Writing Non-fiction with Panache

By Chris Mathews

Writing non-fiction does not have to be a dry, pedestrian venture. In fact, in today’s internet world, original ways of approaching real-life events can make the difference between prose that touches people and prose that bores.

In the piece that follows, I tried to inject the simple act of doing a project with my grandchild into a piece that captured the frustration and joy of the experience.

Excavating the Triceratops with Poppy and Granddaughter Sidney Grace

 On Saturday, August 18th, in Ridgeland, South Carolina, Poppy and his granddaughter Sidney Grace Mathews unearthed and reconstructed a triceratops, defined by Wikipedia as a genus of herbivorous ceratopsid dinosaurs which lived during the late Mesozoic period.  Forget that scientists now think that this famous, fearsome three-horned triceratops was actually a younger version of the torosaurus. Forget that Ridgeland, South Carolina has never been known for its tarpits (in fact, it barely has a ridge). Forget that this monumental achievement will never be displayed in the Smithsonian. 

Poppy and Gracie dug out a triceratops together, using only a small blue, plastic spade and brush.  Gracie did most of the brushing, Poppy scraped with the spade. This joint expedition took place in the Mathews’ den atop a glass coffee table.

The team of Poppy and Gracie unearthed this find by extricating a clay egg enclosed in vacuum-sealed plastic labeled Dino World Fossil Kit. Excavating instructions were listed on the back in both English and Spanish:

1) While over an easily cleanable surface or newspaper, remove the dino egg from its wrapper.  MarMar, grandma, suggested the kitchen table as the perfect location for this expedition but Poppy wanted a challenge, so he placed a poster sized “No Diving” sign on the clear glass wood-rimmed table.

2)  Make sure that the egg is firmly held in place. Carefully, remove dirt using the excavating tools provided (the previously mentioned spade and brush) Wanting results, Poppy left out the “carefully”. After shaving slivers for a short time, he squeezed the clay to smithereens. Gracie reveled in the clay, fragments cascading off the table and onto the carpet, leaving her looking like a street urchin. Feeling the exhilaration of risk-takers, the two opted not to “WEAR EYE PROTECTION” as posted at the bottom of this step.

3)  When done removing dirt, clean fossils using the brush.  It is very important to remove all dirt from holes that are used to connect pieces to allow a more secure fit. Poppy discovered this important fact as Gracie brushed off the pieces and he tried to force the tiny nubs into the dinosaur’s torso.   

4)  Never force the pieces together.  If they are not fitting, check for dirt in the holes. Poppy jammed the nubs of the legs into the tiny holes, but only managed to reconstruct a three-legged Triceratops with tail and horned head.  Each time Poppy wedged the last leg in its hole, another leg fell off. The plastic legs matched the light tan carpet exactly so finding one that dropped was not easy.  After twenty minutes of dropping, picking-up, and twisting legs, Poppy had taken on the demeanor of a mad scientist. Sidney Grace, however, did not lose confidence in Poppy.  She just kept playing with the clay, spilling a few crumbs on the carpet as MarMar gleamed with pride at the two with a look of “I knew it wouldn’t stay on the table”.

Finally, after blowing profusely in the holes and delicately washing and blow-drying these tiny orifices, Poppy assembled the Triceratops on four legs. Sidney Grace was impressed, even though Poppy failed to mount the two back legs in the two holes provided on the plastic stand shown in the illustration, deeming the stand “for nincompoops”.  After the two proudly gazed at their tiny monstrosity, Marc, Sidney Grace’s dad and Poppy’s son, proclaimed “naptime” for the smudged-face waif.

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