Saturday, December 08, 2007

Masterclass - Putting the Science into Fiction with Ann Lingard

Ann Lingard's former life was as a doctor of science. And while she has become an author (her latest book, Floating Stones, was released in 2003 on eBook) she hasn't set aside her scientific life as something separate and to be forgotten. She incorporates all her experience into what she writes, often going on to learn more so as to infuse her writing. On her website, she says:
‘As a scientist myself, I feel that scientists often get a ‘bad press’ in novels - only rarely are they portrayed as likeable or even fairly ordinary people. I hope I’ve managed to change that perception in the fiction that I’ve written - ‘scientists’ (a very generalised term!) are interesting, dreary, infuriating, warm-hearted; they fall in love, they have families, worry about mortgages and blocked drains, have hobbies or watch too much TV … they’re human!
And that played a big part in her masterclass, an informative presentation on the real world in which science exists and the website she set up to get writers and scientists talking.

SciTalk is a project to help scientists and fiction-writers - playwrights, poets and novelists - to meet, and talk, one-to-one and face-to-face.

Scientists need to show writers — poets, playwrights, novelists – the wealth of possibilities that are opened up to fiction by using science and scientists in their work. Just as a novel with an accountant as a main character need not be about accountancy, a novel with a scientist need not be about science. Scientists need writers to show that they are 'normal people' from all backgrounds, with normal concerns.
Ann told us three stories, all of them relating to the need for facts and realism when trying to bring science into your work.

In 1854, Philip Henry Gosse, the renowned marine biologist, was travelling to Ilfracombe by paddlesteamer from Bristol. He and his wife were moving there to a town house his wife had picked out with the help of God(!) It was dark by the time they pulled up at the quay at Ilfracombe and with the paddles flaying, the wheels churning, the night suddenly lit up. A green glow, unnatural and shocking, eminated from the waters around them. Gosse ran for home and collected a glass jar from their apartment. He returned to collect some of the strange coloured water and took the sample home. Still and by lamp light the water was again translucent. The green had faded. But, he took it into a dark room and struck it, and as if by magic, the lights returned, tiny green halos flowering before his eyes.

In the water were tiny jellyfish plankton that react to the darkness and, it seems, to being churned or struck. Aequorea, they have become known, have a green fluroescent protein that has revolutionised modern genetics. By extracting the gene from the jellyfish, scientists have been able to insert it into the dna of lab mice, attach it to another gene that they are testing and check to see if it is switched on. Other tests have included, attaching the gene to the development of nerve cells in zebra fish to see their development.

We've moved on a great deal since the Victorain age - taking big strides away from it in fact, what hasn't changed since then are the opportunities. There are lots of places in scientific environments where one can build relationships between characters. Science can take the front or back seat in any number of situations an author wishes to employ to keep the narrative going. It doesn't have to all take place in a white lab. It doesn't have to be stilted.

As authors we can take into account culture and the style of the scientific discipline. Science can exist in the form of field work (a life split between different places), or otherwise constantly on the move. Also, scientists can be any age, and even those that have retired don't necessarily give up their passions.

Lingard's speech really centres on the notion that many writers adding scientific elements to their prose do so in a generic manner, moving away from the narrative to deliver their evidence or make the big reveal. She proceeded to show us some photos of different environments: a cell biologist in a sterile, orderly molecular biolab, filled with jars, painted white, with all the white-coat trimmings. There also we saw a palaentologist in an office of cluttered desks, stacked with papers. The only equipment we could see was a microscope. Geologists, we saw, who'd left academia, can travel the world, sub-cotnracting to oil and gas companies. Out in the middle of nowhere with a pipeline and a digger. They go to international conferences, they go home, they travel.

Remember, says Lingard, that scientists are first and foremost people. There are group leaders in the teams, researchers, technicians, phd students. They have lives and it's not all science. They are ordinary and not to be mistaken for the cliche of Dr Frankenstein or Igor. They could be existing on soft money (a three year contract) and be concerned about their dependents and where their next pay cheque is coming from.

Here, from the Armstrong and Miller Show is a very different example:
A friend says of the piece:
Apart from the white coats, shirts and ties (none of which most bioscientists bother with unless they really have to, most don't own a tie)...and calling each other 'Doctor' and 'Professor' (its all first names, whoever you are)...but the screaming, threats, pressure and hysterics and not far from what I've seen with some lab leaders...
suggests the following points:
  • Science doesn't have to be difficult (don't bog the reader down with information). Distill it and use elements not didactics. Subtlety.
  • A story with an accountant doesn't have to be about accountancy.
  • Readers like to "get to grips with modern science". Any writer covering a science subject is going to generate reviews interested as much in that science as in the prose.
  • Science use can be topical and can give you the edge. Look at the possibility of the next big thing - global warming, new fuel sources, genetic cloning
  • Use SciTalk. Currently there are 150 scientists covering a broad spectrum of disciplines, vetted specifically by Lingard and they can not only provide you with pertinent explanations of how things work, but advise on where the wall between reality and fiction can be fudged.

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