stuck or when I feel like I want to broaden something out and there’s so much that I don’t know. I actually tend to stop a lot to look stuff up and do research.

Alessandra: So do you write in first person or third person? What’s your point of view?

Douglas: This is my 20th adult novel. The first 18 were in third person, and then I got so burned on writing. I mean, I was really burned out. I mean, I don’t know how you keep on. I mean, so far I’ve been lucky that my fans seem to really like everything I’ve done. And every one I keep on thinking, oh, this is the one that’s going to be the disaster, you know, where every fan’s going to say, oh my God, you know, he’s really phoned it in now. And so, that stresses me out because my fans are so darn nice. When I say I’m writing a new novel, they’re like, oh my God, it’s going to be brilliant. Well, how do you know that? I mean, I’m trying really hard. And they’re so sure that I can’t write a bad novel that it really causes me a lot of stress. And then coming up with new ideas and I don’t think…My writing’s fine, but it’s not like Hemingway. I mean, I kind of try to write it simply as I can, get out of my own way. You know, easy to read. But mostly, I think my claim to fame is my plots and my twists, you know, they’re very complicated and all that stuff. That’s a big challenge for me to keep on coming up with new premises over and over and over again. So the last two, a very long answer to your short question — the last two I switched to first person because I just am so burnt out. You know, that did change things up a little bit.

Alessandra: So in first person or third person, if most of your experiences in third person. When we’re talking about introducing facts and fiction, how are you working those facts in? Like if you are telling a story, is the narrator, or is the omnipresent narrator, or are you putting it just in the same way you would put a description about something else, like it’s coming from kind of a narrator voice? Or I know you said, like you introduced a diary or something like that, but what are the different ways in which if I have interesting information about lithium batteries, how are you naturally introducing that into a narrative?

Douglas: Boy, that’s a good question. I wish I had good answers for this.

Alessandra: You probably do it without thinking,

Douglas: I don’t really think about it. I mean, a lot of times it’s through dialogue. I mean, a lot of times, because I’ve got a lot of experts.

Alessandra: So your character might be learning about things in the same way, I mean, your character is needing to know information.

Douglas: Yeah.

Alessandra: Okay. Or doing the research themselves.

Douglas: Yeah. I’m just trying to think about how I wrote about the lithium ion mine. Yeah, I just kind of said it. I had the narration say it.  “In an abandoned mining town in Argentina, you know, the second largest lithium producer and it was mined out.” You know, so you can talk about batteries have become–you know, like as a narrator, even first person–batteries have become so huge in our modern society and the lithium production has how many million tons and is growing by 80%. So you just kind of as an omniscient narrator, put it out there.

Alessandra: Yeah. And I would think you’re right. I think you can do that in first person also, even though third person is easier to set the stage. And then because you also have to gauge, I guess, how much to share, you know, so is it hard sometimes? Like if you know this much, do you share, I forget people are listening to me; if you know 10 books worth of information, do you share 10% of that or are you able to work in a lot of what you learn on the page?

Douglas: Yeah. I mean you share a very small percent. I mean, I overdo it because that’s my claim to fame. I mean, that’s what my fans are looking for. I mean, I’m way over the top, but I mean, I think you want to do it a lot more subtly than I do it for most people.

Alessandra: What’s your normal length of novel?

Douglas: Like 120,000 words. So it’s pretty long, 110 -120, but I think most people want to do it a lot more, you know, sparingly than I do. But you know, you have to do a hundred X research to get one X information. I mean, you’re really cherry picking and you use very little of it. I learned that when – I wrote for National Geographic Kids for a while as a consultant. I just wrote some articles. It was cute. And they would give me these word constraints, like, you know, write an article about, you know, all the new, great robots people are working on in five words. I mean, I’m exaggerating, but it was like, what? So then I’d have to research for like seven years, a billion robots that are being worked on, and then find a way to choose 1,000,000,000th of that, you know, to fit it into the tiny little time constraint. You definitely have to narrow it and find the most interesting parts. And you have to kind of leave it on the cutting room floor a lot.

And you know, the bottom line is I used to worry about that. I mean, I used to think, am I going overboard? Am I explaining too much? You know, the iron rule is show don’t tell. There’s all this stuff out there that they tell authors all the time. And really every rule is a good rule until somebody breaks and has a bestseller, you know what I mean? And then suddenly nobody cares. And I wrestled with that, and I thought, you know, every once in a while I get a critic that says, oh, you know, it’s too much explanation or too much science fact. But then 95% of the people say, I love your science fact. I have notes at the end of my books that talk about what’s real and what’s not, and expand for 20 pages with references. And people say, they read that first. They love that stuff. And so, you know, my feeling is if I lessened it, I would get more criticism like, Hey, what happened to your interesting fact? So, I mean, I think at the end of the day as a writer, you know this; you can’t please everybody, no matter what you do. Like for me, I don’t put in a lot of descriptions. Some author spent four pages describing a bar. I walk into a bar and it was smokey and there were seven shot glasses and there’s a pool table and they can go on for pages describing this bar.

