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[GUEST INTERVIEW] Dinosaurs! Writer Rosemary Claire Smith on Dinosaur Fiction and Research

Rosemary Claire Smith writes science fiction and fantasy stories that showcase her interests in paleontology, folklore, mythology, genetic engineering, and aliens. She draws on her background as a trowel-wielding archaeologist, reformed lawyer, and keen observer of contemporary society. Her other interests include ballroom dancing, abstract photography, foil fencing, and astronomy. Rosemary is a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), and attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, as well as Taos Toolbox, Paradise Lost, and Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. Her fondness for writers’ workshops seems likely to continue. Blogging the Mesozoic consists of short essays about dinosaurs (you expected maybe?), writing fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy, as well as travel, and whatever else catches her fancy. It’s updated about once a week. Rosemary’s most recent story to see print is “Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs.” This tale whisks you to Cretaceous Antarctica where the slipperiest creature may be another time traveler.

Rosie Smith talks about her recent dinosaur stories in Analog. She also addresses myths and facts about dinosaurs based on her dinosaur research.

CARL SLAUGHTER: Why are you interested in dinosaurs?

ROSIE CLAIRE SMITH: I’ve been fascinated with dinosaurs since I was five years old and my parents took me to see them at the American Museum of Natural History. Many dinosaurs were enormous, remarkable in appearance, and dominated the world millions of years ago before they went extinct. What’s not to love? I never lost my interest in the ancient world. In fact, I spent some years working as an archaeologist investigating ancient human societies and how they lived.

CS: What can a non-dinosaurphile learn from a journey, however brief or prolonged, into the Mesozoic?

RCS: If that person–or any of us–could travel back we’d be astonished at how different our physical world is. Depending where we begin our journey, the soil and rocks beneath our feet might not have been created seventy or a hundred million years ago. But if we did manage to alight somewhere on dry land, we might see some familiar plants and animals, but many more we don’t recognize. If we were to go back to the warm, dry Triassic Period, say 200 million years ago, we might have a chance to observe the first little bipedal theropods dashing after their prey or other remarkable creatures since gone extinct. We might also notice the absence of grasses, flowering plants, the insects that pollinated them, and birds in the trees and sky. Assuming we survive our experience and make it safely back to our own times, I think the trip would drive home the point that our environment has always been changing in major ways.

CS: What can fellow dinosaurphiles glean from “Blogging the Mesozoic”?

RCS: I hope dinosaur aficionados as well as casual readers of my blog will learn a few things about new fossil discoveries and a bit of the latest thinking as to what various dinosaurs looked like and how they lived. For example, I’ve talked about some controversies regarding the African Spinosaurus, the return of the Brontosaurus (yay!) and the feather patterns on some Chinese dinosaurs. Beyond that, I blog about writing and publishing fiction, space exploration, and whatever else interests me and my readers.

CS: In layman’s terms, what is the Mesozoic?

RCS: The Mesozoic Era is a long period of time beginning roughly 252 million years ago and ending about 66 million years ago. It’s the age when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The Mesozoic Era is divided into three periods, from oldest to youngest: Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous.

CS: Why did you decide to use a love triangle/professional rivalry in your dinosaur fiction?

RCS: Well, I find it frequently works best if I have more than one thing going on in a story. Love triangles make for lots of plot possibilities. Naturally, there are rivalries in the scientific professions, just as in any other field of human endeavor. However, those rivalries can get glossed over as everyone professes to focus on objective research and the advancement of scientific knowledge. Paleontology has had its share of rivalries going back to the 19th century “bone wars” between Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope.

CS: Why use reoccurring characters in “Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs,” “Not with a Bang,” and “Dino Mate.”

RCS: Like many writers, I didn’t start out to write a series with recurring characters. When I first created a set of rules for time travel, I thought “Not with a Bang” would be a one shot. But then I got the idea for the second story, “Dino Mate,” and another idea after that, which turned into the basis for “Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs.” With millions of years and a whole planet’s worth of dinosaurs to explore, it hasn’t been possible to keep Marty and his cohorts confined to the present.

CS: So, one dinosaur story in Africa, one dinosaur story in Antarctica, and one dinosaur story in North America. Did I miss any?

