Five Ways That Being An Engineer Has Made Me a Better Writer
People always want to know how I made the career shift from my work as an environmental engineer into a career as a crime novelist that is now in its fifteenth year. Truthfully, it has never felt like such a big jump to me. Every time I sit down to craft a novel, the creative juices flow, and I feel the same charge that I feel when I sat down to solve a thermodynamics problem. The same logical circuits in my brain fire, and I’m immersed in the rewarding work of meeting a new challenge.
In case you can’t tell, I love my work. And I loved my work as an engineer, too. Let me tell you a little bit about the synergy between the two fields.
- Curiosity is a good thing. Engineers are fascinated by the world. We want to know how it works. We want to know why things fall when we drop them, and we also want to know why wood bursts into flame when it gets hot enough, but that curiosity doesn’t stop with the physical world. We want to understand why people do the things they do. (This is admittedly a difficult concept sometimes, which has gotten engineers a reputation for social awkwardness, but who really understands why people do the things they do?)
People who are curious look a little harder and scratch a little deeper when they’re learning about something that interests them, and the tidbits of information that they turn up often turn out to be the memorable details that bring their stories to life.
- We engineers like to take things apart and see how they work. This passion makes us careful, thoughtful readers. Over a lifetime, I’ve read a lot of great books, from The Maltese Falcon to Dalloway. The engineer’s urge for taking things apart and seeing how they work means that I’ve built up a storehouse of knowledge that I learned from the greatest writers who ever crafted a tale.
Thank you, Dashiell Hammett, Virginia Woolf, and so many others!
- Engineering professors are cruel, cruel sadists. And how did that make me a better writer? Well, when a cruel, cruel professor (or three) assigns you many hours of homework, as they have done every night for the entire semester, and all of your friends are going to yet another keg party, you learn to be disciplined enough to skip the party or you fail.
This skill comes in handy when I want to binge-watch Stranger Things, but my deadline is looming.
- In any given altercation with Microsoft Word, I emerge victorious. I first encountered computers when FORTRAN was a thing. Anything I might do with a computer these days is something that was invented after I left college, so it is something that I have had to teach to myself. Thus, my computer expertise is fairly decent in some areas, but in some areas it is…ahem…spotty. And I’ve learned to be okay with that.
If I really need to force my Mac to do something, I learn how and I carry on. Otherwise, I don’t waste my time. I just file that particular skill under “Learn it when you need it.” The advantage to having computer experience that reaches back to the dawn of time is this: I believe in my heart of hearts that I can learn new stuff when I need it.
This belief extends to pretty much everything, meaning that engineers have a certain arrogance that convinces us that we can tackle any problem, given the right tools. I find this arrogance to be a lifesaver when I’ve backed myself into a corner plot-wise, and I’m tempted to delete the file full of garbage that I am calling my work-in-process.
- Engineers have a bone-deep sense of cause-and-effect. It has been said that “The king died” is not a story. “The king died and then the queen died” is not a story. But “The king died and then the queen died of grief,” well, that is a story.
What is the difference? A story is not an event. A story is not a series of events. A story is a series of events that follow each other because one event sets the next event in motion. (A story is, of course, many other things. For example, it has to engage the emotions, and a queen dying for the love of her dead husband certainly does that. But this does not take away from my point that all but the most experimental stories must hang together logically, and the experimental writer completely abandons logic at her or his peril.)
Engineers possess an exquisite sense for logical sequences. An engineer/writer knows how to lead readers down a garden path, straight into the arms of a neatly foreshadowed surprise that they never saw coming.
Those sadistic professors were right about a lot of things. One of those things was their insistence that an engineering education prepared us for just about anything. It trained our minds to be flexible, curious, fair, and logical.
What better training could there be for a crime novelist?
BIO: Mary Anna Evans is the author of the Faye Longchamp archaeological mysteries, which have received awards including the Benjamin Franklin Award, the Mississippi Author Award, and three Florida Book Awards bronze medals. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and a Master of Science in chemical engineering, and she is a licensed Professional Engineer. She is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction writing. Her most recent book, Burials, appeared on “Best of 2017” lists for both The Strand and True West. Her upcoming release, Undercurrents, will be released in April 2018. For more information on her work, visit www.maryannaevans.com.