Monday musings: Inside the shell of character

I love buying eggs from my next-door neighbor.

Aren’t they lovely?  So many different colors! On the outside, anyway — inside, eggs are eggs.  Lisa has at least four varieties of hens running around her yard, maybe even five or six.  It’s so much fun to look out my kitchen window and see them scurrying to and fro in search of bugs and other good things to eat.

We used to have chickens, too, but they eventually went into chicken retirement.  (You can read about that here.)  They provided not only eggs (and amusement), but also food for thought.  Click here for a link to a blog post from a few years back that was inspired by a little backyard observation.

That’s the best kind of observation, really, isn’t it?

So what does this motley dozen nesting on my kitchen table tell me today?  Well, perhaps that despite our outward trappings–race, nationality, gender, faith, age, political leanings, etc.–on the inside, where it really counts, we’re all the same.  As a writer, I’ve learned that it’s the inside of my characters that counts, too. Whether I’m writing about a girl on an adventure at sea in 1835 (THE VOYAGE OF PATIENCE GOODSPEED), a mouse who dreams of being a secret agent and the fifth grade boy who helps her out (THE BLACK PAW), modern-day stepsisters on the receiving end of a spell gone terribly wrong (ONCE UPON A TOAD), or a whole cast of moms and daughters who end up reading the classics together (THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB), it’s the heart of the matter that’s most important.

Sure, I need to pay attention to details like dress and appearance and mannerisms and all that.  It’s part of my job (and a very fun part, I might add) to make the window dressing as interesting and alluring as possible.  But what is it that really connects us to those who live out their lives on the written page? What is it that makes some characters wrap themselves around our hearts?  Think Charlotte and Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web.  Or India Opal Buloni in Because of Winn-Dixie.  Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  

It’s what’s on the inside, isn’t it?  It’s their hopes and fears and worries, their dreams and yearnings.  Those “inside the egg” things that each one of us can relate to, and that ultimately connect us all.  So when you’re writing, be sure to crack open that shell and breathe life into your character from the inside.

Give your character a heart, and it will speak to the heart in your reader.






Good neighbors and good eggs

Dahilas 1Seventeen years ago this week we moved from Boston to Portland, Oregon, a place we’d never even visited before.  We’d had it with the East Coast rat race — not to mention a two-hour commute each day — and were ready to light out for the territories.

We’ve never looked back.

We landed in a ’50s ranch tucked away in a quiet little neighborhood ten minutes from downtown.  From my kitchen window I can see my neighbor’s barn and tidy home, part of the original dahlia farm from which our small subdivision was fashioned.  I was reminded of this last night when my husband and I took our dog for a walk.  It was twilight, and suddenly the air was alight with swallows.  We stood and watched them dipping and wheeling in their graceful airborne dance.  Then just as suddenly, they were gone.

Swallows’ Haven Farm is long gone, too, but my neighbor honors its memory by growing dahlias of her own.  Come winter, she’ll dig up the tubers and store them in the original bulb house with its wall lined with wooden drawers, but now, in late summer, her garden is alive with color.  She plants dozens of varieties and produces dazzling bouquets, many of which, like this one on my breakfast table this morning , make it across the back fence to our house.  So do vegetables of all varieties, and now that she’s added her own flock of chickens, so do fresh eggs.  It’s like having our own private farmer’s market. 

Her chickens arrived just as we were saying goodbye to ours (see my related post “End of an era“), so the eggs have been especially welcome.  I bake fresh bread each week for my family, and I give her a loaf in exchange for a dozen.  It’s an arrangement that makes everybody happy. 

But then, who wouldn’t be happy, living next door to such a wonderful neighbor — and such a good egg?

End of an era

We said good-bye to our chickens today.

After several enjoyable years as a chicken mama, the time finally came to turn the page on this chapter of my life.  A little too much mess, a little too much extra work, a little too much, um, poo.

