How to make plot ideas pop into your head

15 08 2017

Novelists are often asked how they get their plot ideas. I get many of the plots for my science thrillers to pop into my noggin from extensive reading about science and technology. However, sometimes the idea will come before any research, often as little more than a phrase or sentence. I’ve found “What if…?” questions to be the most fruitful.

My first published novel, The Cerulean’s Secret, arose from the simple question “What if there was a blue cat?” The notion nagged and nagged at me, until I started spinning a plot around it. I realized the plot had to revolve around genetic engineering, so I began doing research, coming up with lots of articles that helped form the plot. As with all my novels, I included a list of those sources on my web site.

Similarly, The Rainbow Virus started with “What if there was a virus that turned people colors?” The plot and details from that novel also grew from research that I ultimately posted on my web site.

Authors have also gotten their ideas from some odd phrase or sentence that somehow pops up when their mind is wandering. My advice: let it linger! My favorite story is how J.R.R. Tolkien got the first idea for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He was grading student essays at the time.

“I’d got an enormous pile of exam papers there and was marking school examinations in the summer time, which was very laborious, and unfortunately also boring,” he recalled in an interview. One paper had a page left blank.

“So I scribbled on it, I can’t think why, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’” At that point Tolkien had no idea what a hobbit even was. But to the enormous benefit of readers worldwide, he let the idea blossom!

For me, sometimes it’s a passage in an article I’ve read that sparks a plot. For example, the idea for The Neuromorphs arose from two quotes. In 2014, Science magazine quoted computer researcher Todd Hylton as saying “We think robotics is the killer app for neuromorphic computing.” Of course, Hylton didn’t literally mean killer robots, but the idea stayed in my head that the kind of robots based on brain-like neuromorphic circuitry could somehow become lethal.

The kicker that really launched the plot was a chilling passage from an article on artificial intelligence by Jason Tanz in Wired magazine:

“With machine learning, the engineer never knows precisely how the computer accomplishes its tasks. The neural network’s operations are largely opaque and inscrutable. It is, in other words, a black box. And as these black boxes assume responsibility for more and more of our daily digital tasks, they are not only going to change our relationship with technology—they are going to change how we think about ourselves, our world, and our place within it.”

Of course, I needed a plot to go with those ideas, so I decided on a theme that no safeguards against artificially intelligent robots escaping control could protect against human greed and depravity. I found lots of good resources to help formulate a plot to support that theme.

In that plot, Russian mobsters bribe the chief programmer of a company that makes lifelike androids to alter the operating systems of androids belonging to wealthy people. Those androids would then kill their owners, be re-engineered to mimic them, take their place, and loot their wealth for the mobsters.

Sometimes, though, it won’t be articles I’ve read, but technology-related experiences that trigger a plot idea. The plot for my latest novel, The Happy Chip, arose when I realized how extensively companies like Facebook and Google were compiling data on my personal habits. That data, I realized, could evolve into a form of control. I wondered “What if people could have chips implanted that would give them data on themselves?” From there, the plot evolved in which corrupt company executives transform data chips into control chips.

My plot-conceiving technique has worked incredibly well. I now have 20 novel plots lined up and more coming. Now, I just have to write the books!


Should an author rewrite a published novel? I did.

1 08 2016

While non-fiction authors routinely produce new editions of their books, novelists don’t, with only rare exceptions. 3D Rainbow Virus 2nd edition webFor example, after Random House bought Andy Weir’s self-published novel The Martian, an editor streamlined the prose before republishing it, helping it become a massive best-seller.

But how about wholesale rewriting of a published novel? Is it a good strategy editorially? Or is it just a case of an obsessive-compulsive writer who can’t let go of a story?

Such rewriting is certainly more feasible these days. Since it’s simple to publish a new ebook or a print-on-demand paperback, authors can readily go back and improve their stories. They can tighten text, streamline plot, enhance action, and draw characters more sharply.

That’s exactly what I did in rewriting my science thriller The Rainbow Virus, and I think my experience offers a useful case study of both the advantages and disadvantages of reshaping a novel.

