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Picturing a World

Tree house restaurant

The village of Plessis just outside Paris was the site of a restaurant built in 1848 as a tree house in honor of Swiss Family Robinson. Its popularity led to the town’s adopting the name Plessis-Robinson Meals in baskets—typically roast chicken, bread, and wine—were pulled up on ropes to customers.  Read More 
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Asleep on a train

For my new novel, I’m investigating early 20th C photography and print processes. This picture of a girl asleep on a train appears Read More 
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La Grecque

The models in some late 19th C photographs contort their bodies, demonstrating what they could do. Others flaunt their sexuality, perhaps from pride, perhaps on orders from the photographer. The weary resignation in this model's face says worlds about how hard and unglamorous the work actually was. In my novel, the model nicknamed La Grecque, has a fiery personality; but this picture influenced me very much in thinking about her. Just as actors often tell themselves back stories in order to inhabit a character more fully in performance, writers must know more about their characters than makes it to the page. Yet I have never forgotten what another novelist once told me, "I feel I must allow them some privacy, too." La Grecque froze me out, but that stubborn defense of her private self became part of what I could tell.

Fan fiction writers, do you prefer to take a minor character and go off in a new direction, or do you prefer sequels and prequels? Do you see a story here? Read More 
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Académie Julian

This photo gives an idea of how many women crowded into Rodolphe Julian's highly successful art classes, and the drawings mounted on the wall shows how good the best of them were. Notice how they are posed so that not everyone is staring straight ahead at the canera. That was a 19th C convention for group photographs. It is artificial, but it does enliven the composition—just a little prod toward the historical novelist's goal of imagining them as separate individuals, each with her own story.

For Jefferson David Chalfant's informative painting of one of the men's studios, click here.  Read More 
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Jeanette Sterling Smith

This is the Jeanette Smith whose expulsion from Vassar and subsequent studies in Europe set me investigating women art students in Paris. The photograph, taken in Dresden, is my only concrete memento from her time abroad. After I had written the early chapters of Where the Light Falls, I looked at it again and thought, "Nah, not Jeanette Palmer." A girl with this face and these clothes didn't fit into my story as I told it to myself (though I did adopt her plumpness). The image I have in my mind of Jeanette's face is much closer to that of Eleanor Norcross.

Readers, for you is it the mysterious girl on Rita Frangie's alluring cover for the novel? How do you form your mental images of characters in books? Read More 
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Omnibus

In their first week in Paris, Jeanette and Effie explore the city on foot and by omnibus. When I first began sinking myself into the Paris they would see, I spent a lot of time with Atget’s photographs even though they were taken a generation later. It was revelatory to be guided by Atget's eye. As for the omnibus, comparison of this photo to an 1877 etching in a set by A-P. Martial shows that the design had changed little if at all in forty years. The entire set will take you on a tour of the city that Jeanette and Effie saw. Read More 
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Steep hill in Cincinnati

I’ve been to Poughkeepsie, I’ve been to New York, I’ve been Paris—but never to Cincinnati. Old maps, photos, and drawings in 19th C guide books helped me visualize Edward’s city up to a point. What made me feel the place in my muscles were some drawings of hillsides and public stairs in a 1968 book called Cincinnati Scenes by Caroline Williams. This was crucial for imagining Edward’s climb to Theodore’s house on Mount Auburn after the mugger’s attack. A photograph of the steps from Dorchester Street to Sycamore Hill gives you an idea of how steep those hills really are. (And don't you love how the man at the bottom of the stairs echoes the man on the bridge on the cover?) Read More 
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The Tenth Street Studios

The cars tell you that this photograph of the Tenth Street Studio Building was taken in the 20th Century, but the picture gave me enough information to imagine the street as Jeanette, Effie, and Mrs. Palmer would have seen it. Notice how big the windows are compared to those in the building next door—an unmistakable sign of an art studio.
Artists with studios in the Tenth Street Building were nothing like the Romantic artist starving in his garret. These men wanted to entice and impress clients, to strut out as the accomplished professionals they were, as you can see here. For the sumptuousness of William Merritt Chase's studio, see this painting.  Read More 
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