Write On, Wednesday: Finding Symbolism in Your WIP

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By Leslie Lindsay

One hundred years ago, in 1914, a bird cheekily known as Martha (after the first First Lady, Martha Washington) died in a Cincinnati zoo. Did she die lonely and broken-hearted? Well, yes. And for good reason: she was the last remaining bird of a species that declined from several billion to one in a mere 50 years.

Hunt of a flock, depicted in 1875

And what, you wonder does this have to do with writing?! Bear with me. We’ll get there.

It is reported these birds–passenger pigeons–darkened the sky for hours or even days at a time, “The beats of their wings would create drafts that chilled the people over whom they flew.”

See where I’m going with this? They’re creepy. And they just happen to appear in my WIP. Not intentionally, mind you but sort of by accident. This, I am finding is the absolute best way to incorporate symbolism into one’s work.

I’ve never been a fan of birds (sorry, Audubon Society). Ever since I learned birds may have an evolutionary root in dinosaurs, they stopped topping my list. And then there was that time my sister’s two parakeets escaped their cage and flew around the vaulted ceiling of our home, their lime-colored wings flapping viciously, their beady eyes taunting. You get the picture. And then I started writing a book with a naturally creepy undercurrent. I threw in some birds that “darkened the sky.”

My critique partner liked them, but quitely scolded their appearance, “Birds are done a lot in books in which there is some ghostly stuff; maybe you could sub butterflies or moths? Locusts?”

I get it–be original. And yes, moths and locusts are equally creepy–if not more–than pigeons.

But here’s what struck me with these passenger piegons:

  • They existed at the time my book takes place (a certain POV takes place in the mid-late 1800s, though it’s mostly a contemporary read)
  • Given such, I find  a certain chill-like factor when these birds make a reappearance after they have technically been extinct. A little remnant of the past, perhaps?
  • Also, passenger Pigeons called to one another with a “loud, harsh, and unmusical call,” referred to as a ‘keck.’ Still yet,  others claimed a scolding call, “kee-kee-kee-kee” or “tete! tete! tete!” Also great because there’s a  little element of music in the book…and if these guys are unmusical, then all the more reason to have them chant, chirp, and caw.
  • Finally, the Wyandot people or Wendat, also called Huron, (indiginous peoples of North America) believed that every twelve years during the “Feast of the Dead” the souls of  deceased changed into Passenger Pigeons, which were then hunted and eaten. …And so the third reason these lovely creatures show up in a book about, well…the dead.

So little bells and lightbulbs are going off in my head. Yes, the birds must stay and they have a story purpose!

But back to those now-extinct birds. Hundreds of thousands of them swooped through the sky in the mid-late 1800s, darkening and causing a chill below, a loud rustling sound deafened communities as their mighty wings flapped. And then they were hunted,  shot…and sold at urban markets–their meat was apparently pretty tasty–for about $1.40 per dozen. That’s how they became exinct, well except Martha who died in captivity, the last remaining passenger pigeon.

So what are you waiting for? Write on before you–or books–become extinct!

For More Information on topics mentioned in this article, please see:

[above image retrieved from Wikipedia on 6.28.14]

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