Writers are always being asked, where do you get your ideas for stories? and the best answer is always "I dunno." Nevertheless, there are certainly exercises that can loosen imagination, and that's fun whether it leads to a finished story or not. Consider this picture of a small train traveling in the countryside toward encroaching shadows.
Picturing a World
For my current fantasy story, I was wondering where a character might hide an amulet. Quick research on clothes turned up a delightful Victoria and Albert Museum post on the history of pockets from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Among its illustrations are three photographs of this doll—"Lady Clapham"—showing her in different layers of clothing. Surely, she herself can suggest a story for children, the motive or crucial clue in a mystery, or one of those novels that involve researching the contents of a trunk. Her pocket, by the way, is tied to her waist.
Another Jennings blog alert: What did I tell you? Kathleen Jennings' Tanaudel blog is always worth looking at. I love her post this week on Inkblots as creative stimuli. You wouldn't even have to be as good an artist as she is to make blots, doodle pictures, and then string a few together to make a story—at least as an exercise. (Though, let's be honest, some of us might want to keep the results private instead of giving them to the world!)
A semi-staged dramatization of Jane Austen's Emma is a Christmas bon-bon scheduled at Shakespeare & Co., in Lenox, Mass., and a group of us has already ordered tickets. Fingers crossed that the company can safely perform in December!
Ahead of the play, I read Emma recently and therefore smiled at this pretty, pretty, instantly recognizable depiction of Harriet Smith meeting Elizabeth Martin and her brother in Ford's linen drapery shop. It appears in the May 25th blog post by James Gurney, and it sent me searching further. I turned up an interesting web essay on Jane Austen's Emma at 200, including mention of Henry and Charles Brocks' illustrations for late-19thC "chocolate-box" editions of Austen's work. How these particular illustrations continue to influence readers' visualizations and moviemaker's visions of Austen might be a topic worth following up.
The small New England town where I live operates as a pure democracy. Every year, we have (1) a caucus to place the names of candidates for boards and committees on a ballot for (2) the town election, which is followed by (3) the annual Town Meeting at which every citizen votes on every bylaw and the budget. In these coronavirus days, our weekly newsletter just announced how we'll proceed with Step 1:
More fun imagining Mattie's New York: My last post included a link to a jigsaw puzzle set made from Clara Miller Burd illustrations. I followed up the clue and learned from Bob Armstrong's website that the craze for jigsaw puzzles for adults began in Boston, moved to New York in 1908, and was dominated early by—get ready for this—women puzzle cutters! An important one, Margaret Hayed Richardson, called her company Perplexity. Just making up names for an imaginary company would be a hoot. And clearly, if Mattie's immediate artist and publishing friends aren't directly involved in it, they'll know people who are.
I was searching the McClung Collection of the Knox County (Tennessee) Public Library for a totally different historic image when I ran across this house plan from 1901 (Mattie might know someone back in Ohio who built just such a house). House plans are wonderful aids to imagining places in fiction, and local libraries like the Knoxville can be unexpectedly rich sources of images.
In this case, however, what struck me was how useful the image was for carrying out Natasha Pulley's exercise in starting a fantasy story. Remember? It has three parts: List five impossible things. Choose one and list questions related to "If this is true, what else must be true?" Think about those particulars, then write a paragraph.
In trying to impose order on my messy computer folders this morning, I came across this image I had saved months ago from a manuscript digitzed at the excellent Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland. Artist Jean Colombe provided eight full-page illustrations for a manuscript (ca. 1470) of Le Mortifiement de Vaine Plaisance (1455) by King René of Anjou. To be honest, I have not tried to read the manuscript nor find out just what the allegorical meaning of this particular picture is. What I strikes me in this detail are the pollarded trees and the wattle fences, the different roofs (slate and tile), the slope of the hill between parts of a village, and the hint of a setting for a story. Kathleen Jennings recommends loving your tools as a way to jumpstart creativity. Manuscript illuminations are one of mine. What are yours?
Blog post alert: How's this for Valentine's Day? Instead of romantic daydreams, what about treasuring the objects and tools that enable you to fulfill your creative impulses? At her lively blog Tanaudel, one of my favorite illustrators, Kathleen Jennings, has an stimulating recent post, Loving the tools, on a notebook into which she dabbed colors and then free associated to capture her personal responses to them. It was a way of getting back into painting after an illness. In conclusion, she says: "Anyway, I've been talking with a few friends who have stalled on projects or pursuits recently, and this is for them. Perhaps, with no project in mind, just get out, handle, order, comment on, your tools and materials. Make friends again." And if you don't know Jennings' own work, do visit her website and get to know her!