By Dorothy Hearst
I was minding my own business the day the wolves barged into my apartment, demanding that I write about them. I was thinking about dogs, and how amazing it is that we have such a close relationship with them. I had recently read “The Botany of Desire,” in which Michael Pollan discusses plant evolution and its effect on human evolution. That’s when a little voice in my head said, “I want to write about how the wolf evolved into the dog from the wolf’s point of view.”
I wrote about ten pages, and realized that I knew almost nothing about wolves and even less about ancient times. I began to resist the story. I hated research. It was boring and I was no good at it. I’d find something else to write.
How Research Hooked Me
Resistance was futile; the wolves wanted their story told. I found myself in the Natural Sciences section of a bookstore holding a book called “The Wolf Almanac” by Robert Busch. A few minutes later “People of the Earth: An Introduction to Prehistory” by Brian Fagan leapt into my hands. The next thing I knew, I was curled up at home, trying to read both books at once. As I read “The Wolf Almanac,” I learned that much of what I’d assumed about wolves was wrong. I’d thought they were violent, vicious creatures that fought all the time. I learned that they were really social animals that lived in family groups. As I read about prehistory, I came to understand that wolf packs and an ancient human tribes were quite similar. Kaala, the wolf narrator of my book, TaLi, her human soul mate, and their respective families began to take shape. I found Barry Lopez’s “Of Wolves and Men,” and learned that the relationship between wolves and humans was long and complex. The fourth book I found, “The Truth About Dogs” by Stephen Budiansky introduced me to the idea of wolf-human co-evolution, the idea that wolves, and later dogs, may have shaped our evolution. Everything began to come together. The research I had feared and resisted had led me to the heart of my story. “Promise of the Wolves” was born.
Research, which I had thought would be an obstacle to writing my book, turned out not only to give the book shape, it also became a central part of the creative process at the heart of the life altering journey that writing a novel can become. In the course of my research, I chased huskies through the French Alps, braved -40 degree weather in Yellowstone, watched wolves feeding a few hundred yards away from me, and walked through caves where someone else had stood 14,000 years ago painting bison and horses on the stone wall. I spoke to fascinating people from all over the world and made friends I never otherwise would have met.
Research continued to play an important role in shaping The Wolf Chronicles in both large ways and small. On my second trip to Yellowstone I stayed at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, and the lawn and parking lot were absolutely covered with elk who were bellowing through the night. They became the elkryn in key scenes in “Promise.” Because I’d read about ravens and wolves playing together, I decided to add just one scene with some ravens in it to add some authenticity to the book. One of those ravens turned out to be Tlitoo, and he became a major character and driving force of the book. One of the biggest changes came when I was watching a documentary on wild dogs in which the pack was traveling to a new location, and one of the pups got left behind. That became the scene in “Promise” in which Ázzuen and Kaala struggle to cross the Great Plain, but it was what happened next that really influenced the story. The researchers making the film weren’t supposed to interfere with the animals, but they couldn’t stand to watch the pup die. They saved it. That started me wondering: what is it about us humans that makes us unable to resist the urge to save a creature’s life in one instance, while at other times we kill indiscriminately? I began to think about how our connection to and love for other creatures could be the one thing that could save us from our more destructive tendencies, and that if we can tap into this better part of ourselves, we might be able to save ourselves as a species. That became the central theme of what was to become The Wolf Chronicles. The research had expanded the story in ways I would never have imagined possible.
The Practical Stuff:
So how do you actually do it? Researching a book can seem like a daunting task, but it’s really just a series of small steps. The first thing you need to know is where to look for information. Every author will have different needs and different resources, and finding the right tools may involve some trial and error. Don’t give up or despair if some of these aren’t right for you. Keep trying.
Books: I’ve always been a book person, so this was the first place I turned. I identified the areas I needed to learn about—wolves, dogs, evolution, ancient life—and found good books to curl up with.
Online sources: The web, of course, is an incredibly valuable research tool. The challenge is vetting the huge amount of information you’ll find online. Don’t assume something you read online is true unless you’ve verified the source and found other sources that confirm it. I often use the web as a first step. I’ll find a few pieces of information and use them to direct me in my search. I may continue on the web, go to a book, or talk to someone knowledgeable. GoogleScholar is a great resource for finding good, solid information. The new Google Books also promises to be a great resource.
Libraries: Libraries are an author’s best friend. Not only do they have books, they often offer access to professional resources like online journal articles that would cost you thousands of dollars to get on your own. This allows you to get the most recent, peer-reviewed research on a topic. Libraries also have librarians, who always seem to know more than other human beings. Often, library resources can be accessed online if you can’t get to a library in person.
Documentaries and Films: The amazing wolf documentaries I watched made it much easier for me to describe wolf life. Like the web, the information in films and documentaries can be useful but should be checked for accuracy.
Talking to people: One of the best things you can do is to talk to really, really knowledgeable people, either in writing or over the phone/in person. I had the good fortune to talk to wolf experts, dog researchers, anthropologists,archaeologists, climatologists, and others. I found that most people were happy to discuss their work, but there are a few important things to keep in mind when you ask people for help.
