Fact Checking

Even though I write fantasy, I try to be accurate with facts when it is appropriate.  There are many things that we use in fantasy that are based on historical periods in the real world, and these can and should be accurate.  I’ve written about this before relating to falconry, but it applies to weapons, clothing, and travel as well.  For example, if you’re including a trebuchet in your story, you need to remember that it was a huge piece of equipment that was around 60 feet tall.  It wasn’t something that was mobile, or that could be worked by a handful of people.

There’s a reason to be sure that you have things correct: there are other people out there who know the information.  If you totally mess something up in a novel or story, some people will forgive you.  Some will be irritated enough to put the book down.  There is also a slight risk that someone will tell you that you have it wrong, either politely or publicly.

When I was a teen I went to a Shakespeare festival in Canada.  The group I was with toured the prop and costume warehouse, and one of the items we saw really brought this home.  For a play about Saint George and the dragon, they needed a mauled body.  The prop people took the time to make sure that it was anatomically correct, just in case there was a doctor in the front row.  I’ve remembered that ever since.

(I was also reminded of the importance of fact checking this week, when a museum we visited had two taxidermy raptors mislabeled.  I was polite, but I did let them know that their birds were identified incorrectly.  There’s no way that I’ll be the last birder to visit.)

If you don’t know the details about something you’re writing, take the time to find it out.  Your readers who do know the info will appreciate it.


Walking out some ideas

Birds are very distracting.

I went for a hike today, with several goals in mind.  One of those goals was to work on some of Mara’s story, to get the creative juices flowing again.

It was a very birdy hike, with lots of birds calling.  In fact, my “heard” list was longer than my “seen” list, which was both awesome and also not the primary purpose of the hike.

Even with the feathered distractions, I did manage to work out some details for a section of Mara’s story as well as come up with a couple of new ideas as well.  While I haven’t put them on paper yet, this type of idea development is my usual process, and it’s great to have it start again!


I’m going to tell you a story about birding, and then one about reading.  They are related; you’ll figure it out.

When I was in college, I went to Grand Cayman with my mom, my sister, and my mom’s friend for spring break.  I was already on my way to being a bird nerd, but not fully there yet.  My mom (who was also in college at the time) connected me with one of her professors, who loaned me a field guide for the birds of the Caribbean.  This same woman, whose name I regretfully do not recall, asked me at the time if I kept a life list.  I shrugged it off, said something about lists from ornithology and high school, but she persisted.  Serious birders kept lists of the birds they saw, and I should do the same.

I took her advice, writing down the twenty or so species that I saw in Grand Cayman and then compiling my list of things I’d seen in high school, college, and my backyard.  I ended up with about 100 birds or so, with a total of 125 when I moved to Texas for my first real job.

I’ve kept the list going, and it currently stands at 783 birds.  My goal is 1000 in my lifetime.  I think occasionally about that nice professor who suggested that I should keep a list, and I am grateful for her suggestion.

Recently, I met a young lady while I was home for my sister’s wedding.  It was at my family’s church, the Sunday after the wedding.  My parents had to get there early for a commitment they’d made, so I was sitting alone in an empty row, reading.  (I take a book everywhere.)  To my left I noticed a girl, maybe eight years old, sitting with her family.  She was also reading.  After a bit I decided that it was worth it to go say hi and ask what she was reading; I think it’s important to encourage girls who like to read.  During the discussion I had with her and her mom (who was sitting next to her) I mentioned that I keep a journal of the books I finish.  She looked skeptical at first, but when I told her it meant I could go back a couple of years later and figure out the title of that book I remember reading, she lit up.  Her mom asked her if she thought it would be a good idea to start one of her own, and she agreed.

I have no idea if that young lady started a book journal or not, but that’s not the point.  If I had started one at her age, it would have been filled several times over within just a few years; I was a voracious reader then, even more than now.  As I walked away, I realized that I had possibly just done for her what that professor did for me so many years ago.  To all the females out there, I encourage you to encourage girls to read.  We need more smart women on this planet, and reading seems like a good place to start.


It’s finally starting to feel like spring around here!

Eli and I went for a walk this evening on the trail, to enjoy the warmer weather.  (Our high was in the upper 40s today, which feels warm after low 30s.)  We didn’t go very far, because we’re both out of shape.  Eli’s worse than me; at least I’ve been able to go to the gym and ice skating.

As I was walking I realized that the world doesn’t look that much different than last week.  The grass is still brown and dormant.  There are still pockets of snow frozen to ice, in the pools of shade under trees.  The trees themselves are still bare, waiting for leaves.

The warmth makes a difference, though, and there are subtle signs that winter is in decline.  Cardinal calls fill the air, loud and insistent.  The river is once again flowing, although the water level is still low.  I even saw a bluebird, a species that leaves our area for warmer climes in the winter.  (Of course, it was chased off by a junco, a species that is only here in winter.)