I published The Rainbow Virus in 2013 to very good reviews on such sites as Amazon, Goodreads, and LibraryThing. While I was gratified, I came to believe that I could greatly improve the novel, based on what I learned from reader feedback and my experience publishing subsequent novels.

I didn’t get a consistent answer when I asked publishing experts about whether to rewrite the novel. My book designer nixed the idea, surprised I’d even considered rewriting, since the reviews were good. On the other hand, a highly respected book marketer absolutely loved the idea of relaunching the title as a rewritten novel.

In the end, I decided to rewrite because of what I perceived as significant editorial shortcomings in the first edition, of both its length and plot. I didn’t feel that edition fully reflected what I wanted to create—a dynamic science thriller, a vivid cautionary tale of bioterrorism, and a satiric exploration of our pathological obsession with skin color.

Regarding length, I learned from experienced editors that authors have a tendency to write novels that are too long. I realized that was the case with The Rainbow Virus. The length problem was due to

  • Scenes that didn’t advance the plot. This problem arose because, like many novelists, I loved my characters so much, I wanted them to “have a life.” So, I wrote scenes depicting that life—for example a romantic dinner date—that didn’t propel the plot forward.
  • Lots of dialog instead of action. This violated the maxim among novelists “Show don’t tell.” I wrote too many scenes portraying meetings in which characters discussed events and strategy. Since meetings are not action, this slowed the plot.
  • Too much technical detail. In some cases, I fell into the old trap of “showing my research.” As a certified science geek, I included too much detail about biological concepts and laboratory procedures.

The plot shortcoming involved the unrealistic portrayal of a main character, Kathleen Shinohara. She is a CDC scientist who is obsessively dedicated and strong-willed. But in the novel, she falls into bed far too easily with the other main character, the disgraced, alcoholic FBI agent, Bobby Loudon. And the sex scenes between them, while not graphic, were far too extensively described.

Given these perceived shortcomings, I rewrote the novel in a way that I believe fixes both the length and plot problems. In the process, I cut it by 22,000 words, from 138,000 to 116,000. And while I kept the romance angle, I changed the plot so that Loudon had to reform himself and earn Shinohara’s respect before she would even consider a relationship.

I think the rewritten novel much more effectively achieves my literary goals. But the question remains: Should I have done it?

In a publishing sense, I had to. For one thing, I had to remedy some significant procedural mistakes I made in publishing the first edition. For one, I didn’t recruit an extensive enough cadre of beta readers, who could have pointed out the novel’s shortcomings. And, I wasn’t self-critical and ruthless enough in tightening the text and streamlining the plot. Basically, I made the kinds of mistakes that self-published authors too often make in this era where we have to be our own editors.

Indeed, readers reviewing the published novel pointed out significant shortcomings that I needed to take into account. True, reader reviews are very much a two-edged sword, because readers are “amateurs” in both the pejorative and complimentary senses of the word.

In the pejorative sense, as amateurs they lack the analytical experience of professional critics. However, in the complimentary sense, amateurs are people who do something for the love of it. These kinds of amateurs have extensive reading experience and will not be bashful about commenting on shortcomings in the novels they read.

So, I decided to take readers’ reviews as a form of crowdsource criticism—not dwelling too much on individual comments, but looking for trends. For example, several readers commented that the romance/sex angle took up too much text and got in the way of the plot.

In crafting the rewrite, I was confident I was making the novel better for new readers. But one question haunted me: Was I somehow being unfair to readers of the first edition by not having given them what I now consider my best effort?

I finally concluded that I didn’t cheat those early readers, because I published the best book that I could, and their reviews were highly positive.

Another quandary was, once I decided to produce a new edition, what should I do with it? Should I upload it as just another routine edit of the original? Or, should I trumpet its existence as “new and improved?”

We decided finally to do a total relaunch of the book as a second edition, with its own ISBN number and a new cover.  Financially, since we’re now just beginning to market the new edition, I don’t know whether the cost and effort will have represented a good investment. But creatively, I believe it was a great investment.

Authors immersed in this new era of self-publishing will face many such thorny questions. While I still haven’t figured out the wisdom of this rewrite, I hope the story of my story will benefit both authors and readers alike.

