I am Not a Scientist. So Why Do I Write Science Thrillers? by Karen Dionne

I’ve always wanted to be a scientist. But in the early 1970s, I dropped out of the University of Michigan, and married a stoneware potter. Two years later, we moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with our 6-week-old daughter as part of the hippie/back-to-the-land movement. While we lived in a tent and built our tiny cabin, scavenged wild foods, and carried our water from a nearby spring, I devoured Discover Magazine and Scientific American.

I also enjoyed reading science thrillers like Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child’s Relic and Reliquary. So when I decided to try my hand at writing a novel, naturally, that’s what came out.

My first science thriller published in mass market paperback in 2008 from Berkley, a division of Penguin-Putnam. Freezing Point is about a solar energy company that wants to alleviate the world’s fresh water crisis by melting Antarctic icebergs into drinking water.

I got the idea for the novel 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 came 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 living for 30 years in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I knew and cold.

Still, I’ll be first to admit the science in Freezing Point isn’t completely accurate. 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 is, well, sexy. Much more gripping than the alternatives my microwave experts suggested, such as using lasers or parabolic mirrors, and I knew my readers would agree.

When it comes to accuracy in thrillers, 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. A science thriller isn’t a scientific treatise, it’s fiction; meant not to educate, but to entertain.

My second science thriller, Boiling Point, is about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming that centers on geoengineering. Once again, I consulted with experts. But once again, where the story calls for it, I play fast and loose with the facts. “In a novel,” Preston once told me, “something doesn’t have to be true; it only has to be believable.”

There are times when I wish I had the education 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 my science thrillers, I’m a scientist by proxy.


Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of Freezing Point, a science thriller nominated by RT Book Reviews as Best First Mystery of 2008. A second environmental thriller, Boiling Point, about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming published from Berkley in January 2011.

Karen is cofounder of the online writers community Backspace, and organizes the Backspace Writers Conferences held in New York City every year. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and the International Thriller Writers, where she serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology.

Karen has been honored by the Michigan Humanities Council as a Humanities Scholar for her body of work as an author, writer, and as co-founder of Backspace.

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