How did you write that, Peter Cashwell?

2013.12.17.pete_.cashwell.headshot.lh-362-e1403717777346Birder, sports fan, teacher — Peter Cashwell deals in boundaries all day long: the characteristics that distinguish a Carolina wren from a Bewick’s wren; the line that divides a basketball that’s out from one that’s in; the fine line between vernacular and Standard English usage. So it was natural that his second book project would tackle boundaries and their meanings.

I asked Peter to answer our standard five questions (plus bonus) about his latest book, Along Those Lines, but he cautioned me that he had swapped questions one and two — “For a reason. I started work on this book before I had the idea for it.”

In this interview you’ll learn:

  • The value of a skill you might (or might not) have learned in high school
  • How a long writing project is like building with LEGOs
  • The ways in which experts, colleagues, and friends can enrich your writing

alongthoselinesHDYWT: How did you begin work on Along Those Lines?

Peter: Along Those Lines had its genesis in my first book, The Verb ‘To Bird’. As I described some of my birding experiences in various states—Delaware, Iowa, South Carolina, etc.—I decided to make it a personal quest to see a life bird (a bird I’d never seen before in my life) in each of the 50 states. Not only would I have a lot of fun traveling and birding, I could write about the experience, and bam, a second book. I could call it “Fifty-Fifty” or something.

I thus started writing about the places I was going, as well as the birds I was seeing, and because I’m a geography geek as well as a birder, I sometimes found myself discussing the geography of my target states—the weird layout of Maryland’s borders, or the insane time-zone-hopping I had to do in the Four Corners area—as well as the birding issues that sometimes arose because scientists had changed their minds about which birds belonged to which species.

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for this project?

Peter: By the time I got near the halfway point of “Fifty-Fifty,” I showed the manuscript to an agent, and he offered a rather cold, but very useful, observation. The birding parts, he said, were mostly boring, simply recounting the birds that could be seen by anyone who went to those places. The interesting parts were the ones where I addressed the issue of the borderlines between states and time zones; that was a topic that nobody else was writing about.

I thought about his comments, and I realized he was right; after all, I’d had a lot more fun writing about the boundary issues than just recounting my sightings in California and West Virginia, so why wouldn’t that be true for the reader as well?

At that point, I shifted my focus; instead of a personal narrative about birding, a topic I knew well, I was now writing an examination of boundaries, and that meant I’d have to educate myself. Luckily, I know some very smart people who educate others professionally.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Peter: I started by asking myself which aspects of human life were divided by lines, and I very quickly realized there were too many to use in a single book. That suggested a different question: who did I know who could talk about these aspects in an interesting way? Some of my colleagues at Woodberry Forest School immediately leaped to mind, not only because of their expertise in their subject areas, but also because of their extracurricular knowledge. I also had other experts farther afield, some of whom I’d known for years, and thanks to a sabbatical working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology back in 2011, I knew a few big names there.

My art experts, though, were more serendipitous finds. I had followed Ursula Vernon‘s work on the web, and I knew she was a birder, so I emailed her out of the blue in hopes that our mutual interest might incline her to sit for an interview. To my surprise, she was a fan of The Verb ‘To Bird’, and she could not have been more enthusiastic or more knowledgeable about the use of lines in art. My discovery of Shawn Smith‘s sculptures, as I mention in the book, was a complete fluke, and I feel very lucky to have seen his work in D.C. and to have gotten him on the phone for an interview.

Once I had the names of my interviewees, I had to assemble questions for each one, and that was challenging; I was trained in English and creative writing, not journalism, so I struggled a bit with the interview process. I would usually have a little bit written about the subject area before I interviewed my expert, but I was definitely improvising a lot in order to get follow-up questions written.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Peter: I wish I knew. I don’t think I have a typical day. I write when I can make time for it, and since I teach, that often means I’m writing at odd hours, or grinding out long stretches of text in unusual places. A lot of this book was written in the Sapsucker Lounge at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, with me perched on a table near the window looking out over a pond full of waterfowl, and if I had my druthers, I’d write like that all the time.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Peter: One thing I learned from the interview process: knowing how to touch-type is a HUGE advantage when you’re taking notes. Keeping up with an Abigail James or a Matt Boesen would be damn near impossible if you had to use a hunt-and-peck approach. If you haven’t taken that typing class, give it some real thought, folks.

For this book, I also found myself using two online tools that most writers use, but perhaps not the way I did. First, I was Googling like a madman on a wide variety of topics. Sometimes in my reading, whether in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology library or my own, I’d come across a reference to a study or an incident that looked useful, and then I’d have to track it down on the web. That occasionally required creative application of search terms; if you don’t think ahead about the terms you’re using, you’ll often get 150,000 haystacks containing 150 needles among them. If you take a more active, more precise approach to setting up your terms, you can get ten or twelve needles in a single bunch of hay.

The other tool, one which is hideously easy to misuse, is Wikipedia. As I tell my students, it is not a reliable source for a research paper! It is, however, a terrific place to get both an overview of a topic and a bunch of links to sources that do offer information that a researcher can rely on.

Finally, to keep making progress and maintain my sanity, I would often need to ask questions of other writers, or sometimes just vent about the frustrations I was going through. That’s where the forum at became extraordinarily important to me.

Bonus question: As a full-time teacher, avid birder, and writer, how do you maintain momentum on a long-term project like a book?

Peter: LEGOs are a topic that came up in the book several times, and in some ways they’re a great metaphor for my writing: you have to work one brick at a time. Eventually you’ll have enough bricks to make the thing look like a house, or a castle, or the Alamo, but you have to put them together one at a time. And every day, that pile of bricks will look slightly more like the Alamo than it did before… or at least not any less like the Alamo.



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