Denise Robbins, a software engineering manager by day, integrates her knowledge of computers and technology into all her techno-romantic thriller novels. Her published works include It Happens in Threes and Killer Bunny Hill with Connect the Dots and Never Tempt Danger scheduled for release in 2010.
I saw down with Denise and asked about the unique combination of technology and fiction.
Your computer background has obviously been a big factor in the plots of your books. How did you become interested in technology?
It all started when I was a kid. In elementary school we went on a field trip to an electronics shop. In there, we saw all kinds of cool gadgets like small calculators, electronic games, and then… a computer. Holy cow! I could play chess on the computer.
About that same time, my dad brought home a modem. I’m not talking the modems you pick up today that fit in the palm of your hand, we’re talking a behemoth of a machine that looked like a typewriter with a phone coupler attached to it.
Some readers may not understand the significance of computers in fighting crime. Explain how important an understanding of new technologies can be in staying ahead of the bad guy.
Computers are used a great deal more than people think in regards to fighting crime. One simple example is the FBI’s website that gives the public information on some of the criminals they are searching for. This website not only informs the public, but now there are large numbers of people on the lookout for the ‘bad guys.’
Local police departments have computers in every patrol car, which can be used in different scenarios. Remember the last time you were pulled over? The police officer can put your license plate into the computer and check if the car was stolen, your driving record, or even your car registration. A police officer making a routine stop may not seem like any big deal or use for computer technology, but what you may not realize is that the same computer that told the officer the car was stolen, can also provide arrest and warrant information. Information attained via the computer by the officer makes him/her more capable of making the right decision of how to approach the situation.
Computers also give law enforcement the resources and technology needed to keep up with modern day criminals in the cyber world. Some criminals steal people’s identities or purchase goods with someone else’s credit cards over the Internet. Internet felons commit all sorts of crimes such as downloading child pornography, even trying to convince minors to meet them somewhere, which could result in abduction. Without computers, it would be nearly impossible to catch felons of this nature. Through computers law enforcement agencies can watch these actions and make the web safer.
Because of computers and instant access to large amounts of information, law enforcement agents have the power to turn a possible dangerous situation into a much safer one sooner rather than later.
Explain a little about nanotechnology and its current uses.
Nanotechnology is a technology based on the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules to build structures to complex, atomic specifications. The nanoscale is about a thousand times smaller than micro that is, about 1/80,000 of the diameter of a human hair.
Items already available in the marketplace include: burn and wound dressings, water filtration, dental-bonding agent, coatings for easier cleaning glass, bumpers and catalytic converters on cars, protective and glare-reducing coatings for eyeglasses and cars, sunscreens and cosmetics, stain-free clothing and mattresses, ink, longer-lasting tennis balls, and lightweight and stronger tennis rackets.
A ski jacket produced by Franz Ziener GmbH&Co is based on nanotechnology. The windproof and waterproof properties are not obtained by a surface coating of the jacket but by the use of nanofibres.
The company InMat makes long-lasting tennis-balls by coating the inner core with clay polymer nanocomposites. These tennis-balls have twice the lifetime of conventional balls.
What do you see happening with nanotechnology in the future?
Today, we have just scratched the surface on what nanotechnology will do for us. There are many nanotechnology applications in research and development. In the field of medicine, there will be Qdots that identify the location of cancer cells in the body and Nanoparticles that deliver chemotherapy drugs directly to cancer cells to minimize damage to healthy cells. Can you imagine not having to expose the entire body to chemotherapy but only the part that requires the treatment?
Nanotechnology is huge in the science and technology area as well, in particular, manmade diamonds. In recent years, there has been research into producing manmade diamonds, no, not cubic zirconia, but “real” diamonds grown in a lab and not in nature. Manmade diamonds is a huge breakthrough that will only get bigger. The diamond has the largest thermal conductivity of any material. With every improvement in computer chip technology, the machines get faster and hotter. At some point the chips and computer insides will melt. Diamonds are the answer for faster computers without the heat factor. For the same thermal conductivity reason, manmade diamonds could help make lasers of extreme power. The material could allow a cell phone to fit into a watch and iPods to store 10,000 movies, not just 10,000 songs.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Nanotechnology is the next great wave and I’m hoping it hits soon.
