My friend Sandra Merville Hart writes historical fiction and wrote piece on researching words that are appropriate for her characters to say in the time period she is writing about. She describes how modern words and phrases in the mouths of characters living hundreds of years ago will ruin the effect the author wants to create.
She lists two sites that help authors research words and phrases. For example, it is “okay” for Civil War characters to say something is “okay”. But those characters can’t “okay” something because using “okay” as a verb wasn’t done until 1888.
If I really want to use animals as an inspiration for my writing, nothing beats observing them in their natural habitats. I have tracked turkeys between corn fields and taken pictures of them taking off. One spring, I watched a fox family grow up. The books say that red foxes are active at dawn and dusk, but apparently the foxes hadn’t read the books because I watched baby foxes play in our orchard at almost noon one day. Observing animals in their natural homes gives me insights that books or documentaries about them can’t provide.
With exotic animals, zoos are as close as we can get. I like visiting zoo, especially on days when there aren’t many visitors. Then I can linger at exhibits and not feel like I have to let someone else have a turn. I pick up a lot more details about animal behavior when I take the time to sit and watch. Watching a snake slither up the glass front of it enclosure allows me to see how the light plays on its scales, how its muscles work, and what a snake’s eyes really look like. They might not do anything remarkable for ten, fifteen, thirty minutes, and then the animals will something so unexpected, or beautiful, or amazing that I forget how long I have been waiting.
A lion’s roar sounds feeble on TV. Hearing it at the zoo is an unforgettable experience. I got a hint of the power of the animal. I also got a sense of an animal’s power at a gorilla enclosure once. A silverback ran up to the floor-to-ceiling window and slammed both his massive arms against it, sending thirty junior high kids running and me almost out of my shoes. If I had seen a gorilla charge on TV, it would have been interesting. Seeing it in real life was terrifying. And I was safely standing on the other side of the window.
But I can also get inspiration from pets, even though millions of words have been written about them. Each writer who takes the time to get to know a particular pet can get some new insight into its behavior. We have a hamster. I have read a lot about hamster behavior. But when our hamster began blocking his only tube to his water and food with bedding, I didn’t know what it meant. He did it for a few months in the spring, after we had had him for three months. He packed the bedding so tightly that I would remove the tube to clear it because I wasn’t sure he could push it out of his way. We had to have a neighbor stop by every day while we took a short vacation to make sure he could get to his food and water. I can’t find a definitive answer for why he behaved like this and then stopped. But if I was writing a story about hamsters, the incident would give me a real world example I could invent a reason for. Maybe our hamster was protecting himself from an alien invasion. Maybe he smelled something new and was afraid. All sorts of possibilities come to mind, and I think what makes the inspirations so interesting is that they are based on fact.