Fortunately, our sons’ wonderful first grade teacher, who is a dear friend, offered to adopt them.  She’s an enthusiastic urban farmer, and every year she hatches out eggs in her classroom.  I still remember how excited our boys were the week that the chicks arrived.  I also remember how excited our youngest was after an impromptu visit to her home, where he spent a thrilling hour in the backyard hunting for eggs.  Afterwards, he announced that he was going to start a business when he grew up, and that he already had a name for it: 1-800-Egg-Finders.  “I’ll bet a lot of farmers will want to hire me,” he told us confidently.

(Much to his embarrassment, I reminded him of this a few years ago when I brought three little chicks home from the feed store.)

In the time they spent with us, our “girls” provided not only eggs, but also endless entertainment.  They were convinced that Bonnie, our Shetland Sheepdog, was their mother, and spent their days trailing around after her.  One chicken even took to laying her eggs in the dog house.  All three of them were determined to be house pets, and any door left open more than a crack would soon find a chicken sneaking through it.

Our boys are all grown up now, one about to graduate high school and the other soon to start his senior year in college.  They’re no longer as thrilled with chickens, nor with the responsibility that comes with raising them.  They have been enjoying their hunting trips though, if you’re curious about them, you can learn more by clicking here. And I’m finding that as I devote more and more of my time to writing books these days, I have less and less time for other things.  Especially other things that need to be fed, watered, shooed out of the house and the garden, or otherwise watched over.  So this morning my husband and I rounded up our trio of hens — Dixie, Trixie, and Pixie — and drove them to their new home.  It’s a little piece of chicken heaven, with several lush acres to roam, a sturdy red hen-house filled with new feathered friends, and overseeing it all, a resident llama.  Who could ask for more?

Still, I’ll miss our girls.

Molting season

Earlier this fall, our chickens started molting. For weeks the three of them drooped around the yard, trailing feathers and a tangible air of discontent. Standoffish and sullen, they shied away from our attempts to pick them up and pet them — a routine they normally delight in — with indignant squawks of protest. Egg production screeched to a halt.

The first time this happened a couple of years ago, I panicked, convinced that the distressing loss of feathers and eggs was somehow my fault, a testament to my glaring lack of skills as an urban farmer. But now, as a seasoned chicken mama, I’ve learned that molting season is part of the natural cycle. Hens just need time and space to let nature take its course. Soon enough, new feathers will appear, along with eggs.

I got to thinking about this last weekend as I was driving out to the coast with my husband. West of our city, the highway to the sea winds through miles of rolling farmland, and in late autumn the fields are blanketed with a quilt of muted browns and rusts and hazy golds. The remains of fall’s harvest have been plowed under, and the earth will lie still until spring, gathering energy for a new season of growth. The trees skirting the distant hills appeared equally lifeless, their branches shorn of leaves and stark against the sky, but this was also an illusion, for in a few months they’ll be cloaking themselves once again in green.

Writers have fallow seasons as well. There are times when the outlook is bleak, and we mope around the house as peevish as molting chickens, convinced that we’ll never write anything worthwhile again. I had a stretch of writer’s molt earlier this fall, and it wasn’t pretty. But last weekend, as I watched the seemingly barren landscape slip past the window of my car, it occurred to me that we are a part of the natural cycle as well. Trees drop their leaves; chickens drop their feathers; fields and writers need time to lie fallow. 

Late last week our chickens started laying eggs again. Production was sporadic at first, one here, one there, until this morning, when I went out early to feed them and found three eggs waiting in the nest. “Our girls are back on the job,” I reported to my husband when I returned to the kitchen, pulling the smooth ovals from my bathrobe pocket as evidence. 

I’m back on the job, too, after a fallow fall, full of renewed energy as I plunge once more into the fray, back onto the battlefield that is the empty page, where I work to wrest meaning from words and shape them into stories. I hope you’re writing, too, or productive in other fields of life, but if not, be patient with yourself.  You might just be molting!