Posts Tagged ‘hermit crab’

The Post – Play time

February 2, 2009

It’s been a while since I’ve written, but that doesn’t mean no activity. I have 3 new paintings that need to be either photographed or uploaded to this blog. So that’s coming soon, and more paintings to follow.

I’ve also decided to take a break from writing per se, and “play.” My fiddler crab project yielded quite a lot of fun, AND has brought me quite a following…it’s the steadiest draw on this blog. 🙂

SO, I will continue in the fun vein. Very shortly (like as soon as Amazon delivers it so I can mail my coupon for the critters), I will be revisiting something from my childhood, and my son’s : AN ANT FARM!!!!   I thought it would be fun to do that again only this time, chronicle it from the perspective of the 5o-year-olds in the house, ie my husband and I. Perhaps we’ll both enjoy it more than we did when we were kids!

Also coming soon will be my hermit crab project. I’ve been accumulating supplies so once the ant farm is up and running, I’ll move the hermit crab forward.

Hence, my blog will have “critter followers” of all kinds.

Speaking of critters – just a short update on the fiddlers….I’m sorry to say that in the last month or so, both Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Hamilton have died. One I think, didn’t survive her molting, the other may just have been old age. They both lived abou a year, a lot longer than guaranteed by PetsMart. Admiral Byrd is still alive and well and just molted again. It will be interesting to see if he is much more long-lived than the two ladies. I haven’t decided if I want to restart the fiddler project with new females. I may just let it go as is. We’ll see.

Anyway, stay tuned in the not too distant future for ANTS!! 🙂

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The Post – New England Seascape – 1st set

April 26, 2008

I’m going to save most comments for picture captions, but here is the first set of pictures. This is a New England seascape done in oils, in progress. A gift for my sister and brother-in-law. The canvas is an odd size – 12 inches by 36 inches and as such, a challenge for composition – long and narrow. But still, a fun thing to try. I’ve got a somewhat poor shot of the overall painting, then a number of shots – closeups of various parts of the painting. Most of these are in “base layer” stage – they still need finishing details and colors. I did complete the details on these over the last 2 days, and later today, I’m going to shoot pics of some of these finished closeup areas – the town, the wharf buildings, the fishing trawler, the lighthouse – to show the difference as the painting progresses. But for now, set 1, New England seascape:

Lighting is a bit off here…so much for “auto” mode on the camera, but a shot of the whole painting just to give an idea of layout.

The lighthouse has been fighting me from the beginning, even in sketches. It has gently sloping sides and lots of details. Given that I’m still struggling to get a base coat down and still haven’t got the “sloping sides” right, a battle still to be fought.

Very base layers of the residential area of the town with a really rough church in the background. The black blob in the middle, will eventually be a Corvette, a gift for my brother-in-law…the only Corvette I can afford to give him. But it IS the thought that counts. 🙂

The rock pier and wharf buildings are farther along but still need some touch ups. The red building on the end is the often-photographed shed in Rockport Massachusetts that you see on all the calenders. Maybe common to some, but I love the building so I put it in.

Again, a roughed out fishing boat just “plopped” on the water. Aside from details, some foam and waves would be good.

Just a long shot of the right side of the painting. The roughed out rocks in front will need a lot more detail and the “pool” of water, will be a tide pool, complete with some rockweed, strips of kelp, blue mussels, and other tide pool critters. Maybe even a hermit crab…. 🙂

A mid-painting shot…

And a shot from the left. The effect I want is to feel like you’re right at the tide pool level with the waves being driven right at you as they crash against the rocks.

These remaining shots are just some close-ups of the wharf buildings with lobster traps stacked against them, as well as a closeup or two of the tide pool area. In any event, the next set of pics will have a fair bit of progress. Stay tuned!!!

The Post – Under the Pier: So How DO You “See” a Fictional Town?

March 28, 2008

HOW DO YOU “SEE” A FICTIONAL TOWN?.

I am a visual learner so I need to see it to “know” it.. How do you “see” a fictional story location? For me, I started with the “real world.”

Travel magazines and postcards of Rhode Island, Cape Cod and Narragansett Bay were a help, but not enough. So I spent one Christmas break compiling a 3 foot by 4 foot topographical map of Narragansett Bay. I found it on the web on a geological survey site and proceeded to print it out, quadrant by quadrant. Then I taped them all together until I had the complete topographical map of Narragansett Bay, including all the islands and the surrounding land areas. My husband did question if it might not have been cheaper and easier to just buy the map, but frankly, I don’t think I could have bought the entire map that I ended up with. In any event, this gave me a “visual” of sorts to know what the land around the bay was like. I could tell that while the area is not that far above sea level, there most definitely are hills and ridges, marshes and sand dunes.

The next thing I had to do was make the imaginary town a real place to me. I started by printing photos of diners, stone warehouse buildings, rocky coastlines, Fort Adams, docks and wharves, and even that building at Woods Hole with the sailing ship model jutting out from the stone wall above the doorway.

Once I had an idea of the kinds of items and places my town included, I created a map of the town. Now I could “see” where Max’s house stood in relation to Carbone’s Auto Body shop, the diner, the rich uptown area, Lighthouse Point, her school, and the downtown dock areas. I could see how much area the Naval Research base took up on Lighthouse point, where the pier and research labs were in relation to the haunted carriage house and the Yacht club, and how far of a walk it was back to the town and the diner.

Next I needed to see Max’s house and yard. I grew up in those three-family houses, so I had an idea in my mind of how they would be set up – back staircases, front and back porches, attic rooms with slanting walls, stone wall cellars that spooked you every time you had to go down there. I did a map of Max’s neighborhood, and a blueprint of both hers and Noah’s house, showing all three floors in each. I wanted to “see what she saw” when she looked out her attic window. From the map-making kit I had as a kid, I knew about doing room plans, so I could tell where the kitchen stove was, how many couches were in the living room, and if they had a computer desk. With these, I could now see Max’s house, her backyard, her neighborhood, and how it connected to everything else in town.

