If you write research papers, there is a good chance you are involved in the research itself. At some point you will collect a set of experimental results and need to make sense of it, specifically, whether it confirms or refutes a hypothesis. One common approach is to discard the highest and lowest values as being recording errors and perform statistical analysis on the rest. While this provides data amenable to computation and possibly graphing, it is sometimes useful to take a close look at those extreme values. True, they may be nothing but mechanical errors but on the other hand, they may provide an indication of something as yet undiscovered.
Those writing fiction likely aren’t involved in research directly, but background searches are frequently necessary and may well involve reading scientific journals. This is particularly true for the science-fiction genre. Authors writing hard science-fiction need to have their facts straight. They may extrapolate as much as they want but they need to have the grounding solid. However just about any author, may, from time to time, need to understand something involving research. For example, we’re all living through this pandemic and should it be a part of someone’s novel, digging through any number of recently released research papers, particularly those describing the variants would be necessary. If the authors have included tables of data—and they might—outliers may suggest an interesting direction for the story to take.
Let’s suppose infection rates were tabulated over a large number of geographical regions and one region had no cases reported at all. The most likely explanation for this is a reporting error, or, more likely, a reporting omission. But for the writer, it provides an interesting possibility for his or her story. Perhaps draconian measures were taken to completely seal this region from the rest of the world. Perhaps the inhabitants are hiding some sort of advanced medicine from the rest of the world. Maybe aliens experimented on this population in the past and this is a side effect. The actual plot element chosen doesn’t matter. What counts is by observing a single anomaly in an otherwise orderly set of data, any number of possibilities present themselves.
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Fantasy writers may sometimes turn to scientific papers as a part of world building. Physics, chemistry and biology can all contribute elements of interest to the author’s world. Observing an outlier in one of these papers and attributing it to magic can provide an excellent plot twist. In the real world deviation may be caused by underlying tolerances in the equipment or process but how much more entertaining it would be if slight variations in, say, chemical processes, were caused by some element of the supernatural, and if it could be harnessed, what new development might be possible?
These things are pure gold for authors. Consider something like genetic mutations which are already random. DNA which acts as a blueprint is transcribed into mRNA from which proteins are produced. Occasionally a transcription error occurs. Such errors are extremely rare; however, considering the number of cells produced in the human body over time, a few are bound to creep in. Science can’t explain why a process which works smoothly millions or billions of times might make a mistake, but magic might. Imagine a world where lifeforms might intentionally alter the transcription process to change their metabolism in some manner to respond to external conditions—a sort of evolution on steroids scenario. Incorporating an idea like this into a fantasy or science-fiction story might provide a nice twist.
Outliers exist in places other than science. On a day when the stock market surges to new and higher levels, there will always be a few stocks headed in the opposite direction. There’s a reason for their decline. You may not know it but can always fabricate one and it might make for a confrontation in some corporate meeting.
Pay attention to outliers. They can do wonders for your plots and who knows. You may stumble across something brand new and of significant importance to the world.
Guest post contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published thirteen books on Smashwords.com.