Posts Tagged ‘fish’

The Post – An Unlikely Fish Count

January 5, 2011
I often paint fish and undersea creatures. Squids, southern flounder, American shad, krill, just to name a few. I will paint many more. Hence I’m always on the lookout for great pictures. I don’t copy them but use them to inspire me, and to sometimes put together a composite image of a few creatures in a scene of my own making.
Also as a person who paints and loves the ocean and its life, I am always seeking news on its health, problems, successes. A recent topic of interest to me, was the recent (2010) completion of the Census of Marine Life. ( http://www.coml.org) It boggled my mind that someone could do this and I wondered how.
An article on Gizmodo recently appeared, that included a video on this very topic. As the video says, there are places in the ocean so remote they could not be explored, groups of fish so large they could not be counted, animals that travel so far they can’t be followed. If all that is true, how then did they do the Census of Marine Life for 10 years? The answer is revealed in this article and video. And you can find out what “OBIS” stands for. Just amazing work.
For even more info, check out www.coml.org . Also, there are some great books out on the subject.  World Ocean Census (ISBN-13: 978-1-55407-434-1) I picked up the book and it has photographs that are just beautiful. It is the story of the census. There is another I’m waiting to receive done by National Geographic: Citizens of the Sea – Wondrous Creatures from the Census of Marine Life that looks just amazing in the creature photographs it contains. I can’t wait to get it!. …….I can never get enough of the ocean…….
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The Post – I won the Battle of Photoshop!!

January 1, 2011

I was struggling with putting my images up on the Cafe Press site for my nature art products.  I wanted the image of my fiddler crab, Admiral Byrd, as the main pic for the site and for its own product line. Sounds good.

Loading the image went fine but even though I used 72 pt font to type in Hey Baby!  you could barely see it on the products or even the site’s picture. I tried everything – layers, putting the text in a canvas border (boy did that look stupid) , trying to downsize the picture (even though that’s an even stupider idea than putting text in the canvas border). How was I going to get big enough letters to show up on a high resolution image?????

FINALLY I decided to go back to my book, Photoshop Elements 6 for Mac.  I had spent a couple of hours going through the book earlier, with no help. But this was like God sending St. Peter back out to keep fishing after a whole night of no fish. You go back and try one more time and WOW! Talk about God sending a lightening bolt. Lo, THERE, on page 390, which my book just HAPPENED  to open to, was the answer: “How Resolution Affects Font Size”.  Did anybody here know you could get a bigger font size than what was in the drop-down menu????  I didn’t. As it turns out, you can just type in your own font size. And based on how tiny 72 was, I went for 150.

GUESS WHAT?  YES!  My words, Hey Baby!, not only showed up but they showed up as the right size!!!!  So I now have my site’s main picture, and a product line design picture, BOTH with the appropriately sized and looking text!!!!  YES!  One battle down, 3, 276.25 battles to go! 🙂

Soon to come….why Admiral Byrd as the icon of my Cafe Press shop and why, “Hey Baby!”  🙂

PS  Looking over posts unfinished from last year, suffice to say the ants died and that project ended quickly, at least for then. I’ll revisit at some point. As as for the Muses – they and Admiral Byrd are no longer with us. But Admiral Byrd is buried outside next to my statues of Buddha and Mary. He deserved to be honored and they will watch over him.

The Post – Psychedelic fish

February 26, 2009

My husband pointed this article out to me, and the fish is just great. I love the guy. So sharing a “psychedelic fish” with you all!

http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/discoveries/2009-02-26-psychedelic-fish_N.htm

The Post – Under the Pier: Creature Features – Naked Gobies

July 27, 2008

The Naked Goby, alias Gobiosoma bosci

Naked Gobies live in the shallow marshes, mud flats and oyster reefs of the bay’s waters. Bottom-dwellers, they resemble small lizards. They are small fish, about 2 1/2 inches long, with large eyes, dark green tops and pale below, and 8-9 vertical bars along the sides. Their pelvic fins are used as suction cups to hold them to rocks and shells. Since they have no scales, they’re called “naked gobies.”

They live in the bay all year, feeding on worms, and amphipods (such as sand fleas), and being eaten by eels, sand shrimp and larger fish. Though there are many gobies living in the bay, they are often not noticed as they are solitary reclusive fish. They will often hide in empty, still-hinged clam and oyster shells, or in human trash, such as cans, bottles, and tires.

(Reference: The Uncommon Guide to Common Life of Narragansett Bay, 1998, Save the Bay)

For this first effort, I did both the oil painting and the pen & ink/watercolor wash drawing, trying to figure out what works best. I still don’t know. The oil painting is richer and I have greater control over nuances and color. The pen and ink allows greater control when sketching details, but less control with color in the watercolor washes.

The other aspect is the following artwork is more “a book scene” – with the fish shown in the context of the scene’s location. Actual glossary entries should be more restricted, showing just a closeup of the creature. So in the future, I’ll probably stick to that. But for now, I introduce, Naked gobies.

The Post – Scarlett O’Hara “Labor and Delivery” Watch, and Ammonia Monitoring

March 27, 2008

For the last several days, Scarlett has been sitting on top of, or in, the water filter. Even though I shut down the filter Tuesday (so no babies would get sucked up in the filter material should they hatch), she continues to stay inside the empty filter. I guess it’s like a cave – nice and sheltered. She hasn’t come out to eat, but then I imagine that filter material has a ton of bacterial and algal critters all over it.