RCS: The first story I ever sold was about dinosaurs. “Mom and the Ankylosaur” is a light-hearted tale featuring a mother and daughter who win an all-expenses-paid trip to the Cretaceous. What a way to fight suburban boredom! It was published in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination in 2004.

CS: What does the phrase “not with a bang” refer to?

RCS: Readers may recognize the line from the end of T. S. Eliot’s well-known poem, “The Hollow Men.” The final stanza reads,

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

CS: Now here’s a dinosaur story I’d like to see: Humans get trapped in a dinosaur hologram. They have to survive dinosaur environment and dinosaur attacks, escape the hologram, and hopefully bring back useful information about dinosaurs.

RCS: Hmmm…the useful information I hope they bring back is how to survive dinosaur attacks.

CS: How accurate are the Jurassic Park movies? Can you grow an extinct animal from bone DNA? Can you create a dinosaur reserve/zoo? Are the dinosaurs in the movies realistic portrayals of dinosaur appearance and behavior?

RCS: The Jurassic Park movies got many things right, and they were produced in consultation with noted paleontologists.

Whenever there are scientific debates as to just how big, fast, and smart a given dinosaur actually was, we shouldn’t be surprised that moviemakers will opt to portray that critter as big and fast and smart and ferocious as possible. Nonetheless, given that the first movie was released in 1993, it was almost inevitable that scientific thinking over the next 20+ years would render obsolete some aspects of dinosaur appearance and behavior. For example, the lack of feathers is decidedly out-of-step with recent discoveries. But as a creator of dinosaur stories, myself, I’d hate to think that these or other scientific advances destroy the readers’ or viewers’ enjoyment of an exciting story.

Regenerating an extinct animal from its DNA presents many challenges when the extinction occurred within the last few hundred or few thousand years, even if you have the complete DNA. Attempting to recreate the DNA from fossils that are tens or hundreds of millions of years old seems to me to be an insurmountable challenge. Even if you could produce a fertilized egg, you’d still need to find the right temperature and moisture and nutrients to successfully incubate it. The dinosaur reserve presents yet more challenges in terms of creating a functioning ecosystem in which you can feed insectivores and herbivores of all sizes, before you can even consider the carnivores.

CS: How many dinosaur species existed?

RCS: Tough question. The current estimate is that we’ve discovered and identified fossils representing almost 2,000 distinct species of dinosaurs. The exact number is open to debate, though, as paleontologists may not agree as to whether certain bones come from the same species. Naturally, there are many more species for which we have no fossils. But how many more? Have we found fossils for 10% or 30% of all dinosaur species? Keep in mind that bigger bones are more likely to be preserved than smaller ones. So there may be more gaps in the fossil record for small dinosaurs than large ones.

CS: Did dinosaurs live in every land mass?

RCS: Yes, it sure looks that way. Of course, they started out in Pangaea, which was a single super continent at the start of the Triassic Era. You gotta love creatures that spread to every prehistoric continent that we know of, including Antarctica, and survived for 180 million years.

CS: How many dinosaur fossils have we found?

RCS: I’ve seen it estimated that we have around 2,100 relatively good skeletons with most bones intact. A dinosaur skeleton can have several hundred bones. Keep in mind that while we have multiple skeletons for some species like T. rex, we’ve only discovered a few fossilized bones and/or teeth representing other species, sometimes even a single bone.

CS: Are there dinosaur fossils under the oceans?

RCS: Sure there are fossils buried beneath the sea floor in certain places. That can happen, for example, if you had flood waters sweep a creature down river and out into the ocean where it was deposited and then quickly covered over with sediment. If the remains become fossilized and nothing happens to destroy that fossil, it’ll still be there. But usually, paleontologists will not know it’s there unless it was encased in sedimentary rock that is later uplifted above sea level and subsequently eroded to the point where part of the fossil is exposed.

CS: Doesn’t nature destroy most fossils? Aren’t there far more dinosaur fossils we haven’t dug up (or don’t have access to) than those we’ve discovered?

RCS: In fact, the remains of most creatures are destroyed before they are ever fossilized. Conditions for preservation and discovery have to be just right. I’m glad there are a lot of fossils we haven’t yet discovered because excavation can be an inherently destructive process. We need to make sure that the scientists of the future have sites to excavate using whatever more advanced scientific techniques they will have perfected.

CS: How can we extrapolate so much about dinosaurs and so much about the history of the Earth based on, well, a handful of decayed carcasses? Or do we have other clues?

