Authors tell you what inspired their work

Karen Dionne, Author of "Freezing Point"

I've always wanted to be a scientist. But in the early 1970s, the pull of the hippie movement was strong. After dropping out of the University of Michigan, I married a stoneware potter, and for several years my husband and I made our living traveling throughout Michigan and surrounding states selling his work at art shows.

In 1974, we moved to Michigan's Upper Peninsula with our 6-week-old daughter as part of the back-to-the-land movement. While we lived in a tent and built our tiny cabin, scavenged wild foods, and carried water from a nearby spring, I devoured Discover Magazine and Scientific American.

It was two decades before I started writing. While encouraging my teenage son to enter some of the same writing contests I had when I was in high school, I started thinking, "What about me? I used to be a pretty good writer." At the time, I was reading science thrillers like Crichton's Jurassic Park, and Preston & Child's Relic and Reliquary, so naturally, that's what came out.

I got the idea for Freezing Point when I read a small feature item in the newspaper about a 1,000 square-mile section of the Larson Ice Shelf that had broken off due to global warming. The image of that giant iceberg intrigued me. What if a researcher had been there when the ice shelf disintegrated? What if they were stranded on the newly formed berg? What if the disaster was somehow their fault? I combined those questions with the greatest April Fool's hoax in Discover Magazine's history, and ended up with a story about an environmental disaster in Antarctica and a grand philanthropic scheme that goes horribly wrong.

Because I'm not a scientist, I consulted with microwave experts, explosives experts, and medical experts in the fields that are touched on in my book. I also read the online journals of people who'd spent time in Antarctica - though after 30 years in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, I knew and cold. In addition, I have a critique partner, Jeffrey Anderson, who's a thriller author [Sleeper Cell; Second Genesis] and a scientist and a medical doctor, and he helps me get my science right.

Still, I'll be first to admit the science in Freezing Point isn't 100% accurate. What's more, I'm okay with that. The truth is, while scientists are exploring various means of melting Antarctic icebergs into drinking water, using microwaves from orbiting satellites isn't the most efficient way to get the job done. But the image of a microwave beam ten times more powerful than sunlight shooting down from space to melt a lake in the middle of a giant iceberg so that technicians can siphon off the water into waiting tankers and ship it all over the globe is, well, sexy. Way cooler than the lasers or parabolic mirrors suggested by my microwave experts, and I knew my readers would agree.

The thing about a science thriller is that it isn't a scientific treatise, it's fiction; meant not to educate, but to entertain. I've always loved what Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child wrote in their authors' notes for Reliquary: "It should be noted that in certain important instances the authors have altered, moved, or embellished what exists under Manhattan for purposes of the story."

As a writer, I find their hubris incredibly freeing. If the truth works, terrific. If not, I'll twist my science until it does what the story wants. I have a great deal of respect for scientists, and because of that, I hope experts approach my novel with a forgiving spirit and enjoy it for what it is: fiction based on fact.

There are times when I wish I had the educational background to give authority to what I write. But my lack of scientific training presents one distinct advantage: Because I don't know the scientific reality, I can conceive a story that a scientist might think outlandish, learn enough of the science in the fields that interest me to tell the story plausibly, and then people the novel with engineers and experts and every sort of -ologist and live vicariously through them.

I may not be a scientist, but thanks to Freezing Point, I'm a scientist by proxy.

Karen Dionne's novel is Freezing Point. Check out Karen Dionne's website to learn more about her work.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday January 3rd 2009, 6:29 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Karen has no need to apologize for the science of her book falling short of factual. The fiction part of science fiction is often the most entertaining aspect. In fact, her efforts at making the science as plausible as possible should make the work even more engaging as the line between fact and fiction gets blurred. And the life journey of hippie girl scientist would be a nifty memoir I wouldn't mind reading.
Sunday January 4th 2009, 2:33 PM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
I find backstories like yours uplifting and inspiring, especially the fact that you began writing later in life, as did I, and that the lack of credentials has not stopped you from writing an intriguing novel.
Monday January 5th 2009, 2:56 AM
Comment by: PMC (Ketchikan, AK)
Good Day Karen Dionne!

Ologist-smologist! Great work! Great Smile! Will you consider a proposal of marriage?
Tuesday April 7th 2009, 6:07 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Great article!

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