11 June 2022

Don't Pluck a Star From the Sky

A fun thing about writing is we get to re-invent our natural world. Writing isn't just bringing characters to life. There's a whole sandbox of staged reality around those characters. A scene needs their go-to restaurant? Invent one! Then, if you're me, spend an hour sorting around Google for snazzy name ideas. And you can put this restaurant anywhere, even if it’s a terrible corner for business. In this story, somebody bad at the restaurant game opened a spot there. What matters is that the sandbox holds itself and the story together. Authors can be Near-Gods of Verisimilitude, truthful enough in purpose if not fact.

Last month, I sold my 39th short story. In 38 of them, everything that happens could happen. The happenings are often improbable, but as Sherlock Holmes said many times, the improbable can be reality. There's gold in improbabilities. In those stories, I’ve invented towns, corporations, lost paintings, tennis legends, famous dishes, and yes, restaurants. What a story needs, I'll make.

If I can. The other part of Sherlock Holmes’ famous maxim is about eliminating the impossible. In fiction terms, eliminating what can't or shouldn't happen lets a story glimpse its golden opportunities. My fiction takes place on planet Earth in our dimension of whatever multiverse we’re living in. Physics applies. Gravity, electromagnetics. Human bodies function how they function, physically and physiologically. Our sun rises in the east and sets in the west because our planet rotates on a particular orbit around a particular star in a particular arm of the Milky Way. At any given time, the Moon and stars occupy a particular spot in the only sky we have.

You would think, if my rule was to ensure the stars traverse the sky as they must, I would have any star-reading character find constellations in the right spots. Well, I did. Eventually.

Let's rewind. 

It’s 2017, and I have just invented a fictional boat. An older boat, big enough for bluewater ocean crossing but small enough not to need much crew. And I have just thrown a guy off the boat. That seemed a pretty good way to force a bunch of action. First thing, the guy tries reading the stars to figure out where exactly he wound up adrift.

Full disclosure: The night sky looks like a web of Big Dippers to me. I’m darn good sensing my way around a new city, but if getting somewhere depends on my locating the true Ursa Major, I’m toast. 

I was not deterred. In the early drafts, I let the stranded guy see whatever sky objects made sense to him. He spotted the planet Mars, this and that constellation, and because this was the subequatorial Indian Ocean, the Southern Cross. If it didn’t work, it could get tweaked in editing.

I do edit. And I do my research. As the story formed up, I checked around for correct sky features by time, date, and geographic location. With a proper star chart, adjustments would be easy. Eventually.

What needed to get fixed? Mars: Not visible from that location at that time. Constellation this and that: Not visible. Any of them. The Southern Cross: Not visible. Honestly, it’s hard to get stuff this instinctively wrong, but I pulled it off. I’d invented a magic sky.

I couldn’t move the boat’s location. The plot hinges on a round trip to Perth, Australia, and the characters’ motivations would collide soon on the homeward leg. I was also constrained by date. Seasonal monsoon conditions would deter small boats for months at a time. I couldn’t just press the easy button and switch to daylight. The guy’s ability to sort-of navigate by the stars was core to both back and front story. And eventually, after too many writing sessions and much banging my head on the desk, after teaching myself the Southern sky and playing with geolocations and sunsets, I found an actual starscape the guy would’ve actually seen.

The immutable laws of our universe are not the fun part of writing. They’re essential, though, if we want an improbably real-world story told well. In this case, a story also sold well--"Crossing the Line, Twice," my tenth story for AHMM. I wasn't about to submit AHMM a real-world story with a magic sky.

Lesson learned? Don't pluck stars from the sky and move them around. Writers don't have that power. A wrong lesson might’ve been to skip a try at star navigation. Where is the sport and reward of writing if we don’t expand our personal horizons?

And anyway, maybe next time I’ll plop a floating restaurant out near Sumatra. I’m not saying it’s a probable location, but it’s not impossible.


  1. Love it! I can find the Big Dipper, the Moon and the Sun and that's about it! Can't wait to read the story! (Am sending this to a friend of mine who's an astronomer!

  2. Good account of the sometimes essential research needed for even the most fanciful mystery. I hope if you do your floating restaurant you find a niche for that most longed for of all missing Sherlock Holmes stories, that of the giant Sumatra Rat!

  3. Thanks, all! It wound up as a fun research lesson -- fun in retrospect, anyway.

  4. Oh, man, Bob. I've done something similar and worked to make it work.

    You're right about restaurant locations. The prime restaurant in Orlando was once The House of Beef at John Young Parkway and Colonial Drive. Then the city decided to remake the intersection with extra lanes and dividers, and took a long damn time to do it. When it was finished, owner Chris determined he was losing something like a million dollars a year. You couldn't get there from here.

    First time I saw the Southern Cross… wow. Instantly recognizable. What a thrill.

    Congratulations on #39! Let me be the first to wish you congratulations on #40 as well.

  5. Writing is never easy! And yet we push on!


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