Inspiration + Research = Novel by Dawn Reno Langley

Inspiration + Research = Novel


by Dawn Reno Langley


Author of The Mourning Parade


My mother never had much. She lived in an apartment in someone else’s home most of her life. For most of my school days, we lived on the second and third floor of my grandmother’s home. Then my parents moved to a home of their own for a while, and from there, to other apartments. Mom decorated those places in her own inimitable style. Nothing matched, but everything was spotless.


Surprisingly, for someone who was such a clean freak, she had more doo-dads than almost anyone I’ve ever known (including myself, and I’m bad. Trust me.) Through the years, she complained of the clutter, always wanting to get rid of the things she accumulated, but she never did. Instead, she kept adding to them. She had shadowboxes all over the living room wall.  In each would be a small collection: Hummel figurines, little cherubs, and at Christmastime, a nativity. When I opened my first antique store, she became my best customer, often walking through the store and pointing: “I’ll take that.  And that’s pretty.  I’ll take that too.  How much is that print of the woman on the wall?” After my father passed, my sister and brother and I cleaned out my parents’ apartment, and I took that print.  To this day, it hangs in my master suite.  Every time I look at it, I remember that day.


One of the collections that grew and grew through the years consisted of dozens of elephants, all with trunks raised because Ma said that meant good luck.  She’d tell me other trivia, but I never paid attention because there were other things going on in my life, and who cared about elephants anyway?


It became easy for us to gift her with a new elephant pin or a snow globe or a china figurine for Mother’s Day, or Christmas, or her birthday. She genuinely loved every single one and displayed them in the china closet of whatever house she lived in. Even though she always said she wanted to get rid of “stuff,” there was no evidence she ever gave away a single item we gave her.


As is always the case, the family came together to pack up and distribute the contents of their apartment after my father died (not long enough for us to have finished grieving my mother). It was a surprisingly easy experience, a bonding one even, between my sister, my brother, myself, and the grandkids.


Ma’s elephant collection split in several directions that day, just the way she would have wanted it to. I think one of my nieces got a snow globe or two, someone else took some figurines, and I chose some small pieces of jewelry: pins in gold and black, the elephant with its trunk raised, little fake jewels for the eyes. Heavy pieces. Pieces that held more sentiment than physical weight for me.


I’ve had many flashes of memory when I go through my jewelry box and my hand brushes against the tiny gold elephant with a hand-painted seat balanced precariously on its back. I think of her talking about taking a ride on an elephant, and I know that if she knew what I’ve learned in the past couple of years, her eyes would fill, and she’d be the first to admonish anyone else who’d ever suggest such a thing to her after that moment.


Years went by. The roller-coaster that was my life brought me both pain and happiness, and I often found myself wondering what I would write next. My mother’s elephants lingered in the back of my mind. Occasionally, I’d watch a National Geographic special or I’d see an article in a magazine, but it wasn’t until the elephant’s plight became desperate that I needed to see them for myself, for her. I wanted to tell their story—needed to tell a story that Ma would appreciate.


Finally, in 2014, my tax return money afforded me something I had always dreamed about but never expected to have—a trip to Thailand to see elephants up close and personal.


A long cigarette boat made of bamboo and powered by a noisy motor carried me down the River Kwai between tall green cliffs that dropped straight down into the swiftly-moving river. The Thai men who drove the boats raced each other when they carried us to our jungle resort the day before, but this time, I was the only passenger, so he moved slowly, sliding up against the wharf with perfect accuracy to drop me off.


I’d decided to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary for a full day out of the almost two-week trip my friend Beth and I had planned. I wanted to stay much longer at the sanctuary, but the cost wasn’t in the budget, so I said goodbye to Beth that morning and left for my adventure. A full day:  9-5. “Swim with the elephants,” the pamphlet read. “Feed them, learn their habits . . .”


I was at the mercy of the gentleman who picked me up at the dock (he knew no English at all), but I climbed into his little rattletrap of a truck and sat on the floor of the open truck bed, relishing the hot breeze that raised the hairs on my arms throughout the hour-and-a-half trip to the sanctuary.


I thought about my mother as the truck wound through dirt roads and alongside overgrown jungles that climbed up the sheer cliffs of Thailand’s impossibly green mountains. She would have wanted to know every detail of my trip, every exciting moment, everything I learned about her favorite animal. I promised myself that I’d impress every detail of the trip on my memory, but I had a small notebook in my pocket for facts and figures I wanted to remember correctly, and my camera would chronicle the elephants themselves.


When I arrived at the camp, small groups of people, as well as folks who seemed to be working, milled around and paid absolutely no attention to me. But the elephants queued up at the end of the raised cement platform, and I saw no reason to wait.


The steamy heat made rivulets of sweat roll down my back, but I ignored it as I ventured toward the giant animals. They watched me approach, their large heads lolling at the height of the platform, their trunks reaching for whatever is in front of them, and it dawned on me that they saw me. They SAW me.  One of the largest lifted his trunk, pointing it in my direction like a periscope. I found out later that he was blind in one eye and hated dogs. In fact, only seconds after the whole volunteer group gathered, a little drama ensued when the bull slammed his trunk down against the cement platform, barely missing a yellow lab mix who’d come too close. If he’d hit the dog, he probably would have broken a few bones.


Breakfast was served, and we had the pleasure of getting to know the gentle giants by feeding them by hand— squash, watermelon, bananas—all a little rotten and squishy. Little did I know that the feeding segment of our volunteer time would last most of the day. Elephants eat a lot! At one point, the ellie I was feeding (the half-blind male), pulled my ring off my finger, and I had to get one of the mahouts (the trainers who each work with a specific elephant) to understand that my ring was on the ground next to the elephant’s foot. (That scene ended up in the final version of The Mourning Parade.)


