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 - happy imagining!