Unique, or one of the Seven Basic Plots? An author I know who writes fantasy fiction worries perpetually about whether her plots and characters are original or clichéd. Well, it's hard to come up with a wholly new device or deep structure, but a delight to think how material can be worked and reworked and still exhilarate. In this case, one shape is used repeatedly in a tile design that never quite repeats itself. Explore the hat and think about just what satisfies the most—fundamental repetition or endless surface variation.
Picturing a World
Blog post alert: Spitalfields Life has a great vocabulary list for The Language of Tailors. It's always fun to have characters use a bit of lingo, and glossary lists can even supply names. My favorite from this one is Mungo—sounds like a hobbit and the meaning (cloth cuttings, which can be sold to a rag dealer) also suggests a subplot.
image via 18th C Tailoring Slang
There are so many ways you can approach this watercolor of Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (which appears in a recent BBC article, Femme fatale: The images that reveal male fears). Start with whether it fits in the long history of the mythological figure, Lilith, Adam's first wife. Examine the symbolism of flowers, comb, candles, red bracelet, etc. Ask how it compares to Rossetti's own oil version of the picture. Expand the art-history approach to examine whether it belongs with other 19th C depictions of women at their toilette, such as Lucy-Lee Robbins' Putting Up Her Hair, Mary Cassatt's Denise at Her Dressing Table, or Edgar Degas' Woman at Her Toilette.
Or, as a writer, consider it as the springboard for a story.
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?
Renaissance girls get educated
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).
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.
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.
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?
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.