Inspiration In Unexpected Places by Gretchen Haertsch
For the last several years, I’ve been using a writing technique book by Nancy Lamb when I teach my course Writing for Children at Arcadia University. In that book – The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children (2001) – Lamb writes of the need for writers to find their own “owls on the beach.” She prefaces that advice my describing a scene from her own life in which she spots an owl on the beach near her home in Venice, California, calling it “not just unusual…[but] outright miraculous.” Owls are not beach birds, after all. Lamb advises beginning writers to look for the extraordinary in our own lives – “unusual combinations and unexpected relationships” and use them in our writing. Sometimes, the combination of the normal and the extraordinary is what makes a piece of writing “pop.”
It’s a cliché to say that truth is stranger than fiction, but as with many clichés, it is one grounded in fact. Using an obscure sliver of history as the hook for a full-blown historical novel is common. It reminds me of the wonderful novels by Tracy Chevalier who wrote Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) and Falling Angels (2001). Chevalier is currently working on a novel about the Underground Railroad in Ohio in the 1840s, but her most recent novel was Remarkable Creatures (2009), a book that provided me with my own “owls on the beach” moment about a year ago.
I listened to Remarkable Creatures as an audio book and was blown away by the storyline on the unlikeliest of topics: fossils discovered in the 19th century on the beaches of Lyme Regis on the southwest coast of England. The novel switches viewpoints between two strong women – Elizabeth Philpot, a spinster gentlewoman of reduced circumstances who has an interest in science, and Mary Anning, a younger working class woman who must grub for an income by hunting fossils to sell to tourists. Mary had been struck by lightning as a baby, an event that was thought to have led to “the eye,” her ability to see fossils in the cliffs that no one else can spot. As with all good novels, this one involves deeper issues like class difference, scientific and religious philosophy, and the subjugation of women. I wouldn’t have imagined I’d grow interested in ammonites and ichthyosaurus fossils but I did. A good novelist can do that.
But more on my owls on the beach moment. Readers of this blog will remember that I went on a London trip last year with a group of Arcadia freshman. Each group was asked to vote on the museum they most wanted to visit. I did what I thought was a good sales job on the historical ones: the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, the Museum of London, the Imperial War Museum – in short all the museums I had visited or wanted to see. Of course, the museum I least wanted to visit – Natural History – was the one the group picked. But I was in for a surprise.
Built in 1881, the museum seemed a relic of the Victorian age. Sure, there was a modern wing, but the coolest parts to me were the old ones with their stuffed birds and wooden cases of rare gems. Walking through one of the main hallways, our guide pointed out the fossil hanging on the wall, explaining that it had been discovered by a girl in Lyme Regis along the southwest coast of England. I peered closer at the fossilized ichthyosaurus. It was the discovery of Mary Anning, heroine of Remarkable Creatures. A topic that would once have held limited interest for me had been brought to life by the writing of Tracy Chevalier. That moment in the broad corridor of London’s Natural History Museum was an owl on the beach moment for me – a gift – juxtaposing history with science and bringing it together for me with story. It reminded me that inspiration is all around us if we but take the time to watch for it.