Rosa’s Midway Diner is such a big part of the story that it required equal attention. I have been in a number of diners over the years, so I had some mental images. I found a number of good books on diners, and consulted the American Diner Museum website. I even went to the local diner here in town (Cary, North Carolina) and with the permission of the owner, took a couple hundred interior shots of tables, counters, stools, equipment, pass-through windows from the kitchen, plates, etc.

From all of that, I created a blueprint of Rosa’s Midway Diner. I drew up the “diner of my dreams,” the one I would build if I had the money. If this book ever sells big, I swear I’ll build it. It has regular booth seating including the large back semi-circular booth that Rosa uses for her Friday night poker games. It has a large window behind it made of those glass blocks, and all tables have roses in the vases. There’s an extra long counter with stools, another counter in the front of the diner where you can sit, sip your coffee, read the paper and look out on Main Street, and a large take-out area for walk-in business. And of course, there is the new drive-through being installed as part of the take-out area.

The diner itself is a character in the book. As such, I have created a “biography” of the diner – a timeline of how it started, who created it, where it was located over the years, expansions…the whole works. Before I’m done with this, I will do an oil painting of that diner, both outside, and in. To that end, I have a very rough cardboard model of part of the diner interior, that includes the kitchen pass-through, counter and stools, and the drive-through areas

To further give the diner reality and context, I did a map of the diner area and Main Street. I felt it was important to show where the diner was in relation to all the businesses mentioned in the story, as well as to the rest of the town.

Lighthouse Point is another important part of the story and required “visuals” and biographies. I wrote up the story of the ship’s captain who built the lighthouse and surrounding stone warehouses and who died along with his family, in the fire that destroyed his mansion. I also created a map of the area around the haunted carriage house, and blueprints of the abandoned ammo bunkers and anti-aircraft gun emplacements right near the carriage house ruins.

For Uncle Jim’s lab, I chose the stone building at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the former “Candle House.” I even gave Uncle Jim’s lab a similar sailing ship model jutting out from the exterior wall over the doorway. Interior shots of other buildings at Woods Hole served as inspiration for the lab and office interiors of those buildings.

Since paintings have such power for me, I did a 24 by 36 inch oil painting of where the two story worlds meet – the rocky coastline at Lighthouse Point. Every item in the painting is in the story – from the hermit crab, Carpus, who is right up front, to the lighthouse and rocky point, wooden pier, tide pool area, distant fishing trawler, fort on the hill, research labs and …yes, the ghosts.

The University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography is the barely veiled location of the university in the story. I gave Jerry a research lab located in a former World War II ammunition bunker, and had her out doing her environmental research on a university-sponsored ocean-going research vessel, very similar to the R/V Endeavor. I verified the research itineraries, including places visited, work performed, and the durations of cruises, from the various research vessel ship logs online. I also studied the online blueprints for these existing research ships, to see the locations of labs, bunks, galleys, as well as the rules for running such a ship and expedition.

For the museum lobby where Max sneaks up to, to file her contest entry, I did rely on a memory – a very strong one burned in my brain from early childhood. In Torrington, CT, the post office at that time was in a brick building in the center of town. (It is now further out in a refurbished old supermarket building.) The post office lobby, while a very wide open area, was a scary place to me. At one end were the faces of numerous FBI fugitives staring out from black and white printouts pinned to bulletin boards.

It was the other end of the post office lobby though, near all the service windows, that truly freaked me out for a long time. Above the windows, high up on the walls all around that part of the building, were these huge murals. They showed 1800s men and women trudging through mud, beside a Conestoga wagon. There were also other scenes of 1800s life – all scenes actually, from the life of the abolitionist, John Brown. The murals themselves were intimidating enough, but ….silly as it sounds, I thought they were alive. Standing in that post office lobby waiting for my mom, I would stare up at the wall paintings and listen to the loud voices echoing off the walls around me. I thought the figures were speaking. In reality, the echoes were the voices of the postmen behind the wall yelling back and forth to each other. But to a 4 or 5 year old staring up at scary murals, the voices came out of the paintings, out of these solemn, angry looking people struggling behind their oxen in the mud. Hence, the inspiration for the museum lobby murals that Max sees.

By the way, if you are visual too, click here to see the murals from the old Torrington, CT Post Office.

Click here to read more about the history behind Connecticut post office art work done in the 1930s Depression era as part of the New Deal.

The other items I consulted to “see” the location, involved technical things like weather charts, articles on ocean fog, articles and nature guides describing the trees, birds, types of rocks, and area geological history. And I asked questions – of myself, of my sister living up there, of Google: What is the air temperature at night in June? Are there any sea breezes? How fast do storms move in, from which direction and how bad do they get? What do your clothes feel like against your body when you’re walking near the shore – crisp and dry, or soggy and limp? Do you need a jacket to walk around at night in the summer? Do you need a wetsuit to scuba dive in July?

Aside from visuals, I needed “sound” to further “see” the place. I selected CDs based on the emotions they created in me. When you watch TV, the music tells you if something funny, poignant, or ominous is taking place. In the same fashion I needed music or sound so I could see the events as they occurred in the story and feel the emotions of that moment and location. I played those CDs over and over and over, while writing in my garage. I am amazed my husband and my neighbors are still sane.

Some of these CDs include the soundtracks from: The Band of Brothers, Cinderella Man, We Were Young Once, and the Perfect Storm. There are also ocean and bird sound CDs, Gregorian Chants, and last but not least, Rosa’s “Frankie boy,” Frank Sinatra. But be assured, there are NO Dean Martin CDs. Just for the record, I personally have nothing against Dean Martin and I LOVE his song, “That’s Amore,” but you can never account for what your characters will love or hate. Rosa hates Dean. Plain and simple.