She DOES need to be in water at some point and on that count I’m not sure how long she can stay out of the water and in the filter. I tried chasing her out of the filter Tuesday afternoon, partially to see if she was okay, and partially to see if overcoming inertia and forcing her out would keep her out, but within minutes she was back inside of the filter. Who knows if she climbs out at night when the lights are off, to go for a swim.

Wed morning she was inside the filter, still sitting at the bottom. She wasn’t moving so I jiggled the filter cartridge enough to see her move. I left her alone until Wed afternooon when I pulled the filter cartridge up a bit. Scarlett O’Hara rushed up and out of the water filter and down into the water. She sat underneath the water filter, so I guess she’s just “staying put in sheltered places.” However, she does appear to be okay.

I tried giving her a couple of shrimp pellets, assuming she must be hungry, but she basically pushed them aside. She did pick at the calcium sand, so I expect she’s looking for algae. I dropped in a couple bits of algae pellets but she ignored those too. So either she isn’t hungry due to the pregnancy, something’s wrong, or she’s full from eating whatever is on that filter packing material. Right now she is still out in the tank and has even wandered over to the air bubbler at the other end of the tank. I am heartened to see her doing her usual activities: climbing up on the bubbler, trying to climb up the side of the tank, and resting on the suction cups behind the air filter that hold it in place. So, for now, I guess, all is well.

My only “curiosity” is “will she stay out into the water to deliver the babies?” I expect she will given that female fiddler crabs look for places in their estuary homes that have active water currents so the eggs can be washed out to sea. So “instinct” alone should propel her back into the tank water at about the time of delivery, no matter how much she likes it inside the water filter. Given she did it right the first time, I can’t imagine she’s forgotten what she needs to do. I missed the delivery the first time so I don’t know exactly what she does to release them. I hope I catch it this time. Also, I do wish I could just ask her why she likes living at the bottom of a dark empty water filter. In lieu of that conversation, all I can do is watch and wait…..

Water parameters Wed afternoon were good: Nitrates 10, Nitrite 0, Hardness >300, Chlorine 0, Alkalinity 300, pH 8.0 and the Ammonia monitor is in the “safe” range at < 0.02 ppm.

The ammonia monitor is a Seachem Ammonia monitor that you can hang inside the tank. No test strips or kits. This one is called the Seachem AmmoniaAlert for Fresh and Marine tanks. It continuously monitors the free ammonia level in the water for over a year.

The monitor is color coded for concentrations:

– Safe (<0.02 ppm), Yellow

– Alert ( 0.05 ppm), Green

– Alarm ( 0.20 mg/dl), Sky Blue

– Toxic ( 0.50 mg/dl), Lavender

The insert says that the “Alert Level” of free ammonia can be tolerated for several days; “Alarm” for a few days; and “Toxic” is rapidly harmful. It would have been interesting to see what it read when I had the phytoplankton overgrowth and high nitrites, the first time I did this.

While I knew that monitoring ammonia was important and somehow related to the level of nitrites and nitrates, I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on. I found a good website, The Tropical Tank, done in the UK, that discusses water chemistry, and in particular, ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates. It’s called: More on the Nitrogen Cycle: Ammonia, Nitrite, and Nitrate

In short, there should be no ammonia or nitrite in a mature tank. Any ammonia is present in two forms: ammonia (NH3) and ammonium ion (NH4+). Ammonia is more toxic than the ion, and the higher the aquarium pH, the higher the ammonia level. Since brackish and marine tanks are basic, ie higher pH, ammonia toxicity is a constant risk.

Ammonia in a mature tank is oxidized by nitrogen-fixing bacteria, to nitrites and again, in a mature tank, nitrites are oxidized to nitrates. While you don’t want to see nitrates run high, a lower level , say < 50 ppm, are considered okay, 25 ppm is even better. If your tank isn’t cycling well, is new and not enough nitrogen-fixing bacteria, you have too many tank inhabitants, or you’ve overfed them, ammonia (and hence nitrites and nitrates) will start to spike.

The bottom line, the appearance of rising ammonia levels is the first clue that things in the tank are not well and even toxic. Given that my last endeavor with crab larvae resulted in mass death due to high nitrites (and yes, the phytoplankton caused an algae bloom that caused ammonia and nitrites to spike and I won’t use it again) I thought it might be interesting to monitor the ammonia levels in the tank on a continuous basis through this project.

This article also gives information on how to start up the nitrogen cycle in a fishless tank. I wondered how you get the cycle going when there are no fish or fish wastes to start the process.

If you are interested, this same UK website has two other interesting articles:

The Basis of Cycling: a good overview of the maturing nitrogen cycle in aquariums

Fishless Cycling Data provided to them by a US forum member, William Wallace; some concrete data on how Mr. Wallace actually did this process.

To return to the tank and Scarlett:

Wed evening, the water looked cloudy and while other parameters were still fine, I noticed a trace amount of nitrites now. I also noticed a few green spots in the yellow safe zone of the ammonia monitor. The green spots are the beginning of a change to “alert.” Given that I think we’re a few days away from birth yet, I decided to turn the water filter back on for a day or so to try and improve the tank conditions. I suspect that adding Scarlett to the tank was enough to catalyze the nitrogen cycle into high gear. It’s to be expected to see “some” ammonia and nitrites, and there also is a “good” level of nitrates, but still, I don’t want to lose the battle of water quality before the babies are even born. I will continue to monitor water quality closely today today. If necessary, I’ll do some water changes, but I would rather not do that. Since the nitrogen cycle is in its early stages, every time I take water out and put in new water, it removes some of the very nitrogen-fixing bacteria I need. The gentleman at the aquarium store said it would be best to just let the tank evolve. So as long as we don’t go beyond “alert” on the ammonia monitor, I’ll let it “evolve.” Otherwise…I’ll have to start water changes. I wish I’d known earlier about the fishless cycling Mr. Wallace did. I could have done that with this tank to get the nitrogen cycle established before moving Scarlett into it.

