Wednesday 28 February 2024

Writing like a Mammoth

For the novel I am currently submitting, Ashley Grimes Mammoth Whisperer, I had to write convincing and authentic fauna, in particular mammoths.

For context here’s the elevator pitch…

Ashley Grimes Mammoth Whisperer

Ash must save the herd of woolly mammoths that have been cloned to help slow global warming, from an evil big game hunting obsessed billionaire. By overcoming the difficulties of her dyslexia and dyscalculia and combining her skills in understanding mammoth behaviour with her friend’s, Ruby’s escapologist skills and Jack’s technical whizzery, the three children endeavour to save, a village, Ash’s dad and of course the mammoths!

Writing real and convincing animals can be difficult but is much easier if you have experience of keeping them or observing them in the flesh. This can be easy or tricky depending on the animal, dog – easy, Komodon Dragon – tricker, but a species which has long been extinct is impossible.

This can be avoided by cheating. And yes, I initially tried to cheat, but having my main protagonist be able to talk to the mammoths. The problem was it undermine the concept and stood the book in a weird position of being too old for a Chapter Book, and too young for Middle Grade. Upon several lovely folk’s invaluable feedback, who suggested that I take out the Doctor Doolittle element (you know who you are and thank you so much), I made the decision to rewrite. This time with no anthropopeia in sight.


It was the right course of action and improved the manuscript immeasurably, putting it firmly in the desired middle grade age group, but initially starting the task was daunting. What so I know about how mammoth behave? Oe how they interact with humans? I had obviously already done some research, but this edit meant that it had to greatly upped – mammoth style.

I do have animal husbandry experience – birds of various types, parrots, pigeons, even rheas. Reptiles – iguanas, chameleons, geckos. Fish. Small mammals – rodents, dogs, cats, sheep, alpacas. Yep, yep yep.

So how then to work out how a long dead species would behave? It had to be two-fold firstly – find out what is known about mammoths and their interactions with out ancestors. Secondly looks at mammoths closest living relative, elephants and more specifically Asian Elephants.


As I couldn’t afford a trip to India to meet actual elephants, then visiting a safari park to observe them from a distance would have to do. Plus watching every documentary, I could find on either elephants or mammoths.


The next one was the biggy. I may not been able to stretch to a trip to India but I could justify investing in books. I researched books, and brought any I could on elephants behaviour, mannerisms, culture, society and interactions with humans.


This was fascinating, as I read biographies of Jumbo and then the autobiography of his keeper. Books on animal husbandry and zoology, general elephant behaviour. Guides on being safe around elephants on safari. I also looked for any books on paleozoology and evolutionary biology about mammoths. In addition, I also looked at neanderthals and their interactions with fauna, and mammoths specifically.

Whilst I did this I was armed with many colours of highlighters and matching tag post-its. Why? Well, I love my emotional thesaurus for writing that I use all the time when writing in order to show characters emotions rather than tell, so I decided to create my own thesaurus of mammoths behaviours.


So anything of certain grouped behaviours or reactions, say anger and aggression, was highlighted one colour and a corresponding coloured tag put on the page. I also created a key, so I know which colour was which group of behaviours. This meant that while I was editing, I could find all the resources I needed for certain behaviours in my attempts to create an authentic and believable representation of the mammoths.


I also did the same for mammoth/human interactions,

It was a lot of work, but I believe the books is much, much better as a result. And if I am ever lucky enough to so a sequel at least I already have the resource at hand.