Monday, October 27, 2008

Kristen: Bear Research

I am a little bit intimidated to follow Coert’s blog entry on research, because his was incredibly useful and entertaining. Mine in mostly going to be about bears. Mostly. You see, when I was writing my first young adult novel about a teenager named Tess who loses her virginity underneath a canoe, it occurred to me that in addition to providing teens with accurate information about safe sex, it would probably be a good idea to provide them with accurate information about bear safety as well. Why? Good question. One answer: The big event took place near Yellowstone Park. Another answer(really, the truer answer): I like bears. In fact, I find bears infinitely interesting, admirable, furry, and entertaining. I make this next claim with a perfectly straight face: I know bears. I’ve watched a lot of bear shows on television. And I’ve seen lots of actual bears. Also, I tend to rip out articles about bears that I find in magazines and newspapers. During the first draft of my novel, I began researching bear safety, and to be honest, bears began to feel as important to my book as my actual characters. I don’t remember at what phase during the draft I realized that I needed to dig a lot deeper with my bear research. All I know is that it happened. My clipped articles weren’t enough. And my Discovery Channel viewing habits weren’t going to provide the scholarly angle I was looking for either. Furthermore, my trips to Bear World, while delightful and inspiring, didn’t yield much beyond glimpses of sleeping bears from my car. I needed to kick my bear research into a whole new phase. The book phase.

I didn’t realize how big the book phase would become. All I knew is that I needed annotated and footnoted and copyrighted books about bears--immediately. I found my definitive source about bears right away: Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero. It had everything. Information about bears. Photographs of bears. A cross-hatched drawing of where to shoot an attacking bear for maximum impact. (A word of warning, I do not suggest reading this book before a camping trip.) I had more bear facts than I knew what to do with. Seriously. I could have stopped. That would have been the logical and productive thing to do. But then I started reading through The Yellowstone Handbook: An Insider’s Guide to the Park as related by Ranger Norm. Again, a great source of information. I learned such things as “Grizzly claws are up to 4 inches long and light in color. Black bear claws are shorter, darker and curved--ideal for tree climbing.” (There were also drawings of the claws to further distinguish their differences.) Again, it felt as if I had enough information to put the bear books down. But I didn’t. After reading about Yellowstone, I bought another book: Attacked! By Beasts of Prey and Other Deadly Creatures: True Stories of Survivors. Really, there were only two chapters that dealt with my subject: “Come Quick! I’m Being Eaten by a Bear” and “Grizzly Attack!” But I was intrigued by other chapters too, such as, “I Hoped It Would Finish Me Quickly,” a graphic page-turner about a woman, her canoe, and a crocodile. Also, “Savaged By a Lion” was an amazing account of a safari gone wrong. Again, I could have stopped.

Instead of stopping, I dipped into Shark Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. You might be wondering what kind of bear information I found in that book. Well, none. But that book was next to another book I bought and it was on sale and it had an amazing cover that featured a great white shark surfacing with its mouth slightly open. By now you see the slippery slope. Research is not writing. And while you might convince yourself that it’s just as good as writing, it’s not. Sure, it’s important to explore your curiosities. Sure, it’s important to be factually accurate. Sure, it’s good to know what defensive postures are most effective in stopping hungry, apex predators from devouring you head first. But there’s got to be a stopping point. Seriously.

Recently, I met Ron Carlson, a nice guy and talented fiction writer who has written many fabulous books including an excellent collection of essays on craft called Ron Carlson Writes a Story. In it, he says one of the most important things I’ve come across in a long time and it’s not even related to bear safety. His advice? “Stay in the room.” While writing your story, there will be an incredible pull to leave the room. Your tea could be fresher. Somebody might have sent you an interesting email. Maybe you experience an urge to bake and/or eat. These are all legitimate impulses. But they are all versions of leaving the room. And as much as I’d like to look back and say that every animal attack story I read factored into the making of my first novel, I don’t think that’s the truth. I left the room. The house. The neighborhood. A few times, I even left the state.

