Fantastic History #64: Six Tricks I Use in Writing About Dinosaurs by Rosemary Claire Smith

Whenever I tell someone that I write stories featuring dinosaurs, a smile crosses their face. I mean really, who isn’t captivated by dinosaurs? These fantastical creatures are gigantic, incredibly ancient, and dominated the world for over 185 million years. I’ve talked to a number of authors who’ve thought about writing dinosaur stories, but shy away from doing so. Wouldn’t it be fun if more writers gave it a try? After all, you use precisely the same techniques and tricks you draw upon to write about many other specialized topics.

1. Start with what interests you the most about dinosaurs.
Yes, I’m talking about steak-knife teeth of an Allosaurus, or the football-shaped thagomizer at the tip on an Ankylosaurus’s tail, or the undulating motion of a Spinosaurus as its tail propels the monstrous beast through Cretaceous waters, or the leather-like wings of the Quetzalcoatlus northropi stretching as wide as a small biplane when it soars over Mesozoic skies, or the trumpeting of the Parasaurolophus blowing air through the resonating chambers of the three-foot-long hollow horn atop its head. I’ve relied upon a number of these features in my own stories and my interactive fiction role playing game, T-Rex Time Machine.

That said, several aspects of dinosaur physiology simply don’t interest me. For example, I’ve never managed to read to the bitter end of a scientific paper about dentition or hypothesized jaw musculature or chewing motions of herbivorous Ornithiscian dinosaurs. Nor do I find this a hindrance. In fact, forcing myself to work in these topics risks losing the interest of my readers, for they will unerringly pick up on my own boredom.

2. Keep up with new developments (without letting them overwhelm you.)
Spinosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Velociraptor: These are not your father’s dinosaurs. Much more has changed than just the demise of the dimwitted tail draggers of days gone by. In fact, there’ve been tons of new developments after the release of the first Jurassic Park/World movies. A paleontologist I know recently estimated that for roughly the past fifteen years, an average of forty six species have been discovered and/or described in the scientific literature EVERY YEAR!

The existence of feathers made a big splash, as did microscopic evidence of pigmentation and skin impressions. But there’s more. Vast Hadrosaurus rookeries have been discovered complete with eggs containing unborn dinosaurs. That’s not your bag? Then how about theropods such as Deinonychus that may have hunted in packs? The point is you don’t need to confine yourself to overworked tyrannosaurs or plodding, plant-munching Diplodocus, or graceful giraffe-necked sauropods. Not when there is the possibility that, like bighorn sheep, bone-headed Pachycephalosauruses might have been the head bangers of the Late Cretaceous.

A plethora of scholarly journals and periodicals aimed at intelligent laypersons publish articles on recent excavations and new paleontological research. Few writers can possibly keep up, but we don’t have to! On line courses provide a great way to organize your knowledge and fit isolated facts and bits of information into a coherent framework. These courses never fail to give me new ideas and stimulate my writing.

3. Don’t worry about your research becoming as outdated as canals on Mars or cold-blooded tail-draggers.
Speaking of recent developments, I once asked a friend who also writes dino tales if he worried about the premise, or even some of the telling details, becoming obsolete after his recent book was published. He said there were things that had become outdated before publication. Did that worry him? Not in the least! If it’s a good story, it’ll survive. Not convinced? Then consider the vast swaths of time and territory from which we have no fossils whatsoever. It’s entirely possible that the species or anatomical feature you lovingly describe or the behavior you postulate was close to correct somewhere once. Fun fact: It is estimated that less than 10% of the varied dinosaur species living during the Mesozoic left fossilized remains that we’ve discovered. Some undiscovered specimens lie beneath the 75% of the world covered with oceans. Others are buried by layer upon layer of sedimentary rock hundreds or thousands of feet deep. A great many individual creatures succumbed to decomposition or predation upon their deaths, leaving no remains that ever became fossilized. Even when fossilization did happen, subsequent metamorphic processes or simple erosion destroyed those remains.

