Writing a paranormal romance novel about women in STEM fields requires extensive research combined with creativity and drive. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU professor and author Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson about her writing process, the challenges she faced tackling her first romance novel, and the creative drive that has led to her publishing 10 books. Learn why she writes about local places and why she isn’t afraid to ask experts for insight into topics that she’s unfamiliar with to ensure her stories are accurate and engaging for the reader.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, full-time faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. And today we’re talking about researching for writing novels. Welcome Jennifer.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Thanks Bjorn, thanks for having me back.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m excited about this one because we’re talking about not only writing, but we’re talking about researching and talking to people in STEM to give you inspiration and give them a more detail for what you write. What inspired the name of your novel and series?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I was challenged first to write paranormal romance because I never had, and apparently I’m that type of person. When you get a challenge, I was like, “Great, let’s do this.” So I decided if I was going to do paranormal romance, I would have to put it in an area that I felt pretty decently about talking about, otherwise you don’t have the impetus to write a novel.
And at the time I had been part of a summer camp for older teenage females that were going into the STEM subjects. They had me come in to help them with the different aspects of writing, whether it’s scientific writing, medical writing, writing for law, writing for medicine. And because I had this challenge at the same time, I started thinking about what if I write about women in the STEM field? I think it’s something people think they know a lot about. They think they understand about, and I thought it was misrepresented.
And not only did I choose to write about women in the STEM fields, but also women of color, because they obviously have a different experience than other people do. So another conversation that had been going on is in the humanities field, we consider arts and creativity, obviously a big drive for writing. So when it came to actually name this series, I called it the STEAM Series because, steamy for romance and then STEAM which the acronym breaks down to science, technology, engineering, arts and creativity, and the math field. So fortunately for me, that was a no brainer because writing a 50,000 word novel, not a problem. Coming up with a title, that could take weeks. So it kind of came together on its own very, very nicely.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s excellent. It’s funny with titles either, at least what I’ve experienced is that they hit you in a burst of inspiration. And you literally say, “Where did this come from?” Or you have no idea what to call what you’re doing.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: That’s too true for me. I will say this, though. I have two kids and out of the 10 books I have published, five of the titles are theirs. I picked their brains because I was like, “I don’t have any idea.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’ve been recently writing kids poetry in which I just let my kids write the poetry. And then I just edit it.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: That’s awesome.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Because the things they come up with are so much more spontaneous and interesting than what I would. So, someday, if those ever are published I’ll of course give them credit 100%. Just their spontaneity is just so fascinating.
Now, when you were doing the workshop and you said for teenage girls, you said, did that inspire you? Were they excited about it? Did their drive for writing interest you or was that more of like work?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: So they were there, it was actually a STEM-based camp. I was just recruited because they knew that obviously in some fields you have to write. And there are slightly different formats writing medical, writing just science-based, things like that. So to introduce them that you’re going to write, and one of the young ladies was hilarious. She’s like, “But I’m going to be an engineer. I don’t have to write.” And I started cracking up, not at her, but my dad is an engineer and there are years he writes far more than I do. And I was like, “Oh, sweet baby girl no, no, my dad just put together a 1,200-page document. You’re going to do some writing in engineering.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s excellent. I recently did a podcast with Alexa Chilcutt and she’s a communication specialist. And she wrote a textbook, “Public Speaking for STEM Students.” We talked a lot about the importance of being able to obviously speak and sell whatever you’re trying to do. You can have the most brilliant idea out there. You can have literally game changing technology, but if you don’t know how to communicate that, it’s not going to go very far.
And it’s the same thing, but I’m assuming with novels, you could be a brilliant writer and write these amazing things. And then if you don’t know how to then speak about them or even “marketing lite.” They won’t go very far. Ideally the world is a meritocracy where the best things rise to the top, but it’s not always that way.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Sometimes, sometimes it depends all in how you market and what people expect to see. So part of the reason I even had the challenges I was part of a writing group and we all have our little niche areas, which amazingly enough, weren’t overlapping too much. And one of the leaders of the group is like, “How about we just put names or genres in a hat and everybody can pick one.” And I was like, “Okay, cool.” And then I got paranormal romance. I was like, “All of a sudden it’s not so cool anymore.” I have never written a romance book in my life.