Response to “Some Questions re Eligibility for Office in the NASW”

1 07 2016

(This post is in response to NASW President Robin Marantz Henig’s answers [LINK] to the questions I raised in my postSome Questions re Eligibility for Office in the NASW” [LINK]

Robin, thanks for your answers, which did clarify things—but only a bit. There are major questions you did not address, which I believe are important in the debate over the proposed amendment that, if passed, would allow any member to hold office. It would be helpful to have at least an indication that the board and officers will be addressing those questions.

For one thing, your answer regarding writing news releases implies that writing even one release, not to mention occasional releases, would trigger the requirement that an officer step down. Is that true?

Also, I would join Rick Borchelt in asking you to address the conundrum whether an officer seeking media coverage for his/her book—which these days often requires an author to write news releases—would require the officer to step down.

Nor does your answer indicate that that there is any policy—or indeed any discussion at all—of how to interpret the vague requirement that “A substantial majority of an officer’s science-writing activities shall be journalism.” This is of significant interest to freelancers like me who engage in an eclectic, ever-changing mix of journalistic, quasi-journalistic, and news-release-writing projects to keep our heads above financial water.

Earle Holland’s point about the ambiguous nature of my communication workshops exemplifies the problem.

Your comment that “Luckily, you would have to turn down the more lucrative work of writing press releases only during the two years that you’re an officer…” reflects a very problematic reality for freelancers who contemplate seeking office.

For one thing, it means that many would have to give up a significant income while serving—in essence paying to serve as an officer. I’m sure that would discourage many freelancers from running for office.

What’s more, freelancers/officers would face the prospect that the offer of a lucrative news release assignment would force them to choose between compromising their financial well-being, or being embarrassed by having to step down.

Finally, regarding the journalism requirement for officers, I’d like to explore the issue of what constitutes “journalism” these days. The current rule was written in the last century and reflects an outmoded twentieth-century attitude regarding news releases.

Back then, the sole purpose of a news release was to affect media coverage, because that coverage was the only conduit to the public. Today, research news releases posted on services such as EurekAlert! and Newswise are available to the public online globally. In fact, they are posted right along with media stories on such news aggregators as Google News.  A recent search revealed more than 25,000 EurekAlert! and 6,000 Newswise releases on Google News.

This fact is one reason that there is a case to be made that research news releases are now, indeed, journalism.

Certainly, they don’t offer the independent assessment and perspective of a media story. However, many media research stories don’t either, merely describing the research finding.

And while there may be “flackery” in some research news releases, there also may be “hackery” in some media stories that misinterpret research.

In fact, research news releases may well be superior to news stories in their accuracy. They are usually more detailed, and arguably more accurate than media stories, because in reputable news offices, they are fact-checked by the scientists.

I hope these comments help us clarify these thorny issues of eligibility for office, and I look forward to your response.

Some Questions re Eligibility for Office in the NASW

18 06 2016

(I’m posting this letter to the NASW board members and officers, so that my fellow freelancers may have the benefit of their answers.)

Dear NASW board members and officers,

I’m writing to ask for clarification of the current rule governing elected officers, as stated in the NASW Constitution and Bylaws. The relevant passage is Article IV, Section 1:

“A substantial majority of an officer’s science-writing activities shall be journalism. Officers may not write press releases or otherwise act on behalf of an institution or company to affect media coverage while they serve in office. Officers who engage in such activities shall notify the Board immediately. They may remain on the Board, but the Board shall appoint another fully qualified member to carry out the officer duties.”

My reason for writing is that, after decades of membership in the NASW, I’d like to consider running for office, and I’d like to explore my eligibility.

As a PIO for four decades, I wasn’t eligible to serve as an officer. During that time, I did freelance for such publications as Discover, Popular Science, Air & Space, Science Digest, and newspapers and in-flight magazines. I also consulted on science museum exhibit design.

Ten years ago I left my last PIO job, and I now freelance and consult on research communication. So, I need to understand whether my mix of writing and consulting satisfies the requirement that a “substantial majority” of my science-writing activities be journalism.

