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Picturing a World

Last van Gogh

Some of you may have seen in the news that this postcard has led experts to identify the exact location of Vincent van Gogh's unfinished last work. The History Blog's account (with some very high-rez images) is the best I've seen so far. The story is interesting as art history, but it has also set me wondering how an historical postcard might be used in a story.

Playing a variation on Natasha Pulley's exercise for starting a fantasy story, here are four ideas I've come up with in ten minutes:

  • Iris found a postcard in her grandfather's trunk in the attic, which showed he had known the town he always denied ever having heard of.
  • Lydia Daniels, the ephemera specialist at the auction house, was struck by the presence of a tower in the distance in a postcard from Coltrane. No other card she had ever seen showed any such thing.
  • Tabitha slid the cursor over the blended scene that allowed you to see before and after—and it kept going, out of the village and into the countryside a hundred years ago. (Okay, I had to put a fantasy idea in.)
  • Richard swapped postcards at a booth at the flea market, and realized when he got home that one in the new batch seemed to be a never-before-seen photograph portrait of Emily Dickinson, which, if true, would mean it was worth serious money.

In another ten minutes, I came up questions about the first two:

  • If there's an attic, there's a house? Where? Does Iris live there or is she on a visit? Is her grandfather still alive? Why would he have denied knowing the town? What town? What happened there? How long ago? Is the grandfather still alive? If so, should she confront him?
  • If there is an art auction house, is it a big one in a major city or a small one in provincial town? Lydia must have worked there either since last Wednesday or else for years—which is it? She must have a boss: does she admire or loathe him? Is she a specialist in a particular historical period? Is she doing research for a client? Where is Coltrane? Why would it matter if there were a tower? Is this going to be an exercise in historical detection or a science fiction story about an alternate universe?

If you were going to write a story about a postcard, what would it look like and where would it point you? Remember, it need not be historical. What about an op-art image?

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