Actually the research for me actually started with how do you write a romance novel, what’s going on? What are things people expect to see. Things that I had to learn, that there are two pretty acceptable endings, which is happily for now or happily ever after. Before taking on this series, I’d read enough romance, but I guess I never actually clamped down on that idea is, yeah, here are these happily ever afters or at least happily for now when the book ends. So that was kind of an interesting concept to take home.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: My next question is how did you prepare for this series? And so part of it is romance novel forms.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Correct.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And it totally makes sense because it’s weird because romance novels have always existed, will always exist. And so if people want to write a romance novel, go for it. Because you never know there is a market, there will always be a market. And so for this one specifically, so it’s paranormal.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Correct.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And wait, are there werewolves are no werewolves in this?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: So all of my leading ladies are in the STEM field. Every single one of their boyfriend relationships are werewolves. So that made sense in my brain at the time, it still makes sense to me, but I definitely wanted to highlight just some polar differences. And I wouldn’t say it was necessarily going in with the mindset of kind of cracking down on gender norms. But I really tried to stay away from workplace relationships, in specific. And I really wanted to kind of branch out.
The very first book that came out was called “Out of the Blu” and the main woman, Flora, is a computer scientist, computer engineer. And her boyfriend, because they’re not married, but she took on a job at an arboretum. And I actually used real locations around Genesee County. So if you’re ever in Genesee County, Michigan, these places do exist. But she took on a job in an arboretum and her boyfriend worked there and he was a turtle specialist, which by the way is testudinologist, learned that word real quick.
Learned there was a major university that has a turtle as a mascot. Yeah, I learned a lot about turtles. I also learned a ton about computer science because I’m real good at sending emails to people saying, “Hey, I noticed you do this thing and I’m writing a book and can I interview you?” And the woman that I talked with, Carol, was just amazing. I mean, I’m not a slouch with technology, but pretty much the chubby fingered toddler trying to stir the cookie dough when I was talking to her, I was like, “Now, what? Can you walk me through that again?”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that you talked about turtles, I guess Maryland, the Terrapins. And so I’m going to throw some questions at you. Feel free to answer any of them. What were the challenges of writing for say somebody who has STEM knowledge and then what was it like writing a novel, I guess you can say from the female gaze?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Okay. So I’m going to take the last question first. Actually the story is every other chapter. So one chapter is from Flora’s point of view, the next chapter is from Gregory. So I actually split the novel is 50 50, each half to each person. And I guess writing from a female gaze, not a problem because I do a lot. Writing from the male gaze, I definitely utilized my spouse. And I was like, “Does this sound about right?” with certain reactions because men and women are interacted with differently. So that was definitely a check-in point to make sure that I wasn’t making the male character overly aggressive, overly sensitive, doing something that might seem out of the norm a little bit. And I do that often with other books that I’ve written that have portions from a male gaze. I definitely have male beta readers go through it.
I have a wonderful writing group that I’m in that is mixed gendered, so a lot of times I’ll say, “Hey guys, I’m going to need feedback based on your experiences.” To make sure I’m actually not making the guy too much of a jerk or not making him jerky enough. It’s a real interesting tipping point.
And then, because it was created as a five book series, creating personalities that can get along, but be separate enough so I’m not carbon stamping, every single one of the guys to say, “Well, he’s a werewolf. So this is how he’s going to act no matter what.” So creating distinct personalities too.
For the females, honestly, my biggest problem comes with your first question is how did I work to make the information that these women had natural to them, dumbed down enough for people like me, not in their particular fields, but accurate enough that somebody reading it that’s in that field would be like, “Right. She nailed it on the head.”
