“Shadow” was the twenty-second #augustbreak2014 prompt, and by the time I had to chance to take a photo, the sun came out, so that was a bit of good fortune. But the shadows in and around the house left a lot to be desired–maybe the sun was still too high and the shadows too short.
I was standing on the driveway, wondering where to look next, when I looked down for some reason, and of course there it was, a very pronounced shadow, so I moved around the shadow of the garage until I got a composition I liked that included the big cracks in the concrete.
Shadows are an old device in both art and literature, giving depth to objects, helping with perspective, indicating the time of day or the latitude, and, if large and dark enough, providing a place to hide for either good or ill.
My character Charlotte is younger, prettier, taller, slimmer, healthier, and better-dressed than me, but one thing we share is astigmatism. She has a hard time adjusting to chiaroscuro, and cannot see facial details if someone is standing in front of an open window or door on a bright day. This almost gives her a panic attack the day she meets Simon in the room with the dying Olivia.
She takes advantage of shadows, however, when she is trapped in the basement and the only light is a harsh one from a single bare bulb. The shadows around the furnace are thus pitch black. The bad guys are wise to her, though.
For the twenty-second Visual Writing Prompt: The Shadows Know. What shadows, both literal and figurative, apply to your character or your scene? There are few easier devices for showing, not telling.
For the twenty-first #augustbreak2014 prompt, “Treasures,” I first assembled the usual small bits of things, of which I have quite a few, from my own childhood, my son’s babyhood, and from my marriage. But I am impatient, and fussing with the composition of small items is not fun, so I turned to the one treasure that not everyone had: a large troll doll that my grandmother purchased for me nearly fifty years ago.
Trolly has been with me more or less ever since–she even came with to my dorm room in college! I had many, many other dolls, but due to family circumstances, she’s the only one I have left. She currently has a perch in the bookcase in my office, where she reminds me to think like a child, which most of us writers and artists need to do.
What makes Trolly a treasure isn’t simply its age or survival, but the memory of the day I first saw her in the window of an eclectic gift shop in Fort Meyers, Florida, and then, maybe a week or two later, walking with my family in the same area again, I ran to the window and looked at her with utter adoration. In my imagination, the doll and I had a telepathic sort of communication, and I was convinced she was my key to a happy life. Whatever it was, my grandma decided that ten 1965 dollars wasn’t too much for a doll–not even an “ugly” one–and she took me into the shop and asked the clerk to let me see it up close. It was the only one in the shop, and the clerk cried when she sold it, as she loved it too.
I still remember what the doll smelled like when it was new. It smells dusty now, and its synthetic hair is no longer bright yellow. There was once a yellow felt apron with a green shamrock applique over the skirt, but that was lost long ago. I still have a dress and a sweater I made for her, oddly enough. I wonder if my granddaughter will like her and take care of her, too? She’s likely the next owner.
The twenty-first Visual Writing Prompt: Treasure Troves. What objects would be among your character’s treasures? Or, if you need help fleshing out your character, create an imaginary treasure or group of objects, then decide how or why they would be in your character’s possession. It’s a variation on what/if, and the objects must not have utilitarian purposes–they’re just pure treasure.
Next Prompt: The Shadows Know
“Peaceful” was the twentieth #augustbreak2014 prompt, and for that I always head out to the garden. As peaceful as it is to sit in, however, it looks even more peaceful from the neighboring yard or parking lot.
The flowers are starting to look a little faded–they’re mostly purples–but the purple door is still going strong, and tends to almost glow on overcast afternoons. It might be a bit too bright for some people’s idea of peaceful, but it feels cheerful and alive, and that makes me feel peaceful.
There are other, more traditionally peaceful elements in the garden, like the weathered brick and pea gravel patio, the trellises with lots of green ivies, the shady trees, the statues of rabbits, etc., but it wasn’t sunny enough to make those elements very compelling with my limited photography skills.
Thus, conveying peacefulness isn’t necessarily a peaceful process, unless one completely gives in to one’s limitations, in this case my skills, my camera, my site, and the weather. Sometimes peacefulness arrives when it is what is left after everything unworkable is eliminated. The purple door presented itself. My retreat provided, as a good retreat should.
