Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Claire Cameron writes about The Bear from Little, Brown.
It’s a huge wilderness area in Ontario where I used to lead canoe trips. During those years, there was a bear attack in the park and two adults were killed by a predatory black bear. I heard about the attack at the time, but it was more like a ghost story. We’d swap information about what happened around the campfire at night. When I started writing The Bear, I wrote from my memories of those stories.
Since then, I’ve been back to Algonquin Park many times. I didn’t need to do research about the park as it feels like part of me. I could just close my eyes. I know the smells of pine, the feel of the rocks, the sounds of the water and how the weather can kick up in what seems like minutes.
Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance
This is a classic book by Dr. Stephen Herrero that I’ve read many times over the years. I first came across it when I worked as a tree planter in the northern reaches of Ontario. There were always black bears around our camp.
Herrero has a database of all the recorded bear attacks in North America. He uses the data to come up with evidence-based advice on what to do if you encounter a bear. His aim is to protect both people and bears.
While writing The Bear, I went back to Herrero’s research to refresh my memory on the behaviors of black bears. One of his more recent papers found that lone, male black bears are responsible for most predatory attacks. This fits the case of the attack in Algonquin Park that I wrote about.
The main character of The Bear is Anna, a five year old. The novel is told from her point of view in first person.
When I finished the first draft of the novel, I started reading up on child psychology as I wanted to know if I’d hit the mark or not. I read enough to establish that it was almost impossible to generalize about the five year old mind. Each individual is unique — just as every bear is unique — and will respond to a traumatic event in a different way. I was also concerned that generalizing about an individual’s thought process can lead to a character that doesn’t feel alive. I knew that I should follow my instinct, which involved projecting how my son at that specific age might react.
That said, I did use my research around child psychology like a sort of creative constraint. I kept the character within the bounds of what I’d learned.
The Best of The Raven
As the bear attack that I wrote about happened in the early 1990s, there was little more than vague references to it on the Internet. I went back to a published article that appeared in The Raven, which is a newsletter about Algonquin Park.
It is a great article in that it is very balanced and level headed. The author advocates keeping the bear attack in perspective. “If we really do decide never to go camping again because of the supposed danger from bears, then, to be consistent, we should also stay indoors on cloudy days. After all, we are much more likely to get hit by lightning.” To me, this is exactly right.
My son was five when his command of language suddenly caught up to his thoughts and he was able to express himself in new ways. I started to ask questions and really listen. I soon realized that his internal thoughts were much different from mine and much different from what I had assumed. I got interested and started to ask all sorts questions about life, death, Band-Aids and his teddy bear. He was very willing to answer. This was also around the time when I started to write The Bear.
While the character of Anna is not him, those conversations became the basis of her emotional scope. There are a few passages in the book that are straight from his mouth.