From Ph.D. Student to YA Novelist
In the fall of my third year at MIT, I took a class on neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. As the weather got colder and colder, I started waiting for the bus at the Harvard bookstore. One day, I saw a table display featuring a popular series about a girl and her vampire boyfriend. With nothing else to do, I picked up the first book and started reading. The next day, I bought the rest of the series and devoured them in the course of a weekend. It was the first time I’d read for pleasure in years, and I started thinking about how I had always wanted to be a novelist. So I dug out an old manuscript from high school and started the long process of reworking it into something better.
Over the next few years, my days were filled with neuroscience while my evenings and weekends were dedicated to writing. Eventually it became clear that my novel was turning out much better than my research. I sold my first book Midnight Thief shortly before I defended my dissertation and haven't looked back since.
In retrospect, it's not surprising that I was interested in neuroscience and writing. Both fields are concerned with how people work: how they think and what goes on inside their heads. It just happens that one field uses brain scanners and the other uses observation, introspection, and a splash of imagination.
People often ask how my background in neuroscience affects my writing. My Ph.D. research was on reading in children, which sounds really useful for a YA author except that my research was on word and letter recognition rather than any high-level story research that might help a novelist. However, much of the social psychology I studied for my qualification exams turned out to be useful. A lot of what I learned about how different cultures and different personalities function make it into my world building.
I was also able to use my knowledge of memory in my most recent book Rosemarked. In Rosemarked, the hero Dineas suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is given a potion to remove his memory. While this potion is strictly in the fantasy realm, I used general principles to make its effects more realistic. For example, the potion took away Dineas’s personal memory and knowledge of the world while sparing his physical skills, which is a common pattern in amnesia. I was fortunate enough to have a colleague involved in groundbreaking PTSD drugs that attenuate traumatic memories. Chatting with her was very helpful for understanding real-world treatments and gave me something on which to model my potions.
In the end, everything is inspiration, whether I pick it up from a walk in the park, or a stint at world class research institution. I suppose that’s true for all writers.
Add Livia Blackburn's Rosemarked to your Want to Read shelf here.
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