And that’s where I imposed on the women that I interviewed. And I was like, “Hey, would you be willing to read this over and give me some feedback?” And they were all very, very generous souls. And they said yes, and went through and corrected things that just didn’t sound right or things that I wouldn’t think about.
So, apparently, when you build your own computer system, which I never have, you can decide what kind of battery backup life you want to have in case you have an electrical outage, so you can have a running battery and you can safely shut down your computer and shut down the programs without losing hours worth of work, which I had no reason to ever know that prior to. My husband does all of our computer maintenance so that’s the things he worries about, but just having that kind of information, I was like, “Oh, well that’s actually common sense.” And if that’s your wheelhouse, of course, that’s something you’re going to think about.
The other thing I was also told is when I was talking about her system and I was interviewing Carol, she’s like, “Well, she wouldn’t have bought a system, she would have put it together. Why would she buy a system?” I was just like, “Okay.” Because if it were me and I didn’t have somebody to build me a system, I would go out and buy a system.
So certain things that are commonplace in her every day going on, are things that now I can sound really knowledgeable about. So if my friends ask me something and I’m like, “Well, did you turn the system off and turn it back on?” Basic tech support 101 and then I can go a little further.
Yeah. I thanked all of the women profusely, I was like, “You are making me sound far more knowledgeable than I actually am about this thing.” But having people who understand what they’re talking about read through, absolutely necessary 150%. Just so I’m not insulting to people who do know. And honestly I wanted to give them very fair representation of, she didn’t get the job as an equity thing. It’s not like they had to hire 10 females and she got the job. She got the job because she’s knowledgeable and she’s darn good at what she does.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I like that you did obviously just great research and I like that you even did research with your husband because in all of us we have these preconceived ideas or biases or cultural biases. And even when we’re around someone, our spouse, who in this context is the opposite sex. We can still unintentionally write a caricature where it comes out too much. And the question I had about the male gaze, where I think when men sometimes write female characters and then they just become the ingénue where there’s not much of a character there besides just to make the main character react, who is male. And so then that female character is just a plot point, which is too bad. Every character should have development.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Oh, I was saying, I take it very seriously that it’s a romance. And if people are going to buy the main characters falling in love each other, they should be likable. They should be relatable. There should be a very clear reason why this woman’s like, “Yeah, I’d like to date you.” And especially in the first book, she had to really like him because she doesn’t like nature. I mean, she took a job at an arboretum, because it’s a job, but she doesn’t like nature and that’s his gig. So we have steel and concrete and then we have trees. And where do these two people meet in the middle? So I was really concerned with making sure it wasn’t going to feel like I just squished them together because she took a job. It was going to take more than that to sell the romance.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I really like that because in a romance novel, again, like you said, the falling in love or in lust, at first, whatever it is, you have to sell it. It has to make sense. And sometimes it might be easy just to write it from like a 19-year-old perspective where somebody looks at someone and then the world stops, something happens. And then for some reason they’re in love. And I guess that makes sense. And I remember being 19. Sure. Yeah, totally. But then if we’re, as you were writing this novel about professionals, typically professionals are a little older, a little emotionally more mature. And so even though I’ll say some 30 year olds and 40 and 50 and 60 year olds still are teenagers when it comes to romance, most aren’t and they really, really, really try hard to have honest, good relationships. Now, my next question about this series is why werewolves? Is that to play off that she didn’t like nature part?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I wish I could say yes and that would have been a really great reason. But, honestly, because I write about werewolves, I enjoy writing about werewolves that in the world of supernatural, where everybody has everything else, I gravitated toward werewolves, not that I’m actually a big fan of horror movies. I’m not particularly good with gore, but I always like the possibility that you had this hybrid creature. And then there were so many different ways you could go with it.