For me, I don’t care. I don’t care much about what the bar looks like. I could say, it’s a seedy bar and then I want to get on with what happens in the bar. But there are people who hate the fact that I don’t describe that much. And then there are people who love the fact, because they’re not that interested in spending three pages reading a description either. So it’s just, you know, you have to find your kind of sweet spot and then be true to yourself. And obviously, you know, you don’t want to do something that is going to alienate. I mean, if you want to have an audience, if you want to have some fans, you can’t like be totally crazy like, oh, you know, I don’t want to ever describe anything. Well then, okay, you’re never going to have anybody read your book.

Alessandra: Yeah. And every genre is also different. I think in your genre, there are a lot of people really interested in the technology, especially if they’re reading technothrillers and that sort of thing.

Douglas: So they like big ideas.

Alessandra: A lot that like history.

Douglas: They like the big ideas. Yeah. and I, I have never read a romance novel, so I have no idea what that’s like, so I won’t even comment, but I’m sure that you do it brilliantly. I know you do.

Alessandra: I think historical fiction’s probably another one where a lot of research helps. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve never written historical fiction — because the amount of research involved is so daunting. Now, your near future, so how far in the future; like, do you have to advance technology in terms of like flying cars and that sort of thing?

Douglas: A little bit. Like, I love smart contact lenses that’ll project holographic images and stuff like that, but I’m usually going about 20 or 30 years out at most. One comment on the pain of historical research, I only did the two novels; that one I told you about in Germany. And then I set the sequel where they go to ancient Rome and wow, that was brutal. So I’m in ancient Rome and I want to write a sentence like, you know, the centurion looked out through his kitchen window. Okay, that’s a sentence that normally would take me one second to write. Now I think, okay, wait a minute. Did they have kitchens?

Alessandra: Do they have kitchens?

Douglas: Did they have kitchens? Did they have windows? I mean, when was glass invented? And the truth is they didn’t have windows. They just had openings. They didn’t invent glass.

Alessandra: They didn’t call them openings. Right, they wouldn’t have called it a window.

Douglas: No, exactly right. And so it’s like, holy hell. I mean, I can’t write the simplest sentence. You know, in ancient Germany, I had that problem. He zipped up his tunic. Did they have zippers? I don’t know. Help me. I’m not going to do the history thing again. That is tough.

Alessandra: How much of the book was in ancient Rome?

Douglas: A lot of it. About half of it.

Alessandra: Oh, wow.

Douglas: Yeah. It was pretty crazy. I also get into, even though they’re set on earth in the next 20 years, I get into really far out stuff because you know, like I have aliens who left an artifact that does like crazy, awesome stuff. But I think the more you can link — if you’re a science fiction writer, the more you can link the far-out concepts to reality, the better you are. So I’ll give you an example and I love this example. And I put it in a lot of books because, you know, I have these technologies in several books called nanotech where you have these little microscopic machines and they’re like 3d printers.

I mean, you can program them to make things, right? And like 3d printers, they do it one layer at a time, but these are so advanced they can do it like one atom at a time. So they can just, you know, like atoms are like Legos. And so you throw one nanite into the ground and it collects what it needs in the ground and it makes a copy of itself. And then two become four, become eight, become 16, pretty soon you have a trillion of them. And then those trillion make a flat screen television, boom. It just materializes like a 3d printer in front of you. And so I’m writing that and I’m thinking, wow, will readers really buy this and think this is possible?

I mean, it sounds ridiculous. You throw one little microscopic nanite into the ground, the next thing you know, like an hour later you’ve got a large television. And what I’m getting to is that when you bring it back to reality, you bring it back to the possibilities by introducing real stuff that we all know is real. And so what I introduce in several novels and a lot of podcasts is the miracle of birth. I mean, that’s what happens with all life on the planet. A sperm hits an egg, you have one cell, it fishes around in its environment. It gathers up DNA. It makes more cells. Pretty soon you’ve got a trillion cells in an embryo. Then at one point the cells obey a programming, and some of them become eye cells, some of them become skin cells. Some of them become heart cells. And eventually, in nine months you have a living being with a hundred billion neurons all organized for consciousness, for conscious thought. And then boom, you have a living human being who’s sentient. And so, that’s far more impressive than throwing a nanite into the ground and getting a television.

Alessandra: Right.

Douglas: I mean, you’re getting a conscious human being out. I mean, so nature proves that, you know, as far out as the nanite thing is, that every single living thing on earth proves that they can do a lot better than that. You know, it’s possible to do something even more miraculous than that.

