New York Times best-selling author Mary Alice Monroe is as much a conservationist as she is an author. In interviews and at book signings, Monroe talks passionately about the environmental and animal causes she champions in her books, sometimes forgetting to talk about the books themselves.
But becoming engrossed in her subject matter is how Monroe starts all her novels.
"My method is always the same: I let the animals tell me what the story is," she said. "I don't come to my research with a story that I'm trying to learn about and then add that material in. I become a volunteer, I work with the people in the field, and I pay attention. When I do this, the story comes to me."
As an active environmentalist, she serves on the board of directors at the South Carolina Aquarium and The Leatherback Trust, a sea turtle conservation organization.
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For her latest series, Monroe turned her attention to dolphins after learning that about half of the wild dolphins in South Carolina are sick.
Monroe became a volunteer at the Dolphin Research Center in Florida and participated in a Charleston study with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that ran medical tests on dolphins.
From those experiences, her Lowcountry Summer Trilogy emerged.
The three-part series follows three estranged half-sisters who reunite at their grandmother's Sullivan's Island beach house for one last summer before "Mamaw" sells it. In the first book, "The Summer Girls," the sisters befriend Delphine, a wild dolphin that becomes an integral part of the storyline.
Monroe will sign copies of the newly released second installment, "The Summer Wind," June 29 at the Hilton Head Island Barnes & Noble.
While all the sisters are major characters in the novels, one sister emerges as the main focus in each. The oldest sister, Dora, is the center of "The Summer Wind."
"All my characters have a job to do," Monroe said. "I'm trying to show my readers through the course of the novels the difference between a dolphin in the wild and a dolphin in a care facility. There is a huge difference."
In the first book, the sisters play with Delphine, call to her and feed her, everything you are not supposed to do with a wild dolphin, Monroe said. As a result, Delphine gets seriously injured by fishing wire near the dock. "The Summer Wind" follows Delphine to Florida for rehabilitation and shows controlled interactions with dolphins in human care. Monroe also takes readers to the Dolphin Research Center, where a wounded soldier is undergoing dolphin therapy.
Monroe was inspired to include this character after participating in the Wounded Warrior Program at the research center.
"To see that interaction that went on between these men and the dolphins, these men who are so guarded and restrained emotionally ... once they got in the water with the dolphins, they were boys again," Monroe said. "It was so beautiful to witness."
The wounded warrior in "The Summer Wind" will return in the final novel, "The Summer's End," set to release in 2015, Monroe said.
His role is to show how connection with nature is essential to well-being, she added. "I do believe that one of the reasons that people love my books is that they read them and feel that connection with nature. That's my goal."
Her other goal, of course, is to bring awareness to each animal issue she chooses to highlight.
"I have found, truly, that once the reader becomes aware, they will act appropriately," Monroe said. Readers have written thank-you notes saying they will no longer be touching or feeding dolphins. "It's all about educating through an interesting story," she said. "If I can do that, I can make a difference in my time."
Follow reporter Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.