So I’ve written about werewolves that have three distinct forms. They have a human form, they have a wolf form, they have a hybrid form. In this particular series, they have two, they have human form and they have wolf form and that’s it. But it was really versatile. That’s how I looked at them is like, okay. And the other part of it was the majority, I would say 90%, 85% of werewolf movies out there, they’re unthinking beasts.
So human, they’re all fine, they’re intelligent. As wolves or hybrid forms, they’re these unthinking killing machines. And I didn’t agree with that. Not a single bit. So I wanted to actually show, no, this is going to be a hybrid. We say human form and wolf form. And actually in one of my stories, they’re corrected really quickly. Like, no, this is just wearable form. I can shift the perception of what I want people to see. And I actually like that. And that’s where I go. So now I have branched out ever since then, because me and challenges go hand in hand when it comes to my writing world. So I branched out to witches and I actually wrote a cowboy story. Wow, that was painful. But werewolves were my first writing love. So that’s why.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I like werewolves more than zombies and vampires. And I also love witches. I mean, to me, witches are surprisingly unused character because not only is there magic, but there’s also the strong female protagonist, which is oftentimes viewed as the antagonist because people are scared of the power she has. And to me, there’s so much there. If you just want to write from a cultural perspective history or even today, what’s not more interesting than a witch?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I agree. I fully agree. I think a lot of times to be a female, a woman, a young lady, however people want to accept the term without gritting their teeth. They think feminine, they think soft. And I think a lot of times power or mentioning power feels very spiky and very masculine. So people want to kind of pull back and say, “No, no, no, no, but she’s a good mother or a good woman. And she does this, that, and the other.” Well, power doesn’t have to be spiky. Power doesn’t necessarily have to be in your face. And the way I wrote it, it was neither masculine nor necessarily feminine. It was just power. It was an energy that you could shape and form, and either do good or bad with.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It makes me think of when you were saying power, how just using Marvel as an example everybody knows, Hulk is huge and powerful, Thor is a very large man and very strong. And when Captain Marvel came out a small blonde woman, the controversy with that is very weird. But I also understand that when people see a smaller female, they think, “Well, how can that smaller female be powerful?”
But in the grand scope of energy, energy can be within small objects. I think that’s one of the things about writing is you can really take something that might be perceived as small, even being perceived as weak, and just write such power in them because that’s reality. And it really forces people to re-analyze their own biases again, and their perceptions on what they’re looking at.
I even think today, Marvel and all the superhero movies are still struggling with that because people just always think big, powerful men when in reality, it doesn’t have to be that way. There can be a “smaller” character who is as powerful, because you’re dealing with super people anyways. None of it makes sense.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Well, the stick with your Marvel example, if you look at the very first Avengers movie, when they open up with Black Widow, she’s tied to a chair and she’s being interrogated and they talk to her and I can’t remember the exact, but her response back was like, “Well, you’re interrupting me” and he almost spilled everything.
Okay, that was a power play. She allowed herself to be captured. She allowed herself to be chained to a chair and supposedly terrorized that they were going to tip the chair or beat her or do something. And she’s just sitting there like, yeah, but you don’t consider me a threat. So you’re going to talk. And you’re going to give me information. Which is, I think, far more of a power play than Hulk coming in and smashing the guy. And then he’s whimpering and eking out information versus she was very calculated. She knew exactly what she was doing. She was in control the entire time when it was time for her to leave she whooped tail and got out.
So I think people’s idea of what is powerful and what is not needs severe adjusting because not all power is a punch to the face. Sometimes it’s that manipulation of the situation because she read the room and said, “Well, he doesn’t take me seriously as a woman.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. And it’ll be interesting to read the analysis of Black Widow as a character throughout the different movies and how she’s changed and how she’s perceived. And well, “used” as a character from simple, I think, to more complex, which is good. And so what was the reason for keeping your story local?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Partially because it made writing of the scenes really easy because I could physically go to the location and say, “Oh, okay. So now when I’m painting this backdrop for events that they did, I physically have eyes on a place.” And for me that helps the story stay engaging.