Next up – Let’s Get Technical. 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 – Admiral Byrd is Peeking & New Aquarium Products

March 12, 2008

Some Fiddler Updates – New Product Technical Details and Romance

1) Preparations, Take 2, for the Fiddler Crab Nursery Tank:

I came home from PetsMart yesterday armed with calcium sand to replace the gravel in the nursery aquarium. That project will commence later today. The sand is actually something called Seachem Meridian Tidal Marine Substrate. It’s basically calcium carbonate precipitated from ocean waters by coral. It will stabilize the calcium and alkalinity levels in the water, and keep the pH from getting too low. Its porous structure and size supposedly are good for the growth of denitrifying bacteria. We shall see.

At the very least, it’s a dual purpose as I can also use this sand for the bottom of the land hermit crab cage I just bought. The land hermit crab project will be ramping up soon.

I also picked up some liquid food that should work fine for the larvae. I’d mentioned a product called JBL Nobilfluid that a gentleman from Finland used to raise his crab larvae. However the Nobilfluid is made in Germany and appears to be available in Finland, Germany, England, Italy and the UK, but I couldn’t tell if it was available here in the US. I could get it from a UK website but between the exchange rate and the shipping, I expect the cost is prohibitive. A JBL representative answered my email yesterday and said their product is not available in the US yet.

I found this new product at PetsMart called Kent Marine ZooPlex. The problem I had with the fiddler babies was trying to find liquid plankton to feed them. My mistake was getting live liquid phytoplankton, which made the tank toxic and killed them. I realized larval crabs need zooplankton, which is animal plankton = roughly translated: MEAT. Phytoplankton, being plant based, is the wrong plankton. Larval crabs are carnivores, not vegetarians. Anyway, Kent Marine ZooPlex is “concentrated aquacultured Marine Zooplankton” and is geared toward invertebrates including larvae. The bottle notes it can be used as a brine shrimp replacement. So this sounds like it might be just the thing for liquid feeding of newborn larval crabs who are too small to chase live brine shrimp around.

I will still need to get the dried brine shrimp eggs to hatch when I know I have a pregnant female ready to shed her eggs. The brine shrimp hatchery project will come a bit later.

2) How to raise the alkalinity of the water for the brackish tank without raising the pH?

The dilemma I have when using Instant Ocean to make up the brackish tank water for the adult crabs, is that I have to use it at about half strength. That way I get a salinity of about 1.010 instead of 1.020-1.024. The trouble is, that makes the alkalinity way too low meaning there’s not enough calcium in the water for the crabs when they molt.

I’ve tried adding Seachem’s Marine Buffer, to raise the alkalinity and it’s very successful, but it also raises the pH way up to 8.3. That’s fine for a marine tank, but for the brackish tank, the fiddler crabs seem to like the pH closer to 7.8-8.0 I have a constant battle trying to get the salinity low enough, the alkalinity high enough and the pH “just right” somewhere between a freshwater tank and a marine tank. When I use the Marine Buffer I have to then add something to lower to pH.

I was hoping to find something that would raise the alkalinity, but not the pH when I use Instant Ocean to make up the brackish water. Yesterday I came across Seachem’s Reef Calcium. The website description reads:

Reef Calcium™ is a concentrated (50,000 mg/L) bioavailable polygluconate complexed calcium intended to maintain calcium in the reef aquarium without altering pH.”

I am going to try the Reef Calcium product and see if that solves the problem. I will let you know.

3) Romance: a humorous update for a Wednesday:

Ever since his success with Scarlett O’Hara, Admiral Byrd has been out there claw-waving up a storm. Melanie Hamilton spends just about all her time inside the live rock. Yesterday afternoon is the first time I’ve seen her out of it in weeks. I think she took to hiding out in the rock when Scarlett O’Hara was living in the nursery tank. With Scarlett temporarily gone, Melanie was the total focus for Admiral Byrd. I don’t think she liked that.

Anyway, after giving birth, Scarlett O’Hara has been eating almost non-stop. I think she finally slowed up a bit yesterday, but she’s still pretty ravenous. In fact yesterday, I dropped a shrimp pellet in the tank and Scarlett scrambled up and caught the thing in mid-drop. It never even touched down on the gravel. And she’s pretty good. No fumbling and bobbling the shrimp pellet. She spotted it, she jumped, clutched it to her chest and landed on her feet, eating the pellet before she landed. She could probably earn a spot as an outfielder for the Red Sox.

Unlike Melanie Hamilton, Scarlett hasn’t been too concerned one way or another with Admiral Byrd’s where-abouts. She doesn’t run from him, or toward him. She just eats. Still, I don’t think she’s averse to his presence as she’s spent a fair bit of time in his lair, the fake rock cave, while he walks around waving his claw. I have to wonder if he realizes she’s sitting in his house?

Last night I turned off the tank lights, shut off all the house lights and went upstairs to bed. A little later I had to come downstairs for something and walked by the tank. Even in the dark, I could see Admiral Byrd standing there on his gravel hill, waving his claw. Total darkness, but the crab is still out there trying to get the attention of the ladies of the tank. What dedication.

He is also very funny in his pursuit of Scarlett O’Hara. He climbs to the top of the live rock, to wave his claw of course. Yesterday while claw-waving, he caught sight of Scarlett down on the gravel next to the live rock. He stopped waving, tip-toed to the edge of the rock, peeked over the edge at her to see which way she was going, then, like a teenage boy in love, scrambled down the rock and followed her around all the while waving his claw.

So watch out Scarlett, Admiral Byrd is peeking.

The Post – Under the Pier – Research Part III: Animal R&D

March 11, 2008

For the animal side of the story, a lot of what I said about the human characters applies here. You have to decide on a protagonist, then add in one or two sidekicks and some secondary and background characters. They need personalities, backstory, lives, struggles, flaws and strengths – essentially character bios. Before I could start that process though, I had to figure out who were my main characters.

Unless your human world has people flying on magic carpets or walking on water, the rules of your characters’ behavior are pretty much established by real life. With animals, it needs to be more defined. I wanted to stay as close to reality as possible, though I was going to have the characters talk and think. Exactly what the boundaries would be for their behavior would be defined as I got more into the story.

