As a non-traditional student, Michael Jernigan has taken a non-traditional approach to undergraduate research. It all began with a dream in 1995. While working a fulltime job as a Corrections Officer at the Rappahannock Regional Jail in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 2006, Jernigan first began inking over ten years of research. In what he had originally envisioned as a graphic novel, Jernigan soon expanded his project to develop his first full-length novel. The resulting story, The Millennium Man, is ten years’ worth of Jernigan’s research, hard work, and fine-tuning.
The novel’s plot follows Jeremy Noble, a rough and tumble guy whose life has been hit by tragedy twice: first with the loss of his fiance in childbirth, then seven years later with the loss of his daughter to leukemia. In the narrative, Noble has been chosen by the “Spear of Destiny”—the spear that pierced the side of Christ— to be the next savior of mankind in the struggle of good versus evil.
In an additional twist, Biblical figures Adam and Eve, who have been given another chance by God to make amends for their past indiscretions, end up on opposing sides of the novel’s central conflict: Eve works as an agent for the devil—Hell— while Adam joins forces with a Counsel—Heaven— made up of a werewolf, vampire, and an undead U.S. Marshall—among others—all of whom have vowed to protect the Millennium Man and guide him on his journey to fight evil.
It is often a misconception that works of fiction are solely borne of the imagination of the author. With the Millennium Man’s creative adaptation of traditional Biblical narratives, research formed an integral part of the creative process for the author. “I can’t place repercussions of religious events and history in today’s world without knowing the story and history behind them,” Jernigan notes.
Having absolutely no background in research, his initial forays into trying to find accurate and relevant information were slow. “What can I use that people will know and relate to? The story has to be grounded in reality in order for it to work,” Jernigan says. “I may have wanted to put in a character based on a religious figure, but then after doing some research, you realize they are from a different time period [from your other characters], so you don’t use that.”
His first source was the Bible itself. With many of the characters repurposed for the novel—including Adam, Eve, Deborah, and Adam’s third son, Seth—Jernigan used the text as a foundation from which to flesh out the characters’ histories, their relationships with each other, and the effects their actions might have in his novel’s modern setting. From there, he began searching the Internet for additional sources, then seeking out reputable books and other publications to corroborate and elaborate upon much of the information found online.
Jernigan credits the development of his research ability to Virginia Tech and his wife, a Ph.D. student at LSU. “It is a type of art form to be able to get information and to research and develop those ideas into your own article or your own story,” he says. “You can’t know the research until you do it, and anyone thinking [J.K. Rowling] sat there and made all that up without doing any research is really doing a disservice to the writer.”
Research was particularly important for Jernigan as he attempted to frame the setting of the novel within realistic parameters. At one point in the book, for example, the characters find themselves in London, a place Jernigan has not personally visited. “The London Eye is this big Ferris Wheel [in London],” Jernigan explains. “How many people do the compartments hold? How high is it off the ground? People that have been there have seen this, so if they read it in the book and it’s realistic, they can feel as if they are right there again.”
For the remaining aspects of the novel, Jernigan noted the creative freedom he was allowed in applying research to a work of fiction. Supernatural elements grounded in myth turned up various opinions, thus permitting him to pick and choose which aspects worked best for the story. In these instances, Jernigan chose to incorporate mythological material based on relatively practical interpretations. “If werewolves scratch or bite you, and you become one, why isn’t the world overrun with werewolves?” he says. “That didn’t make sense, so I didn’t use that.”
Faced with the daunting task of finding an agent and publisher for his now-finished work, Jernigan is thankful his experience has made him a better researcher. “I can filter things out and decide what valuable information is . . . being able to narrow research down and know specifically how to tailor your searches, it helps.”
Although his experience might fall outside normal academic conceptions of undergraduate research, it will likely continue to be invaluable in the author’s writing projects and overall goals. Jernigan has plans to turn The Millennium Man into a trilogy in order to fully tell the story as well as stay open to offshoot stories based on specific characters. “The research will evolve and broaden with each story, but still stay grounded in the religiosity, supernatural themes, and modern reality that it is set in through the first novel.”