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I recommend using creative writing as a sort of lab. It can be used to prime the hypothesis-generating engine. I write quickly to setup a sort-of wireframe situation, then I write myself into a challenge that articulates the issue I'm trying to explore, and see what ideas spring up under that pressure.
Of course, fortune favors the prepared mind. The more familiar you are with your subject matter the better the process works. The process operates at the speed of thought, it's limited to what's already available to consciousness. You can't interupt the process to do research.
Below is an example. My self-appointed task was to explore how genes could maintain symmetry in a developing embryo. I began with a fairy story mash-up, pairing a royal household as embryo with a gnome to act as driver of development. A gnome is a narrative device allowing for the use of magic. I hastily built my scenario, cast myself into the challenge--and nothing. My imagination broke under the burden, as you'll see. I wrapped up the story quickly and put it to one side.
But a week or so later I returned to the story and picked up where I'd left off. In a new resolution I found the missing principle.Here’s how it went.
A prince (that’s my surrogate) and his new consort, snug newlyweds in a one-room cabin (the eggcell), are planning to add on enough rooms to make a nice new palace for themselves.
Funny, he'd never asked his parents anything about their palace, how they built it or how long it took. He just knew they used a manual that contained all the information you needed, and that a copy of this manual stood in a cupboard in his one-room cabin, next to the photocopier.
"Let's begin," said the prince, and he opened the cupboard.
Inside was not one manual, but two dozen huge, thick volumes. When he took one down and opened it, he could barely read the tiny type that covered each page. It was nothing but strings of symbols. He brought out each of the volumes, and thumbed through them, but there no plan or any sign of instructions for how to use the manuals. What was he to do?
At this point, there was a creaking sound in the ceiling, and a trapdoor appeared that the prince had never noticed before. And popping round the edge of the trapdoor came the face of a gnome. "Can I help?" the gnome asked.
The prince had never seen the gnome before. "Who are you," he asked.
"I'm the builder of this room," said the gnome. "Every room in the old palace was built by gnomes like us, and we lived in these attics." The prince helped the gnome down. "Then you know what these mean?" he asked, pointing to the pile of manuals. The gnome said he did. "Then you can show me, and we'll get building," said the prince.
But the gnome said no, only gnomes know how to build from these plans. The plans were much too complicated for anyone else to understand. From those manuals, you could build another palace just like your parents’, he said, with its thousands and thousands of rooms, each one different and richly furnished. But you had to know where in the two dozen manuals to look for every little detail, and how to make every one of the hundreds of materials needed. Why, it would take you more than a lifetime to learn how, he said. No, only gnomes know how. You'll need a pair of gnomes for each room you build, they'll build the room for you, and they'll have a couple of little gnomes that'll build the next room, and so on. Each new gnome will know how to build the next room needed.
And sure enough, the gnome went back into the attic, and within half an hour returned with two little gnomes.
The two new gnomes went straight to work. They took each manual, used the room's photocopier to copy it from end to end and rebound the sheets, so they had a copy just like the original. Then they set to work building. They seemed to know just where in the 23 manuals to look for whatever they needed. In no time at all they had made another room adjoining the first, everything specified by the plans, even its own photocopier and attic, where they took up residence. And shortly there was another pair of gnomes. And another. And soon the palace began to take shape.
I've set up my wire-frame situation. Now to construct for myself a challenge. I begin by surveying around what it is I want to know.
One day, while the prince was resting in his room, he got curious. He knocked on the trapdoor in the ceiling in his room and asked the gnome to come down.
"I don't remember my parents ever mentioning that I'd need gnomes as well as the manuals," he said.
"That's because they never really understood what we did," replied the gnome.
"And I'm not sure I do either," said the prince. "Tell me, how did you learn where to go for everything in those enormous manuals, at every stage?"
"Oh, I didn't learn it, Your Highness. Nobody could learn that much information. I was born knowing how."
"But every room is different. How do you know what kind of room to build? Where's the plan of the palace that tells you what size and kind of room to build?"
"There's no plan of the palace," said the gnome. "We just know how by who's building the rooms around us. We just make a room to fit in with what they're doing."
"But what about the plumbing system" asked the prince. "It runs right throughout the entire building, and keeps growing bigger as the building grows. How do you know how to keep extending the part of it that runs through your room so it serves the rooms further down, beyond your neighbors?"
The gnome opened his mouth, but seemed lost for words.
"And, unlike you gnomes, I visit both wings of the palace, and they're both identical, down to the very last item of furnishing and the sizes of every floorboard and window. How does a gnome working in one wing know what the gnome's doing who's working in the corresponding room in the other wing? All this information couldn't be in the manuals, because the manuals are the same in every room, while what's happening in each room is different, and although the manuals don't change, each room keeps changing to fit in with what's happening elsewhere in the palace.
