Tuesday, June 29, 2021

LEARNING ABOUT SEA TURTLES: Guest Post by Amber M. Royer

Amber M. Royer:

Learning About Sea Turtles 

When it comes to researching something for a book, eventually the easily accessible resources will leave you at a dead end, and the scholarly ones can be above your pay grade. You need to talk to an actual expert. The beauty of talking to a real actual person is that as a writer, you don’t always realize what parts of a topic you don’t fully understand – and so you might not even know the right questions to ask. 

In 70% Dark Intentions, the second book in my Bean to Bar Mysteries, part of the plot revolves around endangered sea turtles that nest on Galveston Island. I wanted to be careful with what I had to say on the subject, in part because I wanted to get turtle biology and behaviors right – but also because I didn’t want to say anything that would inadvertently encourage someone to interfere with these amazing animals. 

I’ve always liked sea turtles, even more so when I got to visit a turtle sanctuary in Acapulco and see some of the tiny little ones awaiting release into the ocean. (I don’t remember what species those turtles were, but I did take this picture.) It’s one reason I gave Logan (one of my protagonist Felicity’s two potential love interests) the name Ridley Puddle Jumpers for his flight business. After all, the Kemp’s ridley nests on Galveston beaches. It was a reference that showed how this transplanted guy from Minnesota had started to form connections to the island, and I meant to leave it at that. But in the first Bean to Bar Mystery, I had made references to the tree sculptures (trees that were drowned during hurricane Hugo but left in place, with the wood carved into chainsaw sculptures) as a symbol of renewal. I knew that for Logan, sea turtles symbolized hope and second chances. So when we visited Galveston last, and I saw the Turtles Around Town sculptures dotting the street where Felicity has her fictional shop, I knew the turtles – and the sculptures -- needed to show up in the book. 

I did my due diligence and researched basic information about the turtles. But what I needed to know was how turtle nests were handled when found on the coast, so I decided to approach an expert. I have found that most people are passionate about their work, especially if you have enough knowledge about their area of expertise to discuss it intelligently. (You don’t have to be a fellow expert, or even able to discuss the topic on a professional level – just reasonably well informed.) Things also tend to go better if you have a list of questions to ask, and possibly even a few excerpts of what you are planning to write to present with the idea that you want to make sure you have the terminology right – not enough to overwhelm the expert, just enough to get across the feel of the project. I think the excerpts I presented to my turtle expert reassured her that I was taking the topic seriously, and that I had attempted to do my research. 

But – there were a few things I had gotten wrong. And far better to have an expert correct me in the drafting stage (even if I felt a bit silly) than to have readers point it out to me later. 

One of the biggest was when I said that Kemp’s ridleys had always been in the area. This was especially embarrassing, because I’m from the Texas Gulf Coast. And I don’t remember people talking about sea turtles in Galveston when I was a kid, except for the fact that there was a restaurant called Tortuga, right near the Seawall. I personally have never seen a sea turtle nest. But I assumed that lack of experience was just because the turtles were so endangered. Kid’s don’t catch everything, right? In this case . . . wrong. Kemp’s ridleys were first documented nesting on Galveston beaches in 2002. Consulting with an expert kept me from making a major factual error. 

Realizing that I hadn’t even known what questions to ask, the turtle expert I had contacted gave me several scientific papers to read, where I learned about the fascinating efforts to create a thriving breeding colony of these turtles on Padre Island – many of which the turtle expert had been involved with. The main takeaway: with only one active breeding beach in Mexico used by most of the Kemp’s ridleys, there needed to be a backup location in case of natural disaster, which resulted in a multi-national conservation project. (This is of course, a vast oversimplification.) I learned about turtle imprinting (the theory that nesting turtles return to the beaches where they were born), which was further researched with the tracking program used to measure Kemp’s ridley populations, and how “head starting” turtles that were born on one beach and released on a different one likely led to turtles from Mexico nesting in Galveston. (At least that’s how I understand it – some of those papers were above my pay grade.) 

The biggest challenge once I had all that information: not putting it all in the book. Logan is fascinated by the sea turtles, so in my mind, he knows the information, but it doesn’t make sense for him to share everything he knows in dialogue. (He’s not a viewpoint character, so it’s never a problem.) 

When we finally got back around to the original question of how nests are handled, I found that what happens in reality (immediate relocation of the eggs to the breeding colony) was different than how turtle nests are handled in many other places – and different from what I wanted to do in my book. And in the end, I decided that that is actually for the best, considering my original concern about writing anything that might negatively impact the turtles. I added an author’s note saying that this book included a fictional what if the nest were left in place – and a note about who to call and what to do in the event the reader should actually locate a turtle nest to help keep the little ones safe. 

I know a lot of writers are hesitant to approach experts, but try to go into the situation with a positive mindset. I’ve asked a ton of odd research questions over the years (ask me sometime about that one time I wound up on a tour for incoming astrophysics grad students) and only once have I had someone flat out tell me no. I would say that as long as you are earnest in wanting to get the aspects of the book that they know about as accurate as possible, you are professional in the way you approach your request, you don’t take up too much of the expert’s time, and you do as much research as you can ahead of time, more often than not, people are happy to share knowledge they are passionate about. 


Amber Royer is the author of The Chocoverse Science Fiction Series and The Bean to Bar Mysteries. She likes to tell stories that involve complex characters caught up in sticky situations larger than themselves, with no easy answers in sight.

NOTE: Here is the link and re-use information for the stock photo included in the images folder: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kemp%27s_Ridley_sea_turtle_nesting.JPG

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