What are some of the challenges in blending cutting-edge technology with fiction?
The challenge in creating techno-fiction is knowing how to keep the story moving at the same time giving enough of a visual picture of the technology so the reader understands without dumping boring information on top of their head.
It seems like the field of technology is more of a man’s world. How did you end up in the field and why do you think there aren’t more women involved?
I think since my dad was in technology, not the same as I am involved today, I was destined for computers.
Taking a job with a government contractor for the Department of Defense hooked me on technology. I was part of a team that built software for use in military medical facilities. It was when I taught computer programs and programming to adults that I found my love for all that ‘geeky’ computer stuff. There is nothing like watching the spark in somebody’s eyes as the light bulb goes on inside their head after they have learned to write code and see the result.
Why there are not more women in science and technology is a question that has been asked quite a lot in recent years. One simple answer is how parents and teachers present information technology professions and other occupations to their daughters and students. It is about encouraging and providing role models.
Another explanation for the lack of women in information technology careers is misconception and preference. Why do I say that as if they are com-mingled? Many people believe working in IT is solitary. They imagine someone sitting in front of a computer eight hours or more a day with no one to talk with. Ask any of the engineers that work for and with me and they will let you know that is not the case.
In general, women prefer to work with people while men prefer to work with things. With the solitary misconception out there, many women are choosing other careers.
Do you have a lot of male readers because of your interesting plots? How do you draw them in?
To be honest, I am not certain that I have too many male readers yet, but I have a few and I want more. I think once the guys know that my novels are based on interesting and real technology, have suspense and mystery woven in with action and adventure that they will want to read them. All it takes is a few good men… to spread the word.
While my novels are fiction, when my hero or heroine is shooting a weapon, all readers should know that I have done the research and had the experience several times. My first time shooting anything, but a shotgun at skeet (of which I am a very good shot), was when I wrote It Happens in Threes. I had to know what it felt like. I contacted a friend who taught me all the various right and wrongs and who enjoyed seeing me struggle filling a clip and always forgetting to take the safety off.
Right now, my attempt at “drawing them in” is to give a guy I see a copy of the book, ask him to read it, and let me know what he thinks. So far, the response has been positive. The other little tidbit that helps draw the men in as that I have other men review and edit my novels for the male perspective. It always helps me when Steve or David say, “No guy would say that.” Then they wrinkle their noses and slash away at my work. I am very grateful. I also have friends who are former military and they correct some of my ideas as well.
How do you handle the fine line between giving too much technological information and making the story flow?
This is an excellent question. Computer stuff can be very dry and boring, take it from me. What I do is take technology and introduce the readers to it in small pieces, like breadcrumbs of information, so that technology is part of the mystery or part of the solution in the puzzle. I take the technology and break it down so my characters show you just enough to make you understand, and at the same time get curious. Wait until you find out about nanotechnology in Killer Bunny Hill. I’ll give you a hint – Diamonds aren’t just a girl’s best friend.
Where do you come up with your story ideas?
My story ideas come from various places and most the time it is just a matter of sitting down with pen and paper and asking myself about the particular characters I have just identified in my mind. Sometimes, as in the case of my second novel Killer Bunny Hill, the seed for novel will just hit me while flying across the country on a plane. In the case of my fourth novel Never Tempt Danger, the idea came from a dream. Those are just the beginnings, now I have to construct a story line and that takes a little more effort.
Sometimes I take from my own experiences with technology, but that is still limited in scope. So what do I do? Well, here is my answer.
I did some research once for work when I accidentally ran across an article on ‘manmade diamonds’ and using them as computer chips. As I continued to read the story, I found out about an organization known as DARPA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. This agency is the central research and development office for the Department of Defense. They fund all kinds of technology research in order to keep our military technologically superior and in turn keep us safe and military personnel safe. Cool stuff!
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today, Denise!