3.22.2016

The Science in Writing

Hello! I'm actually really new here: I just joined with the awesome women & men of Untethered Realms a couple of months ago, and I am continually blown away by their novels and general amazingness :) I love getting to hear from other sci-fi and fantasy authors, chat about craft, and generally have a support system that gets us through the rough patches that invariably come from being an author.

So, a couple things about me, just by way of introduction:
~I have five novels published in the YA and NA age range. You can find out more here :)
~I am a California girl living in Montana. It's beautiful here, though I'm still adjusting to the cold winters.
~By day, I'm a professor of Anthropology at the University of Montana, where I do research with ancient DNA and teach college kids about the biological invalidity of race, how to use DNA to trace ancestry, Neanderthals, and how solve forensic cases. I adore my job, even if it keeps me running around like a headless chicken most days!

My day job gives me a good bit of insight into some very strange topics that come up pretty often in novels, especially lab work and forensic stuff. And while I have fun teaching about these things, it does make for some interesting reading and watching at times. As in, I can barely stand CSI or
The CSI effect is real! (Source)
Bones, or any of the other forensic shows. They drive me batty! (Which is, admittedly, not a long trip ;). Too many shows, and unfortunately books (thankfully not from our group!), fudge the details.

(As an aside, this has always struck me as so weird on the crime shows. I mean, the real-world way of using DNA and other forensic techniques to solve crimes are very difficult and can be super dramatic--why don't the shows just stick with real science and not make stuff up? The drama could totally still be present, and bonus, people would actually learn a few things along the way!)

What's a writer to do to keep things accurate? Well, research, right? That's the biggest thing. There are some amazing resources around the web! But it's easy to get bogged down in details and be unable to get the answers you want. Trust me, I totally understand this--the last novel I wrote was all about biological weapons. I don't even want to know how much my googling got me onto watch-lists for every government agency. So, if you're having trouble finding the answers, might I recommend your local college or university? There's probably someone there who knows what you're looking for, or can point you in the right direction.

(Source)
Do keep in mind that emailing a professor or researcher out of the blue may not lead to a quick response, but a short and quick email with a description of what you're trying to find out often does spark some interest. I mean, most professors are a very curious bunch, and most of us love to read :) I'd recommend avoiding a phone call, unless they suggest it, or stopping by their office unannounced, as well as having a bit of patience for a reply. But in general, you're likely to find someone helpful, curious, and all too eager to ensure that you're able to describe something they study accurately in your book!

As a random example, a writing buddy of mine emailed to ask me about body decomposition a while ago. She was writing a scene with a dead body and wanted to know what it would look like after being enclosed in a room for over a year. A few questions about the climate, animals, and ventilation, and I was able to get her a pretty good estimate of what would be left of the body :).
Incidentally, this is not what the body would look like, though. (Source)
Anyhow, this is my two cents on research for novels. It can be a lot of fun!

Thanks for joining me here today! Anyone have any fun research stories?

31 comments:

  1. Hi Meradeth ... you sound like you have my ideal job - I fall short re the science bit!! but love to read about these sorts of things and love learning more.

    The BBC had a series here titled "Historical Cold Cases" ... and I got hooked - loved the one about Stirling Castle skeletons ... which I wrote about for the blog - as it drew me in. It's amazing what we can find out about people, societies etc etc .. via Anthropology and related sciences.

    I love geology, history and social history ... but will love reading your take on research in novels. I don't know if you've thought about doing the A-Z in April this year .. but you'd have a wonderful set of 26 posts to write up ... and hope you will consider it ..

    Cheers Hilary

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    1. Thanks, Hilary! I have watched the BBC show and really enjoyed it--it's nice to see when the science-y bits are so well done :) And I have considered the A-Z...but April is a beast of a month at school as it's so close to the end of the semester. I can never seem to manage it. One of these years I'll plan ahead!

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    2. That's good .. I've had to pull out of the A-Z ... but put mine forward for 2017! Good planning I thought in the circumstances ... time saved for 2017 - nightmare here in 2016.