What to do about that now? For me, it’s all about balance. Now while I write, I try not to look up anything. Not synonyms. Not city populations. Not titles of something I can’t quite recall. I flag it and I go back to it once my writing time is officially over. (Also, I snack a lot less. Because going to the kitchen requires that I leave the room.) Yes, email is still a temptation. As are live web cams chronicling the thrilling lives of bears. But to arrive at the level of productivity that my life now requires, I’ve got to be more aware of what’s real work and what’s *bear research.* Yes, bear safety and bee attacks and rampaging circus animals and air balloon mishaps and miraculous dolphin encounters are all still subjects that capture my attention. But when I write, I really do try to follow Ron Carlson’s fabulous advice. “Stay in the room.” (Ironically, this is also an excellent way to avoid bear attacks.)


  1. Kristen, you’re wrong! … Your blog is every bit as humorous and informative Coert’s posting. Not to feed your obsession, but have you read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods?

    Your tip about not leaving the room is an excellent one. It’s too easy to get sucked into e-mail, i-tunes, and reading other people’s blogs… oops! I’m guilty of that one yet again.

  2. Stay in the room? What fun is that? Why write when you could be organizing your closet, reading recipes for Thanksgiving, brushing the dog?

    Kristen, this is a great post. I'm sure you've read Marion Dane Bauer's A BEAR NAMED TROUBLE? She loves her animal research, too.

  3. "Stay in the room." That's a hard one but I get the point. It seems the phone is always ringing, the kids are running in and out and then there's my husband and the house, the dogs, the cat. . . but you know. We all have busy lives.

    Just stay in the room and avoid the bears. Good advice.

  4. Great post, Kristen. I can't imagine the self-discipline you must have developed to not even look things up. But you're right - you start by looking up a town's population, and then next thing you know, you've bought some new shoes and an electric can opener.

  5. I love how hard we work to become professional writers- and then how hard we work to avoid writing. ^_^

    If I find myself spending more than a half an hour looking for something that will result in one paragraph or less or text in my book, I have to ground myself.

    But it's good to know that when I ground myself, I'm also protecting myself from bears!

  6. But if a bear happens to come into the room while I'm there, do I still have to stay in the room???

  7. Can I tell my bear story? A friend and I used to go backpacking in the Sierras every summer—that’s what summers were for—and on one occasion, I woke in the pre-dawn light with my friend jumping around in his long johns, yelling, “A bear! A bear!” A black bear was lumping away with my backpack, which I’d neglected to pulley-string between two trees. We knew why he had it: nestled inside was a trail-trekker's delight, a double-sized loaf of Sweden Inn honey-and-butter glazed bread, which I had special-ordered in LA before making the trip. We called it lembas—Tolkien’s elven bread—and pulled chunks from it while we hiked. No way were we going to let that bear take it. We yelled, threw rocks, and chased it until it dropped the pack. I inspected the damage. It had made an eight-inch long rip in the canvas, which I stitched back together with fishing line and a hook—a tedious job. But worse, it had chomped right through the bread’s plastic wrap, devouring half the loaf in what appeared to be one bite.

    Sometimes, if you’re lucky and in the right place at the right time, the research will come to you.

    While I'm leaving my comment—my first—I'll tell you, one and all, how much I enjoy and have benefited reading this blog.

  8. Tiffany, I haven't read A Walk in the Woods, but I LOVE the cover and I will now. Thanks!

    Mary, luckily I don't have a dog. I would probably brush mine all the time.

    Kim, I turned the ringer on my phone off about 3 years ago. It's a fantastic trick!

    Oh Coert, the day I bought shoes on the Internet was the day I realized that I was a totally different person than the person I thought I was. But I love my new pair of Keen Targhee IIs!

    Saundra, I love the phrase "I have to ground myself." Because it's true for writing, but it's also true for avoiding electrical shocks and possible electrocution.

    Lisa, you should probably leave the room. But HOW you do that all depends on which kind of bear is in the room with you. Black? Grizzly? Polar?

    Troy, great bear story. It doesn't surprise me that bears crave carbs.
    Yesterday, I ate two scones.

  9. Kristen, I wish I could have said we offered our granola bars in exchange for the bread, but it didn't occur to us.