Wednesday, December 2, 2015

V is for Volcanoes and Veterinarians

Paula looks at the research she did for her heroes’ occupations.

Write what you know, ‘they’ say. If I followed that advice, my heroes would have jobs that I know something about. Instead, Paul (in Changing the Future) was a volcano expert, and Luke (in Irish Intrigue) was a veterinary surgeon. My knowledge of these two occupations was very limited, to say the least.

As far as volcanoes are concerned, I know they erupt, and I remember drawing a diagram in a Geography lesson at school, showing magma being stored underground, and coming out as lava during an eruption. I also knew, because I was writing this shortly after the Icelandic eruption a few years ago, that volcanoes can propel a lot of ash into the air. That was probably the extent of my knowledge, but obviously, if Paul was going to be an expert, I needed more than that. Hence I spent many hours researching volcanoes, how they’re formed, why they erupt, and the resulting effects. I probably only used about 5% of what I’d learnt, but hopefully it was enough for Paul to sound like an expert!

Here’s an excerpt when Lisa is watching Paul on television:
Paul was being interviewed at Manchester Airport. “Yes, Mount Lakuda’s providing us with some interesting developments at the moment. There’s been quite an increase of activity this past week.”
“And when you get to Iceland, what are the main things you’ll be doing?” the interviewer asked.
“I’ll be working with the scientists at the Iceland Volcano Research Centre. I was out there a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been in close contact with Dr. Kristjan Dagsson, the head of the Centre.”
“There are reports of a bulge on the side of the volcano. How significant is this?”
“On its own, a swelling wouldn’t be considered serious. Plenty of volcanoes develop these bulges, which indicate the movement of magma, often several miles below the surface. We’re more concerned about the heightened level of seismic activity and sulfur dioxide levels.”
“I understand there have been several earthquakes in the last few weeks.”
“What we call an earthquake swarm, yes, a lot of small tremors, but none with a magnitude higher than three. Scientists at the Centre have been working around the clock analysing and interpreting the data from all the sensory equipment on Mount Lakuda, and I’ll be joining them.”
“Is this the build-up to a full-scale eruption?”
“Not necessarily. It’s being monitored carefully but it’s very difficult to predict whether this activity will lead to any major eruption.”
The interviewer persisted. “If it does erupt, is there likely to be an ash cloud like the one which caused such major disruption to air traffic?”
“The ash cloud was due to a combination of factors, mainly linked to the jet stream, none of which are present in the case of Mount Lakuda.”
“Thank you, Dr. Hamilton.” The interviewer turned to face the camera again. “Dr Paul Hamilton, a leading authority on volcanoes, was talking about Mount Lakuda in Iceland. Returning you now to the studio.”

As for veterinary surgeons, I think I probably visited my local vet less than half a dozen times when I had a cat (which was over 10 years ago). I also remember watching a popular TV series here about a vet in Yorkshire, but that was set in the 1930s and 1940s, and obviously things have changed a lot since then. Therefore I had more research to do for this story, including, as I think I’ve already told you, spending the whole of one Sunday afternoon watching YouTube videos of foals being born. I also researched medical problems of sheep, cats and dogs, and even a goldfish with a cyst on its eye!

Here’s the scene that resulted from the YouTube videos:
Charley followed Jan into an inner office where a bank of black and white screens covered one wall. Jan pointed to one of them. “That’s Duchess in her birthing box. She’s very restless, so I don’t think it’ll be long now.”
Charley caught a glimpse of Luke running experienced hands around the mare’s swollen belly before he disappeared out of camera range. Soon afterwards, he came into the office, followed by the sturdy round-faced man she recognised from Waterside.
“Best to let her get on with it now,” he said. “I don’t want her holding on to the foal because we’re standing there watching her.”
“Could she do that?” she asked.
He nodded. “It’s quite common. In fact—” He peered at the screen. “If I’m not mistaken, she’s started to expel the birth sac. See, she was waiting for us to leave her alone.”
They all watched as the mare rose clumsily to her feet and walked a few steps. When she turned, the white sac was visible.
Rory peered at the screen. “Come on, Duchess,” he whispered.
“You can see the foal’s hoof now,” Jan said.
They bunched around the screen, and Charley held her breath as the foal’s forelegs appeared.
“This was when things went wrong last time,” Luke whispered in her ear. “The head was positioned wrongly, and she couldn’t push it out.”
The tension in the office was palpable as the mare strained, until with one heaving contraction, the foal’s head started to appear.
Luke blew out his breath. “Whoa, almost home and dry now.”
When the head was fully out, he raised his clenched fist in triumph, and Rory punched the air.
“Okay, Rory, get yourself across there to welcome your new baby.” Luke turned to her. “Coming?”
“Will Duchess be all right with people watching?”
“Aye, the rest of the foal will have slithered out of her by the time we get there.”
When they reached the birthing box, Luke’s prediction proved correct. The foal writhed and kicked in the sac that still surrounded it.
“Oh!” Charley exclaimed softly as they stood by the wooden railing at one side of the box. “Duchess looked round as if to say, Where did you come from? That’s so—so—”
Her voice choked, and Luke slipped his arm around her shoulders. “I think she’s saying, Hang on there, kid. Gi’ me a few minutes to draw breath, and then I’ll be sorting ye out.”
She laughed and rested her head against his shoulder, blinking as tears flooded her eyes. “Seeing the first few moments of an animal’s life is magical, isn’t it?”
He tightened his arm around her. “It’s something I’ve seen countless times, but the magic never goes away. Her maternal instincts will kick in and she’ll lick the sac away. Before you know it, the foal will be up and nursing. After that, I can check them both over.”
It happened exactly as Luke said. The foal struggled to its feet, wobbling and staggering until Duchess nudged her baby to her teat.
Charley clasped her hand to her mouth and the tears trickled down her cheeks.

If I had only written about ‘what I know’, I would have missed the fascination of discovering a lot of interesting information about volcanoes and veterinary work. Although the research can take time (often many hours), in the end it can actually prove more satisfying than only writing what you know. Oh, and my team did once win a pub quiz by one point because I was able to answer a question about the gases produced by a volcano!


  1. Fascinating research, Paula. I remember when the volcano erupted in Iceland. One of the things I like about your books is how you weave the research into the story so that it's seamless.

    1. Thanks, Jen. Sometimes there's a temptation to include too much, at least in the first draft of a story, so I then have to be ruthless when I'm revising!

  2. I don't think readers realise how much research writers do. I know that before I became a writer I never gave it a thought, except perhaps for a fleeting - how did they know that? Now I know that research can take up as much time as writing.

    1. Very true, Margaret, but I must admit I enjoy all the research. I also have a dread of getting something badly wrong!

  3. I love learning new things. Research is fun. It's easy to get immersed and forget to come up, though. Advice I've read is to know-learn lots but use just enough.

    1. I can get very immersed at times, especially when I'm using Google's street view to explore an area!

  4. I love doing research, but I have to be careful to use the knowledge for background only. Otherwise my scenes tend to sound like a 'lesson'.

    1. You're right, Debra. You can either use it as background, or drip feed it into the story - unlike a certain author who, I recall, had his main character speaking for about 3 pages about symbolism throughout the ages!

    2. Ha! I totally know who you're talking about...

  5. I have enjoyed hearing and reading about the amazing amount of research you do. It's worthwhile as both these books were great reads.