23 October 2020

Special Guest Post by Author David Wilson: Inspiration and Perspiration for The Golden Bird

Thomas Edison famously said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.  I do not claim to be a genius by any stretch of the definition, but I certainly believe the same ratio applies to writing.  We all yearn for those shocks of divine inspiration when the hand of God itself reaches down and gives us a great idea, sending us into a manic frenzy of writing that lasts all through the night until the sun rises the next day. 

Far more often, however, our stories come about one page or even one paragraph at a time, subservient to our priorities and our patience.  My own novel, The Golden Bird, is the result of teaspoon of inspiration and a few buckets of perspiration.  And unlike Thomas Edison, I didn’t have to steal the idea from Nikolai Tesla.

My story originates from a graduate school guest lecture.  The history department invited Mel Fisher, a treasure hunter, to give a talk about his business and his practical application of history.  Fisher runs his operations off the eastern Florida coastline, where the treasure business is booming thanks to the confluence of Spanish shipping routes and hurricanes.  His claim to fame is the discovery of the Atocha, a treasure galleon chock full of emeralds and silver.  Fisher pulled up a PowerPoint slide showing some of the valuable gems and coins, as well as the less valuable, but no less fascinating, artifacts like cannonballs, spikes, and nails, rusted from four centuries of Atlantic seawater.

In true salesman fashion, he saved the best for last, showing the audience a tantalizing glimpse of what they, too, could hope to achieve in a career as a treasure hunter (or more accurately, as an investor to a treasure hunter).  Fisher showed us a photograph of a golden statue carved in the shape of a pelican. 

This fantastic work of art served double duty as holy metaphor, for medieval bestiaries held that the bird pecks at its chest to draw blood for its chicks, just as Christ gave life for mankind.  Fisher did not say this; instead he said it was worth nearly one million dollars and let us gawk. He closed his talk by promising the audience that anyone who came to visit his base of operations in Florida would receive a first-hand glimpse of his salvage operations (I would later email him to cash in this favor; I received no response but was put on the company’s mailing list). 

I remember staring at that photograph, captivated by its beauty and its intricacy, trying to commit all the little details to memory: the individual feathers along the head, the arc of the neck rising and falling, the plumage of the wings, and the talons gripping on to the pedestal.  I wondered who had crafted it, when, where, why, and how.  When I came home from classes that day, I sat down at my computer to write the story of a goldsmith living in Spain, trying to sail across the seas to the New World and carrying the bird with him as a secret.  “Emmanuel de Alcocaba,” I wrote, deciding it to be a good first line, “had taken a debt to pay a debt.”

That was the inspiration, the 1%, the hand of God reaching down to plant the idea within me.  The rest of the story required the perspiration, the 99%.  That meant research, setbacks, storyboarding, typing and deleting.  It meant changing $10 words for $1 words no matter how badly I wanted to be eloquent and figuring out how to make a MacGuffin chase into a richer story.  It meant a realization halfway through that I had to change a major plot point.  

Finally, it meant determining which chapters and which characters to put on the chopping block since I needed to edit 525 pages into 275 pages so that a publisher wouldn’t laugh me out of their office.  That first line was one of the sections put on the chopping block, and in my completed manuscript Emmanuel de Alcocaba isn’t even the introductory character.  Dutch pirate Nikolaas Schoonraad gets that honor instead and the first line is him wondering whether his Spanish captors will hang him or behead him.

The perspiration, all 99% of it, resulted in the finished story.  Like so many stories, it evolved drastically during the writing process over half a decade.  Authors often say that a story writes itself; I find it more accurate to say that once you create compelling, realistic characters, they’ll write the story for you.  Put them in a place where they are challenged, where their weaknesses are brought out, where they make difficult choices.  You may be surprised by what happens. 

I tried to build strong characters and I flatter myself to say that I succeeded: they wound up surprising me, several times, especially when a character I had written to be no more than a throwaway happened to become one of the most important characters to the novel.  By the conclusion of the story, the goldsmith from Spain who made the statue is just one of several narrators, all of whom saw something different when the bird’s guardian was killed and the statue was stolen out from under them.

That’s what The Golden Bird is, a murder mystery, because as interesting as I find the statue, it becomes many times more interesting whenever people are willing to kill for it.  I wrote the story in the hopes that readers, like the characters, would see the statue’s appeal as not just its precious metal but also its symbolism.  I wrote The Golden Bird from the perspective of characters who look into its sheen and see the light of God.  After all, forgiveness for your sins – and do not we all have sins we wish forgiven? – is a much stronger motivation than gold alone.

I was lucky to be inspired to write the novel.  I was further fortunate to have the time and drive and support to put its words on the page, perspiring over each one, until there were no more to write.  I hope I have luck enough to complete the last and most difficult part of the trifecta: finding a literary agent and a publisher who want to get The Golden Bird onto bookshelves.

If you happen to know an agent eager to find a new voice in the genre, please send them my way.  I hope they enjoy reading my story as much as I enjoyed writing it.

David Wilson

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About the Author

David Wilson is a writer living in Denver, Colorado who has published educational history books and articles.  His novel manuscript The Golden Bird is currently being workshopped by the Historical Novel Society’s writing masterclass and he is searching for literary representation for publishers.  His writing blog, Davidwriteshistory.com, contains his many opinions on writing history. You can find him on Twitter at @writes_david

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