Case Study: WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS
Subject: Canavan Disease
Authors choose to write about a subject, location, or timeframe because there’s something about one or all of these things that makes them tick. They’re willing to spend time, often years, rolling around in the details, envisioning the scenes, researching.
But if the work is fiction, there is always a point when enough is enough. Readers enjoy fiction for the story, how it brings to life a certain place, time, or situation. If they learn a few facts along the way…awesome. If they are confronted with only facts, they feel like they’re reading a text book.
I encountered this situation several times while writing my most recent novel: WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS. I researched genetics, human migration, autosomal recessive genetic diseases, and ancestry. These things are fascinating to me, the science behind the story, but after learning amazing/awful details, I didn’t include even some of the most fascinating tidbits. Why? Many and varied reasons.
Today I’m going to illustrate why you must leave intriguing information out of your book using three cut details about: Canavan Disease.
Canavan is an autosomal recessive genetic disease. Although this concept is a critical element in my story, I never used these words to describe the disease, because to anyone but a scientist they mean nothing. In lay terms: two parents can be absolutely healthy (and all known relatives are healthy) but they can be carriers of a deadly condition. When the disease manifests there is no visible genetic link to past generations. I illustrated the What If of this situation with characters who were blindsided and grieving. They didn’t care about the scientific name and neither would the reader. Cut.
Canavan Disease is devastating. Children with Canavan appear normal at birth but very quickly they suffer seizures, become paralyzed, mentally incapacitated, and/or blind. They cannot crawl, walk, sit or talk. Onset of the disease: three to nine months.
I wanted to understand what happens in a young body to cause these profound symptoms. I watched videos, read memoirs, devoured medical journal websites. Here’s what I learned: a gene mutation prevents the production of a critical enzyme in the brain called apartoacyclase. Without this enzyme, an acid called NAA or N-acetylaspartate, is not broken down, thereby it accumulates to dangerous levels in the brain. This causes cells responsible for making myelin sheaths, known as oligodendrocytes, to fail at this critical developmental task. Myelin sheaths are the fatty covering, or the insulation, around nerve fibers in the brain. Without functioning myelin sheaths, communication between the nerve impulses and the body are misdirected, slowed down, or incomplete, and the brain deteriorates.
Did you skim much of that last paragraph? Most people do. Cut.
Where the Sweet Bird Sings begins one year after the child, Joey, dies. Why? Here is another instance of research hitting the cutting room floor, but for a different reason. In my first draft I’d written 30,000 words describing the anguish felt by Joey’s parents as symptoms emerged day by day. I captured their worry and finally the diagnosis. I cried while I wrote it. I cried every day. My agent read my pages and asked if my story was about watching a child die.
“No,” I said. “I want it to be an exploration of ancestry and cobbling together a family during trying times. It’s full of secrets, personal identity, and eventually hope. Joey’s death was intended to be a catalyst.”
“Good,” she said. “Because I can’t read this without bawling. I think your readers will close the book because they can’t handle the pain.” Cut.
Once you do the research, especially if you find it fascinating, it can be hard to leave some of the less necessary details out of the narrative. This is the time to listen to your beta readers, agent, or editor. They may not be quite so passionate about the subject (and they don’t care about the hours you spent diligently collecting the information).
There is a point when enough is enough. Now you must be brave. Now you must…cut.
Ella Joy Olsen was born, raised and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, a charming town tucked at the base of the massive Rocky Mountains. Most at home in the world of the written word, Ella spent nearly a decade on the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library System (and four decades browsing the stacks). She is the mom of three kids ranging from just-barely-teen to just-flown-the-nest-teen, the mama of two dogs, and the wife of one patient husband.
Though she’s crazy about words Ella is also practical so she graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in Finance. After years analyzing facts and figures Ella gave up her corner cubicle and started writing fiction. Fun fact: she now teaches a historical fiction course at her alma mater. She has also lived in Seattle, Washington & Savannah, Georgia.
ROOT, PETAL,THORN (September 2016) was her debut and coming in September 2017 – WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS.
Connect with her on her website http://www.ellajoyolsen.com/
Follow her on Twitter https://twitter.com/ellajoyolsen
Like her on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/ella.joy.olsen.author
About WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS:
In this provocative new novel, the author of Root, Petal, Thorn offers a powerful story of resilience, hope, and the secrets that, no matter how deeply hidden, can shape and ultimately unite a family. What connects us to one another? Is it shared history? Is it ancestry? Is it blood? Or is it love?
People respond to tragedy in different ways. Some try to move on. Some don’t move at all. A year after her young son’s death due to a rare genetic disease, Emma Hazelton is still frozen by grief, unable and unwilling to consider her husband Noah’s suggestion that they try to have another child.
As the future Emma once imagined crumbles, her family’s past comes into sharp relief. Searching for the roots of her son’s disease, Emma tries to fit together the pieces in her genealogical puzzle. Hidden within an old wedding photograph of her great-grandparents is an unusual truth Emma never guessed at–a window into all the ways that love can be surprising, generous, and fiercely brave . . . and a discovery that may help her find her own way forward at last.
“With clearly drawn, authentic, and endearing characters, and a well-crafted plot filled with subtle tension, Olsen’s latest is a wonderfully tender story. Readers will not be able to put this one down.”– RT Book Reviews