Saturday, October 09, 2010

Words of a Feather

With the weather growing cooler every day we're seeing more birds hanging around Casa PBW: lots of tiny wrens, baby blue jays, young doves and our camera-shy neighborhood cardinal and his lady. The sandhill cranes are gone until next spring, but a couple of big, snow-white herons have been hanging out in my neighbor's yard.

Aside from hustling to keeping the feeders stocked, I like our feathered fall visitors. They fill the mornings with song, fascinate the pups with their antics, and entertain me to no end. I never understood bird watchers until I moved to the country; now I'm looking through bird sites to see what sort of woodpecker lives in my oak tree, and if the big speckled guy who perches on the fence post and screams like a diva with a wedgie is a hawk or something else.

Yep, it's official: I've become a bird nerd.

Birds bring more than live entertainment to my back yard; now and then they also drop some feathers, which I spot when I'm out walking the pups. Mostly I find blue ones, which must be from the jays because they're constantly picking fights. But this past week I've been finding a new type of feather almost every day, starting with this one:

I'll guess this came from one of the mourning doves; they frequently come back to visit their favorite nesting spot and they're the same lovely gray-brown color. At the time I found this one I was thinking about one of the protagonists for the trilogy pitch I was working on, and how I plan to develop his character. Because everything is about writing, I started relating the feather to the character. Like the doves he's very dignified, quiet and watchful, but also makes some bad choices. There's also this subtle but stubborn defiance about him that I really admire. I tucked the feather in my day journal so this weekend I could add it to his character worksheet; it would make a great visual jog to help me remember my protag's dove-like qualities.

The next day in almost the same spot I found this:

I'm not sure what bird it came from, but the coloring of the feather made me think of the protagonist for my second book in the trilogy, who I'd developed but hadn't yet nailed down to my satisfaction. The colors -- white on top, and gray and black on the inside -- reminded me of how deceiving appearances and perceptions can be, and how little people know who we are beneath the surface. It helped me look again at what my protag has been through in the backstory, and figure out how those events have changed him. Thanks to the feather and my character building, I came to the conclusion that my protag is concealing (and struggling against) a dark side no one knows about but him.

I was also getting the feeling that the cosmos was sending me some kind of weird, daily-updated message about characterization.

I hadn't yet decided on the hero for the third book of the trilogy, so I didn't need any more feathers. Of course the cosmos ignored me, and on the third day left this, again in the same spot I'd found the other two:

At first I didn't think this one was even real; I've never seen a zebra-striped bird in the yard. The shape reminded me more of a spear point than a feather. Spear = warrior, naturally. The stark colors seemed very tribal and primitive; almost as if the feather had been hand painted. The arrangement of the black and white intrigued me; I thought of the visor on a knight's helmet, and how the world looks through it. All of those elements came together like puzzle pieces that I didn't know I had in my head, and then I knew instantly who the protagonist for the third book was.

Interesting side note: for years I've resisted reading the much-lauded Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I own a copy, but every time I've gone to read it my own contrariness and skepticism held me back. I don't like most things that are very popular with literary writers, and that bunch has praised this book to the heaven. I assumed it would be another groaning yammerfest on art versus anything practical I could use, because really, how much can birds help with writing?

Now please excuse me while I go grab that book and (probably) eat my chapeau.


  1. This is great. :)
    Went through a phase when I first put up my feeders. I simply couldn't watch them without knowing what they were! After a while, you also become adept at recognizing their calls, behavior, etc.
    But this is very impressive!
    Er--can I borrow your cosmos sometime?

  2. I'm pretty sure that bottom feather is a tail feather from a woodpecker. We've had similar shaped ones in our yard at the old house. The wiki page for the Red Bellied Woodpecker has similar tail feathers visible -

    Not sure about the one in the middle, but I'm pretty sure it's a flight feather. {{huggs}}

  3. Interesting, yeah one of the greatest things about being a writer is finding inspiration from different things especially when the thoughts are there, but you're able to sum them up until that fateful object pops up.

  4. Thanks, Lynn. Because of this post, I went looking for feather identification and found this awesome site ( Now I can identify some of the feathers I've collected over the years. Like the really big one that I now know is from a barn owl. =o)

  5. Anonymous10:18 AM

    LOLOL! I am just like you, the more popular something is, the more I resist it. I was the same with ByB.

    I must admit, it's a fantastic book. One of my faves, now.


  6. I think the bottom one is right, a woodpecker feather. The middle one might be from a dove?

    Not having the feather, it's hard to tell by pictures.

    We get feather wads occasionally in our yard (you don't want to know) because we have a couple hawks and a HUGE owl living in the woods behind our house.

    And I have Bird by Bird...I've never read it either, but I'm thinking now I should.

  7. After resisting BBB for quite some time, I broke down and read it and realized that sometimes - just sometimes - it's not so bad to fall under the spell of something 'popular' and 'much-lauded' ... now as I'm gearing up for NaNoWriMo, one of the first things I do is post a page of favorite writing quotes on the wall over my desk, one of which is Lamott's reference to 'shitty first drafts' and that puts my inner-critic in check from the get-go on November 1st.

  8. I love Bird by Bird! But I read it before I knew it was so popular. Or maybe before it was even all that popular. It was a college graduation gift. I am the same way though. The more popular a book is, the more I resist. And I usually am very critical of it once I give in and read it.

    I loved this posting though. Days when the universe seems to support my writing habit are the best days of all. :)


  9. Not a big fan of Bird by Bird, actually. I liked it well enough when I was beginning writer but now I'm not so sure.

  10. Your post is funny & scary (for the same reasons). This week, the cosmos has grabbed me by the shoulders & given me a good shake (or three) for ignoring a plethora of signs that I should have heeded (all related to writing). Your post is the most recent one, so now I have to pay attention. I too have been finding feathers this week & you are the third writer that I like who has mentioned that you are currently reading/about to read Bird by Bird. I'm afraid a house might fall on me if I ignore any more signs. Thanks for the heads up! I dug out my copy of BBB & I'm ready to give it a go. I'm also ready to listen to that character that I've been ignoring...

  11. I usually lurk, but this post was so wonderful. What a cool way to see your heroes. I love when the universe plays nice with our writing! It doesn't happen that often for me, but when it does...

    Last time, I kept hearing all these songs with Superman somewhere in the lyrics. So of course I was convinced I was going to be invested with a superpower. No deal, but it was inspiring while it lasted :)

  12. Anonymous12:00 PM

    I enjoyed Bird by Bird because Anne Lamott is so herself.

    She lives the way she wants to no matter how hard it is to go against the stream of life.

    Also enjoyed Nancy Pickards' book about writing and the writers psyche.

    What you can use, use.

    If you can't use it, don't.


  13. These are such beautiful feathers. You should frame them or do something to preserve them and showcase their beauties! If you know how or could find out how, maybe you can turn them into calligraphy pens! That would be way cool.

    Love the analogy between feathers and characters. You have such a creative mind. :)


  14. I agree that the bottom feather looks like a woodpecker feather. And if I found it in my yard, I'd guess that the middle one was from a mocking bird. I'm not sure you get those guys in your area, though.

    Regardless, it's always amazing to me just where some of our ideas and inspirations come from as writers. They're different for everyone, and every story, and that's just fascinating.

  15. I never enjoyed Bird by Bird. I think it was her lack of ethics that got me. Her smugness about throwing away paperwork at her employer's, so that she could take work time to write.

    If you're going to steal, must you brag about it?


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