But the gnome, seeing the prince so concerned, came over and sat next to him. He placed his hand on the prince's knee. "Look inside my cap," he said gently.
The challenge don't have to be clever, It's just a device to prompt the imagination.
The prince removed the gnome's cap, and saw a staircase winding down inside the gnome's body. He was astonished; he didn't realize the gnome had cast a spell on him so he'd be small enough to look inside. Treading down this staircase into the gnome, he found himself inside an enormous cavern, filled with the most extraordinary and wonderful machinery, such as he'd never seen before. The whole place hummed with the sound of the thousand engines that powered all the other machinery, so the whole cavern seemed to be alive, shimmering and vibrating. He wandered for what seemed like hours, never seeing the same piece of machinery twice, or even recognizing what any of them was for. The cavern inside the gnome was much, much bigger than the old palace had been. It seemed to go on for ever
The trap is set. I have all possible magic at my disposal. What will I, as creative writer, come up with?
Well, in this case I came up dry. Apparently there wasn't enough magic down there to accomplish the task, or not magic of the right kind.
Suddenly the prince found himself back in his room sitting next to the gnome, who was removing his hand from the prince's knee. "That's what tells us how to use the manuals," said the gnome.
"But, what's inside you is much more complicated than even the manuals themselves," said the prince.
The gnome nodded.
"Then I've got one last question," said the prince. "I understand that a photocopier to copy the manuals is built into the plan for each room, and gets built as part of the room itself. That doesn't seem so surprising. And I can assume that the first gnome arrived along with the first copy of the manuals, right?"
The gnome nodded.
"But how do you...Er...reproduce? You're not just a bunch of pages I can put on a photocopier. Where does the gnome for each new room come from, and how does he know which room in the palace he's building? If I knew that, I think I'd understand this palace much better."
At this point, the gnome turned away from the prince and faced over in my direction. “This isn’t going to work,” he said. I looked around to see who he was talking to. I'd never had any of my characters talk to me directly before. But there was no one but me.
“What did you say? I asked.
“ I said, this isn’t going to work,” he repeated. And then he just stared at me.
The insolence of it took my breath away.
“Don’t just sit there, make it work.” I said.
He got up and walked to the door. He turned. “If you’ve nothing else for me to do, I’ll be going.”
I remained speechless. He paused briefly, then opened the door, passed through and closed it behind him.
When I'd recovered my wits I vowed to get even with him. Sure enough, a few weeks later I saw In my morning paper a story about a new financier who was taking Wall Street by storm, with a photo. It was my nefarious gnome. I noted the address, and planned a surprise visit.
It was lunchtime. I had positioned myself next to the entrance of the building. Sure enough, In a few minutes my gnome, dressed In an expensive and I must admit very flattering suit, came out with two companions. As they walked past me I called out, "Gnome, Gnome." He stopped, turned, and faced me. "Yes?" he said calmly.
I said things I shouldn't have said, I know that. After a moment he turned back, murmured a word or two to his companions, and they continued walking. "I'll never use you in a story again," I said, and fuming I returned home.
But I don't know, a gnome that can manage a cell In your body and then go on to run a multi-national corporation, that's a character it's hard to discard.
This is where I broke off. I'd failed to come up with any hypothesis under pressure, but I'd left my story in a state where could pick it up again. And that's what I did.
I wasn't surprised a few weeks later when the phone rang. It was my gnome. "Things haven't quite worked out," he said. "Can I return? Can you find something for me to do"
"You've got to fix it," I said, when he walked in. He took a seat. "There's been no construction since you left. Get to work. Do whatever you have to do."
Here's where gnomes are useful in stories, particularly gnomes with experience In the financial industry. They're extra smart. You just tell them to do something, and it's their job to figure out how. They use magic to get it done. You just take notes.
"Well, don't just sit there," I said. "Get on with it."
"It's already begun," he answered. "Everything's working OK."
And it was, just like that. I didn't have any notes, any idea what he did. It took me some time to realize it was all in his head. And In that wireless doodad he brought with him from his job in finance. He'd wired up all the other gnomes so he knew everything that was going on. It wasn't those huge volumes that told him what to do, It was him. He knew everything, down to every detail, up to the working of the whole palace.
The magic principle was simply that genomes had to communicate over long distances. In the next story I wrote this gnome turned into a butler, smart as all butlers are in the ways of the world. That butler turned into a deranged and sinister autistic girl. That story I rewrote, giving my heroine a sunnier disposition. That inspired the writing of a novel where this girl's intuitions were made the basis of a TV series for children. Eventually I reduced the story about the girl to excerpts that I dropped in at intervals through the novel. I published it under the title "Me and The Genies." The gnome had become a universe of genies.
No, this isn't science. But in an area where we may not for a century or two have the means to conduct science, as I believe is true of evolution, a forcing ground like this might save us from claiming as science an idea so preposterous as the Modem Synthesis. In such a period, the humanities have the better tools.