Martian Commutes and Werewolf Teeth: Using Wolfram|Alpha for Writing Research
This post was initially published on Tech-Based Teaching, a blog about computational thinking, educational technology and the spaces in between. Rather than prioritizing a single discipline, Tech-Based Teaching aims to show how edtech can cultivate learning for all students. Past posts have explored the value of writing in math class, the whys and hows of distant reading and the role of tech in libraries.
It’s November, also known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This annual celebration of all things writerly is the perfect excuse for would-be authors to sit down and start writing. For educators and librarians, NaNoWriMo is a great time to weave creative writing into curricula, be it through short fiction activities, campus groups or library meet-ups.
During NaNoWriMo, authors are typically categorized into two distinct types: pantsers, who “write by the seat of their pants,” and plotters, who are meticulous in their planning. While plotters are likely writing from preplanned outlines, pantsers may need some inspiration.
That’s where Wolfram|Alpha comes in handy.
What’s in a Name?
Wolfram|Alpha can help you name your characters. By typing in “name” plus the name itself, you can find out all sorts of info: when the name was most popular, how common it is and more. If you place a comma between two names, you can compare the two.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a road-trip story featuring two women named “Sarah” and “Sara.” You type in “name sarah, sara” and see the following:
Wolfram|Alpha shows that both names were common around the same time, but one is more likely for a woman who’s just slightly older. You can make Sara the older of the two by a hair, and her age can be a point of characterization. The extra year makes her extra wise—or extra bossy.
What if you want to write about a male character? Let’s explore two possibilities, Kevin and Alan.
By viewing the charts in Wolfram|Alpha, we can see that one name is much more common, but both skew older. What if you try searching for another name, like Dominic?
Additionally, we can see that “Dominic” is a name with a history, with Wolfram|Alpha showing tidbits such as the fact that it was often used for boys born on Sundays. If you’re a pantser, this information is something to file away for later.
Of course, you can always look for popular names if you’re setting your work in the modern day:
Currency Conversions, Travel Plans and Blood Alcohol Levels
So, Sarah and Sara are on their trip. Let’s say that they’re small-town southern girls who happened to meet because of their shared first name, but you’re not sure what town fits the bill. You can look for cities in North Carolina with a population of under 2,000 people:
From there, you can calculate the price of gas and other costs of living. The small details you uncover can help with world-building, particularly if the story is set slightly in the past. You can also compare facts about different cities:
If spontaneous Sarah didn’t plan for her trip as a well as staid Sara, then you can calculate just how off the mark she was—particularly with an international journey.
Wolfram|Alpha provides currency conversions, so if the ladies’ trip somehow takes them to the UK, then you can determine just how much their trip savings are currently worth:
Even beyond finances or travel planning, Wolfram|Alpha can help ground a plot in reality. Let’s say Sarah and Sara end up at a pub. How many bottles of hard cider can Sarah enjoy before things go pear-shaped?
The process of figuring out the physical details of your characters can help you visualize them better too!
Let’s Get Metaphysical
Beyond providing real-life calculations that are useful in everyday situations, Wolfram|Alpha can help to add a touch of realism to genre fiction. For example, going back to our friend Dominic… well, he’s a vampire. He was born in 1703, on a Sunday to tie in with his name. But on what date, exactly? We can view our 1703 calendar with a query of “January 1703”:
From this screen, we can also see his age relative to today, putting him at well over three centuries old. We can also see that there was a full Moon on January 3. Could you use this as a plot point? Perhaps he’s stronger against sunlight than the average vampire due to the full Moon reflecting more of the Sun’s rays.
If you’re a pantser, these sorts of searches can be extra helpful for inspiring new plot or character developments. While you may not have initially set out to create a full Moon–enhanced vampire, name searches and looking up past events lit that spark of inspiration.
Real Science, Real Fiction
Realistic physical properties can be especially helpful for sci-fi writers, particularly those writing hard sci-fi. While there are some example Wolfram|Alpha searches for sci-fi “entertainment” on this page, many of which relate to preexisting genre media, you can also use astronomy searches to enhance your sci-fi setting.
In a previous search, “Emma” came up as a popular name. Maybe it’s still popular when, decades in the future, we’ve colonized Mars.
In this sci-fi future, we’ve normalized lightspeed travel. To figure out Emma’s commute, you can use formulas to measure the amount of time it would take to travel from place to place. If Emma works at a Martian university, then you can see how long it would take for a lightspeed bus to shuttle her to the office:
She would hardly have time to read through her newsfeed on her holo-headset before the bus dropped her off at work!
For science fiction plots set in a time period closer to today’s tech, you can calculate totals using Wolfram|Alpha’s many included formulas. For example, you can figure out volts and amps for a maker using Ohm’s law, or even run through a linear regression or two for a fictional AI assistant.
Brainstorming the Uncanny
Because Wolfram|Alpha is a “computation engine,” it also provides general facts that can help you come up with ideas for characters—and monsters.
For horror writers, the bare facts can provide a perfect starting point for tweaking reality ever so slightly into the uncanny valley.
For example, let’s say you have werewolves in your story. These aren’t friendly werewolves, though: they’re the eldritch kind that give passersby the heebie-jeebies. Going by the “one small tweak” rule, you can compare the number of teeth in a dog’s mouth to the amount in a human’s mouth:
What if your werewolves have too-toothy smiles because they have a few too many incisors, matching up with the amount found in a wolf’s mouth? Are dentists hunted down if they discover the truth?
Murder, She Searched
Mystery writers can also discover interesting things on Wolfram|Alpha, from chemical compositions to ciphers. With the latter, there are several word-puzzle tools you can use to create clues for a crime scene. For example, by using underscores in your searches, you can build Hangman-like messages from blanks and letters:
Wolfram|Alpha also has a text-to-Morse converter, allowing you to convert normal text to dots and dashes. Perhaps a sidekick is attempting to get in touch with a wily detective without kidnappers noticing what’s going on:
For a mystery set in the past, you can use a date search to determine the sunrise, sunset and weather patterns of any given day. While this data is invaluable for historic writers—the books they write are all about historical accuracy, after all—it can also help you determine how an old-timey crime might have gone down. For example, the witness couldn’t have seen the Sun peeking through the blinds at 5:35am because sunrise hadn’t happened yet:
If you’re trying to come up with ideas on the fly, having an all-in-one spot to search for facts and figures can be invaluable. For more topic suggestions, check out this page to see other example search ideas separated into categories.
Hopefully these ideas have sparked your interest, whether for your own personal NaNo journey or for a library- or classroom-based NaNoWriMo project. Feel free to share this post with other writers or educators if you’ve found it to be useful. And even after November draws to a close, continue mining Wolfram|Alpha for story ideas. Write on!