Tank parameters this morning are the same as yesterday afternoon and Scarlett is out walking around the tank, so, no better, no worse.

Stay tuned.

The Post: Under the Pier – Animal R&D cont.

March 13, 2008

Even though I’d identified my first two main characters, I didn’t know much about them. On top of that, I still needed a third main animal character, and that didn’t even touch the question of who else inhabited this world I was trying to show.

I started doing simple web searches on hermit crab, symbionts, snail fur hydroid, Narragansett Bay flora and fauna, New England ocean divisions. As Robert Frost always said, way leads on to way, so web site leads to web site. In short order I was finding more info than I knew what to do with. I had to organize it, figure out just what was relevant, and in some cases, figure out whether the info I was finding was even correct. Just because it’s on a website…or even in a book, doesn’t make it gospel. My rule of thumb was to try and find that same information in at least 2 or 3 other places, including books if possible, before accepting it.

I found that animal names were a large problem. Names could drive you out of your mind. A sheepshead fish (Archosargus probatocephalus) and a sheepshead minnow (Cyprinodon variegatus variegatus) are two very different fish even though they are both often just called “sheepshead”. A mud dog whelk is also called an eastern mudsnail, so when I saw the name “New England dog whelk” I figured they were the same. Apparently, though, they aren’t. The mud dog whelk/eastern mudsnail is Nassarius obsoletus, and the New England dog whelk (among other names) is Nassarius trivittatus. So using Latin names to verify who was who, really became a necessity. However, taxonomists can play a bit of havoc with Latin names, too. These 2 guys have a different genus names in different sources. In some articles the genus name was Nassarius and in others it was Ilyanassa. Needless to say, a real pain.

Another problem was “location.” I began collecting information on all the plants and animals so I could “populate” my fictitious Narragansett Bay story location. Narragansett Bay may be in Rhode Island which is New England, but “New England” isn’t always just New England. There’s the Gulf of Maine, Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts Bay, Georges Bank, Cape Cod Bay, Stellwagon Bank, Long Island Sound, Narragansett Bay…..all of which may vary in what animals and plants live there. Nothing is EVER simple.

In reality, New England actually has different zones of animals often separated right about the level of Cape Cod. There are a couple of large currents operating off the Eastern US coast. Most people are familiar with the Gulf Stream – warm water that flows westward from Africa as the North Equatorial Current, circulates through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, then heads north until about the level of Cape Cod. At that point the warmer waters turn eastward as the North Atlantic Drift and head toward the British Isles.

Coming down from the north is a cold current moving counterclockwise past Greenland, then south along the US coast and is known as the Labrador current. A branch of that known as the Maine current brings cold water down along Maine, New Hampshire and into Massachusetts Bay north of Cape Cod.

So it appears Cape Cod is the meeting spot for the cold northern currents and the warmer southern Gulf Current. From the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Sea Creatures:

“This makes Cape Cod a so-called zoogeographic barrier, a region of great interest and diverse fauna, whose water temperatures differ by as much as 10 degrees F between it’s north and south shores. Many northern cold water species range only as far south as Cape Cod, and many southern species range only as far north as its southern shore.”

So even though the Atlantic Wolffish is found in the Gulf of Maine and Maine and Rhode Island are both in New England, odds are the wolfish is an unlikely inhabitant of Narragansett Bay. In fact some of the fish in Narragansett Bay probably have more in common with ones off Cape Hatteras than Cape Cod. Another example of this – sea cucumbers. The National Audubon Guide said the orange-footed sea cucumber is the largest and most conspicuous sea cucumber in New England, BUT more than one source said it’s from the Arctic to Cape Cod. From Cape Cod south, it’s the Hairy Sea Cucumber.

Even locally within a particular area, there are differences. Just because some fish or creature lives in Narragansett Bay doesn’t mean you’ll find it right by the story’s pier. Some are strictly offshore water creatures. You can’t put them in shallow coastal zones. Some prefer sandy bottoms vs. gravel or mud. Some are bottom dwellers, or live attached to pilings or rocks and are not found floating in the sunny surface water. And of course, season: some are only present in December, but not June. I really wanted to include the Harbor Seals in my story, but they are only there in the cold months. So, scratch Harbor Seals

From all of this, I drew up a long list of fish, algae, plants, birds, and invertebrates that fit ONLY in Narragansett Bay, in the right location, in the right season. There were a few exceptions to the rules – the occasional bird who “never is here in June, only December, but occasionally, it’s there in June anyway.” I included those only if I had a research paper, article, or interview with some researcher that documented that nature doesn’t always follow the rules.

Armed with this list, I began writing up animal character biographies. They still included “flaws, strengths, driving needs, hopes,” but also included topics like:

-What problems do they have in finding food and living space?
-Who do they eat or who eats them?
-Do they have parasites, symbionts, or freeloaders who don’t harm or help them?
-Where are they most likely to be found?
-Do they have any odd quirks, interesting behaviors, unusual qualities?
-How likely are they to interact positively or negatively with my hermit crab protagonist or be present in his world?

