How to make a feather quill

During research for my time travel story set in the French Renaissance in the early 16th century, my fingers started itching to use a feather quill as my time-traveling protagonist did. I found some how-to websites and got started.

First, obviously, you need some nice feathers. I’ve been told the use of certain birds’ feathers may be forbidden in some countries, so please make sure you know where your feather comes from.

Other items you will need:

  • Soapy water and an old toothbrush or
  • Space in a freezer
  • A recipient big enough your feather fits completely in
  • Sand
  • An oven-proof recipient
  • A sharp knife, an x-acto knife or a cutter work best
  • A cutting board
  • Ink and paper

One internet source says to scrub them in soapy water (with an old toothbrush, for example). During a zoo visit, a bird keeper told me that leaving the feathers in the freezer for a day or two would kill off any vermin. (I left mine for two days, to be on the safe side.)

If you wash them, the next step is obviously letting them dry.

Then you shave off the fibers near the tip because once you dip your quill into the inkwell, you don’t want to have them dripping with ink.

Next you leave them in water overnight. The instructions say this makes them soft and easy to bend.

Again, you let them dry.

Heat sand in the oven to 350°F/175°C. Stick the feathers into the hot sand once you take it from the oven and leave them in there while the sand cools. This is supposed to harden the feather so you won’t have to resharpen it too often.

Now comes the trickiest part – cutting the tip into the right shape. Be warned, the feather is still surprisingly hard and cutting it in the shape you want will not be easy. Use a pen to trace the shape on the tip and then cut along your markings. This is more carving than cutting, actually. Once your nib has the right shape, you need to make a split at the center.

Now all you need is an inkwell, paper, and some practice. Look what my 10-year-old daughter did when I let her choose one of my feathers.

And to to round it off nicely, here’s some history:

In Europe, the feather replaced the reed pen for writing in the 6th century CE. The birds whose feathers were most commonly used besides the goose were raven, duck and grouse for fine writing, and vulture and eagle feathers for bold writing. The feather dominates writing in Europe through the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Classical Period, until the invention of the metal-tip pen in the 19th century.

My web sources: and

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Describing unusual physical experiences

Is your protagonist more daredevil than you, the writer? Would they jump from a cliff into the ocean to save their love interest/board the pirate ship/recover a treasure/win a bet?
So you have never jumped off a cliff and have no intention to do so in the name of research, but you want to make sure your description of the scene is authentic? In that case, your best bet is to find someone who has jumped off a cliff.
Now let’s say you have gone through an exceptional physical experience that might make it onto the page. That’s handy, but how well do you remember it?

One of the first times in my life that I went canoeing, during a homestay in eastern Canada, the river was running high with meltwater from the previous week’s snowstorm. Of course, our canoe capsized on that occasion, throwing inexperienced me into ice cold water. It was a memorable experience for sure, but if I had my protagonist go through it, I wouldn’t be able to describe details beyond “as long as I was in the water, it didn’t feel all that cold”.

So here’s my advice: If you happen to live through such an experience or choose it on purpose, write down as many details as possible as soon as you can. You never know when you might need it. (Or maybe you can help out a fellow writer!)
I’ll share mine here, not the canoe one, but another that involves cold water.

On the beach of Saint Malo in northern Brittany, there’s a swimming pool that is filled by the tides. A few years ago, in mid-May, I decided to take the plunge despite water temperatures being 12-13°C (around 54°F).

Not surprisingly, I had the pool all to myself!

“Going in, its cold. First minute of swimming (I’m equipped with a regular swimsuit, swim cap and goggles), it’s cold. I swim fast, or at last with fast movements (for me). Then it gets better. I don’t see a thing underwater, it’s full of tiny particles, sad! Disoriented, I never swim in a straight line. Instead of the far wall, I end up at the side wall where the diving tower is. After 4 lengths, I could still go on but I leave. Afraid of shaking and shivering once I’m out. (I’ve done this before, but it’s been years.) I’m out. But it’s not so bad. I’m not really cold. I feel a bit cold as I get dressed (on the beach). I start shivering several minutes later. Despite several layers of clothing I’m still cold. An hour later, I’m better. The last to feel still cold are hands and feet. I’d do it again.”
Note: Once I got dressed, I sat around on the beach (no sun) waiting for my family who were flying a kite, so very little movement.

I’ve done it again since, but this was the lowest water temperature I’ve had so far.

Even in July 2020, with the shining in a blue sky, the water is cold (17-18°C)!
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