I currently write nonfiction books and novels, occasional news releases, and teach communication workshops for scientists. My last commercial nonfiction book was Explaining Research (Oxford 2010). However, in 2013, I co-authored Danny’s Dream, a privately published history of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Of course, I also write the blog Research Explainer, on which this letter is posted.

Does the “substantial majority” rule pertain strictly to word count, or would a nonfiction book be considered as the equivalent of one media article? I suspect not, and if the appropriate measure is word count—given that Explaining Research is 100,000 words—how many words’ worth of news releases may I write and still maintain a substantial majority? Also, is there a “statute of limitations,” such that a book published a given number of years ago could not be considered in the substantial majority measure?

Would Danny’s Dream count as a published book, given that it was privately produced for an internal audience? If so, since I co-authored the book, and if word count is the criterion, would I count half the words toward my substantial majority?

I am currently writing a nonfiction book on the social impacts of global warming. Given that books take years of writing, could I count the words as I write them toward the substantial journalistic majority?

Do science fiction novels count as science journalism? I write so-called “science thrillers,” which are adventure stories that extrapolate from real science, as opposed to, for example, Vampires vs Zombies. Would a nominating committee want to review the novels, to judge their scientific content?

Does the rule that “Officers may not write press releases” (emphasis added) mean that, if I were elected an officer, I could write a single release and still remain in office? Or, perhaps a limited number? For example, St. Jude asks me to write a couple of releases every six months or so, as a backup for their science writer. How many of those releases over what period may I write before I would have to relinquish my officer duties? Might I be allowed two per year, for example?

I’d hate to forgo the income from those releases. As I’m sure you well appreciate, freelancing is a financially precarious business. Also, I’d hate to risk losing St. Jude as a client. If I’m elected, perhaps my St. Jude editor would understand and keep me on their list of contributors if the Board could provide a statement to the effect that my officer’s duties preclude writing news releases.

Also, I currently write occasional summaries of research for the web site of MIT’s Sloan School of Management Initiative for Health Systems Innovation. Since those summaries are not meant to “affect media coverage,” would they be considered news releases? If not, could they count toward my substantial majority?

Finally, word-counting wouldn’t apply for my communication workshops. If, indeed, those workshops do qualify as journalism, I’d appreciate guidance on how they would count toward my substantial majority. The workshops typically last from a few hours to days, but they may take weeks of preparation and practice.

I’m aware, of course, that there is under consideration a proposed amendment to the constitution and bylaws that would render these questions moot. However, given that the Board has expressed its position that the current rule should remain in place, I’m assuming that the above questions will remain relevant.

Thanks so much for considering these issues, and I look forward to your response.


Dennis Meredith

What’s Missing From the Chimp Rights Case: Chimp “Testimony”

22 04 2015

A new ruling by a judge in the New York Supreme Court has opened the way for legal arguments about whether chimpanzees should have “legal personhood.” To be clear, legal personhood doesn’t mean that chimps would be voting or having coffee at the local Starbuck’s, but that they would have the right to a fulfilling life in a humane environment, just as do people. (See this essay by Natalie Prosin for an excellent discussion of the issue.)

Nonhuman Rights Project logoAnd the ruling only ordered a hearing “to show cause,” not that the court was addressing the issue of whether the chimps had a right to a writ of habeas corpus.

The case brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project will be argued on both legal and scientific grounds. But I’m sure the hearing will not include “testimony” from the very creatures at the center of the controversy.

Obviously, I do not mean testimony in the sense of a chimp taking the stand, swearing on the Bible, and giving evidence. Rather, I believe that the case could be greatly informed by chimpanzees’ own spontaneous behavior—first-hand observations that go to the very heart of the case for legal personhood. I would argue that such behavior constitutes “testimony,” in that it portrays truths regarding chimpanzees that should be relevant in a court of law.

As examples, I offer my observations of chimp behavior during research for my novel Solomon’s Freedom, a fictional account of a court case seeking legal personhood for a chimpanzee. (Note: Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, advised on the book.)

To research the novel, my wife Joni and I spent several weeks in The Ohio State University Chimpanzee Center, watching the chimps involved in numerical cognition research by psychologist Sally Boysen.

