Writing a poem in response to a painting is a well-known exercise. Theodora Goss's To Be a Woman is a splendid example. What I like best about it is that the poem works with or without the picture; and after you read it, the picture retains unplumbed depths. Personally, I am touched by the delicate strength of the embroidery on the woman's shirt, best seen in the highest resolution of the image via Wikipedia Commons. What about you?
Picturing a World
Blog post alert: Picturing Children's Food in Early Modern Europe at the Folger Shakespeare Library's website contains an image pertinent to my earlier query about illustrations of girl's education. This is late Renaissance, not late medieval, but still full of details about clothes and activities for historical-fiction writers to mine. Image via the Metropolitan Museum.
On the strength of a Calmgrove review, I ordered a copy of The Imagination Chamber: Cosmic Rays from Lyra's Universe by Philip Pullman. For inventors of imaginary worlds, the idea of a cloud chamber is an apt metaphor. You never know when a character, setting, or action will pop up—nothing full blown, just glimpses, like a particle trail. Collecting these haphazardly in notebooks is essential. Rereading the notebooks sparks new connections. I'm enjoying Pullman's stray phrases and visualizations of Lyra's world one a day. Even better is the reaffirmation that jotting down my own ideas matters (pun not intended by retained).
A muddy ford where a small rill crosses a green track in Wales—on Bilbo and Frodo's birthday, it calls to my mind a tramp across the Shire, with maybe a distant vision of The Mountain. Or taking a different but related tack, one of the green roads maintained by Wend in Diana Wynne Jones's Crown of Dalemark. Less fancifully, the picture is a reminder of just how much very small features of the landscape give specificity to places.
To work up a writing exercise, I am herewith stealing from Kathleen Jennings' blog post, Five Things to Steal from a Cafe (hers is for illustrators, too). (1) Find a place where you can take notes on your surroundings—a room of your own, a park bench, a public place (library, grocery store, filling station), a performance space, etc. (2) Write down five things you could "steal": objects, patterns, textures, colors, shapes, sounds, smells, light effects, mood, etc. (3) List three ways you could incorporate each of your five items into a story. (4) Choose a few of those ideas, mull over them a few minutes, then in twenty minutes work them—or something like them!—into an outline or the opening of a story.
I made myself work through the exercise.
In Cézanne's Watercolors: Between Drawing and Painting by Matthew Simms, I was astonished to read that a single sheet has this gorgeous, limpid still life on one side and the beckoning woodland on the other. Can you imagine owning something like that?
A friend of mine is something of an expert on Alexander the Great in history and legend, so references to him always catch my eye. Then there are dragons, one of my special interests—along with illustration, of course. Medieval comic strip, anyone? In the story depicted here, Olympias, the wife of Philip of Macedon, is seduced by a sorcerer named Nectanebo, who comes to her in the shape of a dragon. Result? According to this illuminator anyway, a little hatchling Alexander! For the story in full, click here.
Now look at this photograph of a bridge over a canal! Even when I don't want to describe something in detail in a story, I want to be able to visualize it for myself so that I know I'm not building an impossibility into the plot. The physical world, moreover, shapes our lives and should shape the lives of our characters. Okay, so I'm trying to imagine a bridge over a towpath in winter. Here I have the architectural solution for going from one bank to another. Curves and straight lines, bricks and stonework, messy dead grass and moss. I can see the muddy track as well as cobblestones, damp under the bridge, and a gate on the far side. Perfect for giving me assurance now, and you never know when some detail will suggest a future plot development.
Websites for auction houses can be great sources for images to help writers as well as art historians or would-be buyers. In my pursuit of aids to visualizing a river bank with a bridge, I came across this one at Bonham's by one of my favorite Scandinavian Impressionists, Frits Thaulow. At the Bonham's link, you can zoom in on details. What interested me most was the ramshackle staircase on the left and the grass-and-flower-covered bank opposite a brick retaining wall.
Studying background landscapes and glimpses out windows is one of my favorite ways of immersing myself in ideas for fictional locations. This hillside town is a tiny background detail in Carpaccio's newly restored painting. There are scads of others clearly visible in the very hi-rez image mounted by the Thyssesn-Bornemisza Museo Nacional in Madrid as part of an exhibition, Carpaccio's Knight: Restoration and technical study. Leaving aside the art history angle, I'm trying to imagine a town where only lithe inhabitants and perhaps small, agile donkeys could conceivably go up and down regularly. Would it fit into a story as the perfect place for a fugitive to escape pursuers, or would its treeless heat and difficulty drive a character into venturing forth to seek a better life?