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Picturing a World

Clearing the clutter (1): Maid reading in a library

In the dreaded process of preparing to buy a new computer, I am trying to clear out old files and links—and, of course, being distracted by coming across images and texts I had saved but forgotten about. Emblematic case in point: Maid reading in a library.

A quick search of the internet turned up little information about the artist, Edouard John Mentha (1858–1914), though his being almost exact contemporary of Jeanette's qualifies him for this blog. Nor could I even find where the painting resides. No matter: what interests me about it is how it could stimulate a story.

The library obviously belongs to a collector of natural history specimens, who may also be a painter, witness the canvas on the floor at right. The frame at the bottom may belong to a picture or a mirror. Most of the books seem to be bound uniformally, presumably by the owner given 19th C publishing practices. But what is the maid reading? Why does she feel she has time to interrupt her work to do so? Who is the owner?

Story possibilities:

  • Make a straightforward attempt to explain a 19th C situation in historical fiction.
  • Add a few occult objects or mythical beasts and turn the owner into a magician or witch.
  • Change the maid into an apprentice who is surreptitiously doing —what? And when and where?
  • Replace the maid with an investigator in disguise searching for—what?
  • Add wings to the maid and make her a working fairy in a story based on Sylvia Townsend Warner's Kingdoms of Elfin.
  • Bring the birds and bats to life. Then what?!?

Choose one and take five minutes to list as many details from inside or outside the picture that might be true for your story.

  • The owner is away for a season.
  • The abandoned library is in a bare-floored attic that is left untouched out of sentimental regard for the disappeared relative who collected it. So who lives in the house?
  • The owner has contacts with scientists on other continents.
  • The maid wanted to go to college but ended up in service.
  • The maid suspects that the owner is engaged in a nefarious business and is snooping (NB: you don't have to stick to portraying her on the step-ladder. The painting is only a springboard.)
  • Far from reading at leisure, your protagonist is bent over and tense with worry.

Now, take ten minutes to write an opening paragraph. Sample:


  • Magdalena, an undercover agent of Grimes Private Investigators, did her work as a maid so well that one week the unsuspecting Mrs. Patterson sent her upstairs to clean in Gerald's study in the attic, which he had decreed off limits to everyone including his mother. It wasn't the dust so much as the rats and bats in cages (and the boa constrictor) that worried Mrs. Patterson. And it wasn't so much the rats and bats that worried Magdalena (she didn't know about the snake). She was afraid that Gerald would come home early and find her. So far, she had managed to avoid his seeing her. Still, it was an opportunity not to be wasted.
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