Research Notes · 01/30/2015

Migratory Animals

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Mary Helen Specht writes about Migratory Animals from Soho Press.

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FACT #1: Snow is not white. (A snowflake is a crystal; it only looks white because of light reflecting off its crystalline facets.)

I’ve sometimes encountered the idea that writers are able to create and empathize with characters unlike themselves by pure force of will. And while the desire to empathize with the experiences of others is a prerequisite for being a good writer, empathy comes from being able to understand someone’s situation and that understanding often comes from lots of research.

FACT #2: Your snowflake sweater is a lie. (The ice molecules of a snowflake prefer to align in a hexagonal array, so snowflakes always have exactly six sides — unless a side breaks off as it plummets to the ground or unless two snowflakes fuse together).

My parents are both librarians, so I was raised among books. While I loved to read growing up — in fact, I sat in the living room with my parents pretending to read Tropic of Cancer long before I actually could — books made me want to live within them rather than to write them. I wanted to be Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, playing with Bunsen burners after school and saving my father from the tesseract. Carl Sagan’s Contact inspired me to subscribe to Astronomy magazine (until I learned you had to be plausible at math to become an actual astronomer); after reading A Separate Peace, I dressed like a boy and begged to enroll in a bucolic boarding school out east. I grew up in a small and conservative town in West Texas, and books were my wormholes to the wider world.

Because of this, I’ve always liked the research part of writing; research is one of the ways that, as a writer, I get to become my characters. Unless the data is off, we only get to live one life; writing fiction allows me, for a time, to embody what it’s like to be someone else born into a different context with different desires and challenges and skills. In graduate school, several of my professors encouraged us to take advantage of our characters’ jobs, those concrete details and functions that make up their lives. This transformed my writing practice.

FACT #3: The early Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder recognized the visual similarity between snow crystals and mineral crystals; he thought that mineral quartz was ice frozen so hard it could not melt.

In my newly-released novel, Migratory Animals, I explore the lives of a group of thirty-something friends struggling through the recession. I’ve heard that Colum McCann claims that writing a novel is like getting a four-year degree, and while that may be an exaggeration, for this book alone I researched — by way of personal interviews, hands-on lessons, and lots and lots of books — the art of weaving, climate science, architecture, Huntington’s Disease and snowflakes. Yes, snowflakes.

FACT #4: Snow is not frozen rain. (That’s sleet, which looks like what it is, frozen drops of rain without any of the ornate patterning or symmetry of a crystal. Instead, when water vapor begins to freeze inside a cloud it turns into ice without going through a liquid stage. It takes 100,000 droplets to make a single snowflake that is heavy enough to fall to Earth.)

My protagonist, Flannery, is an ice scientist by training and her work with snowflakes becomes a significant plot point as the novel progresses. Probably because I grew up in West Texas where it rarely snowed, I’ve always been fascinated by ice and snowflakes. As I researched the chemistry and physics of snowflakes, a science that attempts to answer the fundamental question of why complex patterns arise spontaneously in simple physical systems, I began to notice how closely the snowflake process resembled the growth of a novel.

Is it true that no two snowflakes are alike? It depends on what you consider a snowflake. Tiny, early stage snowflakes with a small number of molecules don’t have as many variations. These can also be grown in labs. That said, probably no two full-sized snowflakes are alike because the number of ways a snowflake can grow as it falls through a cloud is larger than the total number of atoms in all of the stars in the universe. Because a full-grown snow crystal might contain a billion billion ice molecules, there are a staggering number of possible configurations.

In many ways, writing novels are like growing snowflakes. There are shared, universal tendencies of the form, much like snowflake crystals prefer to align hexagonally. But just as how complex or how ornate snowflakes become depends on the level of humidity and the temperature and so many other factors, how Migratory Animals became what it was depended, not just on what type of writer I am, but also on what I happened to observe or think about or experience or encounter during the years of writing it. Oh, and the research. Much depended on the research.

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Mary Helen Specht’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times and Colorado Review. A winner of the Richard Yates Short Story Award, among other prizes, she is a former Fulbright Scholar to Nigeria and Dobie-Paisano Writing Fellow. She earned an MFA in fiction from Emerson College and now teaches creative writing at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.