When I initially started mapping out the story several years ago, I wanted a hermit crab with an anemone on his shell. In fact, I believe the early iterations of this book had that. I’d read that anemones and hermit crabs have a symbiotic relationship. The hermit crab carries the anemone around, thus assuring the anemone mobility and a steady food supply. The colorful, highly visible anemone offers the hermit crab some protection from predators that prefer to avoid the anemone’s stinging tentacles.

At first glance, it seemed like the perfect partnership, an underwater Batman and Robin, and I figured I was well on my way to having two of my three main animal characters. I’d even found out which anemone prefers to live on hermit crab shells: the Tricolor Anemone, alias Calliactis tricolor. (In the next post – Animal R&D cont. – I’ll share why I bother with the Latin names). In any event, I thought I was all set. Then, reality, or rather, geography, crashed in.

My story is set in New England, specifically, in the waters of Narragansett Bay. Hermit crabs with the Tricolor anemones on their shells live in the waters from North Carolina to Mexico…warmer waters.

No problem. I figured I just needed to look at the hermit crabs in New England and find out which ones had anemones on their shells, and which anemone it was. The answer to both: none. Hermit crabs in New England do not carry any anemones around on their shells. In fact, in the cold New England waters, there aren’t as many anemones even on the sea floor.

Well that shot a hole in my approach to animal character connections. My best idea for a duo against the threats of the deep and they didn’t live in New England. The closest I could come to an anemone riding a hermit crab shell in New England was something called a “snail fur hydroid.” It lacks the flash and intimidation factor of the Tricolor anemone. It’s more like this tiny lackluster matt of tentacles and polyps. In terms of effect, it’s kind of like having an earthworm when you hoped for a rattlesnake.

I was upset at first but then realized my good fortune. How much drama do you have between two characters who work well together, probably get along, and contribute pretty equally to their mutual success? Now consider being a hermit crab hauling around a thin fuzzy matt of tiny polyps – no bright colors, no flashy poisonous tentacles. Yeah, it’s got some small stinging polyps – like having a pellet gun instead of a shotgun. Are you going to feel like the hydroid is an equal partner in this situation? Maybe a little resentment there? And is the hydroid going to be very personable? Deep down it knows it’s an undersized second-rate threat, a poor substitute for an intimidating anemone. Maybe it’s going to have just a bit of an inferiority complex which means it’s going to be a royal pain to deal with? It’s going to overcompensate by being sarcastic, argumentative, insulting…and those are its good points. I suddenly realized the snail fur hydroid offered a much greater potential for conflict than an anemone.

Okay, no anemone. Just the hydroids. I thought I could at least have a large tough hermit crab. Well, forget that too. The hydroids were most likely to be on the shells of the smaller hermit crab – the long-clawed hermit crab.

So, my anemone has been shrunk to a matt of “snail fur hydroids” and my large tough hermit crab ended up as one of the smallest ones in the coastal New England waters. Yes, it’s one of the most common ones, but hardly the most dramatic, at least at first glance.

However, again, I considered conflict potential. A smaller hermit crab would have to fight harder for any shells or food or location resources. So, I went with the smaller hermit crabs.

I hoped to at least salvage the large flashy Moon Snail shell for my hermit crab, but the long-clawed hermit crab is too small to haul one of those around. Instead, I had to be satisfied with an underrate snail fur, on the outside of a tiny periwinkle or mud dog whelk shell dragged by a small hermit crab.

Do you see where this is going?

You can start out with a vision but often your vision won’t work in reality. You can give up, flip off reality, or reframe it by looking for the conflict potentials in what reality presents. I chose the last. This meant being a stickler for detail even as I might push the limits of reality on a few things. There are readers who will excuse a talking animal, but they’d never forgive a North Carolina anemone riding on a New England hermit crab.

So, at the end of all of this, I had my protagonist: the long-clawed hermit crab, Pagurus longicarpus, known in the story as “Carpus,” and the first sidekick: a snail fur hydroid. The snail fur hydroid belongs to the genus Hydractinia, so his name in the story became “Hydrac.”

I now had two characters who instead of being best friends probably had an antagonistic relationship. Since the animal side was going to mirror the same struggle as the human side: do I connect to others or run away? this seemed to match up better for the overall story structure. So I can thank the limits of geography and nature for ending up with two characters who fit the story problem better. At this point, it was time to flesh these two out with some research, add a third main character, and start adding in some other animals.

Coming up Next: Animal R&D – Picking the third main character, painting in the details and adding in the background.

The Post – Under the Pier: Research Part I – Turning the Dream Into Flesh and Blood

March 3, 2008

According to the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was made flesh.” (John 1:1,14) Something similar happens when performing a science experiment or writing a novel. First there is the idea. But before the idea becomes a scientific paper or a book in the hands of a reader, a few things have to happen. Again, given my science background, I’ll define the process in terms of the scientific approach.

The scientific approach involves a series of steps:

1) Define your hypothesis – the question you are trying to answer or the idea you think you want to prove and a rough idea of how you will do this

2) Outline the procedures and supplies to be used

3) Research your idea to see if it has merit, if there are any invalid assumptions, or new information out there

4) Run your tests and record the results

5) Do a preliminary analysis of your results

6) Re-test anything soft or questionable and make any changes or additions to the experiment

7) Analyze the data and draw conclusions

8) Write the report

Now the same steps adapted for writing a novel:

1) Define your premise – the deeper story question you want to answer – and create a rough outline of the story plan you will use to do this

2) Create your research plan and to-do list: what areas will the research cover, who can you talk to, what information should you collect, where can you find it, what places might be good to visit

3) Do any interviews, phone calls, site visits, library visits, obtain books, pictures, maps, DVDs, music, anything to “put the reader” in the story. Look for any new or unusual information that could add a twist to the story

4) Refine the story framework, such as plot action points or chapter structure then write some sample scenes, character descriptions, dialogue, and chapters

5) Review what you’ve written to see if the characters, emotions, and setting ring true, if the rules of your story world hold up, if the path you’ve taken will in fact answer your story question, and if the pacing is correct. Read any scenes, dialogue, or chapters out loud to see if the voice sounds real or fake. Decide if the point of view is correct

6) Make changes to the story framework such as adding, deleting or rearranging chapters; If needed, add, delete, or change characters, scenes, dialogue, setting, voice, themes, story action, point of view, or pace.

