A Novel’s Character: Peculiar, or Charming?

Pelicans in St. Petersburg, Florida

Do you ever talk to wild birds or animals (or critters, as we say in the South)?

I thought this was an unusual hobby until I was in Florida last week, when I flat-out asked people. I was surprised at the number – one out of every ten, I would venture to guess – who raised their hands.

I was in Florida as part of my book tour for my latest Miss Dreamsville novel in which one of my characters – the eccentric Dolores Simpson – talks to a heron that has built a nest in a nearby tree. Dolores is a middle-aged woman who suffered from acute “man trouble” in her youth and retreated from the world. She lives in an old fishing shack on the edge of the Everglades. Her son – her only companion – has gone off to seek adventure, so Dolores finds herself pouring out her heart to the heron. She confides in the heron, and eventually gives it a name: Peggy Sue.

Peggy Sue, I should note, has been immortalized on the cover of my new novel by an astute book-cover designer – no doubt, someone in the art department at Simon & Schuster who just so happens to talk to critters.Final Cover Dreamsville 2

When I was writing the book, I wondered if Dolores’s chit-chat with the heron was a little over the top.

And yet, it felt true to me, so I left it all in. I’ve known people who talked to critters, and, truth be told, I do it myself.

For example, a blue heron I call “Big Guy” has been visiting our property for years, always in the exact same location. I would know that bird anywhere. He is cranky if another bird gets too close to his turf. His arrival signals the start of Spring, and I always go out on the deck to welcome him home.

Then there’s “Mr. Kingfisher,” who spent entire summers perched on the same slender branch of a willow, bobbing up and down in the breeze. When a hurricane knocked down his favorite spot, Mr. Kingfisher was irritated and looked at me as if to say, “Hey, who moved my tree?!” I told him, “Don’t worry!” and planted a new tree that very afternoon.

Now, I know there are people out there who think this is silly, or even downright nutty. Others would say it’s peculiar, while some might find it charming.

In the weeks since my novel was published, I’ve learned that readers truly like my character Dolores and her bird-talking ways.

Collier County egret (Copyright Amy Hill Hearth)

And I’m finding it kind of fun to ask an audience, once the subject has been broached, if anyone confides in wild critters.

One man said he talks to an alligator every day. My sister-in-law admitted that she talks to squirrels.

But by far the most common are people, like me, who converse with birds. While traveling in the Sunshine State last week, I remembered that it was while living in Florida that I picked up the bird-talking habit. After all, birds in the Southeastern part of the USA all seem like characters. Sandpipers are adorable, mockingbirds are a hoot, pelicans are goofy, herons are curious, stately, and appear to be wise.

And, just like Dolores, I’ve always found them to be good listeners.

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