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Picturing a World

Ford in the Shire

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.

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Steal what?

Kathleen Jennings, The evil thief sighed in the deep dark forest (2020)

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.

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Cézanne, front and back

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?

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Alexander the Great hatchling

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.

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Canal bridge

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.

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Thaulow bridge

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.

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Hillside town

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?

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Episodic?

I have just read two novels back to back: Anthony Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land (2021) and The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by John Buchan. Written almost a hundred years apart, they are totally different in structure and complexity; yet they both raise a question: Is it okay for a novel to be episodic?

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Mapping the story

Kathleen Jennings' recent post on Mapping movements in stories sent me surfing the 'net. Eventually, I landed on Misty Beee's map, winner of a 2021 Atlas Award at the Cartographer's Guild. Oh, to be able to create something like it or like Jennings' whimsical communicative sketches! Actually, I do sometimes make rough maps and house plans to help me with my stories, and I highly recommend non-verbal exercises as a way to broaden a writer's experience of her worlds. Here's one adaped from Jennings' post:

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Mountain Meadow (or Sick Heart River)

I have just finished my third reading of Sick Heart River by John Buchan, published as Mountain Meadow in America (always read it in winter!). The first time through, I thought it was one of the strangest and oddly powerful novels I'd ever encountered. I still do. The second time, I looked forward with relish to its strong evocations of bitter cold and the harsh beauty of the Canadian wilderness. It delivered. This third reading brought out for me its structure and a consequent narrative technique.

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