Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ant Farm Blues

Here is a very crooked photo of my very new ant farm.

Why, you may ask, have I acquired an ant farm? And why do so many of the ants in it look dead?

Let me explain.

Last May I went to NYC to visit my sister, Cheryl, and her bookseller husband, Carey, and to go with them to the book-lovers extravaganza that is Book Expo America, held at the Javits Convention Center on the West Side of Manhattan. I figured that while I was there I should try to meet up with my agent and editors, so I set up a breakfast with Nancy Hinkel of Knopf/Random House, a lunch with Margaret Ferguson of FSG, and a chat with my agent Stephen Fraser, where we spent most of our time talking about George MacDonald's Victorian children's novel At the Back of the North Wind, the topic of the master's thesis he wrote for his graduate program in children's literature at Simmons College some years ago (I love having an agent who adores Victorian children's literature as much as I do).

At my breakfast with Nancy Hinkel, we tossed about possible ideas for my next book for Random House, and she said that she'd be interested in seeing what I could do with my character Nora, who appears in my three Mason Dixon books. In contrast to ever-pessimistic Mason and ever-optimistic Brody, Nora is the calm, clear-eyed, serious, sensible scientist who is always thinking of new experiments to do with her ant farm.  "I could use a book about a girl with an ant farm," Nancy told me.

That was all I needed to hear. I worked up a proposal for a three-book series, The Nora Notebooks. I wrote the sample chapter for the first book, The Trouble with Ants, while I was up in Silverthorne last August on retreat with my writing group. During our flood of the century here in Boulder last September, I got word that Nancy loved the proposal. While I was away doing a week of school visits in October, I got word that the formal offer for the series had come through, with very tight deadlines: all three 25,000 word books to be done by this coming June, the first due December 15.

It was time to get serious about writing. Step one was to get serious about setting myself up as an ant farmer. I ordered Uncle Milton's ant farm online, and it arrived on Thursday, a worrisome day, as it was quite cold, and live arrival of the ants was not guaranteed in temperatures below 40 degrees. But I saw them scurrying around quite lively in their little tube.

With the help of my son Christopher and my daughter-in-law, Ashley, the ant farm was set up. Sand was poured in and moistened with water. The instructions called for a quarter cup of water, which seemed like an awful lot, so I put in less; in retrospect that was a mistake. The ants -  the brochure that came with them warned that they are stinging ants - were transferred with great fear and trembling into their abode to get to work doing fascinating ant activities.

Yesterday morning they were alive. But yesterday afternoon, their first try at a tunnel collapsed. Was the sand too dry? I added more water, hoping I wouldn't drown them. My husband reassured me that in nature, after all, ants do experience sudden downpours.

This morning, however, I have to report that most of them appear to be non-living.

I can order replacement ants. But it's definitely a disheartening beginning. Of course, a true scientist like Nora wouldn't be daunted at all. She'd be eager to order more ants, alter the variables, test for the most favorable conditions, graph the number of living and dead ants under each configuration. I need to channel Nora!

But first I may need to have an ant funeral.



  1. HUSBAND???

    Love the whole idea! And I think Nancy Hinkel was at Knopf when I was just starting there! Have a terrific time with the ants--and the books! Sally

  2. I'm sorry for your ants, but it sounds like exactly the kind of experience that you wanted for the book.

    This sounds like a book that Josie and I would enjoy. Last week she was bored and asked me if she could experiment with water and corn starch, which her teacher had told her would be interesting. Of course I said "yes, as long as you clean up any mess", and soon Ben had joined in the fun. While pretending to read, I listened carefully to their deliberations. They mixed up one batch but weren't happy with the results. Josie said "We should experiment with different amounts of water and corn starch. I'll get a notebook, so we can write down our observations.". My scientific heart was filled with pride!

  3. Love your story of eavesdropping on your budding scientists,Scott! Josie sounds like a girl after my fictional Nora's heart! And I think my ants are alive, after all. I didn't realize that sleeping ants look very much like dead ones. :)