Everyone who has been following this blog knows that I am not a geneticist. Or a scientist of any kind. I’m a fifth grade teacher. Therefore, in order to make my main character, Paige, believable as a preeminent geneticist on the cusp of a major genetics breakthrough, I had to do a lot of research.
First, I read some books. Three were heavily influential in the development of both Paige’s voice as a scientist and my knowledge of all things genetics: The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally and two books by Matt Ridley — The Agile Gene and Genome. I read the first one cover to cover. It’s incredibly readable and written for people like me — who know nothing about science or genetics of any kind. It’s heavily annotated, with notes in the margins like “Paige’s dad?” or “Does Paige worry she’ll pass down Dad’s genes? Wants to confirm Aaron’s are okay”. I’ve underlined passages and marked pages with post-its…basically using all of the non-fiction strategies I teach my own students.
Genome and The Agile Gene were much harder for me to get through. They’re very technical (for me), and so I used them mostly as a resource about specific genetic ideas. For example, in one of my genetic chapters, I talk about which chromosome holds the genes that determine eye color. I got that information directly from these books.
After reading these books, I felt like I still had some basic questions that needed answers. So I put out a call on Facebook to see if anyone knew a geneticist that might be willing to answer some questions. My friend, Mary Beth, responded to tell me her husband, Dr. James West, was a geneticist and that he’d be happy to help. Turns out, I needed a lot of help. Dr. West emailed back and forth for two years as I revised The Ones We Choose. He was the one to first send me an article about oxytocin production in men, and from there we began discussing the possibility that some men might not be able to produce it. Without Dr. West, I wouldn’t have come up with the oxytocin inhibitor gene. So many readers express surprise to discover this isn’t a real thing, a real condition that many men suffer from. And I credit that surprise to my work with Dr. West, for helping me think through the possibilities and guiding me toward something that could absolutely be true, we just might not know it yet.
Originally I only had about four or five genetic sub chapters. My editor loved them, and wanted me to insert one between every chapter. At the time, my book was about thirty-three chapters long. Which meant I had to develop a lot more. So I made a list of all the things I could possibly talk about: DNA. Cells. Mutations. MtDna. The human genome. Nature vs. Nurture. Many of these topics became their own chapters. The trick wasn’t just to write about the science. It was to weave the science into a story about my main character, Paige. To use the science to further her narrative, whenever possible.
Other times, I wanted to just give you a blip of something, to help you understand something that had just happened, or that would happen in the next chapter. Like the lab rules and regulations, that Paige then went on to violate.
Drafting these short intersertial chapters was both a joy and a headache. Which pretty much sums up the entire publishing process. My next book doesn’t have any of this kind of research in it, but that’s a topic for another day!
The Ones We Choose is available for purchase!