Thursday, June 11, 2009


When my husband and I were poor students living in Seattle, we rented the basement apartment of a big house one year, right next door to Ralph and Bernice.

Ralph and Bernice were this great older couple who loved to talk. They appreciated having an audience, and I liked hearing their stories. Bernice told me about the little dog she once had, so small she could carry him around in her apron pocket while she made dinner. Ralph was always puttering around the house and yard, and chatted about this and that—usually whatever he was puttering around.

Most especially, he talked about his fig tree.

Many people have only tried figs as the sweet-and-chewy main ingredient of Fig Newtons. Fresh figs are a completely different animal, more like tiny water balloons filled with honey. A lot of people really love fresh figs. Ralph did. Unfortunately, so did the birds in his yard.

When I first met Ralph, he was embroiled in a years’ long battle with those pesky birds. He had tried shooing them away. He had tried hanging pie tins from the tree, hoping the clatter and reflective glare from the sun would drive the birds away. The year I was Ralph’s neighbor, he was looping the tree with rubber snakes.

The snakes didn’t work, and when we moved to another apartment months later, Ralph was already contemplating what his next move should be.

Ralph was doing what I have to do all the time as a nonfiction writer: approach a problem from different angles, to see what might work.

Every book has puzzles to work out, and they can be devilishly stubborn. I can spend hours/days/weeks pulling out my hair. I can always tell when a solution is the right one when it doesn’t require any explanation or rationalization but instead has a clarity and simplicity that leaves me feeling a little chagrined that it took so long to figure out.

Take, for example, a problem that stalled me while writing THE DINOSAURS OF WATERHOUSE HAWKINS, the true story of the artist who made the first life-size dinosaur models and, in doing so, introduced dinosaurs to the world.

I knew I needed to explain how he had extrapolated—from the few fossils available at that time—what the whole dinosaurs might have looked like. Waterhouse talked about the process but not in language that would work well in a picture book, so I couldn’t use direct quotes. I didn’t want to bog down the text with a lot of technical details. And, I didn’t want to use invented dialog.

Days of hair-pulling later, I realized I could describe the process in the way I set up the narrative. And so, when Queen Victoria visits Waterhouse’s studio, the narrative captures the essence of a conversation-that-wasn’t (but might have been.)

“The Queen’s eyes grew wide in surprise. Waterhouse’s creatures were extraordinary! How on earth had he made them?
He was happy to explain: The iguanodon, for instance, had teeth that were quite similar to the teeth of an iguana. The iguanodon, then, must surely have looked like a giant iguana. Waterhouse pointed out that the few iguanodon bones helped determine the model’s size and proportion. And another bone—almost a spike—most likely sat on the nose, like a rhino’s horn.
Just so for the megalosaurus. Start with its jawbone. Compare it to the anatomy of a lizard. Fill in the blanks. And voilĂ ! A dinosaur more than forty feet long.”

The solution felt so simple that I couldn’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner. But it took days of poking and prodding (hmmm…pie tins? rubber snakes?) to make it work.

A lot of my job seems to be trying one thing and then, when it fails, trying something else. Choosing not the first solution but what I hope is the best solution.

I don’t know if Ralph every found a way to defeat those darn birds. His figs were a sweet enough prize, however, that at the very least, he kept on trying.


Susan E. Goodman said...

Barbara--I'm a big fan of Waterhouse Hawkins and glad you found the solution. It's always amazing to get that "aha" moment which is then followed by--it's so obvious, why didn't I think of that before. It's happened to me many times. For my book, On This Spot, I was really interested in talking about how things change and I kept going on and on with different geologic examples in different place--too complicated. Finally I thought of just taking one location back through time and that was that--worked like a charm. But coming up with something so obvious took a year.
Another nonliterary example--how about suitcases with wheels--why did we have to wait so long for that solution?

Deborah Heiligman said...

Barb, great post! I love hearing how other people work through the writing puzzles. Writing is all about choices. I wish I could remember who said that because I think of that every day and would love to give her (him?) the credit. And as for you--could you please find out what happened about the figs?