4. Do fieldwork (safely).
I may not have a time machine, but I can still learn a lot by direct observation. My subjects are birds and reptiles, the more exotic, the better! Today’s alligators, crocodiles, and birds are the closest living relatives of dinosaurs. In fact, paleontologists consider modern birds to be avian theropods. As such, birds and crocodiles can give us insights into traits and behaviors they have in common with dinosaurs, such as laying eggs. This might also extend to vocalizations, territorial defense, seasonal migrations, and mating practices. I had great fun using these as jumping off points in “Dino Mate,” T-Rex Time Machine, “Not with a Bang,” and other stories.

Nevertheless, I’m no Steve Irwin, nor even Richard Attenborough, when it comes to my risk tolerance. While I stick close to home these days, my backyard provides fascinating examples of nest building, food acquisition, and cooperative behavior among the cardinals, crows, doves, robins, chickadees, sparrows, and suchlike. For more excitement, nature shows are another great source of ideas.

5. Set your story in a fascinating setting.
“White room syndrome” is the bane of many writers who dislike ginning up settings and tend to skip over descriptions when reading for pleasure. Too often, writers fall back upon settings that have done to death. Dinosaur stories are no exception.

It doesn’t have to be that way. With dinosaur remains having been discovered on every continent, including Antarctica, there is simply no need to situate a Mesozoic tale in an overworked location such as the high plains of the United States or Canada. I set one dinosaur story, “Dinomate,” in Subsaharan East Africa where the Kentrosaurus once roamed. I think of this Jurassic dinosaur, which is a relative of the Stegosaurus, as a dinosaur designed by committee. Half of that committee favored a ridge of plates arching along its spine and the other half went for three-foot long spikes. So in the finest committee tradition, the Kentrosaurus sports both plates and spikes. Similarly, I used the temperate Cretaceous forests of Antarctica as the backdrop for my story, “Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs.” Looking ahead, I have plans—big plans—to hop backward to Cretaceous Northeastern China. That’s where paleontologists discovered Epidexipteryx hui a weird little tree-climber sporting a finger about a third the length of its body.

6. Smash disparate notions together in your large idea collider and work with whatever falls out.
The first story I sold, “Mom and the Ankylosaur,” came out of desperation while I attended a writers’ workshop. I cast about for a new, interesting angle regarding my favorite critters. Another writer attending the workshop knew and shared a great deal about hypnosis. That’s how I embarked upon a story about my mother trying to hypnotize dinosaurs. But rather than picking a standard off-the-toy-store-shelf sauropod, I chose an Ankylosaurus, that armored tank of the Cretaceous. Similarly, “Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs” grew out of the fact that Antarctica not only had dinosaurs like Antarctopelta (a variant on Ankylosaurus) and Giraffititan (a type of brachiosaur), but also kimberlite formations suitable for diamond mines.

Looking back, I got my start in the dino-tales business not because I had a formal degree in paleontology, but simply because I’ve loved these great beasts ever since I first set eyes on a Brontosaurus skeleton at age five. If dinosaurs are your jam, then go for it. Doing research will be great fun, I promise you. On a cold winter day when the wind howls outside, there’s nothing like checking how warm it is amid the Jurassic cycads. Hmmmm…maybe I’ll crank up the temperature another degree or three for my protagonist. Those dinosaurs won’t mind.


Rosemary Claire Smith’s interactive fiction adventure game, T-Rex Time Machine, is available from Choice of Games. She’s an AnLab Readers’ Award finalist, a former archaeologist, a lawyer, a photographer, but most importantly a fan of dinosaurs as well as just about any oversized furry animal. She’s been blogging for the past 156 million years. Her shorter work appears, or is forthcoming in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Fantastic Stories, Amazing Stories, Hybrid Fiction, Drabblecast and other magazines and anthologies. Follow her on Twitter at @RCWordsmith or Facebook as Rosemary Claire Smith.