I spent my high school and college years avoiding science classes. I delayed taking biology in high school until my senior year, and ended up at a college with no curriculum requirements. Physics terrifies me, and the closest I’ve ever come to a chemistry lab is hearing my husband talk about the one he’s designing at the university where he works. But here I am, an affirmed non-scientist, writing novels about science. Accordingly, I do a lot of research.
I start by reading everything I can get my hands on. I plunder the library and bookstores, then go online. Google Scholar is an amazing resource. Because my husband’s a scientist, he has access to scientific journals and papers that I wouldn’t otherwise come across. After I’ve picked my topic, he begins bringing me home all sorts of interesting reading material, most of it on the cutting edge of science.
Once I’ve built a basic understanding, I begin looking for experts in the field. This is my favorite part of research: talking to those actually doing the work. Their passion for their field of study transcends the written word. There’s nothing better than talking to a scientist on the verge of making a discovery, or facing down something the rest of us would run from. The casual comments they make, or the insights they provide, are like nuggets of gleaming gold in a bed of gray muck.
For The Things That Keep Us Here, I had to become acquainted with influenza viruses: what they look like, how they behave, how the seasonal variation differs from the one that rages out of control and causes a pandemic. One of the scientists I interviewed spent hours describing the virus, diagramming it, talking about its behavior in the wild. He walked me through his lab, showing me the equipment field researchers use to diagnose virus variants, the precautions they take to stay safe, and how much risk is involved in the work they do.
At the end of our last session, we sat down and talked about influenza, in particular H5N1, the variant scientists all over the world were closely monitoring. Despite his enthusiasm about his work, the topic was a grim one.
“You’re the father of two young children,” I said. “How would you keep them safe?”
He shook his head. “I couldn’t. The virus is airborne. It could get into my home no matter how tightly I closed my windows.”
I persisted. “What about masks? Wouldn’t they protect you?”
“My little girl is two years old. It would terrify her to see me wearing a mask, especially if she were feverish. I couldn’t possibly comfort her like that. I’d have to take it off.”
That was true. When your child is sick, your only thought is consoling them. You don’t think about getting sick yourself. But he was a scientist. He had to know tricks that the rest of us didn’t. “So what could you do?”
“Nothing.” He shrugged. “I’d get sick, my wife would get sick. We’d just have to wait and see which one of us survived.”
I stared at him. The question between us remain unvoiced: what if neither one of you survived? What would happen to his children then?
He folded his arms and looked at me. “You see,” he said, gently. “There is nothing we can do. It’s not a question of if we’re going to have a pandemic. It’s a question of when.”
That statement, delivered so matter-of-factly and with the power of scientific knowledge behind it, haunted me as I began writing The Things That Keep Us Here. It was one of the nuggets of gold I discovered; it helped me shape my character Peter, a research scientist, and lent gravity to my words.
This is why I do a lot of research in my work. It’s not only to compensate for all those science classes I’ve avoided in my life. It also helps fill out characters, pluck plot points from thin air, extend a storyline in a direction I never envisioned. And ultimately, it puts me into the right place, mentally and emotionally, to tell the story I’ve undertaken to write.
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