      I'm glad you saw the BBC show ... good luck with your April - exams, time with students etc etc ... take care and see you here anon - cheers Hilary

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  2. If I had to do college over again, I would consider getting a degree in anthropology, although I'd probably stick to the linguistics end of it. :) Research can be fun. For example, I'm working on a story set in 1993, so I've been research slang terms, clothing, and the like. It's been fun to see what has changed and what hasn't.

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    1. Shoulder pads. Big earrings. :) Leggings were big for awhile too. I think awesome comes from then, too.

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    2. lol! Lots of awesome, for sure!

      Linguistics is awesome! I have some amazing friends who help preserve languages that are potentially dying and I love seeing their work.

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  3. Great post, Meradeth. You should write a book: Death for Writers: A Guide from DNA to Decomposition.

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    1. Ahhh, that title is the BEST!!! I may have to do that :)

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  4. I want to hang out with you. Can I move in with you in Montana? :) I love anthropology. I've read several nonfictions on the topic.

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    1. You are welcome up here any time! :) Might I recommend the summertime--it's much, much nicer here then.

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  5. If I had to do college again, I would be a marine biologist - every child's dream at one point

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    1. I think that's very true--I wanted to do that for a while, myself :)

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  6. Your job sounds amazing. And thanks for the tip that professors might not mind being asked questions like this. Even though I work at a university I've always been a little hesitant to do it. So glad you joined our group!

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    1. Glad I was of a bit of help! I hope you ask someone at work for sure :)

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  7. Wow! Your day job sounds fascinating! I run down research roads, but I don't always find everything. So far, it seems like most research I do just gets me asking more "what if?" questions.

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    1. Haha, I hear you on that! It's amazing how many more questions I end up asking when I get started :)

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  8. How I love learning. Which is just as well since there is soooooo much I don't know.

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    1. The more I know, the more I know I don't know :)

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  9. Actually, Bones is based on a series of novels written by a forensic anthropologist, but when you're doing a TV series you can't always take trouble to get it right if you don't want the audience falling asleep - or turning the station. In fact, crime fiction of ANY kind assumes that you can solve a murder in a short time!

    I know of at least one web site, a blog, that answers medical questions for writers, by Jordyn Redwood, who is an ER nurse herself and writes as well. I'm betting there are more. Have you considered setting up such a blog?

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    1. I know Bones is based on novels--and actually those aren't so bad. The author is actually trained in the field. I just hate watching how Hollywood takes liberties. Makes me nuts!

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  10. You have such a fascinating job! I once wanted to be an Egyptologist or archaeologist (thank you, Indiana Jones!). One of my degrees is in law enforcement and I've always been fascinated by the forensics side. I recently watched a show on Science Channel that talked about how horribly forensics was represented in books and TV. I've researched all sorts of weird things over the years. Recently it's been 1940s mansions and cannibalism. Heh.

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    1. Indiana Jones inspired a huge slew of us, that's for sure! Some of my coworkers and I were just talking about a paper that shows the increase in anthro majors after the first three films. Funny how that works! :) Also, cannibalism--so totally one of my favorite topics!!

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  11. Your job sounds really interesting. I can relate to the running around. I do that a lot of my day job too.

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    1. I don't know about you, but some days, after running around for hours, I wish I had one of those jobs that didn't involve anything other than sitting behind a desk and maybe answering the phone from time to time ;)

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  12. Ooh! Now I know who to mail when I get around to writing a mystery one day. ;-)

    I have to admit, I do fudge details when it comes to making things fit into a story.

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    1. I've fudge a few details, too, shhh! ;) Totally hit me up if you ever need anything!!

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  13. I'm a fudger. (is that such a word?) Now I know who to ask if I need advice on decomposing bodies and such. Thanks for the interesting post Meradeth!

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    1. lol, fudger makes me think of something good to eat :) And definitely don't hesitate to hit me up if you ever need anything!

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  15. Meradeth, we're so glad you are a UR member! And, yes, I do love doing research. My latest novel is set in 1932 and I had big fun researching historical details, fashion, music and lingo from the Prohibition era.

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    1. The 30's have such an interesting history--I'll bet that was a blast!

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