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  • [SWP: Behind the Book] Fiction and the Joy of Research
This blog was featured on 07/08/2016
[SWP: Behind the Book] Fiction and the Joy of Research
Written by
Jenni Ogden
November 2017
Written by
Jenni Ogden
November 2017

I tend to be obsessive about research. Before I began writing my first novel I had published, through traditional publishers, two editions of a textbook and a nonfiction case-study book for the general reader on my neuropsychological patients. During my career as a university professor and clinician I had also written around 60 scientific articles for psychology and medical journals, and a number of book chapters. I couldn’t wait to let all those rules float away and write whatever I wanted to write straight out of my imagination.  What bliss to not have to get things accurate, reference everything I wrote and write under stern subheadings like Introduction, Method, Analysis and Discussion. What bliss to show not tell. And what a steep learning curve!

My years of writing and publishing experience did help me, sort of. It taught me how to write clearly and hopefully reasonably concisely. Getting my grammar right is easy for me; I’m not prone to apostrophe abuse. The American spelling was a bit tricky—I was schooled in New Zealand and it is hard to get used to writing ‘humor’ instead of ‘humour’ and US spelling still trips me up sometimes. US grammar is even more tricky as the differences are subtle. But that is all technique and can be learned (not learnt). Another plus is that I am good at working to my own deadlines as the academic world requires this, and I love doing research. Fortunately the scientific writing I did was all about story; more so than many scientific disciplines. I was telling the stories of my patients, or using my research to tell a story about, for example, how different types of brain disorder change not only the patient, but the family as well. The difference between this scientific or factual writing and fiction is how that story is told. The purpose of non-fiction is usually primarily to inform and educate. The purpose of fiction is primarily to entertain, draw the reader into different worlds and world views, and have them feel the emotions the characters are feeling.

Yet I couldn’t entirely give up that urge to research the facts behind my imagined world. For example my novel A Drop in the Ocean, to be published by She Writes Press in May, opens as protagonist Anna celebrates her 49th birthday on April 6th, 2008, on the way to her Boston research lab. I checked out the 2008 calendar to make sure I got a date that wasn’t on a weekend or on a US holiday—almost certainly obsessive rather than necessary! I always have a timeline with the dates each main character was born to make sure I don’t stuff up and have a character whose age changes by a year at some point. Weather is another thing I check out—the average temperatures and rainfall at different times of the year in the places my books take place. I also insert on my timeline any major weather or political events that my characters might be expected to know about.

With A Drop In the Ocean, my research was fairly minimal. I have no doubt that this book will always be the novel that contains the most autobiographical material. I was once a research fellow in neuropsychology at MIT in Boston, and my protagonist, Anna, is a Boston neuroscientist—although she is almost the reverse of me personality-wise. The main part of the book is set on Turtle Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. This fictional island is modeled on Heron Island where I spent many summers as a turtle tagger long ago.  Anna becomes involved in the turtle tagging research and many of her tagging and snorkeling adventures are closely based on my own experiences—including coming face-to-face with a giant Queensland Grouper. (I did not, however, fall in love with the turtle whisperer!) I wanted to find a cyclone that had threatened the islands on the tropic of Capricorn on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef but in the end didn’t destroy them, and found that Cyclone Hamish came through in March 2009, so that cyclone in all its messy detail was the one that nearly blew Turtle Island away. The turtles and birds of the reef play a major role in my story so I had in front of me the wildlife calendar for the the real Heron Island. When the turtles started coming up to lay on the beach, when the babies began hatching, when the shearwaters appeared and so on, became key events in Anna’s year on the island.

Near the end of the book Anna goes to Unst, the northern-most island of the remote Shetlands in the UK. Just before I started writing the novel we spent some time there—the best sort of research—and the  descriptions of Shetland, the croft Anna stays in, and the trip to the gannet colony are based closely on this. The photo shows me standing by the Unst croft we stayed in and that I borrowed for my characters to enjoy (so they too could crack their heads on the door-frame).Note that I am only 5ft 4inches tall!

A Drop in the Ocean is the second novel I have written, and in the first (still to be published), a major section was set during Hurricane Katrina. I did weeks of research for this. I’ve been to New Orleans twice but I wasn’t there during Hurricane Katrina. So I read eye-witness reports of the Hurricane, reports of the horrific evacuation of Memorial Hospital where my protagonist woman neurosurgeon found herself, and reports of the political fallout. I watched documentaries and movies until I almost felt I had been there. I will be back there in September and strolling around my imaginary locations to see how closely they match my memory. If I’m still alive when I’m 95 and someone asks me what the worst experience of my life was, I’ll probably tell them it was when I was stuck in Memorial Hospital during Hurricane Katrina, and was finally flown out in the last helicopter from the rusty old platform at the top of the hospital!

Jenni Ogden is the author of Fractured Minds and Trouble In Mind. Her first novel, A Drop In The Ocean, will be  published by She Writes Press, May, 2016. Visit her at www.jenniogden.com and sign up to her monthly e-newsletter at http://www.jenniogden.com/newsletter.htm.


* This post was originally published in July 2016.


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  • Thank you for this beautiful post, Jenni.  I am excited to read your book when it is published.  I am also interested in your two nonfiction books about neuroscience.  One of my main interests in neuroscience is the effect that music has on those who live with atypical neurological functioning.