How Research Transforms Historical Fiction

Dorothy Hearst Describes How She Came To Love Research

Photo Credit ©

Photo Credit ©

 Mary: Dorothy Hearst is the author of  The Wolf Chronicles, three novels set in Europe in the Paleolithic Era which narrate how the wolf became the dog from the wolf’s point of view. Like all good historical fiction, Dorothy’s novels demanded a great deal of research. Today Dorothy is going to talk to us about how she went from hating research to loving it.

Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Dorothy. Could you please start by telling us why you decided to write historical fiction?

Dorothy: 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. That’s when I realized that I was going to have a lot of research.

Mary: Were you good at research? Had you been trained in it?

 Dorothy: No, I balked. I’d never been any good at research. I hated it. I thought it was boring and I was no good at it. But wolves can’t type, and they wanted their story told, so I hunkered down and got started.

Mary: What were the most useful resources you came across? In other words, what are some of the best resources for a writer who is researching a historical novel?

Dorothy: The web, of course, is an incredibly valuable research tool. The challenge is vetting the huge amount of information you’ll find online and checking to make sure that what you are reading is true. 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. Documentaries and Films are another important resource when you’re doing research. The amazing wolf documentaries I watched made it much easier for me to describe wolf life. And then there’s talking to people. One of the best things you can do is talk to really knowledgeable people in writing or over the phone or in person.
Mary: Did you come to like doing research or did you continue to hate it?

Dorothy: To my surprise, I came to love it. It turned out that research was one of the best parts of the writing process. I snow-shoed in Yellowstone, chased huskies in the French Alps, spent hours in wonderful public and university libraries, and walked through a cave where someone had stood 14,000 years ago painting a bison.But what surprised me most was how research shaped my story. It profoundly changed The Wolf Chronicles in several ways.

Mary: How?

Dorothy:  Well to start with, it changed my wolves. Like many people, I used to think that wolves were vicious animals that fought all the time and were very different from us. Books like Richard Busch’s Wolf Almanac showed me that wolves are actually highly social animals that rarely fight. Then I read up on prehistoric cultures, and learned that our ancestors and wolves lived surprisingly similar lives. This changed all the interactions between wolf and human characters, and made my wolf heroine Kaala and her pack much more complex.

Mary: As you know, I also write historical fiction. I often find that research makes my plots more interesting and more complex. Did you have a similar experience?

Dorothy: Yes, research deepened my story immensely. Early on, I learned about wolf-human coevolution, the theory that wolves and dogs may have greatly influenced our evolution. Then, Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men showed me that wolves have long been emblematic of very different views of nature. This research made Kaala’s story more than the tale of a young wolf on a quest. It grew to be about our own connection to the natural world, and what that connection means for our future.

Mary: What other gifts did research offer you?

Dorothy: One of the most important things research did was give me new characters. While reading up on wolves, I learned that wolves and ravens often play together, so I decided to write just one scene with ravens in it. To my surprise the raven Tlitoo decided he wanted a bigger part in the book and became a major character. While on a trip to Yellowstone to watch wolves, I was awakened by a herd of elk bellowing outside my window. That was when Ranor the Elkryn marched into the story.

Research also gave me new scenes. Two scenes in The Wolf Chronicles are drawn directly from wildlife documentaries: the scene in which Kaala and her wolf lover Azzuen cross the Great Plain in Promise of the Wolves and a sabre-tooth cat scene in Spirit of the Wolves.

Mary: How to you feel about research at this point?

Dorothy: I’m hooked on it. In the end, research enriched The Wolf Chronicles in ways I never could have imagined. I am now a dedicated research devotee.

Mary: Does this mean you’ll be writing more historical novels?

Dorothy: Definitely. In fact, I’m researching one right now.

Dorothy Hearst is the author of Promise of the Wolves, Secrets of the Wolves, and Spirit of the Wolvesa trilogy of novels known as The Wolf Chronicles. Before the wolves barged in her door, demanding that their story be told, she was an acquisitions editor at Jossey-Bass, where she published books for nonprofit, public, and social change leaders. She loves dogs but doesn’t have one, and borrows other people’s whenever she gets the chance. After seven years in New York City and nine years as a San Franciscan, Dorothy now lives in Berkeley, California.

Dear Readers: Join this conversation about People Who Make Books Happen. You are warmly invited to ask Dorothy Hearst questions or leave a comment. This is where the experts hang out. For more writing advice, course syllabi, and tips about writing and teaching, visit my Educators Page.




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    Keep up the great writing.

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