7) Review your plan and tweak where needed

8) Write the first draft

Before I go on, I’m going to put one disclaimer in here. My computer shows #8 on both of these lists with a smiley face. No matter what I do, I can’t get rid of it. I didn’t put it there and it annoys me, but I’m not wasting any more time on trying to get rid of them. If your computer doesn’t show the smiley faces, that makes me happy.

I’ve already covered item one. I know that my story question involves the theme of connection: Do you run from yourself and others or risk connection? The setting includes the worlds above and below the pier in a fictitious New England port town, and there are dual protagonists – a 12-year-old girl and a hermit crab – each with a predicament that forces them to answer this question. I’ve already roughed out a chapter structure and a story line with plot action points, crisis, climax, and hopefully, the correct resolution. This post introduces the next step: Your research plan and to-do list

Research is a kick. In fact some authors will tell you they love it so much they can get lost in it. They have to literally pull themselves out of it and force themselves to start writing. Research unearths specifics, those delicious details that bring the story world alive. They besiege the readers’ nose with pungent smells, their skin with sticky salt water mist, their hair with humidity-generated curls, and their ears with the dull moan of foghorns. They answer questions like: How DOES a fishing trawler catch fish and why does it use cookies and rockhoppers? Can a child operate an ROV? WHICH seagulls are in Narragansett Bay and where?

Specific details make the difference between a man “on a beach looking at the ocean,” and a man “staring longingly out over the east passage of Narragansett Bay, while slipping on black-algae coated shale next to a tide pool containing blue mussels, orange-striped anemones, Northern rock barnacles and red-gilled nudibranches, at Brenton Point State Park, in Newport, Rhode Island, on a steamy August afternoon, just before the black cumulus clouds erupt into a violent thunderstorm.”

Research helps answer “why.” Why is the character looking out over Narragansett Bay instead of Long Island Sound, the Gulf of Maine, Buzzards Bay or the Outer Banks? It explains why the story action is set in January and June instead of July, and why the fish you wanted in your story can’t be used because it’s not in Narragansett Bay near the shore in June.

This story required LOTS of research, and I had a ball with it. All the research really fell under two categories: Characters and Setting, though in some respects, setting can be a character too, but for simplicity, I’ll keep them separate. I will deal with each of the two categories below more extensively in separate posts, but for now a general summary of the approach for researching characters and setting issues. Like the journaling phase, you start with questions:

1) Characters/Creatures/Place as character

First you need to know who you have. In this story, for both people and animals, there are primary, secondary, and background characters. Real people and animals have lives. Good characters – human or animal – have back-story. What’s the story behind each primary and secondary character?

Since there are animals, there need to be rules of the story world. No Suzy Squirrels, no ducks in clothes, no seagulls driving cars. There are long-clawed hermit crabs, hydroids, slipper snails. common periwinkles, Atlantic oyster drills, dogfish sharks, winter flounder and Northern lobsters – in short, real animals, specific to the location. But do they talk? To each other? To only certain animals? To certain humans? No humans? No one? Do they understand “human talk”? Do they know what boats, piers, fishing nets, and otter boards are? Is the human world totally foreign? Do they think?

Regarding place as character – are there particular places in the story that are characters in their own right? Why? What do they feel like? What is THEIR backstory?

2) Setting – This story has a dual setting – under the pier and above the pier. The setting issues include the “broad picture” – what is the surrounding area like, and the “narrow picture” – what is the protagonist’s home turf like? For example, what is her house like, or what is the hermit crab’s tide pool like? What kinds of neighbors do they have? What places do they like? Avoid? Why?

Topics to investigate include things like: topography, geography, geology, climate, the natural flora and fauna above and below the pier, environmental issues, financial and sociological concerns, local economy, business and industry, higher education and research universities, military installations, availability of technology, an educated populace, the effects of prevailing attitudes, ethnicity, and superstitions on the types of jobs, housing, architecture, food, dining, shopping, churches and civic institutions there, the effect of the area’s history on its attitudes, the incorporation of historical buildings or artifacts, legends and myths as part of every day life, and whether historical values influence current day life at all.

Once you’ve brainstormed about all the possible areas to look into, what questions to ask, what references to get, who to talk to, and where to go, the next step is start digging. In the next three posts I’ll show how steps 2 and 3 were applied for my character and setting research.

Coming up Next: Under the Pier – Research Part II: Human Character R&D

Soon to come:

Under the Pier – Research Part III: Animal Character R&D

Under the Pier – Research Part IV: Setting as Character

Under the Pier – Test, Review, Retest, Analyze, Conclude

Under the Pier – Write Your first Draft

General Writing Journey Topics – Broken Bits, Writer Sanity, The Writer’s House – That Swarming Bacteria Proteus mirabilis

The Post: Finally, I Graduate to Stage Two – Focusing the Lens

February 15, 2008

 

I knew Phase II had arrived. Its symptom was unmistakable. I was tired. The amount of work coming from the dictionary job ran up against the short-term deadlines and heavier workload from the ethics board. Family needs took up more time. The ethics board work increased even more. And then there was the point of it all, my writing projects. I realized that I not only couldn’t keep spinning 20 plates on sticks forever, but I didn’t want to. Where some people revel in that level of activity or that challenge, I did not. That, in itself, was telling.

Going back to Mr. Shulevitz’s advice: “You must listen to yourself from your own depths and become acquainted with your own true self . . . learn which is you and which is NOT you. You are what you truly love.” My husband’s reminder felt viscerally real: I wasn’t getting any younger and I needed to stop trying to be what I was not.

