Here is a conversation with Daniel Bensen on writing, research, and life.
When I was in middle school, I stumbled across a website on the then-nascent internet called Hell Creek Faunal Facies. It was no less than a complete list of every living thing — dinosaur, mammal, plant, and bug — whose remains were discovered at the Hell Creek fossil site in Montana. Let me tell you, that web-page blew my tweenaged mind.
Back then I still thought of dinosaurs as movie monsters: big scaly things roaring in front of a blue screen. But Hell Creek Faunal Facies showed me that there were turtles living alongside Tyrannosaurus rex. Cute ones! And not just turtles, but lizards and bowfin fish, possums and sycamore trees. Hell Creek wasn’t just a dinosaur graveyard, it was a whole preserved ecosystem!
I spent a lot of time imagining myself in that ecosystem. I built this whole little diorama with scale-model crocodiles and everything. I thought about what it might be like to live there, to gather food and avoid becoming food. I imagined a civilization growing there, the artifacts it might build, the disasters it might face, the cultures that might develop from its scattered descendants. When the idea came to me to do a satirical take on Conan the Barbarian and John Carter of Mars, I already had already had the background for a very weird and savage culture. But by then it had been almost twenty years since I first learned about Hell Creek. Things had changed. I needed to go back and do some research.
I started with my old friends at the Dinosaur Mailing List. I asked them about the geology, geography, and climatology of Hell Creek (aka Maastrichtian Laramidia) and got some wild answers. Evolving ideas about the Cretaceous climate and ocean circulation by William W. Hay and The Maastrichtian (Late Cretaceous) climate in the Northern Hemisphere by Lena B. Golovneva, showed me a picture of a world as different from ours as any alien planet in Star Wars, with arctic rainforests and a permanently cloudy polar ocean. Hell Creek, itself, was a rainy semi-tropical floodplain, the Louisiana Bayou.
I found the sprawling and endlessly helpful Hell Creek Forum, where I got clued in to the last two decades of new discoveries about dinosaur biology and behavior. Eventually I just sent the forum everything I had written about each dinosaur encounter and let them tear the scenes to shreds.
I also went to the paleoartist community, many members of which have conveyed in pictures more than I could possibly in words. Hell Creek Forum’s moderator, Tom Parker actually made ecosystem diagrams of the place. Maija Karala has produced beautiful and inspiring pictures of Late Cretaceous North America. Finally, the dinosaurs and environments of the Saurian game by RJ Palmer and others caused several last-minute redesigns (they’re responsible for the feathery tyrannosaur).
Some other information came from good old-fashioned googling. Description of Several Common Fossil Leaf Species from the Hell Creek Formation by Kirk R. Johnson is available online, and several of its species made it into the final story. Thure Cerling’s “Does the gas content of amber reveal the composition of palaeoatmospheres?” in Letters to Nature made me throw out this whole sub-plot I had about hyperoxia. The amazing Paleobiology Database Map application was just a whole lot of fun to play with.
Basically I was doing research, having conversations with knowledgeable people, and just sort of salivating over beautiful art for the entire writing process. I scheduled googling and reading research materials into my writing time, and it was a good way to take a break when I wasn’t in the mood to write. I wrote down specific questions, and I wasn’t shy about asking strangers to answer them. I tried to be open and eager to help people, too, building up cycles of correspondence with interesting people that continue to this day. In the end I got a book that was just a bit less wrong than it would otherwise have been, and that means a lot.
Groom of the Tyrannosaur Queen is a time-travel romance with dinosaurs, available now as a kindle book.
Back-of-the book information:
Former soldier Andrea Herrera isn’t happy with where her life’s taken her. Specifically, to Hell Creek, Montana, 65 million years before the present. As far as careers go, making sure the dinosaurs don’t eat her paleontologist clients comes in a pretty dismal second choice to serving her country. But when their time machine malfunctions, Andrea and her team are trapped in a timeline that shouldn’t exist with something a hell of a lot more dangerous than terrible lizards: other humans.
Further links, for your research pleasure…