The Post: Under the Pier – Animal R&D cont.

Even though I’d identified my first two main characters, I didn’t know much about them. On top of that, I still needed a third main animal character, and that didn’t even touch the question of who else inhabited this world I was trying to show.

I started doing simple web searches on hermit crab, symbionts, snail fur hydroid, Narragansett Bay flora and fauna, New England ocean divisions. As Robert Frost always said, way leads on to way, so web site leads to web site. In short order I was finding more info than I knew what to do with. I had to organize it, figure out just what was relevant, and in some cases, figure out whether the info I was finding was even correct. Just because it’s on a website…or even in a book, doesn’t make it gospel. My rule of thumb was to try and find that same information in at least 2 or 3 other places, including books if possible, before accepting it.

I found that animal names were a large problem. Names could drive you out of your mind. A sheepshead fish (Archosargus probatocephalus) and a sheepshead minnow (Cyprinodon variegatus variegatus) are two very different fish even though they are both often just called “sheepshead”. A mud dog whelk is also called an eastern mudsnail, so when I saw the name “New England dog whelk” I figured they were the same. Apparently, though, they aren’t. The mud dog whelk/eastern mudsnail is Nassarius obsoletus, and the New England dog whelk (among other names) is Nassarius trivittatus. So using Latin names to verify who was who, really became a necessity. However, taxonomists can play a bit of havoc with Latin names, too. These 2 guys have a different genus names in different sources. In some articles the genus name was Nassarius and in others it was Ilyanassa. Needless to say, a real pain.

Another problem was “location.” I began collecting information on all the plants and animals so I could “populate” my fictitious Narragansett Bay story location. Narragansett Bay may be in Rhode Island which is New England, but “New England” isn’t always just New England. There’s the Gulf of Maine, Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts Bay, Georges Bank, Cape Cod Bay, Stellwagon Bank, Long Island Sound, Narragansett Bay…..all of which may vary in what animals and plants live there. Nothing is EVER simple.

In reality, New England actually has different zones of animals often separated right about the level of Cape Cod. There are a couple of large currents operating off the Eastern US coast. Most people are familiar with the Gulf Stream – warm water that flows westward from Africa as the North Equatorial Current, circulates through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, then heads north until about the level of Cape Cod. At that point the warmer waters turn eastward as the North Atlantic Drift and head toward the British Isles.

Coming down from the north is a cold current moving counterclockwise past Greenland, then south along the US coast and is known as the Labrador current. A branch of that known as the Maine current brings cold water down along Maine, New Hampshire and into Massachusetts Bay north of Cape Cod.

So it appears Cape Cod is the meeting spot for the cold northern currents and the warmer southern Gulf Current. From the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Sea Creatures:

“This makes Cape Cod a so-called zoogeographic barrier, a region of great interest and diverse fauna, whose water temperatures differ by as much as 10 degrees F between it’s north and south shores. Many northern cold water species range only as far south as Cape Cod, and many southern species range only as far north as its southern shore.”

So even though the Atlantic Wolffish is found in the Gulf of Maine and Maine and Rhode Island are both in New England, odds are the wolfish is an unlikely inhabitant of Narragansett Bay. In fact some of the fish in Narragansett Bay probably have more in common with ones off Cape Hatteras than Cape Cod. Another example of this – sea cucumbers. The National Audubon Guide said the orange-footed sea cucumber is the largest and most conspicuous sea cucumber in New England, BUT more than one source said it’s from the Arctic to Cape Cod. From Cape Cod south, it’s the Hairy Sea Cucumber.

Even locally within a particular area, there are differences. Just because some fish or creature lives in Narragansett Bay doesn’t mean you’ll find it right by the story’s pier. Some are strictly offshore water creatures. You can’t put them in shallow coastal zones. Some prefer sandy bottoms vs. gravel or mud. Some are bottom dwellers, or live attached to pilings or rocks and are not found floating in the sunny surface water. And of course, season: some are only present in December, but not June. I really wanted to include the Harbor Seals in my story, but they are only there in the cold months. So, scratch Harbor Seals

From all of this, I drew up a long list of fish, algae, plants, birds, and invertebrates that fit ONLY in Narragansett Bay, in the right location, in the right season. There were a few exceptions to the rules – the occasional bird who “never is here in June, only December, but occasionally, it’s there in June anyway.” I included those only if I had a research paper, article, or interview with some researcher that documented that nature doesn’t always follow the rules.

Armed with this list, I began writing up animal character biographies. They still included “flaws, strengths, driving needs, hopes,” but also included topics like:

-What problems do they have in finding food and living space?
-Who do they eat or who eats them?
-Do they have parasites, symbionts, or freeloaders who don’t harm or help them?
-Where are they most likely to be found?
-Do they have any odd quirks, interesting behaviors, unusual qualities?
-How likely are they to interact positively or negatively with my hermit crab protagonist or be present in his world?

I started with books, mostly nature guides like the National Audubon Guides to Invertebrates, Birds, Fishes, Mammals, and New England, that had detailed descriptions, photos, and answers to some of these questions. Another great book was by Save the Bay, The Uncommon Guide to Common Life in Narragansett Bay. Also I found some websites helpful. One in particular was the Narragansett Bay Biota Gallery that covered all categories of life above and below the bay’s waters, and included pictures.

I made an index card for each animal, plant, algae, bird, fish, whoever, that conceivably could end up in the pages of my book. On the front of the card I wrote their common name or names and the Latin scientific name. On the reverse, I logged some key facts, and what books and page numbers in those books had additional info. The index cards were color-coded based on whether they were invertebrates, fish, algae, plants, mammals.

Once I’d collected all of this information, I could then spot the holes – the unanswered questions. That’s where Google searches helped. Also, emailing places like the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, NOAA’s Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, and the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center provided actual researcher names and contact information so I could talk to real human beings to get the straight information I was missing.

