If I was to listen to advice from Rachel Carson while writing my novel I would imagine she'd tell me to immerse myself in the places I want to write about. I've always done that, with all of my books. So no surprise I spent a week in Maine combing the same beaches she did while working on her book The Edge of the Sea (1956), and in her final years, Silent Spring (1962). I wanted to see what she saw as a fervent observer of the natural world.
Rachel used the money gained from her fame as an author of the sea trilogy to buy a house on Maine's mid-coast. It was there she met and continued her special relationship with Dorothy Freeman. No wonder her cottage was a refuge, the Maine coast is picturesque and mysterious.
On the day we arrived in Southport for our short mid-June vacation, a fog was creeping up the Sheepscot River into the small cove where we stayed. My husband thought it was smoke and asked "where's the fire?" That night he insisted we watch the 1980 movie The Fog to remember the creepy feeling of watching the mist roll in like a creature from another world. Perfect for a horror flick. I read somewhere the locals call it the vapors.
That's making it into my novel.
Then there's the tide pools. I grew up around freshwater lakes. In fact, I was eighteen when I first saw the ocean and even then my experiences have been limited to the sandy beaches of the Jersey Shore or Florida (one stint snorkeling a coral reef in Kauai).
Rachel Carson was late to the ocean as well. She landed a summer scholarship to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute after college and this launched her passion to write about the sea.
It's in her third book, The Edge of the Sea, she really puts her observational skills to work. Her explanation of the reproductive habits of the sea creatures is amazing, yet it's her vivid descriptions of the tidal pools, and colorful characteristics of the shifting, brimming with life ecosystems, that shine in this work.
I went to the Rachel Carson Salt Pond Preserve to see what was so special about this place she called her summer home. The place where, I imagine, she allowed herself to observe, write, collect her thoughts without worldly distractions. Almost as if Lindbergh's Gift From the Sea was written about her.
You have to have patience and dexterity to navigate the large boulders of the tidal pools in Maine's mid-Coast. The rocks are upended from geological faults so that they appear to have been pushed onto shore by a giant hand creating an accordion effect. The rocks glaze with crystalline striations of mica and quartz. Once I conquered the rocks, I found small pools where the ocean is trapped for a few hours while the tide is out.
My view lands on a rock coated in red, submerged in a small pool of water. I identified it as coralline algae, a red algae that can secrete lime and encrust the surface of rocks. There were clumps of cladophora that resemble green mermaid hair until you pick it up and the strands feel like slime. And the rockweeds.
While I was examining the tidal pools, I noticed on shore, some visitors, sitting in chairs, on the beach, on their phones. And I wondered. What is it? Why isn't this important enough? I know venturing onto treacherous rocks is not everybody's gig; I feel lucky I still can. But why not put that phone away and observe everything else? The gulls swooping in to devour whatever crabs or urchins they can discover amongst the rockweeds, the moaning of an ebbing sea, the faint clang of a line on the masthead of a sailboat moored offshore.
The tidal pools in Maine made me step into a mode where I was present, not wondering what was happening later, where we'd eat dinner, just being. There's a story here that needs to be told and the only way to write it is to remember that feeling.
Author note: I'll be running a workshop for Writers in the Mountains November 4th 2023 at their annual retreat on creating setting and place for your novel.
As famous as she was from winning the National Book Award for The Sea Around Us, Rachel was averse to public speaking and aggrandizement, much to the chagrin of her agent. When The Edge of the Sea hit the New York Times Bestseller list in the fall of 1955, she had numerous requests to speak at public events and declined most of them.
She was a solid "NO" to the numerous requests from magazines to run a profile on her as well. Rachel didn't see her author life as a brand and didn't seek the attention. I'm not sure if she was afraid of the scrutiny she would receive by allowing the press into her personal life, or her natural shyness, but it doesn't mean she wasn't focused on the success of her work.
Indeed, The Edge of the Sea and another book about life at the sea, albeit, a non-scientific and philosophical take, Anne Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea exchanged places on the top ten list throughout 1955-56 on various news outlets. Rachel takes note of it in letters to her friend, Dorothy.
"...I truly-even now-don't expect The Edge (The Edge of the Sea) ever to reach #1 spot, but I'd be happy that it is Mrs. Lindbergh's book and not something sensational or trashy."
Trashy included the book about a woman who under hypnosis discovers she'd lived another life decades earlier. After years of being at the top ten, Rachel doesn't hold back on her disdain for losing rank to Bridey Murphy (1956) which hit #1 on Chicago Tribune in 1956. "I think this silly Bridey Murphy thing is going to scoot right up and crowd Mrs. Lindbergh...The Edge by the way is No. 6- up one." And then weeks later, "That wretched Bridey Murphy thing has displaced Mrs. Lindbergh! That is really a blow. "
Rachel didn't have to deal with today's social media spotlight that casts rays well beyond the reach of newspapers or magazines of her time. And she wasn't in a position to write anything with a pseudonym like Elena Ferrante, you don't get the chance to write a biography of the sea, and a scathing indictment against the chemical industry anonymously. Yet, her detachment from public scrutiny allowed her to write one of her most challenging work of all--Silent Spring (1962). And then all hell broke loose.
With that in mind, I've gotten to 7k words in this novel set in Maine that has Rachel as a 'macguffin' in the story. And I'm thinking with the holidays coming, this might be time to shut down my own social media, and detach myself from that public for a few weeks so I can keep writing.
Happy Holidays everyone! See you in the New Year.
Rachel had a best friend, Dorothy. They met in Southport, Maine, where both owned a summer cottage. They wrote to each other constantly while Rachel was working on her book The Edge of the Sea (1955). In fact, Rachel dedicated the book to Dorothy and her husband Stan Freeman. Their friendship provided Rachel with stability she needed while maintaining her household (her mother passed and she had to adopt her niece's son, Roger) and adapting to her fame after winning the National Book Award for The Sea Around Us.
In her letters, Rachel told Dorothy:
"All I am certain of is this: that it is quite necessary for me to know that there is someone who is deeply devoted to me as a person, and who also has the capacity and understanding to share, vicariously, the sometimes crushing burden of creative effort."
It may sound glamorous, but being an author means spending a boat-load of time alone. Just you and your laptop at a cafe, desk, library. Whatever. Rachel spent a lot of time writing at her home in Maryland so she could spend her summers in Maine with Dorothy. They would watch the tides, collect specimens, and listen for veeries singing in the woods.
Rachel had other, less personal connections, scientists she relied on for data, editors, nature writers, and people of influence in the world of literature. Unassuming by nature, she was not shy about approaching people for assistance and guidance. That's a benefit in the world of writing. Writing, as Rachel says in another letter to Dorothy: "is hard and full of anguish and disappointments, but I also know it brings deep satisfactions and rewards that have nothing to do with best-sellerdom."
Many of those satisfactions are in making connections with librarians, archivists, authors, and the many people involved in the publishing process. And let's not forget the readers. It may only take one avid fan, as Dorothy was for Rachel, motivating an author to keep going. It helps having people believe in you.
Source: Always, Rachel. The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman 1952-1964. Edited by Martha Freeman. 1995.
Hi, I'm an author of contemporary and historical fiction. My next novel features a young protagonist from a lobstering family living on an island in Maine who pretends she's doing research for Rachel Carson to impress the people in her small town. Join me as I procrastinate writing the novel by blogging about Rachel.
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