RCS: I greatly admire the cleverness of paleontologists in working with what’s at hand, particularly at extrapolating from what’s known about dinosaurs’ nearest living relatives–birds and crocodiles. In some cases, much can also be learned by examining the evidence at hand. For example, broad, flat grinding teeth suggest a different diet than a mouth filled with serrated knives. Other clues include preserved remains of nests, eggs, feather and skin impressions, and track ways left by dinosaurs walking in mud. Then too, computer modeling can shed light on how these creatures moved on two legs or four, glided, swung their tails, stretched their necks to feed. Sometimes cross-sections of bones can reveal growth rings.

CS: What do we not know about dinosaurs and need to know and why do we need to know?

RCS: Wow. There is so much we don’t know, given that paleontologists lack the ability to study living, breathing dinosaurs (with the exception of birds that descended from dinosaurs). I suspect that perhaps we don’t even know what we don’t know. Certainly, we need to know more as to how and why some species became extinct in the face of say, changing environmental conditions when other species adapted and survived. Do all species face extinction or are there measures we can take to fend off the demise of our own species?

CS: You’ve done a lot of work-shopping. How have you benefited from Clarion, Taos, and other workshops?

RCS: I went to Clarion East when I’d been writing science fiction for a couple of years but hadn’t sold anything. I got there looking for validation and came away from the six-week “literary boot camp” with two things that were far more valuable. First, I learned a bunch of skills from the incredibly talented and varied writers who taught and critiqued. They encouraged me to take risks and experiment. Plus I wrote the first version of “Mom and the Ankylosaur” at Clarion. Secondly, I came away with a group of classmates and instructors who’ve been my friends and colleagues ever since. It’s been great to have people I can turn to when something goes awry and I’m scratching my head wondering how to deal.

I trekked up to Taos Toolbox in 2013, a time when I had written almost no fiction for ten years and was looking to jump back into it. I found out that I had not forgotten how. Taos differs from Clarion in that it’s a two-week master class for those who already have some sales. Also, it focuses on novels rather than short fiction. Some extraordinary writers have come out of Taos. I emerged filled with energy and enthusiasm, which I used to rewrite everything I’d begun. Because writing is fundamentally a solitary profession, Taos presented a fine opportunity to get to know other talented writers and to soak up wisdom from Nancy Kress and Walter Jon Williams, who are gifted mentors.

Having said all this, I wouldn’t want any aspiring SF or fantasy writers to conclude that Clarion or Taos or any other workshop is absolutely essential, or even the best path forward for themselves. Becoming a fiction writer is such a personal, individualized experience.

CS: Any advice to aspiring speculative fiction writers?

RCS: Three things to keep in mind:

  1. Read, read, read. That is read anything and everything that remotely interests you. Every writer I know began as an inveterate reader.
  2. Write, write, write. By which I mean start writing. Now. Today. Don’t wait until some magical hour when the stars and moon align. Write what intrigues you and only that. Most especially, write the story you want to read but can’t seem to find out there. Don’t stop until you have finished writing it. No doubt this will take longer than you think.
  3. Persist, persist, persist. There’s no grander feeling than that first time an editor wants to buy your work, unless it’s when a reader tells you how much your work meant. This day will likely come way later than you want it to. Do not let distant and uncertain rewards discourage you. Do not be swayed by either your inner self doubt or external rejection.

Carl Slaughter wrote many reviews for Tangent before moving to Diabolical Plots as a reviewer and later an interviewer. He conducted 50 plus interviews for Diabolical Plots. For the past 14 years, he has traveled the globe teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in 6 counties on 3 continents. Carl has traveled to 18 countries and counting. (He’s tired.) In college, Carl studied journalism, broadcasting, advertising, English, speech, and history. For several years, he was a stringer for the Associated Press. His essay on Chinese culture was published in Beijing Review. His essay on Korean culture was published in The Korea Times, as was his expose on the Korean ESL industry. His travel/education reports about Thailand occasionally appear on the Ajarn website. Carl subscribes to the Mike Resnick philosophy of fiction: It’s all about the characters. Check out Carl’s Diabolical Plots interviews, his Facebook photos with his students of all ages from around the world, and a short Youtube video of Carl with some VERY excited Thai kindergarteners.

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