Given my love for the natural world, I hit the jackpot when my dear friend Diana lost her mind and brought home four baby chicks in early April. I immediately recognized that I’ll gleefully use chicken-raising in a novel (definitely in an urban setting, too; Diana and her husband live within the city limits and could easily throw a stone into their neighbors’ yards) based on the fun of this effortless research. My husband and I went over to see the brood box lined with pine shavings in their garage. It was masterfully done, complete with heat lamp, two large thermometers, feed and water systems. A small roost completed this chick world, the entirety of which measured about two by three feet with eighteen inch walls. It had to be maintained at ninety degrees; I hear chicks are picky about that. Apparently there’d been one screw up on an especially warm day and all the chicks’ eggs had nearly been fried before they’d ever been laid, but the overzealous heat lamp had been corrected in time.
Weeks passed and the ordered-in-advance coop didn’t come and didn’t come. It seems that baby chicks grow faster than dandelions in April. The brood box was expanded, but finally Diana had to let them loose in the garage during the day so they didn’t peck each other to death or whatever chicks do when the brood box gets too small. While the couple was at work, the growing chickens ran around crapping on a garage floor that’s always been kept more pristine than my kitchen. At night they’d go back in the brood box to sleep while Diana scrubbed the garage floor to relax.
The big, heavy coop finally arrived in a large truck delivery, and was uncrated, assembled and connected to a newly-constructed chicken run in record time, all the while Diana eyed the birds especially closely. Oops. The chick she’d named Amy was starting to look alarmingly like an Amos. We tried to reassure Diana that the thing emerging on top of Amy’s head was probably a wart, not a comb, even if she did have those unfeminine, thick legs. The worry is that chickens are perfectly legal within the city limits, but roosters are a giant no-no. It’s still too soon to know for sure. The chicks are big enough and it’s warm enough weather that they’re all out in the coop now, Diana becoming a reluctant expert on sexing chickens.
Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are their names. Three of them are Americaunas and one, Jo, a Rhode Island Red of the probably variety. Diana says she’s the sweet one, introducing me to the idea that chickens have personalities. Better and better fodder for fiction, I say. I had practically begged her to name them after the Dixie Chicks, with the biggest and yellowest called Dixie, and the others to be Martie, Emily and Natalie, but my brilliant and creative nomination lost out to her husband’s staid suggestion. Maybe I should have been thrilled they went such a literary route, but Dixie and The Chicks appealed to my unmuzzled political side. Anyway, now I’m happy Diana didn’t use the really good names because they’re all mine for my next novel.
People ask me Where do you get your ideas? all the time. The truth is that ideas crawl up into my lap like babies begging for attention. It’s choosing among them that’s difficult. I think a writer has to be curious, engaged in the world, and willing to extrapolate imaginatively from it into fiction. On a grand scale, that’s exactly what Colum McCann did when he wrote Let The Great World Spin, which takes off from the real tightrope walker, Philippe Pettit, who daredeviled his way between the twin towers of New York in 1974.
I haven’t seen Diana since the chicks have been moved to the assembled outdoor coop, but we’re getting together this weekend. I’ll see for myself how they’re doing in the coop, find out if Amy is looking any more like Amos and if there’s worse news—Meg had started to raise a bit of suspicion, too. Was she briefly cross-dressing, or is she really Mark? How are the two male cats enjoying sharing the yard with the Little Women? It’ll be like finally getting to read the next chapter of a really entertaining novel.