Tag Archives: birdwatching

Professional Wednesday: “Write What You Know,” part II

Put another way, I was driven . . . not merely by the fact that I “know” these things, but rather by the fascination and passion that drove me to learn about them in the first place.

With last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I began what I expect will be a multi-week conversation about the age-old writing advice, “Write what you know.” In that entry, I pointed out that “Write what you know” can be overly limiting, or, if thought of in the right way, can speak to exactly the sort of mining of our emotional experience that will enrich our narratives and character work.

Today, I would like to focus on “write what you know” as a tool in world building and plotting.

Let me start this way:

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)As many of you know, my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, had as its narrative core, a magic system in which mages formed psychic, magical bonds with birds of prey: hawks, owls, eagles. To this day, fans of the series mention those relationships between mages and their avian familiars, as the element of the books they enjoyed most.

What you may not know is that I have been an avid bird watcher for more than fifty years (yes, you read that right: 50 years), since I was a small boy.

Nearly all my readers are familiar with my Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical fantasy series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Some of you may not know that I not only love history, I also studied it extensively and have a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford.

I’m not the only one who does this. I am a huge fan of the work of Guy Gavriel Kay, and perhaps you are as well. Maybe, you have read enough of his books to notice how many of his significant characters are physicians. As it happens, so was Kay’s father. He grew up in a household in which the study and practice of medicine were paramount.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. But I want to be equally clear about where I am NOT going. I didn’t come to the LonTobyn books, my first fiction venture, thinking “I have to ‘write what I know,’ and therefore I am going to create a world with a bird-based magic system.” Rather, I came up with the idea for the books organically. I love birds. I have always been fascinated by raptors. And at some point, it simply occurred to me that a magic system built around hawks and owls would be incredibly cool.

My choice with respect to the Thieftaker books was somewhat more deliberate. I originally conceived them as alternate-world fantasies. My editor at the time urged me to think about a historical approach instead, citing my history background. He suggested I set the books in London. And at that point I thought, “if I’m going to draw on my history background, why not do it right and set the books in the New World, whose history I know so well?”

Put another way, I was driven to write my books about hawks and about history not merely by the fact that I “know” these things, but rather by the fascination and passion that drove me to learn about them in the first place.

Again, I am far from unique in this regard. I know writers who love music and who have used it as the basis for their magic systems. I have a friend, whose family history is tied intimately to the devastation of Europe’s Jewish population by Nazism, who has written an incredibly powerful fantasy series set in Nazi-ravaged Europe. Another friend, who is a brilliant writer and editor, based her magic system literally on the written word, on the commitment of spells to vellum. And yet another friend, who is dyslexic, imparted that same trait to his lead character.

I don’t believe any of them “wrote what they know” to satisfy some arcane requirement of our profession. Rather, they came up with fiction ideas that reflected their loves and interests, their emotional pasts or that of their families, their very reality in all its complexity.

And there is no reason you can’t do the same. “Write what you know” doesn’t have to constrain us, nor does it necessarily force us in certain directions. It offers us opportunities. “Where do your ideas come from?” I’m asked this all the time, and always I respond the same way: Ideas are everywhere. We encounter them daily, though at the time we don’t always recognize the encounters for what they are. Robert Frost once said “An idea is a feat of association.” Our hobbies, our professions, our loves (and perhaps even our hates), our educational backgrounds, our family backgrounds, our emotional and physical battles and achievements — any and all of these can point us in the direction of a new story, a new character, a new world.

My point being that we don’t have to struggle to come up with ideas. Often they’re sitting right in front of us, waiting for that “feat of association,” that magical (pun intended) moment when “Where do your ideas come from?” meets “Write what you know.”

Keep writing!!

Creative Friday: My Brother the Artist

For this week’s Creative Friday post, I would like to tell you about my brother, Jim. [JamesCoe.com] It happens to be his birthday, so please feel free to wish him many happy returns of the day.

Jim is a painter. He started painting when he was all of fifteen years old. At that time, he was drawn to painting birds. Birdwatching had become a sort of obsession for Jim, Bill, and me, and Jim had a preternatural ability to capture not only correct plumage and structure, but also attitude and mannerism. His early works were stunning, the work of a prodigy.

My brother, Jim, painting on Martha's Vineyard, October 2017
My brother, Jim, painting on Martha’s Vineyard, October 2017

For a time, he worked as a bird illustrator, and you can still find field guides and even an ornithology textbook with his work in it. Eventually, though, he wanted to get away from the limiting world of illustration, and he turned to plein air painting. For more than twenty years now, he has been painting landscapes, some with birds in them, some without. His work is known throughout the world. It hangs in galleries and museums. He has been honored again and again by fellow artists and art aficionados.

And never once has this praise gone to his head. Because that’s the other thing about my older brother: not only is he the creative person I admire most in this world, he is the kindest, gentlest soul I know.

His art has been a presence in my life for almost as long as I can remember. When I was young, I tried to emulate him, hoping that I might be an artist someday as well. How did I do? Well, I write fantasy now, so that should tell you…

We have Jim’s work all over our house, and I am always eager for another of his pieces. They’re just that good.

But more important still is the fact that, outside of Nancy and our girls, he is the best friend I have in the world.

Happy birthday, Bro. Love you.