We fed the elephants; made calcium “treat balls” out of hot rice, veggies, and calcium; watched them roll in mud and learned that the mud protects their delicate skin—skin so delicate that an elephant can feel a fly land on it; walked down the road in the midst of the elephant herd (and had to turn around every couple of seconds to see if they were still behind me because they made absolutely no noise whatsoever); cut and stacked knife-sharp palms for them to eat; and swam with them in the river.


I learned many things during my time with those beautiful animals, but what struck me as most important was that their bone structure is such that their backs are the weakest part of their body. Who would have thought? Everywhere you go in Thailand, you see elephants with big wooden boxes on their backs carrying two or three people. The elephants lumber along city streets or jungle paths, the colorfully decorated boxes swaying atop their backs like painful gifts.


“An elephant’s spine isn’t a solid bone,” one of the full-time volunteers told us. “It kind of splits, like two hands pressed together with fingers pointing in the opposite direction. Their backs aren’t meant to support more than a hundred pounds. Those boxes are 200 pounds by themselves. Put two or three 150-200 pound people in them, and you have 600-800 pounds on top of an animal that simply cannot carry that much weight.”


As a result of that kind of constant abuse, the elephants at the sanctuary had arthritis and bone problems so severe that they would suffer with them for the rest of their lives. Those bone issues were the reason for the calcium-balls we fed to them at dinnertime.


When I returned to my truck to go back to the jungle resort, covered in mud and sweat and incredibly happy, I realized I had the beginning of my book. And I knew I had to help those elephants somehow – and all the people who’ve dedicated their lives to the beautiful gray ghosts.


Writing officially started in late 2014, after I came home from Thailand and had enough time for the story to jell in my head. In my files, I still have the original 500-word summary that I created for the story, and when I look at it today, I am kind of surprised that the basic structure is the same as my final version – except that one of the characters (Natalie’s oldest son, Stephen) didn’t exist, and the ending changed drastically (which is not surprising.  One of my mentors once told me that I needed to work on my “end game.” I still find myself tweaking endings up to the last moment before sending out a draft.)


Research . . . sigh. Research continued right up to the very last draft after Amberjack Publishing accepted the manuscript, but the bulk of what I needed to know, I researched during the beginning of the process. Some readers don’t realize that even totally fictional accounts are thoroughly researched by writers who want to ensure their audience will trust them. One of the things that I learned early in my career was that novelists build a fictional world, and for them to gain a reader’s trust, that world has to not only be believable but (if a real location) as accurate as possible.


I knew that the sanctuary would partially resemble the one I’d visited in Thailand, but I wanted to adapt it for my own purposes, so I drew up a map. If Sophie traveled up a road, I needed to know which way it went and what she passed by on the way from one location to another. I needed to be able to relay to readers where the administration offices were in relation to Sophie’s enclosure or Natalie’s cabin. And I needed to be able to describe setting to readers in a way that they could envision it, even if they might not know what certain trees, plants, animals, or birds look like.


My research included reading many, many books on elephants themselves—I even found a dissertation on mahout training! I learned quickly that, though elephants are elephants, there are differences between Asian elephants and African elephants. After devouring everything I could find about elephants themselves and realizing that there’s a small group of highly respected and recognized elephant experts in the world, I started digging more deeply to see what those people did. It didn’t take long to discover that while some had degrees in animal husbandry, some worked strictly with orphaned babies, some specialized in physical injuries, and others focused on psychological issues. I narrowed my scope and connected with some well-known sanctuaries in Thailand, as well as in Africa.


One of the pieces of research I uncovered that really didn’t surprise me was that most of the specialists were women. I’ve been fascinated with the group affectionately known as “Leakey’s Women” for many years. Louis Leakey, a British archaeologist and naturalist, discovered that women are often more talented animal caretakers than their male counterparts. There are many reasons why Jane Goodall (who has done groundbreaking work with chimpanzees in East Africa), Dian Fossey (who worked with gorillas in Rwanda), and Birute Galdikas (who has worked with orangutans in Borneo) have been successful. The same appeared to be true with elephants. Dame Daphne Sheldrick in Kenya has saved more orphaned elephants than probably any other animal person in the world, and Lek Chailert’s elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand is well-known for rescuing abused elephants and giving them a better life. I connected with everyone I could on Facebook and started interacting with them.  What I learned really gave some depth to the story that I could not have offered otherwise.


But elephants weren’t the only aspect of the novel that required research. Even though I’ve suffered with PTSD as the result of a dog attack for many years, I needed to know how that disease affected elephants. And how could a vet help an elephant get over the disease? Then I needed to know about mahouts and how they trained their elephants. I actually found a doctoral dissertation that had studied the work of Thai mahouts, including the commands they used. That was invaluable!  I used a lot of those commands in the scenes where Natalie learns how to work with Sophie. And, finally, I had to immerse myself in tragic school shootings, all the while trying to imagine how horribly painful it is to lose a child in that manner.


When all is said and done, I researched until I couldn’t find anything new, then I manipulated some of that research in order to fit the fiction format. After all, this is a novel—not reality.  I chose to use some research on PTSD in elephants in a way that felt right for the story, and I chose to join some facts together about the ways behaviorists work with the huge beasts. I know that to the experts currently working in the field, I probably haven’t presented the facts in a manner that’s one hundred percent accurate, but I know that the most important factors are true.


I think my mother would be proud—both of my story and of my commitment to carrying on her love. I dedicated the book to her, though she’s been gone for over a decade, and somehow, I think she knows.


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