If I’m talking about a place I’ve never been and only researched, I feel like it comes out flat. That may be my perception of my work, but that’s how I work best. And quite frankly, I’m a researcher. So why would I not research a location just as well as I would research the characters?
The other thing for me too, is there’s a lot to do in Genesee County that I don’t think a lot of people realize. So local people, when I did local book shows, they’re like, “Oh, I’ve never heard of this place.” And then that was also a talking point of, well, it actually exists, here’s where it’s at. You should go check it out.
Flint has been in the news pretty poorly because of the water situation. Flint is just one part of Genesee County. And quite frankly there are amazing things to do in and around the Flint area, but sticking home and sticking with things that I knew and not for nothing, it gave me really good excuses to go spend the day in a park.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I liked that you kept things local because it seems like too often wherever we are, we think it’s boring. We think what we are used to is what everybody’s used to. And in reality, where we live is actually quite interesting. And for those in America, in the United States, it’s a huge country, with such diversity and just range of different geographic areas and climates. Even just the difference between where you live in Michigan and where I live in Arizona, there’s always such riches to write about.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Yes, actually one of the best pieces of feedback I got about the first book was I had described a Michigan summer like being inside somebody’s mouth and all the feedback that came back was like, “Ew.” And I just laugh because I’m like, “You’ve clearly not been to Michigan in August.” Because it is, it is hot. It’s humid, it’s decidedly sticky and uncomfortable, but that’s Michigan.
And as for things changing, my sister lives three hours north of me. This summer we’ve had nothing but rain, which is a little atypical, but I would talk to her on the phone, she was like, “Oh, raining? We’ve got blue skies.” And I’m like, “Okay, great.” So I think every state thinks that it’s the one that originated wait five minutes and the weather will change. But we say it often here, it’s like, “Oh, you don’t like it, it’ll change.” And it does, but it’s an amazingly diverse state. And we have a upper peninsula and lower peninsula. We’re shaped like a mitten. We’ve got all these cute little features, but there is a lot of diversity.
It takes about from the very bottom of Michigan, up to the top of the upper peninsula, it takes them about eight hours to drive if I am remembering correctly. There’s a lot that hundreds of miles will get you. Other reason to write about what’s around is write what you know best. And I know there are plenty of people that research other areas and then write about them. I choose to do what I know works best for me. And doesn’t stymie me and doesn’t give me any sort of blocks so I can continue the flow of writing.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: One of the great things about today is that when you write something, it doesn’t have to just say, stay in Michigan. It doesn’t have to stay in Arizona or just US, it can go worldwide. So imagine if somebody in Australia is reading your novel about Michigan, probably never been to Michigan. Or somebody in England is reading about Michigan. So people around the world could actually envision Michigan as being unique and exciting, which is true much in the way in which me envisioning walking around England and seeing these great old castles would be exciting. Versus somebody in England would be like, yeah, that’s another castle I’ve walked by all of my life. And so staying local can truly make you unique and differentiates you from other people.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Another advantage of actually having access to the areas you write about is taking pictures and asking my beta reading squad, read the passage, read the chapter. Okay, here’s a picture from the place. Is this what you kind of envisioned? Whether that’s yes or no or why or what needs to be tweaked, but yeah, definitely. And I have beta readers actually from around the globe just because our writing group is virtual and some of them were like, “Oh, it sounds like a pretty decent place. Everything I had ever heard about Flint was corrupt water. So you’ve painted a different picture.” Okay, great. I mean, at this point, honestly, when people ask where I’m from and I say Flint, they’re like, “Oh.” I was like, “My water is fine. Thank you. Moving on.” Keep the conversation going. Having a global audience sometimes is a nice thing. It takes notions.
