Developing Fully Fledged Characters in Neversink
I had a college professor who talked about how Charles Dickens had a few tricks up his sleeve for creating his famously larger-than-life characters: funny or suggestive names; exaggerated physical traits; expressive gestures or speech patterns. Well, with animals, birds especially, most of that work is done for you!
For the basics — food, habitat, nesting and breeding behavior, etc. — I did straight field guide research. For the birds’ personalities and beliefs, obviously I made that up, but I let the natural science be very influential. It’s hard for me to study the puffin, for instance — a smaller auk, relatively quiet, funny looking — and not think of it as a reluctant hero type. (The overly confident, motivational-speaker puffin in the movie “Happy Feet 2” just seems all wrong to me.)
Originally I had Rozbell as a great horned owl — a large, powerful hunter — but then it seemed he could be more complex as a pygmy owl in a might-makes-right animal kingdom. He’s crazy, but he has a legitimate axe to grind with the tradition of owl leadership.
The hummingbird is hyper, the walrus is windy; if you listen to the sounds guillemots make you know why the character Algard is a bit disagreeable. And if you know that the collective noun for ravens is a conspiracy, you’ll know they aren’t terribly trustworthy.
As for the story itself, when I learned that the collective noun for owls is parliament, and puffins are sometimes called a colony, it suggested a political allegory to me. The actual basis is Denmark-Iceland, whose conflicts leading to Iceland’s independence really did involve fish taxes and cod wars. Most people who read Neversink and see the plot element of the fish tax will think American Revolution. Which is fine — the struggle to achieve and maintain one’s independence has taken place all over the world.
The northern European/Arctic setting also made it seem right to mine Scandinavian and Native American mythology. (The subtitle of Neversink is “A Puffin Saga.” I love the word saga and the sort of loose, episodic story it suggests.) Why wouldn’t birds have a World Tree at the center of their cosmos? And of course birds who depend on fish from the sea would worship a sea goddess who created the fishes and the seals, right?
Now, some contrary readers might say that despite my claims to be true to the natural world, my puffins drink tea and the corrupt faction of owls wears hats. And the walrus reads and writes. But my story takes place before the time of humans, and who’s to say humans didn’t learn these “anthropomorphic” behaviors from the animals?
Human folklore is rich with tales of early peoples learning language and skills like flying and fishing from animals. The Chinese scribe, Cang Jie, according to legend, invented writing after observing the marks left on the ground by birds, which inspired my idea of walruses inventing a written language based on their hide scars.
Besides, long after I’d written Neversink, someone sent me a link to a book called If Birds Can Build Nests Then They Can Make Hats. ‘Nuff said.
Thanks Barry! Here's a little more info about Eg...I mean about Barry Wolverton below and how to contact him.
Barry Wolverton is the first human ever granted access to the walrus library at Ocean’s End, where he conducted extensive research for NEVERSINK, his first book. In addition to Walrus he speaks Chicken, although actual chickens don’t appear to understand him. He lives with a moderately overweight cat named Charlie (who understands him but doesn’t listen) in Memphis, Tenn. Visit him at www.barrywolverton.com.