Birding with Benefits - Inspiration
I started writing my first novel during the pandemic, and I know I’m not alone. I’m even a bit of a cliche. But after reading every romance I could get my hands on to keep the darkness at bay, I started getting some ideas of my own. It was a May evening in 2020 when I turned to my partner and uttered my first out-loud statement about my book-to-be: “I’m going to try to write a romance novel, and it’s going to be about bird watching.”
I started that book, my first foray ever into fiction writing, and wrote 40,000 words before I looked back on what I had written and realized it was just a warm up. So I started again. And then again. Then at some point that summer, I started building up the bigger universe of my story. My birder, John Maguire, had a big brother named Jake, and Jake played baseball. Soon my frustration with my inability to get my birders just right threatened the joy I felt in writing, and I opted for a change of pace. I turned to Jake’s story.
The manuscript, Love is Just a Game, landed me an agent and also won the 2021 Discover New Romance Award. I’ve written about it here on my blog, and I love this story, but ultimately things didn’t pan out on submission. This happens, and I’m at peace. This story did a hell of a lot for me, and I hope it will have a second life somewhere along the way.
While Jake’s story was out on submission, I turned back to my birders. If Love is Just a Game is my love letter to a life-long love of baseball as well as to some of my favorite romance tropes, Birding with Benefits (which, for the record, was originally titled Love is For The Birds) is my love letter to… myself. It features a woman in her early 40s in the great, expansive, glorious and frightening time of realizing she still has a lot to learn about herself. I hope women who are also in mid-life, especially those facing empty nests, see parts of themselves in her--I am certainly in Celeste as much as she is in me. And her quiet, wood-working bird watcher, John Maguire, contains parts of me, too. He is most at home walking through the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, and he’ll stop whatever he’s doing to watch a bird.
I grew up in Tucson, and I’ve always felt a deep sense of connection to the landscape here, but I didn’t start looking closely at birds until I was an adult. Back in 2010, with two young children at home, I needed a creative outlook and a reason to get out of the house. I found both in an evening class at the University of Arizona Poetry Center called Birds and Poems. It feels silly even to type it, but that small and simple class changed my life, forever altering how I looked at the world around me. The beautifully curated class (taught by the brilliant Eric Magrane and Simmons Buntin) introduced me to birds through the literary lens I’d employed for so long. But we did more than sit around a big table and read and write poems about birds (though we did a lot of that, and it was great)--we also reviewed Rare Bird Alert notifications for hidden gems, and we met up on local trails to walk, and bird, and write. And I never looked at things around me quite the same way again. I love birds because they are everywhere, asking us to stop the rush and look around. I love them because they are small geniuses, born with the blueprints of nests and songs in their tiny brains. I love them because they are colorful and because they are drab, because they chase their parents for food, and because they dance and fly and flirt to find a mate. I love them because they signal the seasons with their movements, because they hop about with such easy cheer, and because they show us that life finds a way to sprout wings and fly, even after an extinction level event.
It took me a while, and several tries, but I eventually did write that romance novel about bird watchers. It’s more than birds, of course. There’s a high-stakes bird watching contest and a fake relationship, plus orgasms in a wood shop and sweet moments in a butterfly tent. The manuscript is, I hope, as funny as it is steamy as it is meditative, all while being truthful to the experience of those of us looking at the world in our 40s and thinking: it’s all just beginning.
I hope to be back in this spot soon with more musings, but in the meantime, here’s a little snippet of Birders with Benefits. John is helping Celeste spot her first “official’ bird at the beginning of the bird-watching contest that dominates the book. Enjoy!
Her feet tapped a hurrying rhythm on the ground. “Teach me birding so we can get started.”
John didn’t respond, but glanced to their left, where a Palo Verde tree was in full, glorious bloom. Its smooth gray-green trunk and twisting branches snaked their way to a crown of bright,
yellow, papery leaves. For two weeks every year these trees burst like fireworks, leaving the ground covered in a buttery confetti of dry petals.
He took some steps toward it, motioning for Celeste to follow. “A few minutes ago you were telling me about how much you like learning new things. Don’t lose your excitement about it just because everybody is running around with their notebooks out.”
“I also like winning,” she pouted, wishing he’d speed things up.
But his eyes were on the tree, a subtle smile playing on his face. “Ever since I was a kid, watching birds has just been about being outside, watching things, discovering something. Eventually, you get to know one bird so well that you can identify it easily, or know it’s song, but it all starts with that initial curiosity, that need for discovery. If I do start guiding, that’s what I want to convey to people.”
A silence sat between from a minute as Celeste watched the tree, letting all the flowers blur together in her vision, making a cloud of yellow.
John continued. “If you come out of this thinking that birding is about running around with your nose in a guide book and making lists, I’ll be ashamed of myself. Contest or no contest, we’re doing this right. We start with discovery, and we go from there.”
Start with discovery.
She nodded to the tree. “So, can we discover a bird in there?”
John nodded, eyes seeming to scan up and down each branch. “Yes, but let’s not worry about what it is, today. Worrying about making the identification is going to stop you from really seeing the bird.”
“But the list—”
He shook his head. “There’s nothing here today we won’t see again, I promise. Don’t worry about the count today. Just see the bird.”
She glanced sideways at him. His broad shoulders were relaxed, his neck making a smooth, strong line to his jaw, where his beard glinted brown and red and gold in the sun.
“Okay,” he said quietly. “This is a good one to spot. Once you start noticing it, you’ll see it all over town.”
Her eyes darted along the branches and through the flowers, but she didn’t see a thing, so she shrugged and shook her head.
John chuckled lightly beside her. “You’re going too fast. You have to be ready to take your time with this. Birding takes a lot of patience.”
“I can be patient.” Celeste huffed, crossing her hands across her chest.
He stepped behind her, leaving space between their bodies, and laid his hands gently on her tensed shoulders. “Is this okay?”
She swallowed, feeling the warmth from his breath on her neck.
John pushed down on her shoulders, easing the tension out of them. “You want your shoulders and your neck to feel loose, otherwise you’ll be hurting in no time. Staring up at trees can put a real strain on this part of your body.”
She nodded and took a breath, releasing her arms at her side and shaking them out.
“Good.” His hands lifted off her shoulders. “Now settle your eyes at the base of the tree, and move them up the trunk. Do you see where the first branch goes off to the right?”
She nodded, tracing the curve of the branch with her eyes.
“Now follow that branch out.” John’s voice drifted back into her ear. “Just a couple of feet. You still with me? If we’re in luck the bird will stay in place.”
“Ok, now go up a little, into the flowers. You’re looking for a small bird, even smaller than a house sparrow. It’s mostly gray and but it has—”
Bright yellow on its face, like it dipped its head into the confetti flowers and came out painted. It hopped from side to side on the branch, pausing to poke its tiny beak under its wing every few seconds.
He gave a satisfied hum behind her. “You found it. Don’t forget to breathe.”
She was holding her breath, her heart thudding. And while a tingle had traveled down her spine as the warmth from John’s breath hit her ear, most of her body was still and alert.
“What is it?” She whispered, enamored already with the little creature.
He chuckled quietly, and she felt the air move from the shake of his head. “It’s a bird. That’s all it is right now.”