So one of the first interviews I actually did about the first book was with a different female computer scientist. She had a blog and she’d heard of my book from a colleague actually, which I was like, “Wow, somebody read it. Yay.” But she had a blog about people writing about female computer scientists. And she was impressed that I’d done my due diligence. She’s like, “It sounded like somebody who knew what they were talking about.” So she was thrilled with that. But reaching an audience that you don’t intend, that’s kind of awesome. It still kind of wows me when I get an email or something from somebody who’s like, “Oh, I’m over in this place and I read your book and it was great.” It’s like, “Oh wow, thanks.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s wonderful. And so I’ve had an absolutely wonderful conversation. Any last words for people or any advice for people when they’re writing a novel or their first novel and wanting to make sure they do their due diligence when they research?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Don’t be shy to ask for help. That was something I learned actually in grad school, was sending an email to someone and giving it a preface saying, “This is why I’m doing this thing. Do you have a few moments to help?” Has been pretty well received through all walks of life.
I actually, for my very first werewolf book while I was researching wolf behavior, I emailed a veterinarian because I had a question like if wolves serve carnivores don’t they ever need to eat grass or vegetables or whatever. And he’s like, “Oh, they get those in the rabbits they eat.” But it’s not something, obviously I would have considered, but he took his couple of minutes to respond to me. He didn’t have to, but that definitely has given me this springboard of the worst a person can say is no. And then you don’t have information you didn’t have any how.
But in the majority of the cases the people say yes, because they’re interested like, “Oh, well, what are you doing? And what are you writing about?” And anytime I interact with anybody, anytime I interview anyone, of course, I give them a copy of the book because their information is helping me to sell it well.
So ask people where it isn’t your level of expertise. And then just from a pure writerly standpoint, work on your novel at the same time every single day, every single day. It just sets your brain up to say, “Oh, it’s novel writing time, let me get to work.” And then you don’t do things spend 20 minutes on the internet or watching YouTube videos, then it’s like, “Oh, I need to work.” Lock in a time. Make people realize that it’s novel writing time. And so from 3:00 to 3:30 you are not available, and that’ll help you sit down and start to create that habit of this is writing time. I need to get to it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Absolutely wonderful advice. And I completely agree. Always ask for help. Most people are happy to help and if they can’t, that’s okay. There’s always somebody else who will help. And I really like your advice about a specific time to write. And I 100% agree because it’s so easy to get distracted with family, with work, with being lazy, really everything.
And if in your head you’re like, this time is just for me to write. Then you can write, everybody has a novel in them. I always tell people that. Absolutely 100% everybody has one novel in them. Now, people who can write more than one novel, that means that they have a talent for writing. That is 100% true, but we can all do it, but it just takes time and perseverance and dedication.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: There’s actually physiological, I mean, there is science behind it. It’s not just me offering sage advice. When you start to write at the same time every day, so I tend to write at 8:00 in the morning because that’s my time, but my brain is geared for it. They’ve done studies, your pupils dilate. There’s more blood in your brain so there’s more oxygen. You are having a physiological response to your brain saying, “I know what I’m about to do.” Which is just the same as when you physically work out at the same time every day, your body’s like, “Oh, okay, get ready with these endorphins. They’re about to do the crazy workout thing.” So there’s actually quite a bit of science behind it, but just being able to hold yourself accountable. Both of my kids write a lot. It’s what they see modeled for them.
So everything is a novel, everything is a story. There’s a lot of brainstorming that goes on in our house, but even still, that’s the same advice I give them. My older one is now old enough where he’s thinking, yeah, I actually really want to finish this novel and then put it out there. And I’m like, “Okay, start to create your habit.” Because he’s an older teenager, he’s writing at 2:00 in the morning. And as long as he doesn’t ask me for advice or edits at 2:00 in the morning, we’re good.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And just the fact that he’s writing and fostering that creativity and really thinking about that critical thinking and problem solving. Those are all practical skills that everybody needs for the future. And so today we are speaking with Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson about researching when writing novels. An absolutely wonderful conversation with Jennifer. Thank you.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Thank you for having me back.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.