I let go of the dictionary work. While it was a good job, I wasn’t meant to be a lexicographer. I throttled back on the ethics board work. It was time for that directive: “Be alone with yourself . . . Achieve inner silence.” In my case that came partly from renewing my dormant practice of meditation and prayer, as well as just, being alone. You can’t run from yourself. To be a writer, if you’re going to have anything worth saying, you must learn your own truth. And it’s only in the quiet moments that the voice within can be heard.

For the first time, I stepped back from my work and took a look at the big picture. I listened to Mr. Shulevitz and sorted out the voices without and within, I looked to see what themes kept repeating themselves in me and my work. That’s when things started to come clear.

I love nature. I loved being 10 and climbing trees and fences and running free in the neighborhood – that time of childhood where you are most capable, where adventure and innocence are at their crest, before the trials and tribulations of adolescence set in. I love castles, the Revolutionary War, diners and the sixties and the blue collar, ethnic world I grew up in. And mythology.

I noticed that I collected, and still do, every silly, touching or factual story about nature, animals, and zoos. I kept a nature journal of our backyard bird feeder and the pond area and collected 3 years of information. I identified with creatures either too small or too much in the background to get noticed, and I was that nature-geek, driven to learn about every tiny sea creature that lived under the ocean pier.

I also knew I’d probably never draw comic strips, or write romance novels, science fiction, or true crime. Nothing against any of those genres, by the way. In fact I am fascinated by the genres of comics and romance novels – they are unique worlds and they seem cool and fun. They just aren’t my talent. And no, I will not try to write any more picture books. In truth, my husband has that voice.

I started to define the projects that were me:

A mid-grade novel set in Williamsburg Virginia during the Revolution. A mid-grade novel set in a 1960s blue collar ethnic New England town, of course, set in a diner. A historical fiction set in 1200s England on the Welsh Marches borderlands. A chapter-book of Greek mythology stories. A fantasy trilogy involving the world of a groundhog living at a highway rest stop, who faces the battle of ultimate evil, personal despair, loss, and emergence into wisdom. And a present day Tween novel of a girl above the pier, in another diner of course, and a hermit crab below the pier.

There is also a love of tweaky, short non-fiction articles about history and . . . nature. I rediscovered a love of and need for essays, which I will write about separately.

I started collecting reference books for all of these projects. Nature guides. Historical fiction. Topographical and historical maps of England and Wales. I made a plaster of paris model of the castle that my lord built, incorporating the latest high-tech gadgets of the early 1200s.

I pinned my project papers everywhere – the study walls were covered on one side with the pier story – maps of the fictitious town, topographical maps of Narragansett Bay, schematic of the diner of my dreams, the one I’d have if I had the money. The other side of the study has the groundhog world – map of the rest, deep woods, nearby farms. The hallway, spare room and stairwell have 1700s Williamsburg, while the den downstairs houses maps of England, schematics of the castle, and the castle model itself.

I even have two webcams up on my computer that allow me to step into 1700s Williamsburg whenever I want. I can see the view down Duke of Gloucester Street or watch the goings-on at the Raleigh Tavern any time day or night. I even had a lobster-cam until that one broke. So I had to settle for the DVD, Realm of the Lobster, that has footage of the undersea world of the lobster in the Gulf of Maine. I found that in this cool marine store store, Hamilton Marine, up in Searsport, Maine. Great website and catalog! Everything from diesel boat cabin heaters and EPIRBS, to cold-water rescue suits and ship’s bells. My next purchase from them will be a hand-crafted wind bell that sounds like a harbor buoy. They even give you the choice of 13 different bells – each one sounding like a buoy in a different place – Bar Harbor, Portland Head, Camden Reach, Outer Banks, etc. I use anything that puts me in the place of my stories.

I started painting again and even did one for the pier story. I bought a new digital camera and started shooting pictures . . . once I stopped being afraid of the thing. It only sat in a box for 2 years. In both painting and photography, I noticed the themes of nature, broken things and overlooked things.

And the words mosaics and broken bits, kept surfacing.

Finally, exhausted, I left the ethics board job. It had gotten to be so much work I was too drained to write. Besides, it was no longer who I was. Revisiting Stage One, I collected outside information as it applied to the projects I wanted to do, from sources like Writer’s Digest magazine, The Writer, countless writing newsletters, market guides and writing books.

All of this I did silently. Alone. Immersed in my own world. And I came to accept that I will work alone. Others can prepare you, teach you, assist you, but when you finally stand at the edge of that dark forest- your own inner world – you must face that one alone. It’s that line from the movie, The Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker is about to enter an area of the swamp where evil lives. He asks Yoda what is in there. Yoda’s response: “Only what you take with you.”

All that was left now was to pick which project came up on deck first. My groundhog story was fairly well outlined. The 1700s Williamsburg novel had some drafts done, characters fleshed out, rejection slips collected. The Under the Pier story had an equal amount of journaling, drafts, and character work finished. The other projects were much further back in the data collection and journaling stages. One day in confused desperation I asked God to please “pick a nipple for me.” A few days later we stopped at Science Safari, a tweaky science store for kids. Sitting atop the discards pile on the sale table outside, was a stuffed hermit crab. My husband and son spotted it. I knew who sent it, so I bought it. The answer had been sent: Start with Under the Pier.

UP NEXT: A Sidetrip to Essays – But the Bus NEVER Came Up This Far on the Curb Before!

THEN: Phase Three: Coming Into My Own – The Evolution of a Novel.

 

The Post – Scarlet O’Hara Lives! And How I Came to Love Fiddler Crabs

January 25, 2008

After almost 10 days without a sighting, FINALLY yesterday afternoon, I spotted Scarlet O’Hara. I wasn’t sure at first if she was just a corpse, dangling upside down inside the Live Rock with her eyestalk hanging down, but shining the flashlight into the rock’s cavity at 5 minute intervals, I was able to determine that a) she actually had moved her position, and b) on the second and third times, she reacted to the light beam and flinched. This latter point was important because it meant the movement was deliberate, not the result of her just being bobbed around in the cavity by the water’s movement.

