Balancing the Creative with the Scientific: An Exclusive Guest Post From Alice Henderson, Author of A Solitude of Wolverines — Our Monthly Mystery & Thriller Pick for October
Before A Solitude of Wolverines, I’d been doing wildlife research and writing for years, but had not brought the two worlds together. I’d written novels set in the wilds, but not one that focused on a specific species. The remote, rugged areas I studied lent themselves to suspense, while the animals there enriched the experience, and I found myself inspired to write a thriller series set in these wild spaces.
I wanted each book in the Alex Carter series to be about a different species. For the first book, I chose wolverines — large, little-known members of the weasel family who live in high elevation mountainous sites and roam tirelessly over vast, vertiginous snowy landscapes.
For each title, I wanted to include the group name of the animal, like “an obstinacy of bison,” but discovered that wolverines are so solitary they have no group name. So I created one: a solitude of wolverines.
Readers often ask me how I balance the creative side of my brain with the scientific side of it. But I actually find that the two dovetail seamlessly.
Being out in the wilds researching imperiled species is incredibly inspirational to me. As I walk transects during the day, searching for signs of wolves, bears, moose, and wolverines, my mind opens to possibilities. Then at night, back in camp, my imagination journeys on its own creative adventures. I devise settings, characters, and dialog. I love to come up with mystery plots.
And the wildlife world is full of mysteries, too. I’ll look at historical records of naturalists like John Muir to learn where they’d spotted different species back in their day. To me, it’s a mystery. Will those species still be there? Or has their habitat changed so much that they’ve become extirpated?
One species I focus on is the American pika, a small relative of the rabbit that lives in high elevation sites in the mountains. Armed with historical data from the twentieth century, I venture out to where they’d been seen back then. With the pika, especially if I’m in the Great Basin — a large watershed bounded by the Sierra Nevada to the west, the Wasatch Mountains to the east, and the Snake River Plain to the north — I often sadly find that they have vanished from those areas. So then a mystery pops up. What, over the years, made these sites unsuitable for pika occupation? Did the sites grow warmer, drier?
Other mysteries abound in the wildlife world, and as my mind mulls them over, it works in much the same way as when I puzzle over a plot. I wonder what will happen to cold climate-dependent species like the pika and wolverine as the earth continues to warm. Will wolverine ranges shift more and more northward? Will they no longer be able to successfully raise their young because the deep snowpack they require has disappeared? How could we help them?
And similarly, as I write the Alex Carter series, I wonder how my main character will fare in dire circumstances of her own. How will she face the human threat on the wildlife sanctuary where she’s been stationed? What would happen if she found herself cut off from help, with no cell reception, no parka, and a snowstorm closing in?
And so, bringing together the science of wolverine research and the creative mystery of what Alex encounters out in the Montana wilds in A Solitude of Wolverines was a very gratifying process.
One of my passions as a writer is to thrill readers while at the same time providing insight into the plight of species and this magnificent planet we share with them. I hope readers will enjoy A Solitude of Wolverines and the upcoming second book in the series, A Blizzard of Polar Bears, and grow to love these enigmatic creatures as I do.