The Nosy Writer by Ellen Potter
If I ever get arrested in a certain small city in Upstate New York, I am reasonably certain that I could break out of their jail. No, I am not a criminal mastermind; I’m just very nosy.
Since I’m a nosy person, one of the great perks of my job as a writer is that I get to do research. My very first research field trip took me inside that county jail. Although I was nervous, I quickly found out that people are usually more than happy to chat about the things they know best. The deputy sheriff told me what the prisoners ate for lunch, described how to use a gizmo that rinses pepper spray from a prisoner’s eyes, and then spilled the beans about how someone could escape from their cell (my lips are zipped).
As a Research Nerd, I often choose to write about things I know nothing about. It usually starts because I hear something that makes me go, “Really? Oooo!”
“Did you know there’s an abandoned pneumatic train station in New York City’s subway tunnels?”
“Really? Oooo!” And then I’m off on another field trip.
Of course, sometimes I get more than I bargained for. “Really? Ooo!” has landed me in the back of a taxidermy shop, putting glass eyeballs into a deer’s eye socket (post mortem, of course). It has also landed me on a skateboard, and then on my butt, while a professional skateboarder attempted to teach me how to do an Ollie. Those are the times when I wondered if it would have been wiser to stick with YouTube tutorial videos.
Most recently, “Really? Ooo!” landed me elbow deep in a barrel of dead herring.
Let me backtrack . . . three years ago, after moving to a village in Maine, I began to meet people who live on the islands off the coastline. A few of these islands are so small they have a year-round population of about 40.
“So what do island kids do for school?” I asked.
“Some islands have a one-room schoolhouse,” an acquaintance told me, “but a few islands are so tiny that they don’t even have a school. I know kids who take a lobster boat to a school on a neighboring island.”
They take a lobster boat to school?
A few weeks later I hopped on a ferry to visit my first of several Maine islands. An idea was already taking shape in my head for an early chapter book series, which later became Piper Green and The Fairy Tree.
The islands themselves are staggeringly beautiful, but it was the island children who impressed me the most. They reminded me of modern-day Huck Finns, finding their fun jumping off the dock or building crab traps or skating on frozen ponds in the winter. Capable and self-sufficient, many of the children helped their parents fish on their lobster boats or even assisted on island EMT calls. I met a 12-year-old whose summer job was to get into a wet suit and dive into the icy ocean armed with a knife to slice apart tangled lobster trap ropes. I guess that’s more 007 than Huck Finn, but either way I was in awe.
I soon realized that if I were going to write about an island in Maine, where most of the islanders earn their living by lobster fishing, I’d have to get into an actual lobster boat. And help catch some actual lobsters. I’ve heard plenty of stories about how dangerous lobstering is, and being a landlubber, I was a little nervous. But the Research Nerd in me prevailed. I asked some lobster-fishing friends if I could spend a day at sea with them.
“Sure. You can be our sternman,” they told me.
Okay! Sternman. It had a nice ring to it.
As it turns out, the sternman is the guy who stuffs smelly dead herring into bait bags.
After fifteen minutes of working on the boat, my whole body reeked of dead fish. I was pretty sure I was going to have to burn my jacket when I got home. My hands were coated with a viscous oil from the herring, which, incidentally, my friend swears keeps her hands as soft as silk (her hands are silky soft but I’m still sticking with Burt’s Bees). Then, while removing crabs from the lobster traps, one of them pinched me hard. I hid my bleeding finger so that my friends wouldn’t think I was a total dufus for getting nipped. I began to wonder if watching a YouTube video about lobstering might have been a better choice.
Then I looked out at the islands all around me, lovely green mounds rising from the water. I breathed in the salty ocean smell and listened to the waves gently sloshing against the hull. A harbor seal popped its head out of the water, then disappeared beneath the waves again. Pretty soon I began to feel my main character materialize beside me, like a ghost in reverse—wispy at first, then gradually becoming more solid and alive. In a few days I’d name her Piper Green, and I’d give her a family and friends and a Fairy Tree. But at that moment she was still a nameless little kid, her hair whipping in the wind as she enjoyed the most extraordinary ride to school that any child could possibly hope for.
Ellen Potter is the author of many award-winning children’s books, including the Olivia Kidney series, SLOB, The Kneebone Boy, and her new early chapter book series, Piper Green and the Fairy Tree (Knopf). She lives in Maine with her family.
Visit her at www.ellenpotter.com or follow her on Twitter @Ellenpotter
I took a video of my first lobster-catching lesson.