When we think of a sword in a swords-and-sorcery yarn, most often we think of a barbarian swinging a broadsword. We know what that means. We can visualize it. No matter that “broadsword” is not a term of art, and that in fact a broadsword, properly speaking, is far from the heavy spatha or arming sword we associate with our barbarian hero. And that’s fine. Secondary world fantasy or fantastic fictionalizations of our world don’t demand technical accuracy.
Received writing wisdom has it “write what you know.” Well, what if you are writing about three-limbed aliens or magical elves? How are you supposed to possess concrete, factual information about something fictitious? Assuming you are not simply adopting some other writer’s creation, how can you write what you know when you’re inventing it as you go?
Short answer? Write what you know around the elements created out of whole cloth. Your novel magical system has no existence outside the bounds of your imagination, but perhaps the characters employing it are based firmly on personality types you know only too well. Or the political structure of your secondary world is lifted directly from a term paper you wrote for your poli-sci course. Or the Space Legion’s battle tactics are exactly those you were taught in infantry school.
The shiny facade of your fiction may be something fundamentally unknowable, but the supports, the foundations, the unseen infrastructure holding the whole edifice together, making it read as plausible – these you should be familiar with. Inclusion of matters you have a comfortable working knowledge of will lend your story a sense of grounded verisimilitude that will encompass the fantastical elements as well.
The thing to bear in mind is that it is science FICTION. If you were describing actual scientific advances you’d be an inventor and the world would be a truly fabulous place, complete with jet packs, flying cars, and anti-matter engines. Or a smoldering cinder, slowing cooling in the deep freeze of space. Depending. The aim, therefor, is not viability but verisimilitude. Not necessarily plausibility, though that’s a bonus. Your gadgets need to pass without raising an eyebrow within the context of the world you’ve created, not of this one.
Technical jargon, or technical sounding jargon, is the primary tool in your verisimilitude chest. Engage in a bit of research, absorb the language of scientific journals. But keep the research wide rather than deep. It is easy to drown in the topic you’re investigating. You forget the aim – verisimilitude – and begin to despair because your essential piece of sci-fi hardware – the hook upon which your story hangs – appears implausible. Take a step back, breathe. Remember the goal. Look, if we science fiction consumers were that insistent upon rigid, peer-reviewed science backing the fiction then the shelves would be empty and television would consist of nothing but police procedurals and reality programming.
So learn your technobabble. And set the stage for your plot-necessary tech with throwaway descriptions of other context-appropriate future gadgetry. If such other wonders are commonplace then this key breakthrough shouldn’t threaten suspension of disbelief.