The twentieth Visual Writing Prompt: An Ideal Retreat. If your character would be in need of a retreat, a place to achieve relaxation, psychic safety, or a still point, what would it be? A garden? A bench in the park or in front of a fountain? A cemetery? A church or zendo? If it fits the character very well, we get to know him or her better. But if it is an unexpected place, the effect can either be disorienting or comical, playing up the character’s fish out of water situation.
Next Prompt: Treasure Troves
In My Kitchen
“Black + White” was the nineteenth #augustbreak2014 prompt, and naturally I took a pic of the checkerboard floor in my kitchen. Since one set of base cabinets are also white, it made for an easy pic, especially with the shiny stainless steel stool.
I’ve always had a thing for checkerboard flooring, whether in black and white or in less high-contrast colors. One of my favorites was the beige and white combo in a rental apartment I had, very easy on the eye, but not in the least boring.
Where did this obsession come from? My earliest memories of this kind of floor were of either the kitchen or the breezeway porch in my grandparent’s house, then I suppose it was from pictures in children’s books. I do remember being quite small and playing a sort of hopping game on them, or of only walking on one color and not the other, because it was bad luck or I’d fall through. Yes, I spent a lot of time inside my own head, much like Alice in Wonderland.
Such flooring, which was popular in the 1920′s, came back into style in the 1980′s and early 1990′s, when I took advantage of the easy availability of self-stick tiles. I’ve managed to have at least one checkered floor in every house I’ve lived in since 1989. It’s a motif that also showed up in many of my paintings and in many of the works of art I favored, including Dutch Renaissance interiors. So it’s something that is both contemporary and historical. I like that about it, and probably always will.
The nineteenth Visual Writing Prompt: Timeless Elements. I like checkerboard flooring. My character Charlotte favors kilims with traditional patterns. Some characters favor berets, or clogs, or traditional garb such as kimonos. Does your character favor something that works in the present that would have worked in previous centuries? Or not? If the character is aware of the timelessness, her or she might well be a thinker as much or more than a doer.
Next Prompt: An Ideal Retreat
The eighteenth prompt for #augustbreak2014 was “Jump,” and was the only one thus far to give me a fit. The weather was bad, so going outside to see jumping children and insects wasn’t good, and since I’m using the camera on my iPod, if I couldn’t get up close and personal, the photo wasn’t going to be very good.
That’s what happened to the first try, which was a shot of a spider on a web suspended between two branches of a shrub. It wasn’t a very large spider, and there was no way I could get close enough to it to make the composition better without endangering myself (it was a barberry shrub). Then my husband suggested jumper cables, and I got all excited about taking a pic again. We had a brand new set, still in the package, and there was a break in the rain so I could use the driveway for a background. Thought the clamps looked like dragon heads.
“Jump” is not only leaping up with both feet off the ground, it can also mean attack, or used in the sense of jump-starting, of jumping at an opportunity, or of skipping intermediate steps, as in jumping a grade or a big jump in price.
From a reading point of view, jumping ahead is common when using textbooks–and in fiction when you just want to get to the end in a hurry, to find out whodunnit before the sleuth does. Not sure what the fun in that is, but I know it’s done sometimes.
From a writing point of view, a jump forward in time (fast forward) moves the reader from back story into the present, or what feels like the present into another present, like picking up where the story left off. But it isn’t time alone that makes the jump. There’s still connections to the past in convincing time jumps–perhaps elements of the scene that have survived or grown, possessions that are still around, if relocated, or memories that are triggered by seeing something similar in the current world.
The eighteenth Visual Writing Prompt: Then and Now. Proust had his madelines, Citizen Kane had his sled Rosebud, objects from the past tied to such intense memories that they are part of what makes their owners who they are. What would such an object be for your character–an old doll, a book, a snowglobe, a chipped beer stein? A chair? Jumper cables aren’t mine, but they could conceivably be someone else’s–and for what sort of person would they have that role? There’s a scary thought….
Next Prompt: Timeless Elements
“Bookshelf” was the seventeenth #augustbreak2014 prompt, which was handy, as there are two bookcases in my office, each with five shelves. The books in them are an eclectic collection, and reflective of the past more than the present, which I suppose is true for most bookcases, whether public or private ones.