Relieved to know she wasn’t dead, I went ahead and did the water change. (More on that below) Then last evening, Scarlett O’Hara emerged from the Live Rock Cavity, and slowly started moving around. She resembled a patient just released from the hospital – someone tentative in her steps and tired after her ordeal.

Okay. Right about now, I’m sure anyone reading this is wondering what the hell I am talking about. Let me back up to the beginning and give you the Readers’ Digest version of events. I am contemplating setting up a separate blog – Crab logs – to capture all the events since the beginning of this endeavor, for those purists who only want the “lab notebook stuff.”

As I’ve mentioned I am writing a mid-grade novel called Under the Pier. At least that’s the “working title.” The protagonist of the “under” the pier side is a hermit crab. While I had no trouble pinning down facts about the creatures in that world, those chapters lacked “heart.” They read more like a nature guide. My husband read the first few animal chapters and noted that frankly, he didn’t care about the creatures. That’s a death knell for any book, whether the characters are human or animal. The whole point of reading a story is to feel what the characters feel, live through the story struggle with them, and stay along for the ride because… you CARE about them. If my husband didn’t care about them at chapter 2, I had a problem. So, back to research.

It occurred to me that I just hadn’t captured what it felt like to be an undersea creature. Since I can’t live underwater, an aquarium is the next best thing. I couldn’t have a marine hermit crab like the one in my story as a pet because that meant setting up a salt water tank, something reputed to be very difficult. PetsMart had something called “freshwater crabs.” A freshwater aquarium meant cheap, at least cheaper than a saltwater one, and easier. I’d had aquariums as a kid. I figured I could set up a small tank very inexpensively, get a couple crabs, and voila….live research that would teach me how to emotionally bond with something I normally eat in garlic butter. As I’ll describe below, “cheap” didn’t take place, but emotional bonding did. My husband noted that I bought myself $4 worth of fiddler crabs, and $100 worth of support gear. 🙂 In reality, it’s been way more than that by now, but . . . more about that later.

Anyway, I bought two males, not through any particular strategy. Those 2 just happened to wander into the net the teenage employee swished through the store’s tank. I rushed home with my new “pets” and all my gear and rapidly set up the tank. Normally, when you set up an aquarium, they recommend getting everything established before bringing home your fish. However in this case, I figured why bother setting it up ahead of time when the saleslady made it sound like all these guys needed was some water and a bubbling air tube. Again, more later.

The larger male immediately ran around his new tank, explored every aspect, took command of the gravel hill (they need an area where they can be out in the air for up to 50% of the time), and showed no fear. Given his apparent “explorer” mentality, we named him after the South Pole explorer, Admiral Byrd. The smaller male immediately bolted under the water filter and stayed there for 2 or 3 days. Even when he came out, he skulked around in the background. My husband noted that he acted like the Peter Lorre character in the movie, the Maltese Falcon, so we named him Peter Lorre.

I’m going to skip over the travails of learning I should have set up the aquarium first before buying the crabs, the fact the people had us buy the wrong food (how are bottom-dwelling crabs supposed to eat krill shrimp that only float on the water’s surface and don’t sink?), and the many things that made me realize these crabs really do need more than a bubbling air tube if they were to live longer than the 2 weeks PetsMart’s written guarantee said they would.

As it turned out, Peter Lorre made it about 3 weeks before he died. I think his poor little body just wasn’t up to the stresses of toxic nitrite and nitrate levels, not to mention the fluctuating salinity levels (see below). By the time I learned about Live Rock and how it speeds up the nitrogen cycle in the tank and makes things healthy and non-toxic, Peter Lorre just stopped walking one day, tumbled off the live rock, and dropped headfirst to the bottom of the tank, dead. I was heartbroken…he was the quiet timid one, and I did like him. My husband couldn’t understand how I could care about him given that I ordinarily do not hesitate to go to a seafood restaurant and consume his cousins with great enthusiasm. Doing a twist on that line from the Godfather movie about things not being personal, but business, I said to my husband, “This is personal, not lunch.” When things get personal, you go to Google for answers.

Now, for any aquarium geeks – a couple things. Live Rock, as mentioned above, is rock taken from a tropical coral area, and contains microscopic sea life and bacteria. By adding a1 pound chunk of cured Live Rock (ie has been allowed to sit in a salt water tank and age and no longer smells like a salt marsh) to the tank, it essentially seeded the tank with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. They speed up the establishment of the Nitrogen cycle. That’s where toxic ammonia and nitrites generated by the biologic wastes in the water, are converted to nitrates. Eventually the levels of ammonia, nitrites and nitrates drop to zero. The Live Rock also has the benefit of leeching calcium into the water. This comes in handy for keeping things like pH and calcium at stable levels. Crabs need high calcium for molting. Anyway, once I added Live Rock to the tank, the toxic conditions subsided rapidly. But not in time for Peter Lorre.

I also learned that the crabs I bought were “red-jointed fiddler crabs,” otherwise known as Uca minax. Sometimes PetsMart sells the yellow-clawed ones, Uca pugnax, or mud fiddler crabs, but I definitely got the red ones. While these crabs can survive in freshwater, it apparently shortens their lifespan considerably. I read somewhere that they can live a year or more if kept at the right salinity. I figured salinity meant “marine.” After all, if they weren’t freshwater crabs, then they were salt water crabs. I went out and bought aquarium salt and made it up to the regular marine aquarium specifications, a minimum specific gravity of 1.020. I eagerly added the water to the tank figuring my guys would react with glee. Instead, Peter Lorre went into a daze and foamed bubbles out of his shell. Admiral Byrd bolted out of the water like I’d just added sulfuric acid and literally tried to climb the walls of the tank to get out. I didn’t understand it. I’d followed the directions and they “should” have liked the water, but obviously they didn’t. Even fiddler crabs deserve not to be in pain so I added some plain water to dilute things. They settled down.

