Stars in Your Pocket: Astronomical Geekery for SFR writers

Posted on Mar 9, 2015 by   11 Comments | Posted in Blog · Uncategorized · Writing

Christie Meierz

Christie Meierz

By Christie Meierz

If you’re writing a romance set long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, you don’t need to know the names and locations of our local stars. You can make up your own stellar neighborhood, within certain constraints. Set your story in nearby space, however, and the route you take in order to get from one star to another could end up resembling a trip from Philadelphia to Boston—via Los Angeles. Someone will throw your book across the room.

You can explore the US eastern seaboard to your heart’s content, or you can talk to someone who’s lived there, but no one’s ever actually been to Alpha Centauri, or Tau Ceti, or Beta Hydri. So how do you put the stars in the right places, much less keep them all straight in your head? It’s not as hard as you think. Here are a few resources I use.

3D Galaxy Map

Hands down, this is my favorite toy to play with when I need to get a feel for where something is in the sky—but it comes with a caveat: it only works with a narrow range of outdated versions of Java. I get around that by using a different browser than usual (Internet Explorer), never using it for anything else, and never updating it.

What 3D Galaxy Map does is let you break down the Milky Way galaxy into manageable cubes, 10-parsecs to a side. The default starting location is centered on our sun. Play with it for a little while, and you begin to get a feeling for where the named stars are in relation to our sun and to each other. You find out that stopping at Tau Ceti on the way from Earth to Epsilon Eridani makes sense, but stopping at 61 Cygni on the way to Delta Pavonis… really doesn’t. Once you get comfortable with the local neighborhood, move one sector over—I moved outward—and start getting to know that neighborhood. Hello, Capella!

It’s fun. Really!

The Internet Stellar Database

This plain text, utilitarian site will tell you more than you ever want to know about any star in its database, which seems to be every catalogued star in the sky. I use it to calculate distances, because if you’re looking at stars less than 25 light years apart, it’s a great timesaver. Want to find out how far Delta Pavonis is from Beta Hydri? Just look up either star in the database, and right at the top of the page, there’s a button that says, “Find all stars within” and an input box with a default of 15 light years.

Caladan and Tolar are 9.3 light years apart. And see? I didn’t have to do the math.


All right, now you know the local stars. Which ones have planets where your romantic characters can make love under an alien moon? None of the sites you’ll find are particularly friendly to the non-scientist, but Wikipedia’s is probably the least intimidating.

Wikipedia’s List

Here you’ll find a short list of the likeliest candidates, with Earth, Venus, Mars and Mercury thrown in for comparison. Warm mesoplanets similar to Earth have helpful green labels under the hClass column. You can sort by any column; I find sorting by distance most useful.

NASA Exoplanet Archive

If you’re hardcore, go here. Everything is there. Everything.

If all else fails, terraform

Future technology can cover a multitude of errors. I chose Beta Hydri for my planet based on outdated information, and then someone pointed out to me that the star is veering off the main sequence, making it a bad candidate to host a habitable world. A planet in the habitable zone, the narrow band around a star where liquid water can exist on a planet’s surface, must be there long enough to evolve complex forms of life (like plants). Such a planet circling Beta Hydri would be boiling now, as the star has heated up and the habitable zone has moved farther out. No problem! I put a planet in the current habitable zone and terraformed the heck out of it. In a few hundred million years, Tolar will be boiling too, but I only need 6,000.

You don’t need to know everything, but knowing your way around the neighborhood is part of setting the scene. We live in a fairly nice little bubble of the Milky Way galaxy, blasted almost clean by ancient supernovae (think of it as urban renovation on a BIG scale!). Take a look around. Get to know the place. You’ll be glad you did.

Award-winning writer Christie Meierz writes space opera and science fiction romance set in a civilization of empaths on the edge of a dystopic Earth empire. Her published works include her bestselling debut novel, The Marann, and its sequel, Daughters of Suralia, and two prequel short stories published in Into Tolari Space ~ The First Contact Stories.

Christie has spent a night and/or eaten a meal in all 50 U.S. states, plus Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Currently, she lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her mathematician husband and an assortment of stuffies. When she’s not writing, she writes about writing on her blog, Meierz Musings, and on her Facebook  author page, where she welcomes comments and likes.

About The Fall

As bitter enemies scheme against each other with the fate of Tolar in the balance, Laura Howard, made a powerful empath by the Jorann’s gift, loses everything—again. Now she must recover and find her place, and herself, while fighting against the ghosts of her past and the expectations of everyone around her.

Loss after tragic loss shakes the Paran to his very soul. With his allies vying for control of the planet and his own province caught in the middle, he must risk his life as well as that of the woman he loves to take the one action he never thought he would: fight for leadership of the ruling caste.

11 Responses to "Stars in Your Pocket: Astronomical Geekery for SFR writers"

  1. Comment by Nancy Lee Badger
    March 10, 2015 11:11 am

    Wonderful tips and great sites to help authors with research. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Comment by CJ Burright
    March 10, 2015 10:17 pm

    The 3D Galaxy map sounds AMAZING! I don’t write SF, but I love star gazing…even though I can usually only figure out where the Big Dipper is. I’m definitely going to check that out. Thanks for the great resource tips!

  3. Comment by Stefanie Worth
    March 11, 2015 9:15 am

    Fascinating post! These tips are great beyond the Sci Fi realm. I can use them in a broad way for my fantasy romance, too. Not to mention that my son the aspiring astrophysicist thinks this is all pretty cool, too. Thanks for the post!

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