The most current books are a group of extra copies of my own, which makes the pic I took a bit of shameless self-promo, but they do signify something important to me! And propped up next to them are some of the reference books I’ve used in learning to write mysteries, plus three authors whose characters have influenced the creation of my character Charlotte Anthony: Janwillem van de Wetering, Lewis Carroll, and Alexander McCall Smith.
I tend to group my books by project, author, or topic. The other shelves have groups of gardening and garden design books, cook books, art books, classic literature and reference books, and a smattering of children’s books. The latter group I hope to expand as my granddaughter grows from baby into child–which is happening quickly!
I don’t really need most of these books, not in the least. I know most of them quite well, or have no desire to reread them. But I like having them around. Same with my piano. I can’t play anymore, and certainly not most of the music I once played with some skill, but if I don’t have to move it out, I’ll keep it around for atmosphere. We’re pretty utilitarian around here, and books, the piano, and art keeps things from being too stark. But I can see giving most of it away if needs be.
But back to books and bookshelves. My books are mostly reflective of my professional interests in the past, with just a few currently relevant. The shelves also contain what remains of a pared-down basket and wicker container collection, plus my favorite doll, a large shell from the Gulf of Mexico, and a couple of rabbit-themed pieces. It’s my spot, my office, my room of my own.
The seventeenth Visual Writing Prompt: A Room of One’s Own. What is it for your character, or what would it be if he or she could have one? My character Charlotte’s new studio apartment epitomizes Virginia Woolf’s prescription for a successful woman writer–affordable, comfortable, and solitary. Even if your character can’t quite have that, is there something in his or her abode–like a bookshelf–that stands in for such a space? And why does it contain what it does, what do those things say about him or her?
Next Prompt: Then and Now
A Contemplative Nature
“Look down” was the sixteenth #augustbreak2014 prompt, and I started by taking the usual photos of plants in my garden, since not much else was of interest in the immediate vicinity. Then I realized my well-worn statue of St. Francis was “looking down.” Perfect.
From looking down my train of thought went to meditation and its cousin, contemplation. There is a long tradition of placing inanimate objects in gardens as focal points, and not only as part of good design. Focal points with meaning can center the mind, or direct a line of thought into greater depths. Common focal points are statues, urns, gazing balls, sundials, and large rocks.
Those with a contemplative, philosophical, or problem-solving nature are all likely to stare at something while achieving something they need, whether it is no thoughts at all, drawing a conclusion, or finding a solution. It’s part of the process.
When I studied zazen, sitting meditation, I learned to do so while facing a blank wall. Others learned by using a focal point, such as a mandala or a single beautiful object. I have no idea if it matters which way it is learned, as long as it is learned and one achieves a quieting of the mind.
Back in the day when I designed gardens and landscapes for a living, I could sit at a key point in a new site and lose myself in imagining it redone. First I’d try to sense what the site needed most to make it appealing on a human scale: Shade? Flowers? Sitting area? Curves? Privacy? Less damp? Then I’d work out the limitations of scale, the amount and direction of the sun and shade, the client’s budget, the style desired, etc., and start measuring, drawing, and selecting plants and nonplant elements.
These days, writing mysteries, I need to contemplate in two different ways. First I need to be able to visualize the novel as a movie, to actually picture the spaces and scenes and the characters moving and interacting within them. Then, because I’m writing in third person close, I also need to imagine contemplating the details and solution of the mystery as Charlotte would do it.
The contemplative sleuth is an old tradition, from brooding Sherlock Holmes to philosophical Precious Ramwotse, who see what they see and think about what it means.
The sixteenth Visual Writing Prompt: Contemplative Objects. What does your character tend to stare at while thinking things through? What does the object signify to them? To the reader? My character Charlotte holds on to her big red mug while she thinks; it doesn’t matter if the contents are coffee or tea; the warmth in her hands, the steam rising from the cup–it centers her thoughts.
Next Prompt: A Room of One’s Own
“Blue” was the fifteenth #augustbreak 2014 prompt, and the first thing I thought of was our front door. It was a red door for most of the years we’ve lived here, but I did a little digging into Feng Shui, and learned that a door that faces East ought to be a watery color like blue, green, purple, black, etc., with palest yellow also acceptable.
