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Picturing a World

Fiction, nonfiction (1): Pulley and Bangs

Natasha Pulley's Watchmaker of Filigree Street is on my short list of novels to reread when I need to lose myself in a story, so I was delighted last fall to get wind of its sequel, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow. Who could have foreseen it would be published just in time to provide diversion during a pandemic? (Well, one of her main characters, Keita Mori, could. Read the books and find out how.)
Another book that is helping me right now is the very scholarly Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation by Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs. It is a rich depiction of the intertwining history, politics, religion, personalities, daily life, and geography of Leiden as the Pilgrims knew it in the years leading up to 1620. Fit reading for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower.


More important to me, Bangs's close examination of a particular place helps me invent the imaginary city in my current fantasy novella. His block-by-block description of where fresh fish, vegetables, barrels, pottery, fruit tree saplings, etc., were sold on market days, already has me visualizing new details for my hero to see as he walks to his university. These may not make it into the text, but concreteness about ordinary things is the best way to make a place where magic happens seem real—not only to the reader, but to the author as well.
The two books together have led me to muse on the perennial question of how much exactitude is called for in fiction. It's exhilarating to see Pulley use history and a real culture to contribute to a ripping good read without for a moment feeling she has to be pedantically correct—an approach that works better in historical fantasy or romance than in straight historical fiction. I very much wanted Where the Light Falls to be as accurate a picture of the art world of Paris as I could make it—but I can also see that it would be a hoot to construct a murder mystery series with, say, Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas as the amateur sleuths. In the end, all you can say is: if it works, it works.

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