Negotiating a paycheck

In a typical research session, a chimp would take his (or her) place on a platform on the other side of a Plexiglas boysen5window from Sally or another researcher. In front of the chimp would be a touch screen, and Sally would present number problems requiring the chimp to pick the right answer by touching the screen. For a correct answer, the chimp would get a candy that Sally inserted through a small hole in the window.

Working for a reward is not unusual in such studies. But what I thought was most telling was the “negotiation” that followed the research session.

At the end of the session would come a “payday,” in which Sally would take a paper bag over to a cabinet in sight of the chimp and proceed to put more goodies into the bag for the chimp. But the chimp was no chump. Sally would drop a few treats into the bag, and if the chimp didn’t think the pay was sufficient, he would give a decided negative shake of the head. So, Sally would add a few more goodies. Only when the chimp decided the “pay” was sufficient would he deem it acceptable with a nod of the head.

Browsing a magazine

Then there was the “magazine incident.” One day, I was standing near one of the chimps’ outdoor cages, and he emerged carrying a magazine. He proceeded to lie on his back, prop up one foot on his knee and leaf through the magazine, uttering appreciative grunts. Was he actually looking at a magazine, or only mimicking something he’d seen humans do?

Sally said that chimps did, indeed, like to look at the pictures in magazines, and did seem to recognize them as images of real objects.

In fact, Sally’s experiments demonstrated more rigorously that chimps can grasp abstractions. In one study, the researchers hid a toy Coke can in a model of the chimps’ playroom. They then released the chimp into the real playroom, and the chimp was, in many cases, able to immediately retrieve the Coke from its hiding place.

While most portrayals of chimps show them as violently screaming or passively munching food or lounging, we did see instances of the same kind of curiosity that humans display.

For example, one day Joni was planting flowers outside one of the outdoor cages, when a chimp approached, sat down and proceeded to quietly watch her at her work. She explained to the chimp what she was doing, and the chimp would periodically amble off and return to resume watching. After a while, Joni became intent on her gardening, no longer talking to the chimp. The chimp went away and shortly returned.

He then launched a mouthful of water across a distance of several feet into Joni’s face. Whether it was a demand for attention, a joke, or an aggressive act, it was clearly a strategic act of communication by a deliberative creature.

Getting darted

However, perhaps the most telling bit of “testimony” about chimp behavior relevant to legal personhood was the episode I witnessed of the chimp Bobby being tranquilized. Bobby had developed a cough, and the researchers wanted to make sure it wasn’t pneumonia. So, he had to be anesthetized with a tranquilizer dart gun, to be given a chest x-ray and health exam.

When Sally approached the cages with the dart gun, an enormous uproar rose among the chimps. According to Sally, it was the standard panicked response, because the chimps knew that one of them was about to be darted.

She approached a nervous Bobby and said, “Now, I’m going to have to dart you, so show me your rump.” It was important for Bobby to present his rump, so the dart would safely hit a fleshy part of his body.

Bobby complied, turning his rump toward Sally. She fired. The dart bounced off Bobby’s thick hide.

“Bring me the dart,” she instructed.

Bobby brought her the dart and once again turned his rump to her. She reloaded and fired again. This dart embedded itself into Bobby’s thigh.

“Now pull out the dart and bring it to me,” Sally instructed. Bobby obeyed.

“Now you’re going to go to sleep, so lay down,” she said. This command was important so that Bobby wouldn’t climb to a place where falling would injure him, Bobby laid down and was soon unconscious.

Such “testimony” revealing such evocative behaviors will not likely find its way into court proceedings to decide whether chimpanzees deserve legal personhood.

But it should.

(Notes: See this list of resources for further background on chimpanzee research and the case for legal personhood. Dr. Boysen’s laboratory was closed by the university in 2006.)

New Novel “Solomon’s Freedom” Dramatizes Chimp Rights Controversy

2 07 2014

Should the life of a chimpanzee — particularly one taught to use language — be sacrificed to save a man’s life? That’s the provocative moral question posed by the new novel Solomon’s Freedom by Dennis Meredith.

