Research Notes · 04/14/2017

Dog Years

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Melissa Yancy writes about Dog Years, winner of the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize from University of Pittsburgh Press.


During the ten years that most of the stories in Dog Years were written, I worked in medicine — first at a children’s hospital, then in a larger health system. After a while, my day-to-day life of meeting with faculty and learning about medical research blended into my writing life, so that I brought both “selves” to the office. I still do. Here are a few of the more notable notes:


The Meaningful Use of Complex Medical Data Conference, 2012

Two full days spent in presentations even the doctors found unintelligible, all to curry favor with a faculty member who likes data mining. Only research notes I took were on a presentation by Yahoo! employees titled An Algorithm for Regret?

Also: the weird guy and girl presenting appeared to be a couple. What’s that like at home?

The algorithm:


Molecular Tweezers, 2013

Four hours spent in a conference room learning about a compound that may stop protein aggregation in the brain (which causes Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other nasty stuff). Various experiments with wobbly mice, zebrafish, lamprey.

Research note:

What the hell is a lamprey?

It’s this:


Research for “Dog Years,” 2014

I met with the couple on whom the story was based (for my day job, but my subconscious was taking writing notes). There was so much featured about the couple in my hospital’s publication that the story practically wrote itself. The weird thing is that People magazine did a feature after I published “Dog Years,” and there’s a detail in there that’s just like a detail in the story, but I don’t know where I would have come across it. One of the only technical challenges was explaining exon skipping:


Perusing my hospital’s magazine, 2015.

These plastic surgeons are in a rock band together called Help the Doctor. God help me.


Research for “Go Forth,” 2015

I was looking for an article that showed the mechanics of kidney chains (I got distracted by the doctors above). After the short story was done I still hadn’t done a good job explaining the process.


Research for “Consider this Case,” 2014

I’d watched a fetal surgery live in the operating room, but it came time to write, I still needed to refresh my memory. What was that big probe called (a trocar) and what exactly was the arrangement of the blood vessels?


Melissa Yancy’s short fiction has appeared in One Story, Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, Zyzzyva and many other publications. Her story collection Dog Years was selected by Richard Russo for the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. The book received an honorable mention for the Pen/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction and was longlisted for The Story Prize. She is the recipient of a 2016 NEA Literature Fellowship. She lives in Los Angeles where she works as a fundraiser for healthcare causes. She can be found online at