When your research goes to the dogs…

This the seventh in a series of guest posts by authors who, like me, have found themselves falling down into a Research Rabbit Hole, often with hilarious results. Because this is the true danger of research…it sucks you in!



‘Research rabbit holes’ is an apt phrase for the latest thing to intrigue me. I’ve been chasing dogs and finding any number of scents to follow.

Some months ago I went to a lecture by an academic, Peter Mitchell, whose area of research is the worldwide impact of the horse on indigenous societies, after 1492. That’s a fascinating area for study on its own, but as he explained, before European colonists brought the horse back to North America, the Plains peoples used dogs as beasts of burden? To haul the poles and hides for their shelters as they moved from place to place, to drag the travoises that carried those too young or too old to walk. To carry packs and panniers with utensils and supplies. When these indigenous people devised words for ‘horse’, one variant simply meant ‘a bigger dog’.

Though some tribes took a long look at the horse and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Granted, horses graze but the best fodder, especially in winter, is in short supply. Horses don’t do so well in the bitter cold either. That limits winter camps to river valleys, where there’s competition from other horse nations. Meantime, dogs can hunt down prey that can be shared with people. Dogs are better at guarding a camp. Dogs can come into a shelter when the weather turns cold and share their body heat. Granted, horsehide is useful, but so is a dog skin, and it’s warmer. If needs must, you can eat dogs just as easily as you can eat horses – and dogs reproduce themselves a great deal quicker and with more offspring.

Why do I find this so fascinating? Because I’m working on stories set in a new fantasy world. Now that I’ve got the River Kingdom pretty well established, I’m wondering what’s off the edges of the splendid map I’ve had drawn. To the north, there’s the high plateau. Who lives there? I immediately knew one answer to avoid was ‘nomad horse clans’. You know the sort of cliché that bedevils epic fantasy; loosely modeled on Central Asian peoples or the Plains tribes as re-imagined by old Hollywood movies. But nomad hound masters and mistresses? That has all sorts of possibilities.

So I’ve been learning a lot more about dogs. We had dogs as pets when I was little but since I’ve lived with my husband, we’ve always had cats. So stuff like the differences between sight hounds and scent hounds is all new to me. Discovering the various uses that people have made of dogs over the centuries is equally fascinating. A hundred or so years ago, dogs pulling small carts were a familiar sight in US and European cities, hauling milk and bread for delivery, or street food and drink for sale. Did you know the Rottweiler was originally famous as a butcher’s dog, strong enough to haul a heavy cart of meat to the market place to be sold? Where the money went into a purse hung around the dog’s neck to discourage thieves…

Then there are the recent insights into the dynamics of pack behavior and the ways in which humans can interact with dogs on their own terms. I had a fascinating conversation with urban fantasy author Suzanne McLeod about all this on the train home from a convention once. I’ll be emailing her for a recap when I find the right story to take someone from the River Kingdom up through the hill country to reach that high plateau. Because that’s the thing about research. It’s so easy to find fascinating things that aren’t actually relevant to what you’re actually working on…




Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. shadow-histories-of-the-river-kingdomLoving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels, from The Thief’s Gamble which began The Tales of Einarinn to Defiant Peaks concluding The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. Exploring new opportunities in digital publishing, she’s re-issued her backlist as ebooks as well as bringing out original fiction in partnership with Wizard’s Tower Press. She reviews for web and print magazines and writes diverse shorter fiction when interesting opportunities arise.

Follow Juliet: Webpage / Twitter 


Learn more about the River Kingdom here http://www.julietemckenna.com/?page_id=2322



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