Friday, 29 July 2011

"What if...?" -TWO WRITING WORKSHOPS (Part 2)

Linda Gillard writing again...

I began my two workshops with a disclaimer: that I wasn't a scientist and didn't really know much about science. (See my earlier blog about being the victim of an arts education.) In an attempt to justify my selection as Durham's CELEBRATE SCIENCE Author in Residence, I'd examined my novels and attempted to identify where the science occurs in them. I hoped I'd be able to read out chunks of accessible and interesting scientific information, in the same way that I can select readings to illustrate how I use dialogue or point of view, or how I write description.

This proved more difficult than I'd expected. I found I didn't actually write chunks of science, then insert them (which is what I thought I did.) I wasn't able to pull out the plums, like Little Jack Horner. I needed to separate the sugar from the flour, fat and water and I couldn't because it was all so blended and so changed, it had become pastry. From this I concluded that the science in my novels must be thoroughly embedded, not bolted on.

I thought that was probably a good thing. (But not if you want to impress a bunch of scientists with your scientific erudition and skill at communicating it to the layperson.)

In EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY I'd written about geology from the point of view of someone (my fictional heroine) discovering the subject for the first time. In STAR GAZING I'd written about geophysics from the point of view of a hero who worked in oil exploration. I'd also written about wildlife conservation, woodland regeneration, the night sky and the Northern Lights from his viewpoint. But none of these subjects was there in its own right. They were all just tools to help me tell my story (and that story was about ways of seeing, in particular how a blind woman perceives the world.)

One of the book’s memorable scenes is when Keir sends blind Marianne an audio recording he’s made which represents the Northern Lights – a recording made by hooking up a magnetometer to an audio recorder, so she can hear variations in the strength and direction of the geomagnetic field and thus have an aural picture of the Northern Lights. He says, "Give it a whirl. After a few plays you might find it grows on you. Like Pink Floyd. Personally, I like that ‘screaming swifts’ effect. If you can, listen on headphones and you might get a wee feel of the night sky full of random coloured lights. Like a cosmic firework display…” 

This is one of many examples where something scientific crops up in one of my novels, but it’s deeply embedded in the story and characters. Keir makes the recording for Marianne because he loves her, but doesn’t know how to say so, doesn’t even want to admit it to himself. He’s a scientist, so he uses his specialist knowledge to give her a rather wonderful gift that extends her limited experience of the world.

And as author, I got to extend the reader’s experience of the world by getting them to think about the phenomenon of the Northern Lights - without my having to describe them! (Though as a writer I’m quite interested in describing the indescribable.)

I don't really know why science topics crop up so often in my books. I'm certainly interested in science and, as I write mainly for myself, my novels are all repositories for the things I'm interested in. But I think the science might be there because it's a way of discussing ideas - big ideas, like time, space, extinction, the inter-connectedness of all living things - in a way that anyone can understand. 

As a mother and an ex-primary teacher, I spent a lot of years doing just that, long before I started writing fiction. I remember exasperating my children, pointing out the difference between knowledge and belief, explaining that there's relatively little we know about the world from our own experience. (Did men actually land on the moon? Do the Pitcairn Islands exist? Is Elvis really dead? We take so much on trust.) 

Many years later, my congenitally blind heroine had this to say in STAR GAZING: "For me the Earth is a conceit, something I’m told exists but cannot see – like Pluto or Neptune for you. Astronomers deduced that Neptune must exist long before they devised telescopes powerful enough to view it. They thought it must be there because something was affecting the orbits of the other planets. There was a gap in the galaxy where a planet ought to be and they trusted that there was. It was an act of faith: faith in mathematics and physics. 

"There is a gap in my life where the Earth ought to be. I have to take its existence on trust. I cannot see or feel the Earth, I am merely informed by my senses of the minutiae of its being. It’s much the same for you, but sight allows you to appreciate what others see, through a camera lens, through telescopes, from spaceships. Thanks to this second-hand sight, your world is much, much bigger than mine can ever be."

One of the physicists in the workshop was very taken with my reference to the "sound picture" of the Northern Lights and wondered where I'd come across it. I replied with the now inevitable "Google". Serendipity has played a large part in the composition of my novels. If I find something I like and want to share, I'll try to slip it into a novel somewhere.

Hubble image of Saturn's Aurora
 So I'm currently looking for an opportunity to share with the reading public the knowledge that Saturn has an Aurora too (why did I think it only happened on Earth?!) and that it too can be viewed as a "sound picture". So far, so interesting. Now comes the - for me - completely thrilling part: Saturn's Northern Lights "music" is completely different from Earth's and is just about the scariest thing I have ever heard in my life. It's sadder, weirder and more musical than Earth's.

I'm indebted to Dr Pete Edwards (who attended my workshop) for playing me this recording and showing me beautiful pictures of Saturn's aurora. In return I told him that the Saami word for the aurora translates as "audible light". (How did I know? Google, of course.) 

And if that isn't "encouraging greater creative dialogue between scientists and fiction writers", I don't know what is.


  1. When I read the section in Star Gazing where Keir sends Marianne the audio recording on the Northern Lights, it reminds me of the first time I heard the whistlers at Saturn, detected by the Cassini spacecraft. I was at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), and was listening along with hundreds of other scientists, all holding our breath waiting for the next spooky space sound to sweep us away to another world - It was amazing!​ltimedia/sounds/

  2. Interesting, and as always, thought-provoking. Thanks Linda.


  3. I had a similar experience earlier this year, on a trip to Alaska, though in reverse. Having studied the aurora of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus from above for more than ten years, I stood beneath them for the first time, looking up. The air was so cold, it caught in my throat, iced up my beard, but the delicate slowly drifting green lights moved above us from the horizon till they filled the sky.

    To even 'see' the aurora of another planet, you have to sit atop a mountain, so there to, with thin air, you find your breath taken away, watching as the southern lights of another planet drift into and out of view.