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
Female education bonus: Not only mothers and schoolmistresses teaching girls to read, but from medieval Spain, two queens teaching chess to girls! The illustration is from The Book of Games (chess, dice, and backgammon) commissioned by King Alfonso X of Toledo. It's a wonderful source for images of 13th C Iberian ethnicities, clothes, architectural detail, and more. And the digitization at the RBME Digital website is excellent.
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).
Blog post alert: The British Library is digitizing manuscripts pertinent to the lives of women in the Middle Ages. Hildegard-go! reports on ten manuscripts and contains this illustration of girls learning to read in a classroom. A link to the full manuscript, a Dutch prayer book, lets you view it and the page opposite (f. 28r), which includes an alphabet.
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.
When I saw this sketch in a study of Cézanne's watercolors, it took my breath away. Such sureness and elegance of line! Such vitality in just a few strokes of pigment! The peculiarly expressive hands continue to fascinate me. It shouldn't have come as a surprise that a sculptor might be a superb draftsman, but it did. In the well-illustrated Cambodian Dancers, Auguste Rodin, and the Imperial Imagination, you can read a lot more about the visit of a Cambodian dance troupe that elicited this quick sketch and other studies—and a lot about current thinking on "cultural appropriation," the evils of colonialism, and related social topics.
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.
Literary tip for Anglophiles: Angela Thirkell's long Barsetshire series was written, in effect, in real time. Jutland Cottage (1953) and What Did It Mean? (1954) include the death of King George VI and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Here at the end of the queen's long reign, I have pulled them out for a nostalgic visit to the England that shaped her. And for good measure, Corgi owner that I am, I have ordered a copy of All the Queen's Corgis.) Keep calm and read on?!?