I started with books, mostly nature guides like the National Audubon Guides to Invertebrates, Birds, Fishes, Mammals, and New England, that had detailed descriptions, photos, and answers to some of these questions. Another great book was by Save the Bay, The Uncommon Guide to Common Life in Narragansett Bay. Also I found some websites helpful. One in particular was the Narragansett Bay Biota Gallery that covered all categories of life above and below the bay’s waters, and included pictures.

I made an index card for each animal, plant, algae, bird, fish, whoever, that conceivably could end up in the pages of my book. On the front of the card I wrote their common name or names and the Latin scientific name. On the reverse, I logged some key facts, and what books and page numbers in those books had additional info. The index cards were color-coded based on whether they were invertebrates, fish, algae, plants, mammals.

Once I’d collected all of this information, I could then spot the holes – the unanswered questions. That’s where Google searches helped. Also, emailing places like the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, NOAA’s Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, and the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center provided actual researcher names and contact information so I could talk to real human beings to get the straight information I was missing.

There are many researchers I will need to thank in a later post, but one in particular provided me with such a treasure trove of information on hermit crabs, I have to thank him here as well. Dr. Jason D. Williams of Hofstra University, provided me with a number of research papers on hermit crabs, including information on their behavior, shell interests, locations, etc. One paper in particular was invaluable: “Symbionts of the hermit crab Pagurus longicarpus Say, 1817: New observations from New Jersey waters and a review of all known relationships.” [Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 114(3):624-639, 9 October 2001] THIS is the paper that told me all I wanted to know about who Carpus would have on his shell, in his shell, crawling on his gills, and even inside his body. From this paper, I got…Crepid.

Crepid is short for Crepidula cf. plana, a slippersnail. He sits right inside the opening to Carpus’s shell. As such, he too is rather immobile, like Hydrac. He does not have stinging tentacles, teeth, or claws. And, he takes up space, giving Carpus less room to move around in his own shell. At first glance, Crepid the slippersnail seems totally useless, dead weight. But again, remember: conflict potential. How does Carpus feel about hauling around yet another useless animal on his shell? A little tension there? And what about the defensive and inferior-feeling Hydrac? There’s a good chance he would be just thrilled to constantly put down this “slug.” That means Hydrac and Crepid, in addition to being extra weight and not very useful, are now bickering all the time. It’s enough to drive a hermit crab out of his tiny little mind.

Oh, and for those sticklers for detail out there who say that this species of slippersnail doesn’t fit inside the opening of a periwinkle shell…yes, I have more than one source that documents that it does TOO fit. So there!

The last item about the animal world was “rules of the world.” As I mentioned earlier – nobody is running around in clothes and shoes, nobody flies any planes or pilots submarines, and nobody is called “Suzy Squid” or “Peter Periwinkle.” As much as possible, I wanted the creatures to look and be where they would be underwater. I wanted them to eat rotting scallops or live seaweed, not hamburgers, and I wanted their adventures and actions to be what they would experience in the ocean. In fact, the traumas and problems the main characters encounter include not only predators, but pollution, fishing trawlers, over-fishing, aquaculture, and environmental restoration.

I tried not to have many of them talk as talking animals can be a problem if not done well. However, I did take liberties with the three main characters, Carpus, Hydrac, and Crepid. To have an adventure, they had to talk and think, act, interact, argue, freak out, etc. I am still evaluating how satisfied I am with that effect, but there is precedence for it in books like Charlotte’s Web, and more recent ones like Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux, and Erin Hunter’s series on battling cat clans, Warriors.

I gave the three main characters, or at least the protagonist, Carpus, some knowledge of humans. They recognize things like ships, human refuse on the sea bottom, anchors, boards, and humans – male, female, boy, girl. He can recognize a few of their “sounds” – some simple words like ship, boat, etc., and he finds humans unpredictable, ghastly, annoying, and best avoided. I tried to give these skills a logical explanation. In the course of his normal life, Carpus has spent a lot of time along docks and piers, around coastal towns, and hence humans. All three characters, being the recipient of our pollution, are aware of “foreign objects…human objects” in their world.

Readers might be willing to accept these rules – the willing suspension of disbelief – if you can make a logical case for them and you are consistent with following them. If you have no plausible explanation or you keep deviating from your world’s rules, your reader is going to get fed up and put the book down. Every time you break your own story rule, it pulls the reader out of the story experience and makes the reader doubt that you can actually tell a good story.

I expect by now you are convinced I have no life. Maybe that’s true. After all, why go to all this trouble to do this much research AND document Latin names? Because descriptions, or locations, or actions, who eats what or what eats them, where they live, eat, mate, sleep are details that give your characters the authority of their truth. Get their details right and your characters ring true. Furthermore, you get the trust and gratitude of your reader.

Does it matter to have the trust of your reader? Yes. Especially if your reader happens to just LOVE sea creatures or is a science nut and actually knows these details. The minute they find something incorrect, they are now upset with the author. In fact, they have now lost faith in the author to get ANY details correct. Those readers look at it as “if they got this wrong, what else is messed up?” Their pleasure in your book is now gone, they’ve been pulled out of the emotions of being in your story world and now their whole reading experience might become a proofreading quest to find all your other errors and tell everyone else what a piece of garbage your book is. In short, you’ve lost that reader and possibly many others.

The alternative is not to use details, but then you end up with something like, “the crab wandered past a snail who was being stalked by a big fish who got eaten by some kind of bird…in the ocean.”

The bottom line is that some stories have a lot of technical detail and some don’t. If you’re going to have technical details in the story, then resign yourself to a lot of research and do your best to get details right. You may not be perfect, but you want to be close because the flip side of all this is, satisfy a reader with accurate details and they believe in your world. And you. You’ll have that reader for life. They will love you, venerate you, swear by you, possibly even quote you when they’re old enough to write research papers. Think I’m joking?

