Unearthing narrative

A panel at the ScienceWriters 2012 conference in Raleigh, N.C.


  1. For my first foray into Storify, what better reason than to summarize a panel I desperately wanted to attend but could not? Last Saturday Amanda Mascarelli and Siri Carpenter organized an amazing-sounding group on "Unearthing Narrative" at the NASW/CASW New Horizons meeting in Raleigh, N.C. The line-up was a collection of science journalism superstars: George Johnson, longtime New York Times writer and author of the forthcoming The Cancer Chronicles. Colorado freelancer extraordinaire Christie Aschwanden. Montana writer David Quammen, author of The Song of the Dodo and the new and highly acclaimed Spillover. And Eric Powell, a top-level editor at Discover and Archaeology magazines. 
  2. Apparently I wasn't the only one eager to go. Here's where I would have been, had I made it to Raleigh:
  3. First up was Johnson, who after many books on physics and astronomy topics has decided to tackle one out of his comfort zone: cancer. Step one, for him, was to dive deeply into history.
  4. But where do you find a character in all this history? 
  5. Johnson eventually found a starting point in a fossil that may, or may not, show signs of a paleocancer. You won't see that in any of the zillions of other cancer books.
  6. Next up was Aschwanden, talking about a Smithsonian piece she wrote on doping and sports. An accomplished athlete, Aschwanden had no problem burying herself deep in the story.
  7. But sometimes, to discover the narrative thread, you have to back off.
  8. Aschwanden talked to a lot of athletes as potential leads, but none of them seemed to work just right as a character. So she turned to Twitter and found an athlete who had set up a doping-testing service to prove that athletes could be clean. But even that proved fraught with difficulties.
  9. Somehow, Aschwanden worked her way through, but not without a lot of pain.
  10. Up next was Quammen. He's famous for his detailed field reporting, and I've read before about how his essential field equipment includes a reporter's notebook with the bottom inch or two scissored off so that it fits into a ziplock bag. All the better to protect against leaks when you're slogging through the jungles of Africa, as he has done time and again. 
    To get characters, Quammen says, you've got to go where the action is:
  11. Then follow Quammen's 4-point plan to success.
  12. Next up was Powell. He'd assigned a piece on the science of chocolate. Easy, right? Well, not so much when you don't have a character to drive the narrative.