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Novel Research for the Birds

Carolina Parakeets illustration by John J. Audubon

Bill's Blog Shorts: Check 'em out. You never know what's in 'em.

Anyone who aspires to write an historic novel must make a choice; will it be historically accurate or will it just be a story that takes place during a specific period and accuracy is an afterthought. To me, for historical fiction to work it must be as true to the period as possible. If I’m reading a story that takes place in 1918 and a character hears on the radio that WWI has ended – I’m pretty much done, because I know that such broadcasting did not come to be until the 1920s. The whole story collapses like a house of cards. Unless, of course, the author’s genre is Steampunk, but that’s a different discussion.

And while some people may be able to overlook such errors in their fiction, as a writer, why would you risk losing a large part of your audience? Even if the reader finishes that novel, it will leave a bad taste in his or her mouth and likely discourage further purchases or – EEE-GADS – even worse, recommendations to family and friends. OK?

Speaking of which, did you know that the term “OK” did not come into existence until about 1838? Any novel you read with a setting prior to that year with characters who say, “OK,” will be out of sync with history and reality. If you are a writer, you’ve now been warned. (Have fun writing dialogue without “OK” to lean on.) If you are a reader – sorry I’ve ruined future historical novels for you.

I try very hard to make my novels as accurate and anachronism-free as possible. I guesstimate I spend about three hours of research to every hour of actual writing. For me, it is a labor of love, because I love history and I love writing. (I know, that’s a whole lot of loving going on. But that’s how novels are procreated, my friends.) That said, research is the biggest distraction I have when I write.

Lots of times, I just need to know if something is right or wrong. Like the “OK” example. I already knew about its relatively recent introduction into the English language, I just needed to ascertain the year for this discussion. But when I looked it up I spent 15 minutes reading about a series of six articles written by Allen Walker Read for the American Speech journal in 1963 and 1964 and how the word evolved from a fad. Seems that back in the day, according to Wikipedia’s account of Read’s explanation; “[the] fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 … OFM, ‘our first men,’ and used expressions like NG, ‘no go,’ GT, ‘gone to Texas,’ and SP, ‘small potatoes.’ Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of OK was OW, ‘oll wright.’ Wikipedia adds, “OK's original presentation as ‘all correct’ was later varied with spellings such as ‘Oll Korrect’ or even ‘Ole Kurreck.’”

OMG! And you thought replacing words with acronyms was an SMS phenomenon. LOL! IAC, I digress.

For you writers out there, here’s the bigger point. Only about a tenth of my research ends up in the writing. The unseen benefit is that, all the detail I learn from doing this extra reading is stored in my massive brain (I heard that!) and provides context to the story and setting that would not exist otherwise. In addition, it provides creative fodder for stories and scenes yet to be written. Had it not been for such research, the Carolina Parakeet (aka Carolina Parrot) probably would have never made a cameo in Black Hearts White Bones. (Finally, Bill got to the part about birds.) Nor would I have thought to have given Dyonis (one of the novel’s key characters) a beautiful cloak of colorful feathers.

“So, how come I’ve never heard of the Carolina parrot?” you may ask. Because, alas, this beautiful bird species became extinct in 1918. (Read this Audubon article for the various reasons.) In addition to giving its all to provide colorful adornments for women’s hats, the loss of this parakeet has had a significant effect on nature. Perhaps most notably, the bald cypress tree. You see, the seeds of the bald cypress were dispersed by Carolina parakeets that ate them and later deposited them – if you get my drift. And while the bald cypress continues to exist without the assistance of parakeets, it is safe to say that the loss of the parakeet has negatively affected the tree’s ability to expand its range.

Now, as a final wrinkle in my version of The Butterfly Effect, I find it interesting that, if not for my research, I would not have known about the Carolina Parakeet. If not for this parrot, a key character in Black Hearts White Bones would not have had a cloak of feathers and a great deal of his personality associated with it. If not for my novel, I would not have attended book signings at pirate festivals. If not for the festivals, I would not have become acquainted with a fellow writer and pirate aficionado Anna Maria Sophia Cancelli – who happens to be the Cape Fear Parrot Sanctuary Fundraising Coordinator.

Imagine that. Did you know that in America there are as many as 16 million parrots living in captivity? Did you know that the typical parrot has as many as 30 owners during its lifetime? Given that parrots are intelligent, emotionally complex creatures I find this to be very sad. Although it is too late for the Carolina Parakeet, this is a sanctuary that “rescues, rehabilitates, and cares for parrots who are unwanted, abused, neglected, or whose owners can no longer care for them.”

If you love pirate stories you probably have a soft spot for parrots as well. They really are amazing and beautiful animals. They did not ask to be held in captivity and those that are deserve shelter and care. If you are a reader, and especially if you have children, there is a really cool way you can help the sanctuary. One of its fundraising tools is a children's story series, Pirates for Parrots Saga written by Ms. Cancelli – who, as it turns out, is also the director of Pirates for Parrots.

As their website explains, Pirates for Parrots is a community of pirate enthusiasts, impersonators, living historians, and reenactors who support and serve Cape Fear Parrot Sanctuary by promoting and participating in fund raising, educational, and awareness events that benefit the sanctuary.

Ms. Cancelli is also available for book readings and signings. And, they have an interactive theatrical version of the first two books in the series – "Parrots of the Cape Fear” and “Curse of the Sea Witch" – available for festivals, libraries, museums, etc. Their stage show is suitable for children and contains an educational component.

In closing, I’d like to say that if you think this blog post rambled a bit I wouldn’t argue with you. Consider this an example of how my brain works when I conduct research and, better yet, an example of the benefits of doing good research. While it is possible that I will never use any of the facts and data above in a story again, it is just as possible that one of those facts will spark the next chapter I write, or even a whole new story. I love this stuff!

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