"Pond Light; Sun Dance" by James Coe
“Pond Light; Sun Dance” by James Coe

Monday Musings: A Lifetime of Birdwatching

Those who know me well, know that I am an avid birdwatcher. My older brothers got me started when I was just a kid. And when I say just a kid, I mean that – I started birding when I was seven. For Christmas just before my ninth birthday, my brother Jim created a whole set of life lists and year list templates (before templates were really a thing) and bound them in a notebook. Totally geeky, right? To this day, it remains one of the best presents anyone has ever given me.

I bring all of this up because we are now in the middle of spring migration, when the forests of North America become a byway for returning songbirds heading north to their breeding grounds. Yes, there are migrations for other types of birds as well – certain species of hawks return to our area in the spring, as do shorebirds. But for those birds fall migration is the more significant event. Spring migration is all about birds from the neotropics.

Blue-winged Warbler, photograph by Chad Smith ©. Used with permission of the artist.
Blue-winged Warbler, photograph by Chad Smith ©. Used with permission of the artist.

Warblers, tanagers, orioles, certain grosbeaks (Rose-breasted and Blue), flycatchers, thrushes vireos. These are among the most colorful and beautiful birds we see in the States. Brilliant yellows and oranges, deep reds, stunning blues. Many of the birds have gorgeous songs – the thrushes in particular. Most of the migrants are very small; the warblers tend to be only four or five inches from beak to tail. And many of them hang out at the very top of the forest canopy, making them very difficult to spot, much less identify, and leading to an avocational malady known as “warbler neck,” which is pretty much self-explanatory.

For serious birders, spring migration is New Year’s, Mardi Gras, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. I know that it is my favorite time of the year and I am pleased to say that despite the pandemic, it is something I have been able to enjoy fully this spring. Every morning I walk a few miles on a rails-to-trails path near my home. I get a bit of exercise, and I see my favorite birds. Just about every day I am reminded of a birding experience from my childhood, of a moment with my brothers or an early sighting while alone that convinced me I could identify species on my own. For me, spring migration is about more than seeing the birds. It is about reconnecting with nature, and also with a passion that has remained with me for literally half a century. It is about memory and family. It both calms and invigorates me. A single good sighting on my morning walk can buoy my mood for the entire day.

As a kid, I was self-conscious about my interest in birds. A few of my closest friends knew, but otherwise I kept it to myself, fearing that I would be teased. I was already a nerd. I was short. I wasn’t the best athlete. I was usually in the school play. So already I had a lot of geek cred. The birdwatching, I feared, would be one nerd-attribute too many. Looking back on this, I regret how shy I was in this regard. It has always been so important to me. And yet, even to this day, I feel a twinge of embarrassment when I’m out with binoculars in hand, searching the foliage for a warbler or wren, and someone I know happens past. Old habits die hard.

On the other hand, I once had someone ask me for an interview what my superpower was. And the truth is, my superpower is that I can identify by song almost any bird native to my area. I’m sitting outside as I write this, and just in the moment I pause in my typing I can hear a Red-eyed Vireo, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a Carolina Chickadee, a Tufted Titmouse, a Summer Tanager, a House Finch, and a Nashville Warbler. Yeah, I know – as superpowers go, it’s not much. But really it’s all I’ve got.

In any case, I wasn’t sure what to write about today, and given how much of a balm birding has been for me these past few weeks, I thought I would share this.

For those who are interested, birding is an easy hobby to pick up and a rewarding one to pursue. All you need is a pair of binoculars, a good field guide, and a willingness to learn.

Wishing you all a wonderful week.

Photo Friday: Reflections (Also Not the Last of the Year…)

Anyone who is familiar with my photography knows that I love to play with reflections: the imperfect rendering of a sky or mountain or forest on the surface of a lake, the echo of coastal cloud formations in wet sand.

This week a friend and I went birdwatching on some farmland not far from our little town. The distant fields were filled with Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese, their calls echoing, flocks coming and going in loose formations. It was great seeing the birds, but I was taken with the reflections of the sky and trees in the farm ponds on either side of the road. I snapped a bunch of photos. These were among my favorites.

I hope you enjoy them, and I wish you a wonderful weekend.

Farm Pond Reflection, by David B. Coe Twilight Pond Reflection, by David B. Coe

 

Exploring During My Down Time

One of my favorite things to do at any convention is take advantage of my down time by exploring the area in which the con is held. While in San Jose for a World Fantasy Convention several years ago I took an epic hike through one of the open space preserves in the foothills above the South Bay. When I was at EerieCon last year, Amy Lass Kauderer was kind enough to take me to a lovely natural area near the convention, and Kim Greyson has twice done the same for me during my previous visits to Calgary. (Kim be ready: I’m coming back in 2015!)

Well today, after a fun breakfast with the MarsCon staff, I drove out to the Colonial National Parkway, a gorgeous road that follows the course of the York River for a stretch. I did some birdwatching along the way, seeing eagles, ducks, loons, cormorants, and grebes, had a terrific lunch of clam chowder and fried oysters at the Yorktown Pub, walked around the Yorktown waterfront for a bit, and then headed back to the hotel. I have plenty to do the rest of the weekend, and I know that the folks here at MarsCon will take good care of me. But for a few hours this morning, I got away from work and experienced a small part of what makes this part of Virginia such a special place.