The Elegant Question

My dear old dad, who has ninety-one years to his name, chose to spend at least seventy of those years as a bench scientist. This term does not refer to people who study benches, but rather, to people who make their contribution at the laboratory bench. Dad studied things like how a milk fat globule is made. You shrug, but the question takes on significance when you consider the fat globule ends up being larger than the mammary cell that produces it—and without these processes, we would not have whipped cream.

I am quite fond of whipped cream, myself, also butter, ice cream, and mousse, which depend upon the same little miracle.

Dad also looked at how light alters flavor compounds in milk (which is why we have opaque milk jugs unless they’re made of thick glass), and he studied flavors and fragrances from a chemical standpoint.

Dad earned a reputation for coming up with excellent experimental designs. If you had a great hypothesis, an earthshaking insight you wanted to test, but couldn’t figure out exactly how to isolate your variables or measure results, Dad was the guy you bounced your problem off of.

He loved a failed experiment. The failed experiments were the equivalent of the locked room for him. When you discover you’re in a locked room, you try the door knob. You jiggle it hard, then harder. You back off, and wait for somebody to come by, but at some point, alone in that room, hungry and cranky, you Get Creative. You fashion lock picks out of paper clips, you build ladders out of modular furniture, you slide messages under the door written in Pepsi on your T-shirt. You bust out windows, you drop paper airplanes down the ventilator shaft, and so on.

And that process, that wracking-your-brain process, enthralled him as a scientist. I expect it enthralled him as a little boy, too, and still occupies much of his mental day.

Authors find themselves in locked rooms all the time, though my creative space feels more like a broom closet. I can usually envision my characters, I have some idea of their personalities, strengths and weaknesses, but to craft a story for them, I need tension, conflict, problems. I need ways my hero and heroine reveal themselves to themselves, and to each other. I need the right problems and the right solutions to those problems to structure a 400 page book.

In this struggle, because by God, it is a struggle, I’ve come across some wonderful tools. Each tool is in the form of a question, and one of the most powerful is: What is the one thing my hero/heroine would never, ever, no matter what, be caught dead doing? How can I make them do it? (And thanks to Michael Hague for developing that one.)

What is the worst, most terrifying development that can befall my hero/heroine? How can I inflict it upon them?

What does my reader expect at this moment in the story? How can I surprise the reader without losing my credibility?

My dad had ultracentrifuges, microtome slicers, electron microscopes, and a relentless curiosity, and with those, he found his way out of many locked rooms. I have tools too—elegant, incisive, illuminating questions, and with them, I can also get out of locked rooms.

What question has helped you escape a dead end situation?

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9 comments on “The Elegant Question

  1. Hi Grace,
    Your dad sounds fascinating and inspiring. I currently teach science to really young folks but would love to spend time with an electron microscope as a “bench scientist”. I would investigate rocks.

    As far as that elegant question, I think it changes as I change as a person. For me lately it is “What do I have to say? What is my voice?” And nothing gets my out of my locked room faster than good conversation with a girlfriend. I process by speaking, and some of those “aha” moments come to me with coffee and conversation. I’m working on some characters of my own so hopefully I can find a voice for them too. First things first, stretch my intellect, my writing muscles and my voice. Thanks again for your insight and sharing about your wonderful father.
    Allison Edney

  2. “What is the one thing my hero/heroine would never, ever, no matter what, be caught dead doing? How can I make them do it?”

    “What is the worst, most terrifying development that can befall my hero/heroine? How can I inflict it upon them?”

    Grace: I love both questions, maybe the first more than the second. The second so often leads to the dreaded some-mysterious-someone (or group) is trying to kill one of the lead characters storyline. Given how often this is used in historical romance I have to assume those time periods were more dangerous than the one we live in and that almost every family had some connection with either a brutal murder or was lucky enough to escape being the victim of a crazed killer.

    Life hands out enough terrifying developments that are genuine and far easier for a reader to relate to than the over use of murder and mayhem as a plot twist.

    Both questions can be wrung from a hero/heroine using daily real life experiences. The loss of children/mates/siblings. Devlin’s war nightmares, Emmie’s very real fear of losing her child, Valentine learning to live with a disability that limits his piano playing, Ellen’s self imposed exile, Anna’s protective concern for her deaf sister, Gayle’s awesome load of responsibly as heir.

    Often the worst, most terrifying thing of all dwells within you and just as often the worst, most terrifying thing is dealing with family, death, love, heartache, and finding out who you really are and what you really need.

    Your papa sounds like a gem.

    • Anne, Stuey-pots (my dad, aka Stuart) is the best. He’s the guy in my life who has always worried about my well being, always had faith in me, and always kept me in his prayers. I’m very lucky to still have his example of a well lived life to follow.

      And I come down where you do with respect to conflicts to inflict on my characters. At the end of the book, I want them to be whole, courageous people, who can live a life based on love not fear, anger, revenge, or some other less worthy emotion. Facing their inner demons seems to be the way to get them their Happily Ever Afters, while murder, mayhem, and missing jewels just make me start skimming. Different strokes, I suppose.

  3. Allison, one of things I loved about my father’s colleagues, from grad students to Nobel contenders, was the sense of play they had about their work. They were by and large serious, intelligent people, but they were also confronted every day with the vast scope of human ignorance, and learned to see it all as opportunity. They looked over the Creator’s shoulder and asked, “Why’d You do it that way?”

    And aren’t the young an excellent source of those elegant questions?

    Hope you enjoy the quest for your voice and for what you have to say. It’s a very worthwhile journey.

  4. Love it, thank you for sharing your life and the creative process that came out of it. My dad had the opportunity to go to college even though he graduated at the height of The Great Depression, but didn’t to help support his family and because he had to repeat algebra.

    I love your questions for your characters, too. I’ve been trying desperately to integrate some of the emotions from the trials and tribulations in my “real” life into my fiction. It’s the least we can do, right?

    Thanks, again!

    • Julee, my experience is that every book I write has an element of autobiography, though I’m sometimes the last person to see that. My current heroine is a square peg, a little too bright for convenience, socially retiring but good hearted. I all but named the poor lady Grace before I figured out she was staring out of the mirror at me. I had to hurry up quick make her a math genius so Nobody Would See A Resemblance.

      Right. I finished the manuscript anyway. We’ll see if the editor says whether my heroine resonates, or falls flat.

  5. What a great post, it worked almost like a mini-writing workshop for me! I will definitely be applying those questions to my H/H in my WIP. Thank you 🙂

    And your father sounds fascinating!

  6. Melonie, Dad is a wonderful guy, though I don’t think it was easy for my mom when there were seven children to tend to, and Himself was off running some late night gel electrophoresis experiment. If you have a chance to catch Michael Hague at a writer’s conference, he has a ton of good questions. Failing that, you could pick up his book. I also lean heavily on Donald Maass’ “Writing the Breakout Novel” series. Best of luck with the WIP!