This is the time I stop everything to write down a few thoughts about what
I'm doing with my books. Since I begin work on the story in January, December
is the time I'm tying things together - in this case my "chicken" Cinderella
story. I love going out to visit my chickens in their backyard coop and in our
barn. It is a beautiful warm day today for December in New England, so my
chickens are taking sun baths in their enclosed outdoor pen and dust baths too.
The ducks are in courtship mode, so the male Mandarins and East Indies are
displaying to the females. For male Mandarins, I have a colorful one like the
type seen in the wild, and a pale whitish one that stretch their heads up high
and spread their hood-like feathers. All of the time they call out as if making
sure the female is watching. The Indies who are a beautiful beetle green-black
color, flap one wing on the pond surface repeatedly, or pretend to drink over
and over to impress the females. I chose a Swedish duck to play the part of
the horses to pull the sleigh. The ducks are harnessed three abreast in
"Troika" fashion that is traditional in Russia, and their harness is set with
bells. If you've ever seen the movie, Dr. Zhivago, you'll remember the
indelible scene where Dr. Zhivago and Lara sleigh to the snow bedecked abandoned
estate with it's onion domes. There is much traditional architecture in the
movie, but it is not suitable for children as it has adult subjects. But I was
very moved and inspired by it.
My editor has dear friends that have chickens and our conversation often
turns to the chicken societies we observe in our flocks. We both thought of a
chicken Cinderella when we discussed different strategies for helping out the
chickens who were low in the pecking order. Lately, my chickens have been
getting along well together. Around Valentine's Day when the days get longer
and the females begin laying, the chickens have more intense relationships. The
roosters are fun to watch as they vie for the hen?s attention. Sometimes
they'll jump up into a box of soft pine shavings and twirl around until the nest
is made. Then, the rooster who by this time has rounded up an interested
companion, will call to her to get her attention. The roosters really do make a
lovely purring sound to coax the females onto the nest. Usually the hen will
hop right up and lay her egg. When I feed live mealworms in the morning, which
is their favorite treat, sometimes the roosters will forgo, instead tossing the
mealworm up in the air for the hen to notice. Sometimes they gobble them up
themselves, you never know. Roosters are famous for the little dance they do if
they are interested in a particular hen. It involves stamping their feet in a
circle around the hen, or being next to her dragging one wing on the ground.
It's hard to describe what they do with their head, but they tip it and look out
of the corner of their eye. I think that is what is meant when someone says a
person ?cocks their head? as the expression is short for cockerel, a young
rooster. I'm not sure I have been able to put in all my chicken's body language
in my book that makes watching them such a treat. Truthfully, a chicken is hard
to paint and to capture its beauty. The colors and shimmer of the feathers is
gorgeous. When I do go to poultry shows where there are thousands of chickens
exhibited, all sparkling clean and in top condition, it is enchanting to see all
the varieties of color and patterns. Lacing, stripes, spots and spangles to say
nothing of the iridescence of most plumage and you have a chicken fashion show.
I was able to design a double page spread with two foldout pages to show
different chicken breeds dancing at Prince Cockerel's ball in the Ice Palace.
Of course it's a perpetual disappointment to paint the chickens because in real
life, movement causes the light to shine in different ways that show a shimmer
of changing colors on their feathers.
In the olden days, farms and estates would often have collections of fancy
chickens above and beyond their table birds and egg layers. When we went to
Russia, I was happily surprised to find the elaborately painted panel in
Catherine the Great's winter palace depict different elegant chickens, including
the very unusual breed I keep, called Polish. It has a poof of feathers on top
of its head like a snowball. Cinders of course is grey but when she is dressed
for the ball and transformed by her fairy godmother the gray looks more like
silver, and you can see how elegant she is. The male counterpart of the Silver
Phoenix, which Cinders is, has a 4 foot long tail and flowing saddle feathers
that sweep the ground. He has a huge red comb that sets off a snowy Collar of
feathers on his greeny-black shining chest.
Fairy godmother is a White Silky, a fascinating breed that was described in
the 1200's when Marco Polo traveled to the Far East. The silky has fluffy
fur-like feathers, a fluffy topknot, turquoise ear-lobes, and five toes instead
of four. Strangely underneath all the feathers the Silky's skin is dark, almost
black, as is its eyes. I could not think of a more ethereal chicken to play the
part of the fairy godmother than the Silky.
In CINDERS, inspiration comes not just from my journey to St. Petersburg
Russia but also for my own backyard!
I hope you will transform some of your experiences to stories as well -