Exploring Art and Science with Rachael Bishop

As a daughter of two artists, I grew up with parents who were constantly making observations about the world. “Look at how delicate this locust shell is, but he’s shed it fully intact.” “What do you think is casting this shadow? Where is the light source?” “This pesto is such a beautiful green!”

            My responses to these questions ranged depending on my age. As a young kid, it was “Oh, you’re right, how cool!” As a teen, it was more like, “Why are my parents so goofy?” Now in my early 60s, I realize this training is what set me on my career in science communications for federal agencies like NOAA and organizations like the American Chemical Society and Ocean Conservancy. This habit of mind is what has also most served me in writing fiction.

            Yes, you heard me right. Art, science, and fiction all connect and support each other. And I’ll go one step further and say the intersection of the three is crucial in building meaning.

            But let’s not get too far ahead. Let’s start with the locust. My Mom liked to cast dead bugs in resin as part of her collages. In the 1960s, she paid my sister and me 5 cents for each dead bug we found. They had to already be dead, whole, and they had to be interesting. We would pore over the insects observing color, ponder how these short legs could move such a chunky body, and marvel at the translucent wings that fluttered if we blew lightly on them. We had to explain each bug we brought for sale, its merits and features and we had to highlight aspects that would contribute to her art. Iridescent blue, jet black, all four wings intact, and eyes on back were favorites.

            And so, I learned to observe details, to compare, and to ask ‘why’ questions. Why is the back of the locust shell broken open, but the rest is completely intact? Making observations requires one to slow down, to look at what is, and to form hypotheses about evidence that you can see, hear, feel, or otherwise sense and comprehend. This is the foundation of good research, and the habits of mind and skill in observing and describing anything are central to science.

When I had to write about how toxic chemicals persist in the environment I asked chemistry questions. Why are these chemicals so strong that decades of erosion, weather, and the weight of tons of sand doesn’t break them down for decades? What does that mean when these chemicals leach into drinking water resources? To make sense of how hummingbirds fly, I took a video and broke it down into frames – I realized they rotate their wings using both front and backward motions to propel themselves in different ways. Suddenly their incredible, 360 degree mobility made sense!

            How does this level of observation and detail help with writing fiction? Your characters exist in place and time. To get at the details, put your observing mind in reverse. As my father used to say, “Track backward – how did we get to this point?” Say you want to write about a girl climbing a tree. In 2019, this girl would likely live with different circumstances than her ancestor in 1882. Today’s girl is probably wearing shorts and a t-shirt that could easily rip; she has a bike to get to the tree; and might have free time after school. A girl of parallel social status in the 1880s intent on climbing a tree would have to ditch her corset, and probably have to sneak clothes from her brother, or she’d have to answer uncomfortable questions about tears to her dress, and so forth. Suddenly, you have a much more determined character – often details drive the character, and as we know, characters drive the plot.

            Another habit of science that I’ve found essential to writing fiction is the need to test and revise hypotheses. And here concrete details rule! When the evidence does not support the theory, it’s almost always time to revise the assumption. This habit of mind is helpful because we often cling to ideas; but studying evidence that contradicts the notion makes it easier to be open-minded. This willingness to go back and observe more precisely and build stories based on details leads to a coherence that makes narrative flow easily, believably, and authentically. When writers can give their readers this kind of experience they create works that are deeply meaningful because they hold together; they make sense. And this is true of fantasy worlds as much as our own Earth.

And so, fellow writers, I would urge you to let your inner child with skinned knees, who constantly asks ‘why,’ to help when next you sit down to write. Let your inner artist deeply envision a world that is rich in detail and scenery; let her create unique and memorable characters because readers love to trust a writer who can deliver such an adventure!