Alessandra: My concern as an author would be that with nanites is that it would be too easy, like you could create whatever you needed. So if suddenly you needed a key to get out of the compartment you were trapped in, you could create it. What are people creating? Do they have restrictions or I guess that’s what you can all build in?

Douglas: No. I mean, there are challenges, but I mean, there are also dangers. I’ve had a couple novels that people can read that really go into it, but you really ask some good questions and I love how you think. Because when I was doing research for one of the novels, Star Trek in the second series had this food replicator. I don’t know if you ever watched Star Trek.

Alessandra: I’ve watched it.

Douglas: Yeah, so he could say, I want Earl Grey coffee and boom, you’ve got Earl Grey coffee and they materialize it like a transporter machine; they just materialize the thing that’s in the memory. I did some research on that and you rarely see that mentioned in Star Trek. And the writers were saying they hated it, because like you said, because that solves every problem. You know, if you have something that you can just, you know, if your engine breaks, you can just whip up a new engine from nothing instead of having to land on a planet and try to find the parts. The author said the same thing you did that it’s more challenging if you could do everything.

Alessandra: I never thought about that. Like, yeah, why didn’t someone just go, “Can’t we just have the drink machine making it?”

Douglas: It wasn’t just drinks. I mean, they didn’t mention this a lot, but the thing could do anything. It could make any matter that you wanted.

Alessandra: First aid kit or whatever.

Douglas: Anything. So Star Trek tried to ignore it after they invented it. I made it work. I mean, you have to read this stuff, you know, I only have like one minute left and I can’t get into all the details, but it’s a good question, but I’ve been able to make it work, at least I think I have, at least my fans think I have, so that’s who counts.

Alessandra: I love that. I could see one of the challenges of science fiction is you have an unlimited, you know, ability, but then you also have to, I guess, build in restrictions or build in problems for yourself. And we do just have a few minutes left, so if anybody has any questions for Doug shout them out now. This is your final opportunity. We do have a question. What inspired you to write sci-fi?

Douglas: I have a master’s in molecular biology. I was going to get a Ph.D. in genetic engineering. I mean, I’ve always loved science fiction as a kid. I mean, that’s all I read. And then I went into science, and so it was pretty obvious that that’s what I would do. And I started out thinking I was John Grisham where I had worked in biotech companies. I had worked in vivariums where they basically torture animals. They shock rats and they put them through mazes, and I could describe that and I thought, wow, this is really interesting, but you know, you can only describe that in one novel and then you’re done. Anyway, any other questions? I’m sorry, I didn’t leave any time for questions.

Alessandra: No, it’s okay. Kit said, do you ask experts to check your facts? How do you find them?

Douglas: That’s another good question. I read a lot of expert books, so in addition to Google, I read books. There are occasions where I’ve talked to experts, especially early on in my career. You know, you find somebody on Google and you just call them. It’s amazing how people are willing to talk to you. Even when I was a no-name, unknown author way back in the day when I first started dabbling at writing – before 9/11, that shows you my age. I was writing a novel. I wanted the bad guy to poison an entire water supply. I was living in Princeton, New Jersey. So I called up the Newark, New Jersey water department. And I asked the guy, I said, “Hey, I’m writing a novel.” I mean, this is before terrorism on 9/11, you know, but I said, I’m writing a novel.

Alessandra: They didn’t find this suspicious?

Douglas: No. And I said, “I want the bad guy to poison the entire water supply. Do you mind if I stop in to your water treatment plant, get a tour. I’ll bring a bunch of pizza. I’ll bring like five pizzas for you and the guys, and you could give me a tour.” And he gave me a tour. And so he says, “Well, here’s where the water comes in from the Delaware, and then it feeds in through here and there’s the big grate.” And so I said, “Hey, so would you pour the poison right there?” And he goes, “Oh, no, no, no, that’s too diluted. What you’d want to do is, you’d want to wait until it’s in the reservoir. It’s gone through all the cycle. And now when you put the poison in, it doesn’t get diluted anymore.”

And I said, “Great, well, how secure is the reservoir?” “Oh, no, it’s not secure at all. Kids swim in it every summer. They break in and they swim in it.” And I say, “They swim in the reservoir? Doesn’t that go right to our tap?” And he says, “Yeah, but you’re allowed to have like one part per billion of filth in the water.” You know, that’s what I’m thinking about. But it was hilarious because this guy’s doing his best to try to tell me the best way to poison the entire New Jersey water supply. So people are really willing to talk to you.

Alessandra: I love that. We do have another question from Caro. She asks, what is your favorite way to research? Internet versus books versus interviews?

Douglas: I mean, I think, you know, obviously the Internet is the quickest and because of hyperlinks. When you don’t really know what you want to learn, you can just kind of wander around. But books are great. I mean, if you know the real topic, you know, getting a quality book by an expert is the best.

Alessandra: That’s perfect. And that is a wrap. We’re out of time, guys, but thank you so much, Doug, for coming on today and talking with us. 

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