It was nice to get outside, stretch all six of our legs, and breathe in the fresh air.  Here’s hoping it lasts for a while!

Even Non-Fiction Needs Stories

I am greatly enjoying the non-fiction book that I am currently reading.  It was mentioned in an earlier post, thanks to its intriguing first sentence, and it has lived up to the promise of that opening line.

It also led to a realization for me: stories are important in non-fiction.

Obviously, these stories aren’t made up.  (Otherwise it wouldn’t be non-fiction, right?)  True stories can be just as captivating as imaginary ones, and peppering a non-fiction text with them helps bring the reader along and illustrate important points.  In the case of this book, I’ve read about Las Vegas showgirls, a battle between an eagle and a cormorant, and some of the earliest attempts at human flight.  The stories can be personal tales of the author, like the encounter with a murre in the middle of the road.  (“That’s how I found myself walking down a country lane in pitch darkness, talking soothingly to the seabird chewing on my hand.”)  They can also be true stories of others, as in the oft-repeated tale of Frank Chapman’s birding excursion in the streets of late-1800’s New York City.  On this trek, he documented over 40 native species; the birds were not on branches, but dead and mounted on hats.

Storytelling is our main way of communicating with each other, and the use of stories in non-fiction shouldn’t be surprising.  It turns out the best science (or history or any other subject) writers are as good at turning a tale as some novelists.  Theirs just happen to be true.

Watching Water Fall

I watched a waterfall today.

Waterfall (singular) is probably not the right term.  This was really a coalition of many waterfalls.  They pour through a jumble of blocky rocks, some falls large and powerful, others a tiny, surprising trickle.  Climbing around on the pinkish stone, I discovered another surprise cascade around every corner.  Even standing still, watching the biggest of the falls, I noticed tiny details and a variety of runnels and streams as the water succumbed to gravity.

Above it all, swallows dipped and darted, catching bugs.  When I paused at a strategic point on the bank and stayed still, they dove very near me, amazing me with their acrobatic flight.

I could have stood at those falls all evening.

Ruddy Turnstones

Yesterday I mentioned that my least favorite bird is a Ruddy Turnstone, and I feel the need to explain and qualify my statement.

This is a male Ruddy Turnstone, running on a beach in the Galapagos.

The Ruddy Turnstone is my least favorite native bird.  I’m not a fan of invasive species, so technically House Sparrows, feral pigeons/Rock Doves, and European Starlings are lower on the list than Ruddy Turnstones.  That’s the qualifying part of today’s blog. 

Now for the explaining part.  Every birder has a bird that they’ve seen that they really don’t ever feel the need to see again.  For me it is the Ruddy Turnstone.  From time to time I will even get irrationally angry about the turnstones when I see them, usually when I am either not expecting them or hoping for something else.  The reasoning behind this emotional response is flimsy at best, but here it is.

When I went to Grand Cayman, I started without a field guide.  Once I got one, it was still a relatively imcomplete experience; not all the possible birds were pictured.  I snapped a few photos of a shorebird I had never seen, with the intent of identifying it when I got home.  As it has a unique color pattern for a shorebird, the identification turned out to be relatively simple: Ruddy Turnstone.

On a subsequent trip to the Bahamas, I once again saw a shorebird that I couldn’t identify at the time.  I was excited, because I thought it was something new that I didn’t have on my life list.  I snapped a picture and identified it once I got home.  Guess what?  Ruddy Turnstone, this time in winter plumage.

Stupid Ruddy Turnstone, getting my hopes of a new shorebird up and then crushing them.

This is the trend for me with this bird.  Spot a shorebird, get excited because it might be something new and/or interesting, and it’s just another stupid turnstone.  Now that I’ve seen most of the shorebirds native to Texas, the hope-crushing has been reduced; most of the shorebirds I see will be something I’ve seen before.  That hasn’t changed my opinion of the Ruddy Turnstone.  We have history.

When I saw them in the Galapagos, I did notice that my response has changed.  I saw little shorebirds at a distance and my first thought was “I’ll bet they’re stupid Ruddy Turnstones.”  This time, the bird didn’t disappoint; sure enough, there were five turnstones running along the beach.

Stupid Ruddy Turnstones.

Birding on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

When I was planning my recent birding adventure in the Galapagos, I had a choice to make.  You see, I only really had one day to spend birding.  This meant that I had to pick one island.  I could either get on a boat from the island I was on (Santa Cruz) and spend part of my day traveling to a different island, or I could spend the entire day birding on Santa Cruz.  I decided to spend more time birding and less time traveling.

