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?
Picturing a World
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:
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.
Blog post alert: Isn't this a great portrait of the princess who would become Queen Elizabeth? I love the jewelry, the damask, the gold braid, her natural coloring (no white lead paint!), and especially her holding her place in a book with a finger. Of course, it's posed; but in a story, that last touch could be such a good hint in characterizing a particular kind of person when she is interrupted. The image comes from a British Library post, Portraits of Elizabeth I, about a current exhibition.
The news that at eighty-seven Alan Garner has just published another novel—Treacle Walker—is reason enough to celebrate. No surprise: it's superb. As always, Garner's prose has the compactness, rhythms, and multilayered power of poetry. His imagination is vivid and odd. And it's all rooted in the part of Cheshire where he grew up and has lived almost all his life. Another reason to celebrate: he has made a gorgeous promotional video that shows the house in which the story is set, a copse that plays a part in it, and three talismanic objects.
A while back, Jackie Morris's otters on luggage tags gave me an idea for a story about a group of women artists working in a small city after a second pandemic. A time-travel story knocked it aside. Now, here comes Grace Ponder's deck of Yarn Tarot for Crocheters, Knitters, Spinners, and Weavers with the just the clue to jumpstart the neglected luggage-tag story again.
This month, my library book club is reading What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad. When I picked up my copy, the librarian told me she had asked four different people what happened at the end and received four different answers. After reading the novel, I can see why. We sometimes send around questions ahead of time, so this month I did and led off with one about genre. I think it's helpful in evaluating other books, too, or even thinking about our own writing.
When when your novel has slipped onto the remaindered tables and then into obscurity, you still hope that it found a few readers who recognized what it was about and valued it. What a joy, therefore, for me to run across Cathy Salter's's post from last spring, Notes From Boomerang Creek: Where the light falls. Even though we are now at the beginning of autumn, I can't resist quoting her concluding paragraphs.
I had labeled this image, saved from a medieval moraized Ovid, as "Teeth in open mouth" because depictions of teeth are rare. What interests me now, however, is the expressions on the faces. At first glance, the wings seem to say "angels." But the lady is clearly up to no good, and the young man seems uneasy despite his crown.
Oddly enough, I remembered this watercolor as "Lady Pole in Her Library." Nope, the artist was Thomas Pole, an American transplant to Bristol, England, a doctor and Quaker preacher—no titled lady involved. Still, you know me: it's all about using images to prompt story ideas. And quiet as it is, In the Library has some suggestive clues.