The Post: Under the Pier – Let’s Get Technical, Part I


What grows on a pier piling? What are rockhoppers and how do fishing trawlers use them? Why are fishing areas being closed off? How do you restore an oil spill or toxic waste site? What happened to all the eelgrass that used to be in Narragansett Bay? What in God’s name is an “upweller,” and is a robotic octopus arm powered by artificial muscles, science fiction or truth and why does the military care?

There’s a lot of technical detail that went into this story. Some of the story involves science researchers working with the environment or the military. Half of the story involves a world of animals under the pier. The things presented in the story are based in fact – they exist already, are in development, or are at least plausible. When a story involves technology, it has to first, be accurate or your readers will lose faith. It also has to have a richness of detail. The technology is a character in itself and the rich details are the characterization that brings it alive.

I’ve put the technology topics into one of five categories: Physical Details, The Environment, Commercial Fishing, Techno-whiz, and Miscellaneous. For today, let’s talk about “The Physical.”

And just an FYI – before I’m done with this series on this novel, I will compile a bibliography of the books, DVDs, research papers, websites, news articles etc., that went into the writing of this book, whether on technical subjects, writing techniques, Narragansett Bay, New England, diners, ghosts, or whatever.

THE PHYSICAL: Seeing the world under the pier.

We’ve already talked about how to see a fictional town. You take the things you know and expect to be there, arrange them in an imaginary location, then use your imagination from there. Something similar needs to happen under the water.

Though the story that takes place under the pier is fiction, the wildlife that live there, and even the main characters, aren’t. You may have put your reader inside the “fictional” mind of the hermit crab, but everything around that crab is nonfiction, and has to be accurate. How do you do that? Start with questions. You can’t know what that animal might feel, do, or respond with, if you don’t even know what he looks like or has for body equipment.

As the hermit crab – how do you walk along the bottom? Do you hop? Step sideways? Slither? What do you see on the sea bottom as you step across it? For that matter, how do you see? Do you have eyes? Can you blink? What is your range of vision? Do you have teeth to eat with? How do you breathe?

I found a lot of the specific scientific details and descriptions in nature guides, such as the National Audubon Guide to North American Seashore Creatures, Fish, Whales, and Dolphins, Birds, etc. By knowing that the average size of a long-clawed hermit crab is about ½ – 1 inch long, I know I can’t have Carpus fighting off sharks or out-swimming whales. From the descriptions in the guides I know that he has two eyestalks that can swivel around in all directions or be pulled back down to protect them. There is an open eye at the end of each, and two different-sized sets of antennae nearby for sensing and smelling the world around him. I learned that he eats a variety of things including the rotting flesh of long-dead animals. I know that he is most likely found in a periwinkle shell and that a moon snail shell is probably too big for him. He breathes through gills and chews up food with mandibles near his mouth.

Take this process and expand it. Who else does Carpus run into under the pier? What do they look like? Who does he fear? What is the ground like under his legs? Where can he hide?

From Narragansett Bay: A Friend’s Perspective, I learned the bedrock in the area is mostly sandstone and black shale, with some coal, graphite, granites, and schists scattered around. The average depth of the bay is 26 feet, it’s an estuary meaning it is a place where freshwater and seawater meet, and the bottom is a mixture of sandy plains and gravel. So I now have a pretty good idea that the area under the pier has a similar composition.

From the Peterson Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore, I found a detailed description of the New England tidal zones and a great chart showing what creatures lived at what point down the length of a pier piling. This told me who Carpus would encounter as he climbed down the piling, to the sea bottom below the pier.

From the Uncommon Guide to Common Life in Narragansett Bay, I discovered who else Carpus will meet on his travels as well as what plants or seaweeds are around for him to eat or hide in. Also, since he is pretty low on the food chain, he has a LOT of creatures to fear, including the lobster.

From The Secret Life of Lobsters I learned that a lobster loves the dark, finds prey and mates by sniffing the water with its antennules, and shoots its urine out its face at its opponents or prospective mates, to identify itself. Hence I can determine Carpus isn’t safe from a lobster just because it’s dark out, and I can tell how the lobster is going to act in a given encounter with friends and foes.

From the Marine Animals of Southern New England and New York, I found photographs, sketches, identification keys and thousands of bits of technical information on just about any creature Carpus might stumble across.

In addition to books, there are nature websites including Narragansett Bay specific ones, such as the Narragansett Bay Biota Gallery done by the US EPA, the University of Rhode Island Office of Marine Programs, and the Narragansett Bay Commission. The site covers everything from seaweed to seals, with pictures and information. Organizations such as Save the Bay and the Narragansett Bay Estuarine Research Reserve collect and publish information on all the wildlife in the bay area, as well as perform wildlife counts, monitor the health of the bay and do scientific research studies.

I have to say that my ultimate favorite was to curl up with a DVD I purchased from Hamilton Marine, a discount store in Searsport Maine specializing in equipment for professional boatbuilders, commercial fishermen and lobstermen. The DVD is: The Realm of the Lobster. It was filmed in the Gulf of Maine in 2006 and you are basically right there with the anemones, sea urchins, lobsters, crabs, wolfish, and kelp. You get to watch how they move, who they fear, who hunts who, and what the world at the sea bottom there looks like.

Once you accumulate a bunch of technical details about the environment, plants, animals, geology…you have a start. You know you have pincers to work with not wings, so you have some facts to know “what physical options your animal has at his disposal” in any given situation. The next step is to figure out as best you can, how would the main characters feel and respond to anything from a good meal to nearly being eaten. Here the process requires a mix of emotions, extrapolation, and imagination.

Do you know what if feels like to fear for your life? To run from a bully or a mugger? To eye a stranger with suspicion?

Do you know what it feels like to choke? To be so exhausted from fear or running that you can’t keep your eyes open, no matter how hard you try or how dangerous the situation?

Do you know what it feels like to starve and grow so weak you can barely keep going?

Even if you haven’t experienced all of the above, chances are you know someone who has or you have read news reports about someone who has. The point is, you combine the technical details of the creatures and their world, with the technical details of your world, and use your imagination to extrapolate what you might see, feel, and do if you were a hermit crab about to be eaten by a lobster.

For example, to guess what it might feel like to be a hermit crab in cloudy water where sediment particles are choking you by clogging up the fibers in your gills, imagine what you would feel if you were in a desert, the tissues in your throat are dry, stuck together, and sand particles keep rubbing against them every time you try to swallow. Or what did it feel like the time you choked on a pill? What would you be feeling right at that moment, emotionally?

Now imagine what it feels like if the hermit crab suddenly falls into a pail of cool clean seawater that saturates its dried-out tissues and flushes its gills clean. You can visualize something similar, like drinking a tall cool glass of iced tea in that desert situation. Suddenly all your throat tissues soften, stop sticking together, the passages open, and overheated mucosal linings feel cool and refreshed.

So the point is, find enough technical details to know what the animal has for equipment, how it uses them, then put the animal in different situations. Try to imagine how the animal would move, fight, eat, breathe, hide, and then try to extrapolate from your own moments of terror, illness, hunger, or fatigue, how you would feel and act. From there, it’s all imagination.

Next up: Environmental Issues

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