Most of the time now, I’m retired from a life of research. I worked with viruses most of my professional life. Now I’ve moved on to trying to write science-fiction novels. Writing is more than an excuse to keep busy, though; it’s a permanent part of my life and I enjoy the time spent in front of a computer creating characters and situations and locations for them to act out. New planets and suns, and asteroids and moons—these are my life now.
But there’s a part of my life that I’ve somewhat outgrown recently. That is, my hobbies. I still maintain that hobbies are essential for a complete lifestyle and are a good way to help take the mind off the frustrations of the daily grind. I have several that I indulge in more or less frequently, but the most important and the longest-lasting hobby I’ve ever had was model railroading.
I’ve had an interest in trains since I was old enough to know what they were. I’ve always enjoyed riding them or watching them or taking pictures of them. And it seemed natural many long years ago to start building models of them and to set up a model railroad in the basement or a spare room or wherever I could find the space. But model railroading is more than just a diversion from novel writing. There are actually a lot of similarities. First, however, let’s look at the overall concept of model railroading.
Building a model railroad comes under two broad, general headings: use a real railroad (usually referred to as “the prototype”) as a system to model, or devise a fictitious railroad and make up things as you go along. I’ve done the second most of the time. This is where the similarity to novel writing begins. People who model a real prototype frequently make models of real objects and events. They make their engines and cars resemble the prototype. They use place names of real towns and geographic features. And so on. But those of us who make up fictitious railroads have to come up with fictitious towns and all the other things that populate a railroad. We generally use concepts and operating practices from prototype railroads, but we put everything in a fictitious situation. And that’s a lot like developing a novel.
A novel is a fictitious story, but placed in a recognizable world. Even in science fiction, a world has to be realistic and consistent. It won’t do to have alien creatures living within the core of a star somewhere where the temperature can reach millions of degrees. Likewise, in a model railroad, the layout has to be realistic. It has to feature not only the railroad, but houses, stations, industries, stores, towns, bridges, rivers or arroyos, mountains and hills, valleys and depressions, and so on. It must sit in a lifelike environment or be totally unbelievable. So I’ve graduated from building fictitious worlds on a board in a spare room with choo-choo trains running round and round, to placing those worlds on a computer screen and going round and round with readers, critics, editors, and other publishing personnel. There are frustrations, sure, but overall it hasn’t been such a bad transition.