- Be very polite. The people you’re getting in touch with are busy. Be professional and polite in your communications with them. Email them (or if necessary, snailmail them) in advance to ask if they would mind answering some questions. If they don’t have time to talk to you, don’t take it personally or get angry. If someone says they can’t help you, thank them for their time. If they don’t answer you, don’t take it personally. Move on to someone else. You might get a lot of “no’s” before you get a yes.
- Be prepared. Before you approach an expert in the field, know her or his work, and do as much research on the topic as you can ahead of time. They will appreciate the effort you have made.
- When you are finished talking/emailing with your expert, always ask if there is anyone else you should talk to.
- Don’t forget to say thank you! Send a thank you note. Thank them in your acknowledgments and send them your book when it’s published.
Some Nitty Gritty Advice
Once you have identified your research tools, you have to roll up your sleeves and get to it. I think of research as having two main forms: specific research that you do in order to make sure your facts are correct, and research you do in order to absorb the world your book is set in.
As much as possible, you need to get your facts right. Here are some practical tips to help you do so:
- Take notes. Make sure to take notes as you read. Otherwise you’ll have to look the same information up over and over again. Trust me on this—I learned it the hard way.
- Keep track of your sources. I’m not the best note-taker in the world, and can’t always read my own handwriting or make sense of what I typed. The one thing I always do is make a note of where I found a particular piece of information. That way if I find something that looks like “Ravens don’t uitowrc but snrlogey,” (Mind of the Raven, page 147), I can go back and figure out what I meant.
- If you’re stuck on a bit of research, tell everyone you meet what you’re looking for. You never know who knows what. I was trying to figure out what plants would be in Kaala’s Wide Valley, and was having a terrible time finding information for that time period. Nothing in my toolkit was working for me. Then, I was at a party and mentioned the book to a fellow guest. “I have to find someone who really knows paleoecology!” I wailed. “I’m a paleoecologist,” she said, and I was on my way.
- Use more than one source. Unless you are absolutely certain that your source is reliable, double-check the information you find. Not everyone who claims to be an expert is. If you find conflicting info, find another sources, too.
- If no one knows the answer, you get to make it up. If you keep getting conflicting information, or if the data is incomplete, or conclusions debatable (as is often the case when you’re writing about the past) you get to choose what truth to use, as long as it doesn’t contradict known facts and as long as it is logically based on what is known. It’s one of the best parts about writing a novel.
The other kind of research is what I think of as immersion research, and it’s about absorbing everything you can about your characters and their world in order to make your book as real and engaging as possible. Immersion research gives your book the colors and shadings that will make your readers’ experience rich and rewarding. Some tips:
- Be omnivorous: I read everything I could get my paws on about wolves, dogs, birds, evolution, ancient times, shamanism, philosophy—anything that might possibly have anything to do with what I was writing. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but such reading helped create Kaala’s world and helped me build my own understanding of what was important to me and what I wanted to communicate as an author. Much of the reading you do might not show up as specific facts in your book, but it will create a richness and authenticity in your work.
- Allow your research to guide you. If you’re reading a topic and it leads you to another, don’t resist it; see if there is something good there. You don’t always know what you’re looking for.
- Be open to the world. Being a novelist is about exploring your world, about taking things in, interpreting them, and sharing them again with the world. Writers spend a lot of time alone with their computers. Make sure you take in the world as well.
How Much Research Is Enough? Knowing When to Research and When to Write.
How do you know when the research you’re doing is necessary and when it’s procrastination? How do you know when to stop to find facts and when to keep writing? The first part of this question is about procrastination. You know when you’re procrastinating! If you’re trying to write a difficult scene and decide instead to go look up something that you might or might not need to know, that’s procrastination. Don’t let research be a reason not to write. A good way to deal with this is to place time limits on research. Give yourself 30 minutes or 60 minutes to research and then cut yourself off. Or make yourself write 30 or 60 minutes before doing any research. Have a friend or writing partner help you on this if necessary.
The other part of this question is more complex and is, again, a matter of trial and error. Be guided by your instinct on this one (as long as your instinct isn’t to procrastinate!) If you’re on a roll writing a chapter and find a fact that needs to be verified, leave it blank. When I was struggling to figure out the plants in Kaala’s world I would write sentences that said “We ran until we reached a PLANT and hid under the TREE.” That way I marked where I needed to research something but I didn’t need to stop writing. I then set aside time to go back and fill in the blanks. There will also be times when you need to find a fact before you can go on because it affects the storyline. That’s when you stop to do the research. The decision whether to keep writing or stop to look something up can also depend on how long the research will take. If it’s a quick online check go for it. If it’ll take longer do it later. I’m revising “Secrets of the Wolves” now and I just had an instance where I did both. I was rewriting some dialogue and needed to know what a weasel might eat. I went online and quickly found several things that weasels eat, and decided I wanted the weasel to be eating a gopher. But I wasn’t sure that there were gophers in Europe 14,000 years ago. When I couldn’t find the answer quickly, I put in a place marker and will go back to it later.
The key thing to remember is that the research serves your story. Its purpose is to make your book accurate, engaging, authentic and evocative. It is yours to use as you will.
Dorothy Hearst is the author of “The Wolf Chronicles” trilogy including “Promise of the Wolves” published in 2009 and “Secrets of the Wolves” due out in Summer, 2011. Prior to writing about the wolves, Dorothy was an acquisitions editor at Jossey-Bass, where she published books for nonprofit, public, and social change leaders.