Elephant tongues, quad bikes and vines

I had never stroked an elephant’s tongue until I started researching Thailand for my new book. That’s the wonderful thing about research – once you start, it can lead you to such exciting and unusual places.

My second book in the Stunt Double series, Jungle Curse, is set in Thailand. I’m very lucky that I got to visit this wonderful country. It meant I felt confident describing the sights, sounds and smells of South East Asia. I saw the glittering temples, golden Buddhas and traditional market stalls beside the contemporary shopping malls and skyscrapers. I soaked in the hustle and bustle, and felt the humidity on my face.

But I needed to describe this country as if I was Finn, the main character in Jungle Curse. I needed to see Thailand through his eyes, a fourteen-year-old boy who hardly ever travels. So I focused on the things that I thought he would notice: families of five hanging off a single moped or the strange fish in the market stalls that look like they belong in outer space rather than in the sea. He’d notice the fork jammed in our air conditioning unit to keep it working, and he’d spot the wild monkey who’d learnt to drink from a water bottle.

In order to write about Finn’s adventures, I also needed to experience some of the things he does. However, as Finn is a lot braver than me he dives straight in, while I just dipped my toe into the activities. For example, Finn needs to drive a quad bike fast up a mountain, but when I had a go, I think I may have been the slowest, most cautious quad bike driver in the world. But at least I could describe how it worked and what it felt like. On another occasion Finn climbs a vine. Well… I managed about a foot off the ground before my arms gave up and I slipped back down.

Yet there was one activity where I think I would outdo Finn. I spent a couple of days at the Hutsadin Elephant Sanctuary. There is something so wise and calm about these magnificent creatures. Run by volunteers, the sanctuary rescues elephants that have been in circuses or used in street entertainment. Unfortunately they can’t be released into the wild, since they are too domesticated and wouldn’t survive without human help. Thankfully they have a fabulous life at the sanctuary.

My family and I helped prepare their food – and yes, elephants eat an awful lot. We washed them and took them for walks (the elephants, not my family). One of the elephants made such a big impression that she makes an appearance in my book. If she likes you, she lifts her trunk and opens her mouth. Even though it feels slimy, wet and spongy, there is something very comforting about stroking an elephant’s tongue.

In Jungle Curse, Finn needs to ride an elephant. The sanctuary doesn’t believe in giving rides as elephants are wild creatures and I agree with this. Therefore to find out what it was like, I interviewed people who had ridden them, and watched clips on the Internet. Then I used my imagination to fill in the gaps. Research could only take me so far. 

Research can be done in many ways – looking at books, scouring the Internet, visiting places or trying out activities. It can open up your mind and give you so many ideas for stories. A lot of what I saw and experienced went straight into Jungle Curse. I wanted to paint pictures in my readers’ minds, let them feel like they are in Thailand and really share in Finn’s adventures. Even though my story is fiction, I based it in the real world.  In order to make my characters and plot believable, I had to make my real world believable too.

To me, research is an essential part of story writing. It can also be a lot of fun.

This post was written by Tamsin Cooke. Stunt Double: Jungle Curse is out now.