To friends and family, it is no secret that I am a “cat person.” That being said, I never imagined I would spend years of my life trying to write a novel, large parts of which are written from the perspective of a mountain lion.
When I started writing The Hunter and the Old Woman, I did a lot of reading about big cats, nonfiction about their life cycle, living environments, and facts about their biology. Then I did reading specifically about mountain lions, studies about when and where they hunt, and how they raise their young. I read a fantastic memoir, The Ghost Walker by R.D. Lawrence, which was key to my understanding of how mountain lions interact with each other, and other animals in their lives, like deer and wolves.
Then I wanted to learn more about the mountain lion’s physical life in the forest. I watched a number of documentaries about mountain lions. I even resorted to watching videos on YouTube, I’m not ashamed to admit. Everything from clips of National Geographic programs to shaky phone camera footage of a mountain lion eating a deer in the middle of a rural road in broad daylight!
I was trying to get a sense of the mountain lion’s body language, but it soon became clear that I would need to do some actual field research if I was going to be serious about capturing the essence of a big cat’s life in the forest.
Observing a Small Cat to Understand a Big Cat
We adopted Ziggy Stardust, a 10-week-old kitten, through a pet store down the street from our St. Clair West apartment. We took her home on a hot June day, and set her down in the bathroom next to her fresh new litter box. She immediately hid behind the toilet (a detail that made its way into the novel), indicating a penchant toward caution, an indicator of her personality on the whole.
While I realize there is a difference between the inner life of a big cat in the wild, and that of a domestic cat living in the city, I hoped Ziggy would give me some insight into the mindset of a mountain lion. She is the exact opposite of her namesake, eschewing the spotlight whenever possible. I have friends who have never even seen Ziggy in the fur! This cautious personality definitely influenced the personality of the Cougar in my novel, and informed that character’s behavior when she encountered animals for the first time in her life, like sheep and horses.
Ziggy is not fancy. Her favorite toys are ribbons and paper balls. She also enjoys stalking ants and houseflies, investigating dust bunnies. I transferred this playful curiosity directly to the Cougar who is endlessly fascinated by spider webs, icicles, and other natural objects found in her environment. Boredom seemed to me a human trait, but I learned that it has more to do with intelligence. So I made sure to have the Cougar experience bouts of restlessness, where she will patrol her territory even though she’s not out for a hunt, but just for something to do. Also, when she and her son are trapped in a tree by a pack of wolves, I had them contend with boredom, which I believe would happen to anyone confined to a small space over an extended period of time.
While living with my mother in the suburbs, Ziggy got to wander around a backyard for the first time in her life (supervised, of course!). One evening she encountered a rabbit, and without a moment’s hesitation, she took off at full speed trying to catch it, even though she had never seen one before in her life! I was relieved as the rabbit quickly squeezed under a fence post, evading Ziggy’s claw.
How would Ziggy know that rabbits were for hunting, if she had never seen one before in her life? Is there knowledge that is born with us, waiting to be unlocked? These are the questions all writers should ask as they write their animals.