Research 101 by Bonnie Schroeder

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Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter. Her debut novel, Mending Dreams, was published by Champlain Avenue Books.

 

Science and I have never been good friends—except for high school physics, which was very cool because we learned how to make a hydrogen bomb. And lest this set off any Homeland Security alarms, I write “learned how to make” very abstractly here. It’s not like they gave us a recipe; the teacher merely explained the difference between fission (atom bomb) and fusion (hydrogen bomb), but my 17-year-old brain found it fascinating.

Flash forward several decades and I began work on a new novel, about a woman who suddenly and inexplicably begins growing younger. This has nothing to do with hydrogen bombs, but rather than writing the story as a fantasy—a gigantic case of wish fulfillment—I started asking questions. Could such a thing happen? How?

And this, inevitably, led me back to science.

Full disclosure: I did not find the Fountain of Youth in my travels, but I did learn more than I’ll ever need to know about genetics and cells and chromosomes. I’m not going to lay all that out for you, but I will share a few of my research techniques. Sooner or later, most writers will find they need knowledge, scientific or otherwise, that they don’t yet possess. Here’s how I went about getting it.

  1. I did some general reading first

I began my quest by reading several articles about the work doctors and scientists are doing to slow the aging process and extend our healthy lifespans. I noticed several names popping up over and over. Googling these names, I discovered contact information for several scientists—at places like Harvard and the National Institutes of Health.

2. I was audacious

I sent emails to several of these doctors and scientists, explaining my project and shamelessly asking for a few minutes of their time to review the initial premise I’d constructed and tell me if it seemed totally preposterous.scientist

Most of them never replied, but three did, and I learned something from this exercise: Scientists are really nice! They like to be helpful and to share their knowledge, and they can talk in plain English when they want to!

The first scientist I spoke with—via Skype, at his suggestion—reviewed my premise, diplomatically explained it was, in his words, “too specific and too unbelievable,” and sent me on a quest to learn about epigenetics (for the uninitiated, this is “the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.” Got that?) He felt the clue to my premise lay in this area.

  1. I then read more specific material

My next stop was Amazon, to buy a book called Genetics for Dummies. Yes, there actually is a book by that title. I understood little of what I read, but it gaGenetics.jpgve me the vocabulary I needed to comprehend the technical articles I encountered as I chased down epigenetics and followed the threads that spun out from there.

  1. I was flexible

One of the scientists I contacted responded that she didn’t work with writers as a general practice, but she gave me the name of another scientist who was not on my initial “hit list.” This kind man turned out to be a goldmine of information and enthusiasm and not only gave me notes on my story’s outline, but also offered to read the narrative once I get to the point where science enters the picture and tell me if I got the jargon right.

  1. I was respectful of my sources’ time

This goes without saying, of course. Experts are busy people, so if one of them suggested a time and a method of contact (both Skype and teleconferencing seem popular), I was prepared to cooperate, and I was punctual.

  1. I expressed my gratitude often

There are not enough words in the language to thank these fine people who generously took time from their work to help a struggling novelist. I did thank each of them copiously during our discussions, and of course I will include a big, gushy acknowledgement in the book when it’s published. Because I was dealing with scientists in government and academia, I made sure to get their permission to mention them, because this won’t be the usual place where their name appears. And of course they will all get signed copies of the book, because without them it would have been banished to that box in the garage with all my thwarted projects.

Now I have to write the darned book, of course, and as we all know that’s a long and winding road itself. I have extra motivation on this particular trip, however, because I want to apply the knowledge I gained from my new scientist friends and prove their time wasn’t wasted in talking with me.

Has anyone else out there ever tackled a subject way beyond their area of expertise? How did you go about it? How did it turn out?

FROM SCREEN TO PAGE, Part 2 with Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of Petals in the Wind.  
She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon.




FROM SCREEN TO PAGE, Part 2

 Today I continue our discussion about the basic rules of screenplays that would benefit fiction writers. In my last blog post (September 9), we looked at the four story questions writers must be able to answer. Today we discuss the second rule:


 ü  At least one key character has to undergo a transformation.

 Often referred to as the character arc, this concept has been underscored by notables such as Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, and Syd Field. If plot is the external story, then the character’s arc is the internal version of events.

 The arc can be as intimate as a widow coming to terms with her loss, or as monumental as an everyman summoning his courage to save the universe. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Eight Tips on Writing a Great Short Story’ is: “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” The character we meet at Once upon a time is (or becomes) driven by this want. He’s shaped and formed, or reformed, by the conflict he endures, usually with the help of the supporting characters, but ultimately he must face the final challenge alone. Who he is by happily ever after depends on how he’s changed through the course of the story, and what has occurred to cause those changes. Whether she’s a factory worker who takes up a cause (Silkwood, Norma Rae), a dutiful son who reluctantly shoulders a crime family (The Godfather), or a hardened cynic who sacrifices love for a nobler cause (Casablanca), watching the characters transform before our eyes, on screen or throughout the pages of a book, transforms us as well.

 That change almost always occurs in the protagonist, but there are exceptions – if a 
narrator is telling your story about someone, or if the protagonist is steadfast, but inspires change in another character. We’ve come to learn (with regret) that Harper Lee’s novels are examples of the former, while High Noon is an example of the latter. Stories featuring animal protagonists, like Marley and Me, can be examples of both exceptions.

 If you outline or use another form of story organization, you should plan the character arcs before you begin writing. If not, a technique I’ve found very helpful is to complete my novel or story and then read through it several times, searching for individual components of the manuscript with each pass. One read-through is dedicated to character arc, first for my protagonist, and then for each key character. I look for a pattern, for inconsistencies, for triggers and reactions – for ways to smooth the transition into something natural and realistic. I also identify the characters who shouldn’t change and check to insure they stay the same throughout the pages.

 In the final part of this series, we’ll exit the movie theater and examine a screenwriting concept adapted from live theater – the three-act structure.