Writing animal fiction

Earlier this year, my youngest son asked me to write a story about wolves. Initially I said no, as animal fiction is not something I have had an ambition to attempt. However, annoyingly, a rather good story then occurred to me, and before I knew it I had the outline of a novel on paper.

two-wolves

After a certain amount of encouragement/begging from the afore-mentioned youngest son, I decided to attempt the project. Astonishingly, I have just finished the first draft. I am currently awaiting the verdict of test readers, but if they are positive, I may well fast track it for release this year, instead of The Faerie Gate, which I had originally planned to bring out this autumn (that novel would be pushed back for a 2018 release).

Whilst awaiting feedback (apart from anything else, I need to know if the quality is good enough for my youngest son), here are some thoughts on my experience writing animal fiction.

It’s bloody difficult.

Writing animal fiction is a fiend, because it is very tricky to tread the line between assigning a number of human attributes to animal characters to make them relatable, and yet making sure their knowledge doesn’t go beyond what they would naturally know. A myriad of choices complicate this – everything from turns of phrase to knowledge of the world around them. For example, I had to weed out a lot of human expressions from the dialogue or create wolf equivalents. A wolf wouldn’t be “unable to put my finger on the problem”, for instance. It also gets very awkward when describing human devices they have no knowledge of (for example guns). In addition, when hearing about places beyond their natural habitat (eg cities, or the sea), again, they have to be seen to not fully comprehend such concepts.

Animal fiction is a technique, not a genre.

Animal fiction can incorporate everything from comedy to satire, allegory, adventure, fantasy and more. In the case of my novel, it is a coming-of-age adventure story for all ages (well, older children and up); combining the atmospheric, dirt-and-snow-under-the-paws realism of the Alaskan wilderness with metaphysical elements. There is plenty of action – with hunts, blizzards, epic journeys and more – alongside a mysterious, supernatural background. The main plot involves a revenge story, but in keeping with the great traditions of much animal fiction, humans lurk on the narrative periphery as an ever present potential menace. Key inspirations include Watership Down, Bambi and, bizarrely, Twin Peaks.

Suspension of disbelief: where to incorporate research, and where to ignore it.

Again, this was fiend. I undertook the usual deluge of research for writing this novel, but how much of it I should incorporate became a constant question. I have included elements of how cubs are raised, how a pack hunts, the challenges to become Alpha and so on. However, science tells me wolves see in black and white. Needless to say, I ignored the latter point and opted for poetic licence, for much the same reason George Lucas opted for poetic licence so we heard all those cool laser sounds and explosions in the Star Wars space battles, despite the fact that space is a vacuum and we’d hear nothing were such battles to take place in reality.

Title Trouble: From the generic to the enigmatic.

As with many of my novels, I wrestled for some time with the title. I wanted something original rather than my generic working title of Wolf Story (which has probably been used in any case). A close friend of mine sent me a number of amusing but useless monikers, including A Tale of Tails and Lupine Larks. However, in the end she came up with the title I am actually using: Echo and the White Howl. I rather like the enigma and mystery inherent in that title, and I hope (subject to feedback) that the rest of the novel lives up to it.

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