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: https://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Quill-Pen-out-of-a-Feather and https://minervaspencer.com/how-to-make-a-quill-pen-the-real-way-and-also-the-cheaters-way/

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Beware of anachronisms

When I’m reading, one thing that’ll jolt me out like nothing else is anachronisms. Please do your research and make sure that nothing is out of place/time.

Time itself is a prime example of anachronisms in stories set in the past or in fantasy settings inspired by the past. In a medieval setting (which is also still very popular in fantasy), even though there are clocks in church towers or secular public buildings, people are unlikely to carry a time piece around with them and say “We’ll meet again in 30 minutes” or even “Wait a minute”. (Unless otherwise specified in your fantasy world building, of course.)

Another example of an anachronism is the mention of electricity passing between the protagonist and the love interest in a book set in Ancient Rome. It jolted me so much out of the story that I haven’t read any of the other books by the author, even though I’m a huge fan of Ancient Rome stories.

You don’t want that to happen with your readers, do you?

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A comprehensive guide to world building (not by me)

I am not going to expound on world building because I can’t claim to be an expert. However, I would like to present the four-part article “The Challenge of Creating A Believable World” by writer Dina von Lowencraft (author of the YA fantasy DRAGON FIRE), as it is the most comprehensive I have come across so far. The article includes several lists of questions to guide your own world building:

Part One “The Physical World” goes over the basic building blocks of world building.

Part Two “The Inhabitants of Your World” takes a closer look at society and how it shapes its inhabitants.

Part Three “The Inherent Conflicts/Issues in Your World” explores different kinds of conflicts linked directly or indirectly to world building.

Part Four “Showing Your World” looks at different ways to show your world building in your story.

Please check out Dina’s book DRAGON FIRE on GoodReads

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Some quick thoughts on names

Chances are, unless you’re writing historical fiction (and maybe even then), you’ll need to name lots of characters. Let me share some tips:

If you are writing real-world fiction, consider what realistic names are/were in your chosen time and place. Even if you give your protagonist a “special” name, unless it’s a main feature of your story, most named characters shouldn’t have “special” names. For research, try “baby names popular in year X” (with X being the year of your story minus the age of the character you’re naming, obviously).

For foreign settings, try to find someone from that country/area to confirm your choices (I assure you there are not as many Pierre Dupont in France as you might think, or Hans Meier in Germany). That is especially true with names from cultures where naming rules are different from what you are used to (Chinese names are a prime example).

For stories set in certain time periods or communities, learn about naming customs. Ancient Rome had rather straightforward naming rules that can easily be reproduced and applied to fictional characters. Closer to home, in my grandma’s region of Eastern Frisia, children would receive the same names over and over again from generation to generation, and if in those big families a child died, the next one born would get that child’s name. (Much to genealogists’ despair, I’m sure.)

In a fantasy or sci-fi world, it is you who make the rules, and this includes naming. However, even there it is a good idea to remember to keep your names pronounceable. When I was reading the Never-Ending Story for the first time as a kid (when it was first released and before any movie adaptation), I struggled with the pronunciation of all the names of people and places, it annoyed me to no end. As editor Heather Alexander said at a writers’ conference I attended a few years ago, “you want your readers to be able to talk about your book”!

Don’t use too similar names for different characters (unless it serves a plot purpose). You don’t want your reader to mix them up and get confused.

In real life, people do have unusual names. And there isn’t always a (big) story behind it. But when characters in your story have unusual names (whether the protagonist, the antagonist or a secondary character), readers assume there is a reason (and it better be a good one), that you did it on purpose. Unusual names stand out, so if you give a character an unusual name, you better know why.

Once you’ve come up with a name, check the Internet. You don’t want your protagonist to unintentionally share the name of a criminal, a person well known in another English-speaking country, or an important character from someone else’s books. (Don’t use names that are too similar to well-known characters either.)

Oh, one last tip: Don’t name your protagonist after your kid – or your kid after your protagonist!

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