That same Dr. Williams from Hofstra who is an expert on hermit crabs and gave me all kinds of research papers, also suggested I find an old children’s picture book from 1957 called, Pagoo, by Holling Clancy Holling. It was out of print at one point (though I found an old copy), but this marine biology researcher still suggested it because of the accuracy of its details. I also noticed it was re-issued in 1990 and is still available on Amazon.

So, if you’re going to write a story with lots of creatures and such, get your facts straight or write a different story.

In that vein, as a review for myself as I prepare to do revision number three and put in all those telling sensory details, I will be starting a new post category on my blog: Creature Features. Each post will profile one of the creatures or algae from my story and include links to pictures and accurate details. Stay tuned for that.

The next post in the Under the Pier series will be: Research Part IV – Setting as Character

The Post – Under the Pier: Next Step – Scaffolding

February 26, 2008

Okay. Besides sitting in the chair playing 20 questions with my stories, what else happened as Under the Pier took shape? I spent a lot of money at Office Depot and Staples. Let me back up.

In the early stages of the journaling and “assessing what did I have” it wasn’t obvious at first that I was combining all of these various stories into one big one. I am a stubborn person. I have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the reality I’m supposed to confront in life. I was still trying to “finish this story fast” so I could go to my to-do list and say “Yup! Finished a story, mailed it, waiting for the money, move on to story number two.” Yes, I told you I learn slowly. So I tried to make the animal story into a chapter book. I thought about making the Max-Jamie problem into a chapter book. Chapter books are longer than than the picture books I couldn’t write and shorter than the novels I didn’t want to write. It was just my last vestige of resistance and it didn’t last long. God finally hammered it into my head that 1) you have to write the story that’s meant to be written, not the one you can cross off your list fastest, and 2) if you’re not going to do it right, why bother? In any event, the bottom line – novel.

I think it was about this same point that it suddenly occurred to me I might have something bigger than a simple novel. That’s how I am. One minute I’m trying to get away with writing a sound bite, the next minute I decide to go for the other extreme – TWO novels intertwined. And that’s what this has become – the story of a girl and her world above the pier, the story of the hermit crab and his world below the pier. The two worlds intersect at points until they meet at the climax, then go off their separate ways. The two worlds reflect similar struggles, and mirror the question “will I reach out for connection or run away?”

Now that I’d finally gotten the message it had to be a novel AND figured out the one line premise, there was that whole HOW in God’s name do I combine all this and keep track of details? How do you remember who did what in the various chapters, never mind between two different worlds? For that matter how could I keep track of who was who? And then what about when the worlds intersected? Lots of places to drop the ball. Hence – I needed infrastructure. Scaffolding.

Some people can do all this in their head, or their computer. I need to “see it on a wall.” I need paper. Sorry, trees. And I had to tackle this like a business otherwise the brain says “hobby…play” and nothing gets done. Writing is a business. A novel is a project. When I worked at Glaxo, we had project planning – calendars, files, SOPs, to-do lists, wall charts. I had to manage multiple projects at once. If you don’t keep track of details, it all comes crashing down. So, manage two novels at once when I’d never even written ONE novel? Yup – go back to what I know. Organize.

That meant binders, index cards, binder section separators, page protectors with binder holes, stickies, markers, highlighters, cork boards, Styrofoam boards, push pins, a spare toner cartridge for the laser printer, pens, crayons, large sheets of paper to plan on…. Yes, I go to Staples a lot.

I set up binders for character bios – animal and human. I made short “at-a-glance lists” of characters for both sides of the story, so I could quickly know who was who, saving the binder bios for the complete facts. I also made an index card for every invertebrate, fish, algae, plant or mammal that might show up in the story, with scribbled references on the back to find more elsewhere. More on these in the research post.

There are binders for the settings above the water and binders for the places below. I had binders for all the research I did and the background info I created. Again, I’ll discuss this separately under the research post.

As I reviewed all the journaling I did on the story line, I established a “time-line” and figured out what times in the story would be covered and in what chapters. Once I had a rough idea of chapters, I took a cork board and huge sheet of paper. I drew a large box on the paper for each chapter/time point. Any idea, shred of paper, page of journaling that pertained to the events on a certain day, I tacked up in the appropriate box. Every time I thought of something new, another note got tacked up under that day. Some of those days had an inch thick stack of idea notes.

I made a wall chart that showed at a glance the chapters in the novel, human on the top half, alternating with the animal chapters on the bottom half, and listing on each, the chapter number, human or animal, exactly what day of the week each took place, and relevant plot points in each chapter. On this same chart in the middle between the human and animal chapters, I graphed the rise and fall of emotions and action for the plot. I wanted to see at a glance how the story tracked for rising and falling action, both in each chapter, and in the story overall. I knew the story needed to have balance – not all snoring nor all white-knuckle rides, but a mix of intensity with catching your breath. However, I did want to make sure that overall, the trend of emotion kept rising until the crisis/climax, and then dropped for the resolution. Hence my chapter graph.

I made a chart of the human world characters – their family trees and interrelatedness with the other characters and locations in the story. This was helpful actually, because I discovered a couple of characters who didn’t really connect to anyone and hence I cut them. If they don’t connect to anyone in the story, why have them?