In Solomon’s Freedom, flamboyant defense attorney Bobby Colter finds himself arguing for the life of a client Solomon's Freedom coverquite different from his usual string of miscreants. Solomon is a chimpanzee, and a unique ambassador for his species. He has been taught from infancy to express himself using a touch-screen computer. His educator and champion is Dr. Abigail Philips, a dedicated scientist who took over research on chimp intelligence after her primatologist father died.

But her laboratory is in financial peril, and billionaire media tycoon Walter Drake seems the ideal rescuer. He donates $10 million to the laboratory, in return for a seemingly innocuous stipulation. He asks for legal control of Solomon, promising to house the aging chimp comfortably in a spacious facility on his property, allowing Abby to continue her research.

That is, until Solomon’s life will be sacrificed to save Drake’s. He had an ulterior motive. Research that Drake funded on tissue engineering will enable his scientists to “harvest” Solomon’s heart to use its extracellular scaffolding to grow a new heart for the ailing mogul, from his own cells.

The success of the transplant would set a stunning precedent, encouraging the sacrifice of a thousand chimpanzees in sanctuaries for transplant donors. What’s more, Drake pledges to support preservation of wild chimpanzees and the breeding and “sustainable harvesting” of countless more for their organs.

The lawyer Colter, hired by animal rights advocate Sarah Huntington — a foe of Drake, but also his estranged mother — finds himself embroiled in the most controversial and challenging case of his career.

“Of course, I wanted to write a novel with engaging characters, surprising plot twists, and a dramatic climax,” says Meredith. “But I also wanted to write a book that explored the complex and emotional moral issues we face in deciding the fate of our closest living primate relatives.”

In researching Solomon’s Freedom, Meredith drew on chimpanzee studies by Jane Goodall, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, and other researchers, and on the legal writings and advocacy by Steven M. Wise, a leading animal rights attorney. Wise and his group The Nonhuman Rights Project are currently engaged in court battles to attain “legal personhood” for chimpanzees. (Here is  a list of sources that inspired the novel.)

But the greatest influence on the novel arose from the time Meredith spent with the chimpanzees at Ohio State University’s Animal Care Center. Led by psychologist Sally Boysen, the research center was exploring the ability of chimpanzees to learn mathematical concepts.

“The experience profoundly inspired me,” says Meredith. “I’d done all this literature research on chimps, but that didn’t prepare me for the personal experience of hanging out with them — pun intended. Chimps display extraordinary intelligence in the wild, but more revelatory for me was seeing them deftly solve arithmetical problems and show other intelligent behaviors that could only be termed human-like.

“I remember sitting beside one of their outdoor cages and seeing a chimp emerge with a magazine. He proceeded to lie on his back, prop up his feet and flip through its pages, uttering contented grunts. Sally told me the chimps like to look at the pictures. Of course, he was still a chimp, so he later shredded the magazine for his bedding — a sensible step, I thought.”

Meredith also drew on the results of behavioral studies by Boysen and her colleagues that revealed the depths, and limits, of chimp intelligence. In one telling experiment, Boysen and her colleagues tested whether chimps who witnessed a miniature soda can being hidden in a model of a room could find the real soda can hidden in the actual room. Some of the chimps did find the hidden cans, showing that they possessed conceptual abilities related to language.

Unfortunately for Boysen’s research, fiction turned out to follow a sad reality. The university subsequently shut down her laboratory for financial reasons and sent the animals to sanctuaries. In honor of Boysen’s chimps, Meredith named the main human characters in his novel after them.

While the fictional Solomon is adept at using language, a major question that the novel raises is whether real chimps could possibly master language. There have been studies indicating that chimps can understand and use language concepts. One such chimpanzee was Washoe, who was taught American Sign Language by researchers Allen and Beatrix Gardner. In other prominent experiments, primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and colleagues taught the bonobo Kanzi and others to learn some language using keyboard lexigrams.

“However, there has never been a research project like the one described in Solomon’s Freedom, in which a chimpanzee has been intensively taught from infancy over decades to communicate using the rich medium of the touch screen,” says Meredith.

