Protons and Fleurons: Twenty-Two Elements of Fiction

by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

Big Rosa rescues unhappy women of the Wild West to work in a helium mine; Georgie Appleseed rescues his failing diner with the help of neon. A silicon son tries to make his gold dad proud, while a scientist tries to make a new St. Francis from calcium bone fragments. Obadiah Toad gives away all his peace with a nickel, but Mamá finally gives away her heart on account of arsenic. These twenty stories explore twenty-two of the elemental forces that underpin all of life…

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About the Book

This story collection gestated over a long period of time. “Iron” and “Gold” were the first two stories I drafted, well over a decade ago. At the time I didn’t have any sense that they would be linked by a common theme of an element of the periodic table to each other, much less to another eighteen stories.

I can’t remember anymore exactly how the idea for a whole book of stories based on the periodic table came together, though “Molybdenum,” as an exercise in metafiction, tells some of what I’ve been able to reconstruct from my memory.

After I settled on the idea, though, I read John Emsley’s comprehensive book Nature’s Building Blocks: An A–Z Guide to the Elements (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). I took notes about aspects of the elements that I thought might give rise to a good story. The resulting stories are the ones that coalesced into a good yarn. But some of the elements I eventually set aside with regret: titanium, copper, silver, indium, tin, lead. Maybe someday there will be a second volume.

I also drew up as comprehensive a list of genres as I could to scry out what might be a good match for my selected elements. Here, too, I had to leave some behind that otherwise intrigued me: ode, travelogue, fan fic, picaresque, jeremiad, riddle, parody… Again, maybe someday a volume two?

And finally, since I wanted them to be set more or less in North America, I made a point of representing a number of different places therein as well as different time periods, including imagined pasts and imagined futures.

Eventually I settled on twenty stories, but since three elements appear in one story, I had to come up with the rather awkward subtitle of Twenty-Two Elements of Fiction. The stories in the book are listed in sequence according to each element’s atomic number, with the delightful result that the chapters are numbered not 1, 2, 3, 4, and so forth but 1, 2, 6.7.8, 10, 11, 14…

Table of Contents:

1. Hydrogen: A Recipe
2. Helium: A Tall Tale
6.7.8. Carbon Nitrogen Oxygen: A Solarpunk Story
10. Neon: A Legend
11. Sodium: A Testimony
14. Silicon: A Fable
16. Sulfur: An Epistolary Quartet
20. Calcium: A Complaint
26. Iron: A Gothic Horror Story
27. Cobalt: A Mystery
28. Nickel: A Cautionary Tale
33. Arsenic: A Love Story
40. Zirconium: A Coyote Tale
42. Molybdenum: Metafiction
53. Iodine: A Steampunk Story
79. Gold: An Apology
85. Astatine: A Eulogy
86. Radon: A Ghost Story
92. Uranium: A Post-Apocalyptic Tale
94. Plutonium: A Myth

Want to dig in deeper? Get the first ever Palimpsest Guide from Thornbush Press, giving the insider scoop on the book’s creation, gestation, obscure details, hidden themes, and more!

About the Author

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson writes, walks, cooks, and podcasts in Tokyo, Japan, where she lives with her husband and son. She’s the founder of Thornbush Press, prolific author, and serves as Associate Pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church.

Follow her work and sign up for her quarterly e-newsletter Theology & a Recipe at

Listen to her new fiction podcast, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson Stories, and her long-running theology podcast Queen of the Sciences: Conversations between a Theologian and Her Dad, with Paul R. Hinlicky (her dad—you guessed it!).