I've been working on background notes for the last week or so for this space exploration story of mine. I'm nearly done with them. Right now, I'm working on fleshing out the spacecraft that takes my explorers to their destination. I won't lie: it's a goddamn pain, but a necessary one; the spacecraft is just too important of a setting to overlook. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to return to some points of warning.
Back in November, I wrote a post called "Itty Bitty Details". It was me trying to sort out which details ought to get a writer's attention and which could afford a bit of neglect. Now, there really is no set in stone rule on how to go about this other than you need to prioritize details based on the work you're doing. If you're writing detective fiction, it would help you to look into information on how police work is done. If you're writing a comedy set in a music store, the operations of that store may not be too important. Look at the film Office Space as an example; the main character works as a computer programmer, but there aren't too many details about what his job entails; all we need to know is that it sucks.
Back to my original issue: how much detail is too much? I think that a writer should have enough detail to give himself a foggy view of what he's writing. For example, tonight, I drew up a diagram of the cockpit for my spacecraft. I did not do painstaking schematics of consoles and gauges. I did not draw a circuit diagram for the computers. None of that. All I needed to know was the size of the space and where everyone was going to be seated. There is a private section for the ship's commander (Star Trek fans would call this the captain's ready room, I think), but no details on what the furniture is like in there.
See? A rough and broad image. Later on in the week I'll have to figure out where the life support system goes, but I won't ask myself all the intricate details of it. All I need to know is where the water and air are stored.
There are a few reasons for all of this.
First, as I said, it's a matter of priority. When you get down to it, the spacecraft is a ferryboat. Once my characters have landed on this new planet, they'll be reliant on whatever shelter and gear they bring with them, so that I have detailed because it's more relevant to their survival, and since survival is one of the main things I want to talk about, that shelter becomes an even more important setting.
The second reason is spontaneity. As I'm writing, I might come up with an idea for a cool little gizmo to put on the ship, maybe some big, cool MRI machine for the doctors to use, or a robotic surgeon. If I had detailed the ship's hospital right at the beginning, I would have to redesign it to accommodate this change. It's enough for me to say, "This is how big the hospital is. This is how much space and area you have to work with. Find some place to put this gadget."
Third, if you really delve into your work to the nth degree and say to people where the nuts and bolts literally are, you're going to waste your time. John Howe, one of the concept artists for the Lord of the Rings films comments how a coworker who had a zoology background bugged him on his design for the winged creatures worn by the Ringwraiths. Howe's reply was, "This isn't National Geographic. This is Lord of the Rings. Leave me alone." Similarly, I'm not designing a ship for NASA. If any astronautic engineers want to bug me about my spaceship, I'll just turn the tables on them and say that they're the ones with the advanced technical degrees; I'm just a writer.
There are a couple of other reasons I have in mind, but they're more project-specific - stuff relating to theme - and I don't want to give anything away just yet.