Sunday, February 8, 2015

Real Science Is Essential in Mysteries & Thrillers

Laboratory results, psychology, and computer analyses are essential for plot development in any modern mystery or crime fiction. Think of the TV shows—CSI, NCIS, and Criminal Minds. Many thrillers depend on technologically to provide innovative ways to trap or destroy villains. Big Bang Theory has shown science nerds can be funny. However, many authors (especially those who are not scientists or physicians) are uncomfortable about using scientific tidbits in their writing.

Essential considerations when adding science to fictional tales.
1) Use scientific details to create realistic scenes, but not so many as to slow the plot. As a biologist, who regularly reads scientific journals, I’m intrigued by cancer immunotherapy. (Scientists are making vaccines that trigger the immune systems of cancer patients to more effectively fight their disease.) That’s the scientist in me talking. The novelist part of me says the plot and character development rule.

In Malignancy, men disguised as police officers shoot at Sara Almquist twice in one day. Albuquerque police suspect Jim Mazzone, a drug czar who has tangled with Sara before, will order more hits on Sara. When colleagues in the State Department invite Sara to arrange scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, she jumps at the chance to get out of town. Soon, she realizes Cuba offers more surprises than Albuquerque.

That’s the plot. One of Sara’s surprises is Cuban researchers have patented a therapeutic vaccine for a certain type of lung cancer (actual fact). Another surprise involves her love interest, the shady Xave Zack. I can’t tell you about the others because that would spoil your surprises as a reader.

2)  Pick relevant science topics. Readers are more apt to be interested in facts that are relevant to real issues—global warming, fracking for natural gas, or curing cancer than in learning details about biochemical pathways.

I thought weights control was one of universal interest to Americans, but most want to hear something besides the obvious: eat less and exercise more. Scientist know fat animals (including humans) lose weight when their gut bacteria are altered, but scientists don’t know which of the 15,000 to 36,000 species of bacteria in the gut are important. Talk about a lot of red herrings. I thought descriptions of this research (based on current ongoing studies) would be intriguing, maybe slightly funny, to readers.

In Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight, a diet doctor is found dead after she charges her partner with recklessly endangering the lives of obese subjects in their clinical trials. Linda Almquist, the associate dean in the medical school, must protect the subjects in the clinical trial, while she searches for a sophisticated killer who knows a lot about poisons.

3) Be accurate. In Malignancy, I state the truth about the cancer vaccine Racotumomab developed by the Cubans. It triggers patients’ bodies to mount an immune response against of certain types of lung tumor cells because they have an unusual compound on their surface. It doesn’t prevent or cure cancer, but in it should slow the progression of the disease. It may be one of the first successes in cancer immunotherapy, but it’s too soon to tell. Many clinical trials, which require international cooperation of scientists and physicians, are need. Thus this is a practical example of why the State Department sent my heroine, a scientist, to Cuba to begin to set up exchanges Cuban and American scientists.

Why not pick up copies of Malignancy and Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight and see if you like how I incorporated science into my thrillers/mysteries?

I'll try to visit more often in 2015, but I've been busy preparing a collection of short stories.

# Main rule to include science in fiction. Use scientific details to create realistic scenes, but not so many as to slow the plot.