I made a chart of all the chapter happenings on the animal side of the story- where the action happened underwater for that chapter, which critters were involved, what happened. I wanted to make sure that 1) I wasn’t having the same thing happening in 3 different chapters, 2) I had the right animals in the right place at the right time, and 3) if the animal appeared in both the human and animal chapters, I made sure the action matched up

I kept a running to-do list of things to check on, research, fact check, people to call. I have logs for each chapter in each draft of the novel and can tell you the dates I worked on a particular chapter in a particular draft. I made organizational charts to show the chapter numbering changes from draft one to draft two and there’s charts on foam boards of all the elements to check on when revising the stories – one board for the human story, one for the animal side, one for elements of revision applying to both worlds.

And calendars. Yes. I kept a calendar. I even set deadlines for finishing certain milestones. In business, you have deadlines. It’s the only way your product gets out the door. Now, most of the time I missed those deadlines because things always take longer than expected. Still, the thing about deadlines is that you set them. Even if you don’t meet them, you’re a hell of a lot closer to the end goal, than if you never set one.

So, lots of infrastructure. Other authors may be ripping their hair out. This may not be their way to work. I may not be this detailed for another story. This is not the only way to write a novel. It’s probably not the best way. It’s simply my way – what my brain needed. I’d never written a novel before. Also, given the complexity of this one, the level of technical, scientific, and real-life detail, and the fact that I was writing two stories at once that intertwined, infrastructure was the only way I could keep anything straight.

Next : The First Half of the Scientific Approach – Define Your Hypothesis, Assemble Your Gear, Do your research

The Post – Okay, NOW Let’s Talk About Where Under the Pier Came From

February 20, 2008

As with most of my projects, my novel in progress, Under the Pier, started as a picture book. What a surprise, hmm? In fact, it started out as three of them – one animal, two human. Two were homework assignments for the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL). One was a short story I wrote for myself. As picture books, all were rejected. Yes, I know. Another surprise.

The animal story was one of the homework assignments for ICL. It reflected my love for the sea – I flat out love the ocean, and really flat out love the rocky New England shores. It also reflected my love for all things ignored or overlooked. We used to go to Cape Cod when I was a kid. Forget sunbathing. I spent all my time with a face mask on, diving between waves to see what rolled around on the bottom. If I could have stayed down there forever I would have. Jacques Cousteau was my hero. I loved crawling all over the rocks at Newport, Rhode Island, sticking my face into blue mussel beds, poking into tide pools, and trailing periwinkles. I loved every creepy thing that slithered out from under a pile of seaweed or crawled out of the foamy surf.

Ironically, my animal picture book story started out set in North Carolina, not New England. We’d taken a day trip to Wrightsville Beach and ended up sitting under the pier because it was so crowded. I sat there looking up at the weathered rafters, watching seagulls roost. Then I noticed the pilings covered with snails, blue mussels, and algae. I knew there were all kinds of fish feeding in the surf around the pilings, and I could see dozens of jellyfish bobbing in the waves alongside them. I’d never realized how many things lived right around a pier.

Stuck in my picture book mindset I figured I could do a short nonfiction with the slant of who lives on and under the pier, maybe even give it a bloodthirsty twist – who eats who under the pier. After much struggle, and several rejections, it occurred to me that since my soul was in New England maybe the problem was location. So I changed it to a New England pier, though I kept it a picture book. Again, rejection letters piled in. Finally, busy with other things, I set it aside.

The two human stories – again, one was a homework assignment, the other something I wrote that drew on imagery of the blue-collar town I grew up in. Like I mentioned in my last post, stories reflect the questions in their writers’ hearts. My questions? I was one of those kids more likely to be in the shadows of a dark window at night watching the skunk nose through the garbage cans, than at a middle school dance. Even if you ignore the fact that I went to a Catholic school with nuns and I don’t think we had middle school dances, there were other places in town that did. No matter. I didn’t care, and even if I had gone, I’d have been overlooked. That’s who I was back then. So why bother?

I compensated by becoming very good in school. So good, I could stuff down my insecurity and look down my nose at all the popular girls and their snobby cliques. How many of them could tell a garnet from molybdenum? I could. Academics and books were my shield against the pain of being excluded. They were my place to shine.

The other half of it was, I truly LOVED all those books and studies. Frankly, I had a better time one summer climbing all over a rock quarry hunting minerals and gems than going shopping. Who else would, of their OWN CHOICE, with their own money, on summer vacation, go to the local tobacco and hobby store and buy a dissection kit and formaldehyde-preserved frogs, fish, and crayfish to cut up? And consider this fun? Of course, in this day and age, I don’t think you can get these things unless you’re an adult, a teacher, and you can order from a science supply house. And they don’t even use formaldehyde because I think it’s some kind of carcinogen. But, I survived. It was the mid-sixties, heck, you could also buy interesting chemistry sets. I had those too. And the prepared microscope slides to go with my microscope and my geology hammer and chisel.

I also loved playing baseball on the street behind our house with the neighborhood kids, loved climbing the fence into the cemetery with the boys, and doing anything that did not include makeup or dresses. The times I had been most bored were play dates at other girls’ houses when they wanted to play house, tea, dolls (now if they’d had that GI Joe doll maybe….) or hairdresser. That’s when I usually wished they’d had brothers. Brothers who had the neat aircraft carriers that launched planes, tow trucks with flashing lights, helicopters with winches, or those old metal yellow Tonka trucks. I spent hours with my friend across the street playing with those and digging in his dirt pile. We were trying to get to China. So. Is it any surprise I did not do well at dances? Still, nobody likes to be rejected. So I declared those girls enemy number 1, ignored them like they ignored me, and stuck to the things I loved

Given this background, I figured I could do a story with two girls, Max and Jamie, who were cousins. They were stuck with each other for the summer at their grandmother’s house in a blue-collar, coastal New England town. Of course one was the “neat character” – hated makeup and such. One was the snot – always putting her tomboy cousin down. Mix in a hefty dose of all of those animosities that creep up between two very different 12-14 year-old girls, add in a quiet, smart, 14-year-old boy to bring complications, and there was my picture book. Except it got rejected. Not to mention that what I just described is no more a picture book than a refrigerator is. And…not to mention that the story line is a bit simplistic, cliché, and maybe not totally honest?

