Livia BlackburneToday we welcome Livia Blackburne whose young adult novel Rosemarked has recently been released (here’s my review). Livia is a neuroscientist and, since we have two neuroscientists on our team here at FanLit, we asked her how her background influences her writing. Livia says that she views neuroscience and fiction as two sides of the same coin.

One random commenter with a U.S. address will win a copy of Rosemarked


NEUROSCIENCE AND FICTION: Two Sides of the Same Coin

People are often surprised when I tell them that I earned a PhD in neuroscience before I became a young adult author, but I see neuroscience and fiction writing as two sides of the same coin. Both of them are ways to look inside a person’s head, to see and explain how people work.

My neuroscience background has affected both the process by which I write, as well as the content of my stories. I started writing in earnest during my third year of graduate school, and my scientific training influenced how I learned to my craft. I take a very analytical approach toward reading and writing. When I find a book I like, I break it up into its component pieces and try to figure out how it works.

I also use what I know about the psychology of creativity to facilitate my process. When I’m drafting, I try to allow myself plenty of undistracted time to daydream and let my mind wander. I try to walk while brainstorming to increase blood flow to the brain, and I try to spend time outside.

Rosemarked Kindle Edition by Livia Blackburne (Author)I’m also intrigued by the idea of embodied cognition, the idea that people map metaphors onto physical reality. I once read a study saying people were more likely to think outside the box if they were literally standing outside of a box. I’ve haven’t yet tried that, but I might if I get desperate enough for my next book proposal!

Beyond my writing process, the neuroscience I’ve picked up also works its way into my fiction. For example, the social and personality psychology I learned while studying for my qualification exams have been immensely useful in my world building. I love studies that explore different cultures and worldviews– for example, individualistic cultures, like the United States, compared to collectivist cultures such as China, and how your cultural background affects everything from your judgements to the way you see the world. I also learned about group dynamics: in-groups vs. out groups, and the prejudice that people build up toward the “other,” which has helped greatly in creating clashing societies. Finally, I learned about experiments like the Milgram experiment or Stanford prison study that showed how ordinary people can be capable of great evil. All of these and more made it into my novels.

My most recent novel Rosemarked centers around a potion that could be used to remove and restore someone’s memory at will. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out a neurologically plausible way to do this, until I remembered I was writing a fantasy and probably didn’t need to work out all the details. So the memory potion in Rosemarked is squarely in the fantasy realm, but I do base it on real memory principles.

The classic model of memory includes three types. Semantic memory is your knowledge of the world – for example, that Abraham Lincoln was president during the American civil war. Episodic memory is personal memory – for example, that you played Abraham Lincoln in your 7th grade play. Finally, there’s procedural memory, or muscle memory, which includes skills like riding a bike. Amnesia often selectively affects different parts of memory. For example, the famous amnesia patient HM lost his semantic and episodic memory but was still retained his ability to do tasks, and was able to learn new skills. Likewise, my character Dineas loses his personal memories and his knowledge of the world, but retains his fighting skill.

Dineas also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and I just happened to have a grad school classmate who worked on PTSD drug research. She worked on drugs that attenuated traumatic memories. Unlike her drugs, my fictional potion allows for the memories to be restored at will. Still, it’s fun to compare fantasy to reality, and hopefully inject a bit of realism into my YA novel.

One random commenter with a U.S. address will win a copy of Rosemarked

More about Rosemarked: A healer who cannot be healed . . . When Zivah falls prey to the deadly rose plague, she knows it’s only a matter of time before she fully succumbs. Now she’s destined to live her last days in isolation, cut off from her people and unable to practice her art—until a threat to her village creates a need that only she can fill. A soldier shattered by war . . . Broken by torture at the hands of the Amparan Empire, Dineas thirsts for revenge against his captors. Now escaped and reunited with his tribe, he’ll do anything to free them from Amparan rule—even if it means undertaking a plan that risks not only his life but his very self. Thrust together on a high-stakes mission to spy on the capital, the two couldn’t be more different: Zivah, deeply committed to her vow of healing, and Dineas, yearning for vengeance. But as they grow closer, they must find common ground to protect those they love. And amidst the constant fear of discovery, the two grapple with a mutual attraction that could break both of their carefully guarded hearts. This smart, sweeping fantasy with a political edge and a slow-burning romance will capture fans of The Lumatere Chronicles and An Ember in the Ashes.


  • Taya Okerlund

    TAYA OKERLUND's first career was in public service in the federal government. She previously lived in Japan and China and speaks both Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. More recently, she authored YA novel Hurricane Coltrane (WiDo, 2015) and currently reads and writes in spare moments between therapy runs and child rearing heroics.