I think writing can be the easiest thing in the world to do, once you’ve figured out a few words and how to get them on paper. Watch a child who has just learned to write and see how effortlessly they write:
“I likə cats and rainbows. I wish my cat kud tock so shə kud tell mə if shə liks rainbows. I think shə duz.“
Yes, every “e” is backwards, there are several words spelled phonetically, and the colour choices make it difficult to read; but there it is in black and white (and a crayon box full of other colours). If a child at such an early stage can write, then anyone can do it. Right?
Wrong. Writing is also one of the most difficult things in the world to do. Not every story can be about cats, and not every idea just appears in your head like a rainbow in the sky. Good ideas are even harder to come by. Those are like the crystal clear double rainbow you see after a short summer rain where you can imagine giant pots of gold at each end and a bevy of leprechauns dancing a jig around them. Oh, and let’s not forget that all this has to be interesting enough for people to read. That’s like trying to describe your rainbow scene in such a way that someone would rather read about it from you than see the photograph of it taken by someone else.
We needn’t fret though because we’ve given ourselves the best out there is: we get to make stuff up! That’s right, when it comes to fiction, we writers are blessed to live in a world where there are virtually no rules (and those who are editors can vouch for the fact that most of us take some pretty serious liberties with the rules that do exist), and this is where I start to feel a little dirty.
My background is heavily scientific. In high school I took chemistry, physics, calculus, algebra, and finite mathematics. English and French were thrown in just because I had to take something that wasn’t math and science. I started university in applied physics, and was working toward an astrophysics major before I realized that a career in academia was not how I wanted to spend my life. I graduated with a non-specialized science degree and became a computer programmer.
At this point you’re asking yourself, Why is this important, and why does it make you feel dirty? Well it’s really quite simple… as a scientist I am not comfortable making stuff up. It feels wrong. Actually, when a scientist makes stuff up it IS wrong, and when other people make stuff up and try to pawn it off as science (or worse, the truth) it is just as wrong, if not more so. My friend Gordon Bonnet (a science teacher and a writer) has an excellent blog about people making stuff up and how it really grates his cheese. His post from Feb. 9 even has a rainbow!
So, when it came time to introduce a little science to my novel I was hesitant. I was a physics guy, and a slightly below average one at that. The science I needed was in the area of biology and to a lesser degree advanced computer programming and Internet security. I could bungle my way through the math and computers well enough that the average person wouldn’t have a clue. Plus, I didn’t want those details to overpower the characters in the story (it’s not a book about computers, it’s a book about people!) Anyway, after a while I got more and more comfortable with the idea of blatantly making up the biology parts just because I thought it sounded good.
A close friend gave me the idea to use HeLa cells. These are fascinating little cancerous cells that are almost impossible to kill. I did a little reading on them and after a few weeks came up with quite a nice twist that I thought worked rather nicely. Then, I pitched the idea to a friend of mine who happens to hold a PhD in biochemistry and who also happens to be one of the smartest and wonderfully scientifically minded people I have the pleasure of knowing. He was convinced there was a scientifically accurate way to do this and offered his assistance in finding it.
That seemed like a lot of work.
I explained to him that I didn’t need it to actually be right, I just needed it to be remotely plausible to the average person off the street, and my only real challenge would be to sound convincing enough. I fully expect that anyone with experience in isolation and characterization of unsaturated fatty acids as natural ligands for the retinoid-X receptor, or even anyone with better-than-average knowledge of biology to call bullshit, and I was good with that. He was not, and while he didn’t say it out loud I think he was a little disappointed in me. Hopefully linking to his thesis makes up for it.
Now, all that being said, for every sentence I write that obfuscates reality just a little bit too much I feel a slight pang of disappointment as well. There’s a fine line between artistic license and simply being too lazy to actually research something. So I’ve started interviewing people and doing some reading to help expose some truth – but not all of it – after all, if kids have taught me anything it’s that it’s okay to get a little dirty once and a while.
Oh, and if you know any good alchemists or mad scientists I can talk to, please let me know.