Midlife brings humility in the form of gray hairs, wrinkles, and regrets. Life beats you up enough and somewhere along the line you start to realize, gee, maybe I’m not so right, and maybe they’re not so wrong. Odd ideas arise, such as maybe those snobby girls weren’t the only ones acting like a jerk? This was a scary thought. I always saw me as their victim. Though I didn’t like what I was feeling about how I’d acted, I investigated that line of reasoning a little deeper. I took a good look at who were those girls, really? Again, midlife does weird things to you. Suddenly I no longer saw demons, just girls as scared and vulnerable as I was. Where I used books or preserved frogs, they used clothes or makeup. They were girls with their own struggles, insecurities, and troubles. Maybe they were even, say it’s not so, living, breathing, 3-dimensional human beings with feelings?

I’d rationalized my behavior all those years by deciding they got what they deserved for looking down on me. Anais Nin said that we see life as we are, not as it is. In that moment all the defenses started crashing. When the dust settled, all I saw were a bunch of people, all very much alike, all just trying to get by. What I realized was that I could be that geeky uncool person just because that’s who I am and it’s what gives me joy in life and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. I finally came to accept me. When you accept yourself, you are then free to accept everyone else. You no longer have to judge others to protect yourself. I could just enjoy being a geek and not wield it like a weapon against others. I could lay the weapon down because it wasn’t them vs. me anymore.

After I got over feeling like a jerk, it occurred to me I could add some entirely new layers and depth to that very superficial “picture book.” Also, about the same time, I finally started accepting 1) I don’t have a voice for picture books and 2) NONE of the stories I wanted to write were picture books. At the shortest, “maybe” chapter books, but frankly, I think most of what I wanted to write fit into middle-grade fiction. I finally accepted the fact that the child inside of me is about 11 or 12.

The final nail in the coffin of trying to stuff a novel into a picture book came in the mid-90s. I attended an SCBWI conference (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and one of the published authors critiqued that third “picture book” I’d written for myself. Her feedback said “Great chapter. Where’s the rest of the book? I want to know what happens to your character before and after this chapter.”

My thought was, there IS no before and after. I only wanted to write that one segment. And what did she mean, “chapter?” It was a book, not a chapter.

Faced with a bunch of rejected picture books that weren’t picture books, I finally surrendered to the truth – I HAD to become a novel writer.

UP NEXT – How do you take three picture books and make a novel?

The Post – Reflections on a Belted Kingfisher

February 7, 2008

The first time I saw the belted kingfisher, I nearly missed him.

It was that brief time in the early morning when the pond and woods behind us are still shrouded in night’s shadows. The sun hasn’t yet come up and the view is mostly dark silhouettes that blend together against the steel-gray mirrored surface of the pond. It’s the time of day when nothing is quite what it seems.

In the pond, there is this large tree trunk that lies on its side, a casualty of Hurricane Fran in 1996 when the wind snapped a large oak tree into three chunks and threw the largest one into the pond. It has remained there since, a gift to the wildlife. Everybody hangs out there, from spiders, fish and ants, to hawks, muskrats (at the same time no less), and ducks. It is the inter-species resting place, the sunning spot for 10 or 12 turtles, and the staging area for birds fishing in the pond.

On this particular morning I looked out, my eyes barely open, at the odd collection of shapes and shadows in the backyard. You couldn’t make out anything clearly. I think if an elephant had been out there, you might just have mistaken it for fog. As my eye skimmed the pond’s surface, I noticed this shape – rather clearly defined, which is why it caught my eye. It looked almost like a bird.

Being a bird-watcher, I immediately woke right up and looked closer. It was the image of a bird, perfectly outlined on the water. But where was the bird? I didn’t see one anywhere. I dug out the binoculars and scanned the area until finally I could make out a similar shape on the tree trunk right above the water. It had blended so well into the darks of the woods behind it, you could barely make it out. I never would have seen it if I hadn’t noticed its reflection in the pond.

It was a belted kingfisher. He is a maniacal-looking bird. He’s got a white ring around his neck that makes it look like he had been leashed, but escaped. His blue-gray feathers stick straight up out of his head like he stuck his foot in an electrical outlet. He has large wild eyes and a fishing technique that would do the Three Stooges proud. Essentially, he jumps up, flaps his wings, then flings himself at the water. He doesn’t so much dive as plows in a full body flop, through the surface of the pond. He’s effective – he always comes up with a fish – but he gets failing grades for aesthetics.

I see him out there a lot now, especially now that I know what to look for. And it’s usually on those foggy mornings.

It occurred to me that life can be like that. There are gifts or important truths, understandings, that we often don’t see. They blend into the background fabric of our lives, and we overlook them unless something reflects them back at us and they catch our eye. Without that moment, we’d never know they were there.

I think the thing I keep in mind now is that Belted Kingfisher rule: When something catches your eye in life’s fog, take the time to look because some things in life can only be seen on reflection. You never know. It might be a gift.