“And there is some evidence that chimpanzees, like humans, have a ‘critical period’ in infancy in which they could readily absorb language,” he says.

“So, I believe it entirely possible that if language-learning were begun early enough and with the right tool and enough time, chimps could exhibit substantial language abilities. However, given the cost and time involved, I doubt there ever will be such a study — which is a shame because of the scientific insights it would yield,” says Meredith.

Dennis Meredith brings to his novels an expertise in science from his career as a science communicator at leading research universities, including MIT, Caltech, Cornell, Duke, and the University of Wisconsin. His nonfiction books include Explaining Research (Oxford 2010), and his previous novels are The Rainbow Virus (Glyphus, 2013) and Wormholes (Glyphus, 2013).

The Hummingbird

21 07 2012

Sometimes we writers need to provide a respite from our all-too-tumultuous, sometimes-tragic world. In a departure from this blog’s usual topic, here’s a little story from the mountains of North Carolina:

I first saw the hummingbird as I was moving furniture on the screened porch. He was a bedraggled clump of feathers no larger than a cotton ball, slumped on the floor, wings spread. He had clearly been trapped in the porch after having flown in the open door, and had worn himself out flying against the screen. I felt responsible because the day before, I’d left the door open while cleaning. It was a sad irony that the little bird had flown thousands of miles from Central America on his migration, only to die on a screened porch in North Carolina.

Since I thought he was dead, I scooped him up to carry him outside. But somehow he didn’t feel dead in my hand. He moved slightly, and began to give out occasional faint cheeps. He was still alive! But he was limp, and his feathers were tattered from thrashing against the screen. I also knew he was dying because during summer hummingbirds only store enough energy to survive overnight, and this one had likely been in the porch for much longer, wearing himself out futilely trying to escape.

I thought he might have a chance to survive if I set him on a feeder. So I brought him upstairs and tried to position him with his claws gripping a perch and his beak inserted into the plastic flower. So all he had to do was extend his tongue to feed. It wasn’t easy getting him positioned because he weighed almost nothing and was so tiny. I dropped him several times, and as he hit the floor, I hoped I hadn’t injured him further.

I finally maneuvered him into a stable position and left him to go inside and get the camera. But when I looked through the window, I saw that he had somehow dislodged himself and was hanging upside down from the perch, clinging to it with a single claw. I repositioned him several times, only to see him work loose, but still hang on to the perch, literally for dear life. I had to do something else.

He needed to be in a position to feed without having to grip a perch. So I placed him on the porch railing and found a pink milk bottle top, filled it with nectar, and held it against his beak. Maybe the pink color would induce him to feed. Then, to give him more elevation, I placed him on a jar top so he could feed downward at a natural angle.

All the time, I was buzzed by the cloud of dozens of impatient hummingbirds who come to the feeders. One even swooped down to investigate the bottle top, hovering by my hand as I tried to get the little hummingbird to feed. Bees and wasps also buzzed me, but I held my ground. I realized my other hand was cramping because I was unconsciously gripping the porch post so hard.

The hummingbird still didn’t respond. His breathing was indiscernible, and only an occasional slight movement told me he was still alive. I persisted, keeping his beak in contact with the nectar. Then after fifteen minutes or so, he opened his beak slightly. He’d tasted the nectar! I waited, keeping his beak in the liquid. He began to open his beak more often.

Then I saw a subtle telltale movement in the nectar. He’d begun to flick out a tiny translucent tongue slimmer than a thread. Over the next minutes, his feeding grew more frequent, the tongue extending farther into the nectar. I could tell his breathing was growing stronger, because the iridescent green feathers on his back began to rapidly rise and fall. He moved his head slightly, another sign he was reviving. Since he was gaining strength, I took the chance to shoot a photo, holding the camera in one hand and the bottle cap in the other.

I continued to feed him, determined to stay until he either revived enough to test his wings, or finally died. I bent down to see whether his eyes were open, but they remained closed. Maybe he had been too far gone after all. The bottle cap needed more nectar, so I turned away to get the nectar jar.

And whoosh! He was gone! I caught only a glimpse of a feathered streak sailing away into the distance.