Dauntless by Elisa A. Bonnin next to Elisa surrounding by pink, purple and magenta leaves. Image: Swoon Reads & Alyssa Shotwell.

How I Manage Both Science & Writing Fantasy

I’m a scientist. 

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I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and a Master’s and PhD in chemical oceanography. I make my living as a postdoctoral researcher at a university. I perform experiments, write papers, and interpret data. My current day job is analytical and reasonable, full of logic and careful statements, testing hypotheses and being sure not to make any claims that cannot be supported by the literature or by my own results. 

But I also write fantasy. My debut novel, Dauntless, which released on August 2, 2022, is a sapphic young adult fantasy about teenagers traveling through a world rife with scientific impossibility. The characters of Dauntless leap several feet into the air aided by magical armor, live in enormous spreading trees that no real rainforest would ever be able to support, and fight beasts whose abilities range from extreme strength to becoming virtually invisible. It’s a wild ride, a lot of fun, and not scientific at all. 

Creative side projects aren’t uncommon in science

There aren’t a lot of people in my personal life who know that I do both. But when news about the book inevitably comes out, I often have people ask me how I can reconcile those two things. I have a day job that is so grounded in reality that it’s literally about trying to understand and quantify it, and when I’m not looking at spreadsheets and numbers and statistics and data points, when I’m not trying to wrangle an ornery mass spectrometer back into shape or trying to figure out where the medium-sized gloves have migrated to this time, I have my head in the clouds, dreaming of impossible things. I will admit, from the outside, those two things seem like opposites. But oddly enough, the people least likely to ask me how the two worlds connect are other scientists. 

When I started graduate school, I thought I would be the odd one out, but it turns out that creative side-projects are not uncommon in the scientific community. Even Nature, in the forgotten times of July 2019, compiled some of the creative projects tweeted about by researchers working in various fields. 

When I became a graduate student, I met colleagues who draw, sing, play musical instruments, dance, write poetry, throw themselves into sports, play Dungeons & Dragons on Monday nights. While not everyone had a visible creative outlet, I felt like I met more creative people in graduate school than I’ve met outside of it, and their reactions to finding out that I would write fantasy on my lunch breaks ranged from: “That’s so cool”, to “Can I read it?”, to “I’ve always wanted to write a book.” 

It seems like so many of us, who work in hard numbers and in an environment full of rejection, failure, and stress, need an outlet that lets our minds soar. 

How my writing helps my science

I can’t speak for everyone else, and I’m afraid to make sweeping generalizations about the impact of creative activities on scientific efforts, but I can freely talk about my personal experiences. And in my personal experiences, writing fantasy has been more than just a way to unwind after doing science. It’s actually helped me become a better scientist. 

There is a surprising amount of writing involved in science. While the scientific method is at the core of what we do, no amount of data collection and results will mean anything if we can’t share those results with the scientific community, and ultimately with the rest of the world. 

When I started writing my first paper, I realized that this exercise–confronting a blank page, putting my thoughts down on paper, shifting sentences around and choosing the right words for the right situations, was something that I was already innately familiar with.I started writing at eight years old, so by the time I began writing my first paper, I felt like I was writing a story in a different style. Non-fiction instead of fiction, accuracy instead of imagination, but many of the skills were the same, and I can’t overestimate how valuable this was for me. 

I wasn’t intimidated by the length of my thesis, because I had been teaching myself how to write hundred-thousand word stories since high school. I already had tips and tricks in place for breaking a large project into manageable chunks, and for motivating myself to hit my word count goals. For my thesis, I wasn’t focused as much on hitting a certain word count as I was on making sure that every aspect of my work was covered, but the principle was still the same.

In my opinion, believing that science is something completely separate from art actually hurts the practice of science. Yes, we have to be accurate and we have to be logical, but science is not entirely cut-and-dry. It requires creativity, both in deciding what to study next, and in deciding how best to present results. In this age of rampant misinformation, it’s especially important that scientists learn how to make their science accessible to the general public, how to make their science interesting and approachable again.

Dauntless

Dauntless by Elisa a. Bonnin. Image: Swoon Reads.
(Swoon Reads)

A teen girl must bring together two broken worlds in order to save her nation in this lush, Filipino-inspired young adult fantasy novel from debut author Elisa A. Bonnin.

“Be dauntless, for the hopes of the People rest in you.”

Seri’s world is defined by very clear rules: The beasts prowl the forest paths and hunt the People. The valiant explore the unknown world, kill the beasts, and gain strength from the armor they make from them. As an assistant to Eshai Unbroken, a young valor commander with a near-mythical reputation, Seri has seen first-hand the struggle to keep the beasts at bay and ensure the safety of the spreading trees where the People make their homes. That was how it always had been, and how it always would be. Until the day Seri encounters Tsana.

Tsana is, impossibly, a stranger from the unknown world who can communicate with the beasts – a fact that makes Seri begin to doubt everything she’s ever been taught. As Seri and Tsana grow closer, their worlds begin to collide, with deadly consequences. Somehow, with the world on the brink of war, Seri will have to find a way to make peace.

Dauntless is available at booksellers.

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Author
Elisa Bonnin
I grew up in the Philippines, and am very proud to be Filipino. As an author, I specialize in speculative fiction, particularly fantasy. As a scientist, I have a PhD in Oceanography from the University of Washington, and I’m a chemist by training (BS Chemistry, University of South Carolina). Right now, I work in a neurology department running a super cool instrument called a NanoSIMS, that can take images of the chemical composition of surfaces. I also do some freelance work making scientific discoveries accessible to a general audience, through Massive Science and Complexly, and I’m always looking for more writing opportunities.