There are many researchers I will need to thank in a later post, but one in particular provided me with such a treasure trove of information on hermit crabs, I have to thank him here as well. Dr. Jason D. Williams of Hofstra University, provided me with a number of research papers on hermit crabs, including information on their behavior, shell interests, locations, etc. One paper in particular was invaluable: “Symbionts of the hermit crab Pagurus longicarpus Say, 1817: New observations from New Jersey waters and a review of all known relationships.” [Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 114(3):624-639, 9 October 2001] THIS is the paper that told me all I wanted to know about who Carpus would have on his shell, in his shell, crawling on his gills, and even inside his body. From this paper, I got…Crepid.

Crepid is short for Crepidula cf. plana, a slippersnail. He sits right inside the opening to Carpus’s shell. As such, he too is rather immobile, like Hydrac. He does not have stinging tentacles, teeth, or claws. And, he takes up space, giving Carpus less room to move around in his own shell. At first glance, Crepid the slippersnail seems totally useless, dead weight. But again, remember: conflict potential. How does Carpus feel about hauling around yet another useless animal on his shell? A little tension there? And what about the defensive and inferior-feeling Hydrac? There’s a good chance he would be just thrilled to constantly put down this “slug.” That means Hydrac and Crepid, in addition to being extra weight and not very useful, are now bickering all the time. It’s enough to drive a hermit crab out of his tiny little mind.

Oh, and for those sticklers for detail out there who say that this species of slippersnail doesn’t fit inside the opening of a periwinkle shell…yes, I have more than one source that documents that it does TOO fit. So there!

The last item about the animal world was “rules of the world.” As I mentioned earlier – nobody is running around in clothes and shoes, nobody flies any planes or pilots submarines, and nobody is called “Suzy Squid” or “Peter Periwinkle.” As much as possible, I wanted the creatures to look and be where they would be underwater. I wanted them to eat rotting scallops or live seaweed, not hamburgers, and I wanted their adventures and actions to be what they would experience in the ocean. In fact, the traumas and problems the main characters encounter include not only predators, but pollution, fishing trawlers, over-fishing, aquaculture, and environmental restoration.

I tried not to have many of them talk as talking animals can be a problem if not done well. However, I did take liberties with the three main characters, Carpus, Hydrac, and Crepid. To have an adventure, they had to talk and think, act, interact, argue, freak out, etc. I am still evaluating how satisfied I am with that effect, but there is precedence for it in books like Charlotte’s Web, and more recent ones like Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux, and Erin Hunter’s series on battling cat clans, Warriors.

I gave the three main characters, or at least the protagonist, Carpus, some knowledge of humans. They recognize things like ships, human refuse on the sea bottom, anchors, boards, and humans – male, female, boy, girl. He can recognize a few of their “sounds” – some simple words like ship, boat, etc., and he finds humans unpredictable, ghastly, annoying, and best avoided. I tried to give these skills a logical explanation. In the course of his normal life, Carpus has spent a lot of time along docks and piers, around coastal towns, and hence humans. All three characters, being the recipient of our pollution, are aware of “foreign objects…human objects” in their world.

Readers might be willing to accept these rules – the willing suspension of disbelief – if you can make a logical case for them and you are consistent with following them. If you have no plausible explanation or you keep deviating from your world’s rules, your reader is going to get fed up and put the book down. Every time you break your own story rule, it pulls the reader out of the story experience and makes the reader doubt that you can actually tell a good story.

I expect by now you are convinced I have no life. Maybe that’s true. After all, why go to all this trouble to do this much research AND document Latin names? Because descriptions, or locations, or actions, who eats what or what eats them, where they live, eat, mate, sleep are details that give your characters the authority of their truth. Get their details right and your characters ring true. Furthermore, you get the trust and gratitude of your reader.

Does it matter to have the trust of your reader? Yes. Especially if your reader happens to just LOVE sea creatures or is a science nut and actually knows these details. The minute they find something incorrect, they are now upset with the author. In fact, they have now lost faith in the author to get ANY details correct. Those readers look at it as “if they got this wrong, what else is messed up?” Their pleasure in your book is now gone, they’ve been pulled out of the emotions of being in your story world and now their whole reading experience might become a proofreading quest to find all your other errors and tell everyone else what a piece of garbage your book is. In short, you’ve lost that reader and possibly many others.

The alternative is not to use details, but then you end up with something like, “the crab wandered past a snail who was being stalked by a big fish who got eaten by some kind of bird…in the ocean.”

The bottom line is that some stories have a lot of technical detail and some don’t. If you’re going to have technical details in the story, then resign yourself to a lot of research and do your best to get details right. You may not be perfect, but you want to be close because the flip side of all this is, satisfy a reader with accurate details and they believe in your world. And you. You’ll have that reader for life. They will love you, venerate you, swear by you, possibly even quote you when they’re old enough to write research papers. Think I’m joking?

That same Dr. Williams from Hofstra who is an expert on hermit crabs and gave me all kinds of research papers, also suggested I find an old children’s picture book from 1957 called, Pagoo, by Holling Clancy Holling. It was out of print at one point (though I found an old copy), but this marine biology researcher still suggested it because of the accuracy of its details. I also noticed it was re-issued in 1990 and is still available on Amazon.

So, if you’re going to write a story with lots of creatures and such, get your facts straight or write a different story.

In that vein, as a review for myself as I prepare to do revision number three and put in all those telling sensory details, I will be starting a new post category on my blog: Creature Features. Each post will profile one of the creatures or algae from my story and include links to pictures and accurate details. Stay tuned for that.

The next post in the Under the Pier series will be: Research Part IV – Setting as Character

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