Monday, April 27, 2009

Raw Materials -- Part 1

“Where do you get your ideas?” This is a question I often hear from children, along with “How old are you?” and “How much money do you make?” I like to tell them that ideas are everywhere. “You just have to keep your eyes open, your ears open and your mind open.”

I’m just back from almost two months in Southeast Asia, with visits to four international schools (private schools with instruction conducted in English) in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, along with a teacher conference in the exotically named city of Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo. I had many eye-, ear- and mind-opening experiences during my time in Asia, and I’ve been thinking about books that might come out of them.

The experiences alone would not be sufficient to create a book. I think it is a commonly held misconception that to write a non-fiction book you can simply do/see/hear/experience something interesting, write it up, and send it in. Books should be that easy! In reality, the experience alone provides just the rawest of raw materials for a book. It must then be augmented by a great deal of thinking to define an approach, followed by copious research before beginning to write. I haven’t gone beyond the first of those preliminary steps, but perhaps it would be interesting to lay out the raw materials from two of my experiences (one now and another in a future post). If either book ever gets written, you will be able to say, “I knew it when.”

When I was in college, I met an entomologist who was the world authority on fireflies and their flashing behavior. Dr. Jim Lloyd had figured out how females of various species use their specific flash patterns to attract mates of the same species (which he was able to attract by mimicking the female flash pattern with a penlight. He also discovered something so sensational that it was written up in the popular media: the females of some species mimic those of a different species to attract males of that species — not for procreation, as the arriving males expect, but for predation. When the unsuspecting males land next to their would-be mates, they are in for a rude surprise: they get eaten! These bamboozling females were dubbed “femme fatales."

Dr. Lloyd also told me about the synchronously-flashing fireflies of Southeast Asia which gather in vast numbers on trees and flash in unison. His description of this natural spectacle left me agog. Neither he nor any scientist had done the research to learn why they did it, how they used the flashes (possibly for mate-attraction but no one really knew), whether the flashers were all male or all female or mixed, or anything else about the behavior and natural history of these little-studied insects. He had seen them only once, briefly, and it was his hope to return to investigate. Last month, during the weekend preceding my residency at the International School of Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), several teachers and I went to Fraser’s Hill, a bird-rich site about three hours’ drive from the city. During our two days of birding and “arachniding” (we saw tarantulas and some very cool trap-door spiders), it came out that Malaysia’s most famous firefly site is located near Kuala Selangor, a mangrove swamp just a short detour from the route we would be taking back into town. Transportation was reorganized so that I could go there to see the show. The assistant principal of ISKL’s Lower School, Heidi Webster, would be my driver and companion for this excursion. I was jazzed!

At sundown, small flat-bottomed skiffs leave the dock at Kuala Selangor every few minutes. Each boat holds four to six passengers and a pilot who stands in the stern to pole the vessel across the shallow river. The trees on the far shore are laden with “kelip-kelip” — that’s the Bahasa language name for these synchronously-flashing beetles. Their twinkling came into view as soon as we floated out of the glare of the well-lit boat dock. I was in the boat with Heidi and an English-speaking Malaysian couple who were willing translators. I had much to ask the boat pilot: basically, the same questions that entomologist Jim Lloyd had raised all those years ago. Unfortunately, the boatman knew only the “where” of these insects, not the “how,” “why” or “what.” Just the same, it was a vastly rewarding experience, a long-held dream that had just come true, seeing these fascinating creatures do their thing — and in unison. . . sort of.

Even without having unlocked the secrets of the fireflies, I was able to make a few observations. There are not thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of fireflies on each tree, as I had variously heard. I would say there were a hundred, maybe two hundred, per tree. Possibly their numbers vary by time of year, time of night, weather conditions or who-knows-what. I also noticed, contrary to what many had said, that the fireflies were not all in synch. On any given tree, I usually saw two cohorts, each with its own flashing cadence, and a sizeable number of outliers out of synch with everyone else! Would this change over the course of the night? I dunno. It wasn’t a research trip — the boat ride was only about half an hour. Were the insects of different trees in synch with each other? That’s what I really wanted to know because all the descriptions I had read stated or implied that the entire spectacle was a well-coordinated light show. In truth, I could not tell for sure from the angles we had on the trees, but I don't think so. And what do the fireflies do after a night of flashing brightly on the river? Do they have a different kind of adventure? Is there a way to track them to find out?

Clearly, there is much to learn. My assignment, should I choose to accept it, is to find out what is known. Or find someone equipped to learn new things in this minute nook of a miniscule corner of human knowledge. Then perhaps I could go along with him or her and follow the process of discovery. Or maybe I could write a fictionalized version of the non-fiction story, perhaps with a firefly as the main character. To become a book, this inchoate assemblage of observations and information must take a shape, find a voice and give itself a raison d’être. The author must paint a picture of a time and place, and populate it with characters, both human and arthropod, and find a beginning, a middle and an ending. It’s going to be a lot of work. But what book isn’t?

PS That was to be the end of my post, but after writing it, I learned that in 2001 Sneed Collard published a book very much like what I have just ruminated upon: A Firefly Biologist at Work. Sneed tracked the research of a biologist studying the synchronously-flashing fireflies of Papua New Guinea. So now I am faced with a dilemma known to all non-fiction authors: Someone has already written “my” book! Does that mean I should give up the idea? Perhaps. Unless I can find a route to a very different kind of book on fireflies, I would not want to go down an already well-lit path.


Vicki Cobb said...

What an exciting adventure, David! Great post! However, just because Sneed wrote a book on that subject shouldn't stop you. You have your own unique take on the subject and your book will be different from his. Kids need to hear many voices and interesting material can be approached from many points of view... after all isn't it true for fiction writers that there are only seven plots and they keep revisiting them over and over again? You just need to be in touch with yourself to create something unique and valuable.

Wendie O said...

Vicki's right.
Go for it!
After all -- that other book is 'old' in publishing terms and yours will be 'new.'

In addition, several Johns Hopkins University professors have done research about fireflies, which means that its possible that new information may be available.
Go for it. -wendie old

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Another country heard from.......did you know that in many places, the number of fireflies is in steep decline? I can easily attest to this phenomenon where I live. Twenty years ago when I'd walk my dog at night, the neighborhood was lit up with thousands of flashing lights. Now I have to really search hard to find 2 or 3 or 4 little blinks on a summer night. Worth a thought?