Monday, November 7, 2011

Shifters, Weres & Walkers, Oh My! Research & Field Trip No. 2

With the popularity of Urban Fantasy, we're seeing a lot of animal characters, usually in the form of weres/shifters, but skinwalkers are starting to trickle in, as well. Some of the presented characters are remarkably well done, the pureness of the beast brought across in stunning descriptions, while others are dull and uninspired. If you're going to write a character with animal traits, whatever the form may be, you will appeal to readers more if you've painted both sides of your character in equally vibrant hues.

An excellent way to do this is to observe the animals you're portraying in person. One good place for this is the zoo, which most people should have access to, though it may mean a day trip to another city. If the zoo is a good one, you should be able to observe the animal in an environment similar to their natural one, which should give you some insights.

An even better way to do it is to find a conservation site near you. This one is harder to come by, but extremely gratifying if you can find it. This year, I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit two such places, and will hopefully visit another in the spring or summer. Most exciting about that future visit is that they have a black leopard, which is an animal I'll be writing about in my next novel. I can't wait!!

The two sites I've gotten to visit were The Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center and The Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation, both of which are wonderful places that obviously care about their animals (one has all wolves and wolf-dogs, while the other also has foxes and coyotes). The place I went yesterday, the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation, actually allowed us several hours of visiting in the pens with the wolves. It was an amazing experience, and one I hope to repeat in the not-too-distant future. There is nothing like personal interaction to really get the feeling for an animal, especially one as misunderstood and maligned as wolves.

Another benefit to visiting one of these places is that you get to support the very animals you are writing about. Many of these places rely on donations, alone, such as the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation I visited. The owner, Mark Johnson, gives three hour tours (yes, every time I say it I hear Gilligan's Island theme music) where you get to interact with his wolves completely free. He never asked us for a donation, even. He is entirely dedicated to his wolves and they, in turn, are well cared for and loved. This is the type of place I like to support, and I'm glad that I'm able to do so while also getting the experience of a lifetime and possible research for future stories. Some photos will be posted at the end of this post.

I know that I am very lucky to live in a place that offers the kind of access I have to places where I can study wildlife. If you aren't in an area like this one, you can observe similar animals in person, such as cats or dogs. Though they aren't the same, they have similarities that can be conducive to your descriptions. Watch how they move, how they eat, how they react to things. Though they are domesticated, they still have much in common with their untamed brethren.

Lastly, there are animal documentaries galore! If you can't visit or observe animals in person, check out documentaries and do your research on their habits. You will still be able to watch them, and in fact, will more often get to see them in their wild settings, which is great information to have.

This may all seem like a lot of work, but I assure you that it's worth it to really get the correct characterizations down. Of course, if your shifter or were acts and moves like a hairy human, I suppose research isn't all that necessary, other than observing hairy humans in their natural habitats. If your character is supposed to take on an animal's attributes, your writing will truly come alive when you present them in vivid living color.

The following photos are from the wolves of Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation:

This is Baby; she is a sweetheart who likes kisses and belly rubs.

Baby again.


Baby howling back at Josie, a wolf-dog in another pen.

Apache (who I've posted pics of before); he was digging under their shared house.

I think this was Apache, as well, standing on top of their house.

Lakota, who I found just gorgeous (of course, they all were); he is Apache's brother.

Lakota doing a little snacking.

~nom, nom, nom~

Side view of Lakota

Merlin, who has never been touched by human hands.

Merlin, watching us closely.

Another of Merlin.

Zoya, a part-wolf, part-Siberian husky. She has one blue eye and one amber.

Zoya getting a belly rub (sort of amazing to have a wolf offer up their belly to you; several of them did so, all female, I believe).

Cherokee, Apache and Lakota's sister, who was also quite a fan of belly rubs.

Thanks for looking! As always, all photos are mine alone, and cannot be used or copied without my permission.

Aren't they gorgeous?! Have you had the opportunity to visit rescued wild animals at a conservation center? How do you research your animal characters?

May you find your Muse.


  1. So beautiful. Thank you for sharing. And I have to say, your facebook status of it being hard to drive with wolf drool on your sunglasses makes so much sense now!

  2. Great pictures and advice. Thanks.

  3. Nice pix.

    I don't have any weres or skinwalkers or the like. but enjoyed the post anyway.

  4. Beautiful pictures! I live in the country and my house is right up against a forest of evergreens in western WA. I get to hear the coyotes howl at night and wow, it's amazing music they make!

    Part of my book takes place in the ocean so I've been to different aquariums near the Seattle area as well as viewed lots of ocean documentaries with my kids. :) Yes, that sort of research helps.

  5. Wow, they are just beautiful animals! It's been ages since I've been to the local wildlife sanctuary - it has kangaroos, crocodiles, dingoes, emus and all sorts of native animals. I really should get out there for another look. I don't write much about animals, although I have at least mentioned dingoes in my WIP, but not in a nice way even though I personally think they're lovely.

  6. Hi Shannon! I wanted to stop by and thank you for visiting my blog! Really appreciate it.

    These pictures are gorgeous!! Some friends of mine used to have malamutes and these guys remind me of them so much. They are beautiful animals.

    I never thought to go to a conservations site to study animals for walkers/weres. It makes perfect sense. Yes. School IS frying my brain....


  7. So, so beautiful! And great for research indeed!

  8. great researc and beautiful pics

  9. Julie, I bet it does! haha! And thanks!

    Shelly, thank you!

    Mike, thank you! I don't actually have any werewolves, and my shifter will be a whole different animal, but I appreciate wolves, and this was such a cool opportunity.

    Rachel, what better way to research for a book? Very cool about the coyotes. I back up to a protected park here in Colorado, so I get treated to animal sounds, as well.

    Jen, that is very cool! I definitely think these places are worthwhile to visit and support, books or no.

    Jen, school will do that to you! A friend of mine had a massive malamute, and it was a very docile, beautiful animal. And thanks!

    Liz, thank you!

    Becca, thanks!

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