I happened to have an unopened can of blue exterior enamel from a project that ended up being a different color, and decided to give it a go, because heaven knows we could use some stepped-up good fortune around here. And you know what? Things have improved!
I used Feng Shui in other areas of the house, as well, especially in my office. And we also have Lucky Bamboo plants, not only in correct numbers of stalks, but in the color of the ribbon tying them together. The one on my desk has both red and orange ribbons for creative energy.
In numerology the house number adds up to 8, which is supposed to be good for money, working from home, etc. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
The fourteenth Visual Writing Prompt: Lucky Objects. To what extent is your character superstitious–is there solid belief in lucky objects, or is it a half-believed game, or is the belief focused on the negative, like not walking under ladders? Black cats and Friday the 13th have always been good things for me, time and again. My character Charlotte has come to believe that luck plays as much a role in how life turns out as effort and intent. Her address is 222, which adds up to six, and six houses are happy, well-decorated, and good for family, close friends, and pets–very cozy, very Charlotte.
Next Prompt: Contemplative Objects
A Long Ago Song
The next #augustbreak2014 prompt was “Hands,” and specifically your own. My hands have grown stiff and bony with arthritis, but at one time they were quite at home on a piano keyboard. They still itch to play, but neither the old piano nor the old hands make particularly beautiful music. It’s in the past.
Other things show up on hands–manual work, injuries, gardening, oddities in the nail beds–the sort of things Sherlock Holmes would notice and from which he’d create an entire biography. A real tell is whether or not the nails are bitten, particularly in an adult. I’m surprised by how often I see this.
And another thing about hands–some people can grub around in the dirt with bare hands and they never get dirt under their nails. Other just look at a garden, and presto! there’s nasty black arcs at the tips.
Hands are often the canvas for rings and bracelets, and beautiful mehndi designs. There are rings to show off, rings to signify, and rings to be kissed. Bracelets display everything from diamonds to medical directives. Gang and prison tats are a language all their own. Hands without anything on them at all might say something about socioeconomic status, but also invite closer inspection of the condition of the hands themselves.
Hands can be soothing and loving, or harsh and punitive. They can signal support for a team, direction from a traffic cop–or tell a complex story in ASL. They are palm to palm in salaam or prayer, or cupped in one another in meditation. Left or right, creative or logical, one used to be considered a mark of the devil. But that’s changed, thank heavens.
The fourteenth Visual Writing Prompt: The Back Story in Hands. Your character’s hands should display the result of the life he or she has lived up to the point the story begins, whether sporting an expensive manicure or missing altogether. Even if you don’t refer to these details, just knowing what they look like and why helps to show, not tell, something important about that character.
Next Prompt: Lucky Objects
“My guilty pleasure” was the thirteenth prompt for #augustbreak2014, and I had to think about that one for a moment. Which one should I choose? I mean, I could certainly go for a glass of Veuve Clicquot, but taking a picture would mean shelling out serious dollars for a bottle.
But there was a block of white chocolate in the house. I’m crazy about white chocolate–I’ve always been the one to go for vanilla over cocoa flavors. Dark, dark chocolate has some health benefits, but none are indicated for white chocolate. It’s pure flavor, creamy, buttery, fragrant.
Most of the time I don’t indulge in goodies these days. Don’t need the sugar, the fat, the calories, or to spend the money on non-nutritious things. There have been shopping trips in the past when I’d grab a Snickers bar in the checkout lane, and snack on it while tooling around town to the next parking lot. Hadda keep the blood sugar up for those power shopping trips!
I’d definitely feel guilty doing it now, either the candy bar or the power shopping. Sometimes I’ll indulge in online browsing for unnecessary things like new sofas or new clothes, but not hit the “buy now” button. It’s usually enough just to windows-shop, as it were. When confronted by vanilla, however, I tend to indulge.
The thirteenth Visual Writing Prompt: A Harmless Vice. What would your character indulge in that’s not particularly good for him or her, but also not particularly dangerous? Food and alcohol are common choices, or indulgences that can be a bit expensive, like daily fresh flowers, a high-end perfume, or small-stakes gambling like bingo games. To keep if from looking like a gimmick, the vice should fit the character as smoothly as his or her virtues.
Next Prompt: The Back Story in Hands