Bloghop: Why (and How) I Write Fiction About Science

At the invitation of my friend and fellow writer, Sara Stamey, I am participating in a “bloghop,” which is like a chain letter for authors. This one focuses on four questions. I will try to answer them as briefly as I can, although I found I could write a whole post on each one! I won’t though, because (luckily for my readers) I’m too busy working on my second novel and reluctant to take time away from it.

1. What am I working on? I have just finished planning the second and third novel in what may be, if I Iive long enough, a four-volume account of the scientific career of a fictional neuroscientist named Vanessa Trippett. In the first novel, Vanessa’s Curve of Mind, cover_1.25published almost exactly a year ago, Vanessa is a graduate student who is making all kinds of trouble for herself and her professors. Her problem is she assumes her professors are as bright as she is and doesn’t realize she’s the only person who’s ever thought to ask the kind of penetrating questions she routinely thinks up. This results in her unintentionally embarrassing people by finding holes in the logic and evidence in their own fields of expertise. She is fiercely independent, unwilling to follow the rules of the graduate program, and, as the story begins, on the verge of revolutionizing brain science. She’s loosely modeled on Albert Einstein, whose four papers that made him famous, were published in the year before he received his PhD. The next two novels will follow Vanessa’s career as she and a neurologist colleague attempt to establish the validity of her theory with laboratory studies of brain imaging. The last novel in the set exists only in my head as a brief description: “Vanessa in old age and facing death.” And for the moment, each of the three stanzas of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain—is wider than the sky” are the emblematic inscriptions.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre? This is difficult to answer because it’s first necessary to explain the genre itself, since the latter isn’t well-known. It that sense, it differs from most of the novels being published today. Publishers and booksellers would classify my novels as general or literary fiction. A better label is “lab lit,” a recent genre designation popularized by Jennifer Rohn, a British cell biologist and novelist. Lab lit is fiction about characters who are scientists working in a lab or in the field. Since the name depends on the characters and their occupation, lab lit cross-cuts the conventional genre classifications, and can be mysteries, romances, historical fiction, YA, children’s literature, even science-fiction, but because the science must be real science, lab lit is not the same as science-fiction.

My work, however, belongs to a niche in lab lit so small that there are perhaps no more than a dozen novels that come close. I call my novels “fiction about science” (the title of my blog) because Vanessa’s scientific research is a central element in her story. Without a story arc for the progress of her research, my novels couldn’t have the same story line. Yet in spite of the limited number of novels about science, mine is unique because Vanessa is a theoretician like Einstein. Using differential geometry she has found a way to map the brain and the mind (our private thoughts and feelings) in a single continuum. If her theory stands up (in books two and three!), she will have solved the mind-body problem, which the ancient Greek philosophers first articulated. The only similar character I know of is Shevek in Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, and his story is more about the cultures of two planets than about his work.

3. Why do I write what I do? I write with a passion bordering on compulsion to tell stories about people who create new knowledge about the world. Like ordinary people, they have lovers, families, friends and problems of all kinds, but unlike others, they spend long years in training, devote many hours of their lives to their work, and often receive only modest financial rewards so they can use an intellectual approach called “the scientific method” to solve problems few others understand or even know about. There are many nonfiction accounts of the men and women who have pursued successful scientific careers, and many of the nonfiction books on library and bookstore shelves also contain short versions of these stories about real people. What is left out is the inner life of the scientist. What are their thoughts and feelings that only they know about? The readers of novels are looking not only for the visible events of a character’s life, but also for what they are thinking and feeling, especially when, as is often the case with all of us, their inner life contradicts their external behavior.

When I began graduate school in experimental psychology half a century ago, behaviorism dominated the playing field. Thoughts and feelings were unobservable, so they weren’t part of science or a scientific psychology. We were told we couldn’t even use what our volunteer subjects said they believed or felt in describing and explaining what they had done in our experiments.  But unlike most of my colleagues, not only in psychology but across the spectrum of scientific disciplines, I continued throughout my career to read novels for enlightenment and enjoyment, especially novels that delved deeply into the minds of their characters, exploring their private reasoning and emotions.

To this day, I’m captivated by the way well-written fiction can draw me into the heads of the most unlikely, unsympathetic characters and leave me with a vivid sense of understanding and appreciating their lives because I’ve seen the hidden, mental world they live in. So when I retired, I began experimenting with constructing a novel of my own, and after nearly fifteen years, it is finally a reality. (It took me so long because I had to unlearn habits of scientific writing that had been reinforced over thirty years of writing, editing and teaching.) Now, I delight in living the lives of people who fascinate me both in what I put down in words and what I imagine happens to them away from the pages of their stories.

4.  How does my writing process work? I start with characters and develop them in my head by imagining conversations about events that might happen to them. When I have found dramatic events and exchanges between these imagined people, I begin to assemble a skeleton plot. I think one aspect of my writing process is quite unique. I must always have a scientific story arc in addition to character and event arcs. I need critical findings that change the characters’ views of their findings and the implications for the theory they’re working with. At the outset there has to be a challenging question followed by dramatic failures or incorrect hypotheses and remarkable findings or conclusions that represent progress toward a triumphant climax which is a satisfying answer to the question posed at the beginning. Only when I can put these research events down on paper—I almost always begin in longhand—do I know that I’m ready to build the human story around them. And when the two story arcs synchronize, I know I’m ready to begin writing.

For example, the second book in the Vanessa series begins when she realizes that her theory isn’t adequately developed to explain two anomalies in the memories of her own life that she’s uncovered while recording her brain images. The anomalies occur when she remembers the most dramatic events that have shaped her personal life. Then, at the first plot point, she meets an attractive young mathematician who agrees to collaborate with her on seeking a solution. As the couple slips into an adulterous affair, they find the answer in a surprisingly simple and intuitive application of differential geometry. Later discovery of the affair by the spouses occurs at the same time as a disastrous setback in the consistency of the brain imaging studies. I’ve already given away more of the story than I should! However, I think you’ll figure out the most extraordinary discovery in the brain imaging research will occur with the breakup of the affair and the different effects it has on the two marriages. In the case of the Vanessa story, I had so many events in both the human and the scientific drama, that I realized it would take two novels instead of one to tell them. And with that two gratifying plots fell into place, and I was ready to begin writing the first scene!

A final thought: I thrive on and enjoy critiques of my manuscripts because they usually force me to come up with a much better text, usually an even better one than any of my critique partners have suggested.

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2 Responses to Bloghop: Why (and How) I Write Fiction About Science

  1. Barbara Riddle May 10, 2014 at 6:53 AM #

    Kirk,
    Thank you for helping to establish the unique genre of fiction about science, and especially for the perceptive review of my novel The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke. It’s such a thrill when an author feels understood! I’m now working on a memoir of growing up in Greenwich Village in the Fifties- in the shadow of the Bomb, as well as the triumph of Sputnik- which made all the boys want to be engineers. Literally, all the boys. And…..some of the girls. A whole other subject.

    I hope this bloghop brings more attention to your work as an author and a critic!
    Gratefully,
    Barbara Riddle

  2. Sara Stamey April 29, 2014 at 2:24 PM #

    Kirk, thanks for your insights about your writing process, and the essential arc of the science. It’s a terrific novel, and I wish you the best.

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