[Note from Frolic: Today, we welcome author Hazel Prior to the site today. She’s talking about penguins and authos. Take it away, Hazel!]
I recently took a long look at penguins. This was for pleasure – how could you not enjoy studying penguins? – but also for work. My novel, How the Penguins Saved Veronica, demanded research and I was determined to find out as much as I could about these quirky birds. In fact, I built my plot around them. In the story, my eighty-five-year-old heroine, Veronica McCreedy, learns important life lessons through her meetings with penguins. It has since occurred to me that there are many parallels to be drawn with a novelist’s life, too. Writers are like penguins.
My novel features Adélie penguins, a small but energetic breed, one of the two species that live in Antarctica. Let’s look first at setting. Not only is Antarctica incredibly cold, but darkness reigns day and night for half the year while in the other half the sun never sets. Writers, like penguins, go from one extreme to the other, in a career full of emotional highs and lows. Penguins winter on the sea ice. During this season the only way they can access their food (a small shrimp-like creature called Antarctic krill), is through holes in the ice. Writers have long, dark times when they too must wait… wait for news from their agents, wait for editorial notes, wait for publication, wait for reviews, wait for inspiration, wait for the light. But while they’re waiting they can’t just sit there. They must fish for inspiration through holes in the metaphorical ice. That is the only way they can survive.
When the Antarctic summer comes, Adélie penguins make their way back to land, to settle in vast colonies for the breeding season. Penguin nests are made from pebbles. A boy penguin will choose a nice round pebble to present to a girl penguin as a romantic gift, then they will usually mate for life. Similarly, if you want to write, you must find a nook; your own safe place where ideas can grow. You must commit. You must establish a loving and loyal relationship with your craft.
I should add here that penguins can be very naughty. They’ll often steal pebbles from each other’s nests. The parallels are plain!
Books, like eggs, need an incubation period. You spend time with your book, keep it warm, trust that it will develop healthily. The bones of your story slowly form and are fleshed out. Like a miracle, a heart starts beating deep down inside. Cells divide and little details (beak, flippers etc.) evolve. And then, one day, there’s a hatching…
Isn’t this rather like publication, when your book (your fluffy penguin chick) is finally out there and has to jostle for space with all the thousands of others? There’s plenty of excitement and noise. You need to flap, honk and squawk a lot in order to be noticed. Adult penguins and their babies can recognise each other’s cries in amongst the pandemonium and you hope your readers can find you the same way. Yes, there’s a ridiculous amount of competition, but there’s also mutual support. Anyone who is part of the writing community on Twitter knows this. And, as anyone who is part of Twitter also knows, it can get messy. Penguin colonies are awash with smelly, pink poop.
Penguins have to be super-strong to cope with sub-zero temperatures, blizzards and predators such as seals. They have a coat of special waterproof feathers and a thick layer of protective fat under their skin. Like them, writers must grow extra layers of insulation to protect them from the buffetings of a fickle and ruthless industry. But the worst predator of all is self-doubt. Is your work good enough? Will you get bad reviews? Will the book sell? Will you get another contract? It takes resilience and determination – and sometimes nothing short of stubbornness – to keep going.
For in order to survive, penguins must keep on the move, whether it’s the yearly migration to and from the sea or the daily foraging for food. To get about on land they have strong fleshy feet with a crampon-like claws, well-adapted for rocky and icy terrains. Adélies sometimes go down on their bellies and use their feet to push themselves along on the ice. This is called ‘tobogganing’ and makes a change from the inelegance of upright walking. Writers will likewise push forward using whatever means they can.
However, under water penguins are true masters of movement. They glide, they dip, they perform beautiful aqua-balletic feats, they porpoise in and out of the waves in joyful arcs. These sublime moments are familiar to all writers, when the muse is with us and we dive and leap and everything flows. This is the glory of creativity that makes it all worthwhile. But we truly are like penguins. Persistence is the name of the game, and most of the time all we can do is put one foot in front of the other and just keep waddling onwards.
About the Author:
Hazel Prior is a harpist based in Exmoor, England. Originally from Oxford, she fell in love with the harp as a student and now performs regularly. She’s had short stories published in literary magazines and has won numerous writing competitions in the UK. Ellie and the Harpmaker was her first novel.
How the Penguins Saved Veronica by Hazel Prior, out now!
Eighty-five-year-old Veronica McCreedy is estranged from her family and wants to find a worthwhile cause to leave her fortune to. When she sees a documentary about penguins being studied in Antarctica, she tells the scientists she’s coming to visit—and won’t take no for an answer. Shortly after arriving, she convinces the reluctant team to rescue an orphaned baby penguin. He becomes part of life at the base, and Veronica’s closed heart starts to open.
Her grandson, Patrick, comes to Antarctica to make one last attempt to get to know his grandmother. Together, Veronica, Patrick, and even the scientists learn what family, love, and connection are all about.