In hunting around some more on Google, I discovered that these crabs are in reality, brackish water critters. That is that “estuary” type environment where the rivers meet the sea. The water is neither freshwater nor saltwater. Brackish water has a much lower level of salinity. Further, I found a study of fiddler crabs in the rivers of Delaware that really illuminated the problem. Uca minax – the red-jointed guys – prefers water with a specific gravity of around 1.008 – 1.018. Any higher than that and the LD50 (the time it takes for 50% of the population to die) is 2- 3 weeks. Same if you put them in freshwater.

Interestingly, according to the study, the yellow-clawed guys LIKE the higher salinity. If I’d had Uca pugnax crabs instead of Uca minax, they would have loved the higher salinity water. But my guys hated it. They needed….brackish. That’s how it goes with me. I start out to have a simple freshwater tank, then accept I must make it marine, only to find out I have to actually set up a brackish tank…something by the way, very few people do probably because there’s no books on the subject. In any event it’s been quite the adventure, and I sure have learned a lot, becoming a bit of an expert now on maintaining a good brackish water environment, a source of pride for me. However, this should explain now, my husband’s comment about $4 worth of fiddler crabs, and a $100 worth of support gear. It goes without saying I needed a gauge to monitor specific gravity not to mention water conditioner, solutions to decrease the ammonia until the Live Rock bacteria kicked in, and test strips to check the water…a lot. 🙂

Anyway, end of geek moment and back to the story:

Well, now that Peter Lorre was dead, Admiral Byrd was beside himself. He sat in his little cave tunnel near Peter Lorre’s dead body and just twitched. I thought he’d eat Peter Lorre given that they are scavengers, but apparently fiddler crabs don’t eat their friends. I removed Peter Lorre and gave him a proper pet burial in our front yard, next to the gerbils, hamsters, and pet rat buried out there. Then I set out to buy Admiral Byrd more friends.

I found this amazing aquarium store on the outside of Raleigh, NC – Fish Pros – Fishprosnc.com SALT WATER TANKS and ALL KINDS OF GEAR and PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING!!!!. In fact some of their staff are marine science students or professors at NC State University nearby. In any event, I left there with not just ONE more friend for Admiral Byrd, but three. And this time, there would be WOMEN!

I figured keep the numbers even, so I bought 2 females and one more male. The man at the store noted that having the females would produce some neat “claw-waving” mating behavior in the males – the crab equivalent of “Hey baby, check me out!” Also, since females weren’t territorial, it was possible to have more crabs in the tank without having fights. Needless to say, Admiral Byrd perked right up when he saw he had friends, and when he realized there were ladies, well, he hasn’t stopped waving his claw since.

In any event, the male struck my husband as the “Rhett Butler” type, so, the new guy became Rhett Butler. That meant following the Gone With the Wind motif for the ladies names. The larger female demonstrated an overbearing, fearless, almost aggressive streak. She became Scarlett O’Hara. The more timid, fragile female, is Melanie Hamilton.

Again, for whatever reason, we lost one of the crabs – Rhett Butler lay dead in the back of the tank. No outward evidence of “foul play” ie – Admiral Byrd killing him off for territory or women. Again, another pet burial in the front yard. However, since then, the remaining three crabs have done fine. Yes, the women get fed up with Admiral Byrd chasing them around. And Yes, Melanie Hamilton got tired of Scarlett O’Hara stepping on her to get to the food pellets. Melanie Hamilton spends most of her time living INSIDE of the Live Rock chunk. She does peek out the front or side entrances long enough to grab a food pellet and pull it inside, and every now and then she will climb out and wander around, but she’s very skittish and races back in the rock at the slightest provocation.

My Scarlett O’Hara concern started about 10 days ago. She enlarged the front entrance to the Live Rock, ie, pulled out a bunch of gravel and tunneled under it to get inside it with Melanie Hamilton. For a few days I could see them both crammed inside the Live Rock if I shined a flashlight into one of the rock’s openings. But for the last 10 days I could not find a trace of her. At first I figured she went in there to molt. Molting takes a few hours. So, I figured give her another day or so to rest and she’d be back out. No dice. No matter how often I shined the light into the rock, all I could see was Melanie Hamilton. By yesterday I’d decided Scarlett must have died and I needed to pull the rock out of the tank, if only to remove her dead body for burial.

However, just before I did that, I shined the light into the Live Rock and lo, that’s when I saw Scarlett O’Hara. She was clinging to the roof of the cavity, and I could see her eyestalks hanging down. Since she emerged from the rock, all is back to normal. Scarlett O’Hara and Admiral Byrd run the tank and wander constantly, seeking food. Melanie Hamilton peeks out of her cave and pretty much stays out of sight. As odd as it sounds – I am so HAPPY!!! I really felt bad at the thought she died. Seeing everybody doing their usual thing, it’s like “aaahhh, back to normal.”

Oh – one last geek moment, a moment of pride for me. I did a 33% water replacement in the aquarium yesterday – almost double the 18 % change the time Admiral Byrd freaked out about the salinity, and more than the recommended 25%. I didn’t have much choice given that the water really needed changing. I added the water and held my breath, keeping a close eye on Admiral Byrd. Apparently, this time I did it right. The tank water was at a 1.010 specific gravity, and so was the new water I was adding. Not only that, but the other parameters were great : pH 8.0, total hardness (GH) >300 ppm, total alkalinity (KH) 300 ppm, chlorine and nitrite 0, and nitrates “okay” at 20 ppm. (I’ve been using the Jungle Laboratories brand Quick Dip 6 Tests in One strips). And Admiral Byrd? He just kept right on eating through the whole thing. Never once climbed the walls…he never even left the water. SUCCESS!!!

Now I’m saving my allowance to buy …. two land hermit crabs!!!! Stay tuned soon for their adventures.

And stay tuned…working on getting pictures of Admiral Byrd, Scarlett O’Hara, and Melanie Hamilton…if she ever comes out of her cave!