SF Worldbuilding: How to Ground Your Science Fiction World with a Mystery Plot

Posted by March 4th, 2014

Alex_Hughes_AuthorBuilding believable worlds is a skill—one that can be honed. Today Mindspace Investigations series author Alex Hughes shares her techniques for marrying science fiction elements to the realism of the murder investigation crime scene. 

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Good mysteries these days have crime scenes. It’s a requirement—and not simple crime scenes either. Since CSI, mystery audiences love seeing detailed clues in crime scenes and on murder victims that help the detective solve the case. So when I sat down to write the latest book in my science fiction mystery series, I knew I needed at least one detailed crime scene. But I also wanted those real-world details to work with the science fiction/fantasy elements of my world. 

To address the mystery elements, I watched a lot of CSI and then did detailed research on forensics to get my head around the reality (and the fiction) of crime scenes. Having a real-world grounding in detail meant that I knew how forensics people and detectives both in the real world and in fiction tended to think. Then, when I added a character who could see in Mindspace (where human minds leave traces of themselves), I could add clues in a way that would help the police find the killer. I could pull ideas and situations from my research, and then add other elements on top of them; the layers and the research make the science fiction elements feel more grounded.

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MARKED comes out on April 1st.

Example: One of the first and most important things a detective needs to know is time of death. It establishes the whole timeline for the crime. So, it’s one of the first things my hero will look for when he looks at the crime scene in MARKED, the third book in the series. In this scene, my investigator unleashes his powers of telepathy to verify a victim’s time of death:

Reality faded as I moved deeper and deeper, the connection with Cherabino falling behind me like a long, yellow scuba line, yellow where no yellow should be. Mindspace was a colorless space, a space in which vision was useless, like the inside of a totally-dark cave. The landscape was more felt than seen, echoing back vibrations like I was a bat and the world my cave. Other creatures made waves in the space, and some left wakes behind.

Mindspace remembered. It held onto strong emotion and the leavings of human minds for days, sometimes weeks in a hotspot. Occasionally a spot forgot too soon. But here, in what was apparently a deep and wide container of human energy, I felt Mindspace along the edges of the room, and I felt the habitual feelings of the man who’d lived here.

In the center of the room was the collapsed “hole” of death, where the mind Fell In… to wherever souls went when you died. It left a distinct shape in Mindspace, a distinct residue and taste. Still very clear, but not fresh.

And around it—anger and violence and dark satisfaction layered with pain like red knives slicing through the very fabric of Mindspace. Layer upon layer of resentment and frustration and anger, leading to this final assertion of control.

And the victim—surprise and panic and anger and pain, so much pain. Hit after hit of damage, then nothing.

Time of death between twenty-two and twenty-six hours. I shaped the words carefully and sent them up the long yellow line behind me to Cherabino. Assuming Mindspace here has the standard fading pattern.

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Book One in the Mindspace Investigations Series

When it was time to layer in the science fiction and fantasy concepts, I also pulled as much from the real world as I possibly could. Mindspace is a concept I built in a physics class, a place where telepathy acts with most of the same mathematical rules that the rest of our universe does. Most people don’t do the math, of course, but if you throw a ball and it doesn’t curve through the air like you expect, you’ll be very surprised. This is why so many video games include so much modeling of real world physics. I tried to pull the same kinds of rules, such as the Inverse Square Law, into the world of telepathy. Unless something strange is going on, the further away you are from someone, the weaker the telepathic connection will be in a very predictable way. Pulling from the real world meant I had a nice, grounded, consistent system to start building out in all its consequences. I had a system that worked the way we expect the world to work.

Example: Here’s how another physics principle plays out in Mindspace in a crime scene in MARKED:

I moved forward—taking an extra minute to make sure I was moving mentally, not at all physically since the crime scene hadn’t been cleared yet. I swam forward with my mind until I was right above the death-place, until I could feel the time around it clearly, until I could interact as best I could with the memory. Careful, careful, I told myself. Don’t want to change the space so much I can’t read it.

But of course, thank Heisenburg and his Uncertainty, you couldn’t read something without changing it somehow. You couldn’t see without interacting, hear without being changed. Two particles—and two minds—necessarily interacted no matter what you did. Even with memories. Even with emotion-ghosts, no matter how strong they were; by reading them, you changed them. You had to.

Next time you’re building your own science fiction or fantasy system, try pulling something from the science or the real world (or, if you like, from mythology for fantasy) to ground your system on. Having that backbone will help you be more consistent, more complex, and make your system feel real to the reader.

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About Alex Hughes: 

Alex Hughes, the author of the award-winning Mindspace Investigations series from Roc, has lived in the Atlanta area since the age of eight. She is a graduate of the prestigious Odyssey Writing Workshop, and a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America and the International Thriller Writers. Her short fiction has been published in several markets including EveryDay Fiction, Thunder on the Battlefield and White Cat Magazine. She is an avid cook and foodie, a trivia buff, and a science geek, and loves to talk about neuroscience, the Food Network, and writing craft—but not necessarily all at the same time! You can visit her at Twitter at @ahugheswriter or on the web at www.ahugheswriter.com.

Do you feel like technobabble and science myths can get in the way of actually telling a believable story? Join the Book Country discussion to chat about the scientific basis of many popular sci-fi story conventions. 

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