This is a ground finch. He was not shy at all; I was less than 6 feet from him when I took this picture, and he posed for about 5 more!

The trouble is that there is very little information out there about the best places to bird on Santa Cruz.  Most people who go to the Galapagos get to visit more than one island, and most of the birding tours spend their time on Santa Cruz visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station (which I went to earlier in the trip and I do recommend) and then take their cruises around to the side of the island that is inaccessible via roads.   Their itineraries didn’t really help me, although a few blogs I found made some recommendations for places I could actually reach.I visited two areas on my personal birding day, Media Luna/Cerro Crocker and the Las Grietas trail.  Media Luna was recommended by several people and is even occasionally visited by guided birding trips, primarily as the place to see the Galapagos Rail.  Besides not seeing the rail, I didn’t see many birds at all.  The area that I was hiking was mostly in the Miconia zone of the islands, which is not a high-use bird habitat.  If all you have is a day, spend your time somewhere else.

Las Grietas, on the other hand, I highly recommend.  This is a trail that leads out to a cavern area that is popular with tourists and locals alike for swimming a snorkeling.  Be aware that this is not a friendly trail.  It starts off as a paved path and along its length it changes to a crushed rock path, a boardwalk, the beach, and another crushed rock path.  When you get to the “Las Grietas” sign, which tells you that you are almost there, the trail gets really challenging.  After that point it is an aggressive hike over intact, uneven lava rock, often going up and down small hills.  When you get to the end, the canyon-like area, I would recommend at least walking down to see the area.  You can always swim or snorkel at that point, too, although I didn’t.  I took a look, then turned around and hiked back.

Timing is important on this trail.  I hiked it in the early afternoon and I was in the full sun almost the entire time.  An important thing to note about the trail is that parts of it are underwater during high tide, so it is worth it to check the tide charts before you go.  Even with all of these challenges, it was highly worth it in regards to birds.

Crossing over from the main part of Puerto Ayora via water taxi, I saw Galapagos Shearwaters, a Blue-footed Booby sitting on the water, and the ever-present frigatebirds, Lava Gulls, and Brown Pelicans.  There were also ample chances to see sea lions, sleeping on the boats at anchor in the bay.  Once on the trail I saw lots of birds, which was a nice change from the morning’s hike at Media Luna.  The ground finches (of at least two varieties) are not shy, and will stay in the trail as you get close.  Along the beach section I saw my least favorite bird, Ruddy Turnstones.  In the various ponds along the trail there were White-cheeked Pintail, Black-necked Stilts, Wandering Tattlers, Spotted Sandpipers, a Great Blue Heron, a Great Egret, and a Lava Heron.   (I had to flush the Lava Heron, because it was standing on the lava rock in one of the low crossings.  Unlike small herons here at home, it waited until the last possible minute, when I was less than 6 feet away, to finally fly off and squawk in protest.)    On the return back to Puerto Ayora, the shearwaters were gone but I got a close look at a Common Noddy.

Las Grietas is definitely worth the hike, and if you can find a good spot in the highlands (perhaps Los Gemellos, which I didn’t get to visit) the Scalesia zone is also full of birds.  If you really only have one day (I had parts of other days, as well) you should definitely visit the Research Station.  Besides Lonesome George, I saw Cactus Finches and Galapagos Flycatchers there.

Hopefully you get a chance to spend more time than I did on the Galapagos, but if you are limited to one island, there are plenty of birds to find in the place where you are!

Notes from the Galapagos

I just got back from the Galapagos Islands, and I am exhausted!  Two travel days each way, plus working outside on Friday and hiking all day on Saturday can do that to a person.

I have two travel-writing style posts planned, which you’ll get later this week, but for now I have a few brief observations.

1. The sky inland is empty. Along the coast there are ever-present frigatebirds, pelicans, and boobies, but inland the sky is free of birds.  I’m used to seeing the occasional bird aloft, be it hawk, vulture, or even swallow, but on Santa Cruz, I saw nothing.

2. If you are going to Galapagos, learn a handful of phrases in Spanish, plus the correct names of your destinations.  The word ‘regresar’ was my favorite word of the trip, as it kept me from being left on a mountain with no transportation!

3. There are very few mammals!  I kept spotting rocks out of the corner of my eye, which my brain turned into squirrels or similar small mammals, but they were not.  It was a bit odd.

As I said, there is more coming, but for now, my pillow is calling…

Staring at the Sky

The sky igrief great place to look for inspiration.

There are clouds that can take on different shapes.  There are birds, soaring high or flitting low.  There may be airplanes or helicopters.  And your imagination can add even more.

In your mind’s eye, the sky could be filled with hot air balloons.  It could be populated with pterosaurs or dragons.  Try spending a few moments looking up.  See what you can see, imagine yourself there, and discover what sparks.

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