The Post – Father, if Jesus exists, Then how come he never lived here

January 28, 2008

I had planned to write about the serious soul process that underlies the seemingly frivolous hours of fiddler crab watching – the quiet transformation of heart that yields the creation. However in moving the freezing car out of the driveway so my husband could leave for work, I caught a request from the Universe in the form of a song lyric, to share some thoughts about something else, so I decided to do the writing post tomorrow. For what I write here, these are simply my thoughts, how I make sense of things for me. No one else has to believe this, or agree with it.

I turned on the car and immediately the request blurted from the speakers. On the car’s CD player, Sting’s The Soul Cages; the song, “All This Time”; the words: “Father, if Jesus exists, Then how come he never lived here.”

I’ve spoken similar words SO many times in life, though mine were less eloquent and much more enraged. “Where ARE you? You don’t even care, do you? You did this to me. I did what you asked . . . I prayed. Every single day in Catholic school I went to Mass. Loved being there in that quiet with you. BELIEVED in you. In everything you said. And THIS is what you leave me in? How could you?” The rant usually ended with a 4-lettered action suggestion for God. And I meant it. There’s a saying – we give out as much pain as we feel. Truer words were never spoken, and I threw every last bit of it back at God.

Yet even as I did that, there was this small tiny place inside that knew He wouldn’t get mad at me for it – He was more like a gentle parent with an overwrought two-year-old. The child doesn’t understand. The parent knows it’s useless to explain because the child is too young. All the parent can do is hold the child while it cries in frustration and fatigue. Underneath my rage, I still felt a small voice saying He knew, He understood, He wished He could change it right that minute. For a moment it would comfort me, but then the rage would start again. “Great! So you feel bad I’m in pain. Why aren’t you fixing it?”

It was Buddhism that actually helped me understand that Catholic/Christian God I grew up with, forgive Him, let go of the rage, and learn to love and trust Him again. Buddhism has something called the Four Noble Truths. The very first one is short and sweet, but when I heard it, I felt such relief – Life is suffering.

Now at first read, that almost sounds depressing. If that’s the case, what’s the point? For me though, I heard that and almost immediately felt years of rage drain out of me. I realized . . . God didn’t do it. Suffering. That’s just the way life is. It is the result of living in a world where God doesn’t interfere and let’s us choose. It is the logical result of living in a natural world where sometimes there will be ecstasy and sometimes ultimate black despair. God honors His word to let us have the freedom to make our choices. He lets the world unfold in its natural way. He makes suggestions, but we don’t always listen. As a parent, I know how hard that is, watching from the sidelines while your kids choose something, crash, and choose again. And you want to tell them, but you can’t. So all you can do is suggest, then step back, watch, and stand by them no matter what.

If suffering is, then our role is to choose how we will respond. Either we take it and see what can we create with the hand life dealt us . . . or we give up and die. At least to me, that’s what it comes down to. What will I choose? Life? Or death?

So where is Jesus in all that? Right at my side. He stays there through it all, letting me be mean, letting me vent, lifting me when I can’t go on, whispering suggestions when I’m totally lost. It’s that Latin line: Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit – Bidden or unbidden, God is there. If anyone thinks that’s not very much of a gift, think about the last time you were with someone you loved when they were in tremendous suffering – illness, dying, life misery of some kind – and worst of all, you could only watch. You couldn’t help them. If that isn’t the ultimate suffering in life. Most normal people want to run the other way rather than stay with someone in pain. How many people go to visit someone who just lost a spouse or a child or are dying? It’s hard to watch that, sit with that, not run. Well, consider what it’s like to sit with an entire world of people in pain, support them endlessly, and NEVER leave, get impatient, or tell them off. That TRULY requires a God.

Now, all this said, it’s not to say there aren’t times I want to tell God to go to hell, that what He’s asking for is JUST TOO MUCH. So many times, even when I’ve agreed to do what He’s asked, it’ll come to a point of despair and being driven to my knees and all I can say is ‘I thought I could do this for you but I can’t. Take it away. Please. I just can’t do this anymore.” And the quiet voice just says – try again.

It’s like that parable (Luke 5:1-11) of the apostles spending all night fishing and coming up empty. Exhausted, frustrated, despairing, they return to shore. Jesus is waiting for them. Does He comfort them? Commiserate with them? Put an arm around their shoulders? No. He tells them, go back out and put your nets out. I wouldn’t have blamed the apostles if one of them told Jesus to go pound sand. I mean they worked themselves to the bone all night and all Jesus can say is “Go do it again”??? And if that wasn’t enough, He still didn’t make it easy for them. In spite of whatever they thought, they went back out and did what He asked. Now yes, their nets were filled to the breaking point. Well, great. So yeah, He gave them lots of fish. But still He made it hard. I mean, why didn’t He make it so the fish nets were filled and the fish jumped in the boat or they got tons of fish and God magically transported them to the beach so the exhausted guys didn’t have to kill themselves hauling them all in?

Because…that’s life. God doesn’t change the rules of the world. He helps us work with them, sustain, try again, look for solutions, even when we want to quit. But we still have to do the work.

So. I guess my answer to Sting’s lyric is – He does live here. I don’t always feel Him in the middle of the despair and rages. These days at least, I’ve learned that sooner or later, I will feel Him there and to just trust in the meantime that He is there. All I can suggest is do what the Buddhists say, or that line from Tom Hanks’ movie, Castaway – just keep breathing. Just keep walking. Just keep going. See what you can create with the hand you’ve been dealt. Choose life. Death comes fast enough.