It is an eerie thing—underlying the cries of children in the garden square, a sinister melody booming from an organ is seeping out of the Victorian church beyond my window. The only music I ever hear from there is new age Christian rock on Sundays, never an organ, never on Tuesday, never of that magnitude and fervor. Huh. It’s creating an odd atmosphere for me inside my old Victorian terraced home, I must say…the computer desk and bed are disintegrating from sight, along with a century and a half of paint as I start to envision the dressing table and hip bath that might have once stood in here, this room that I believe was once used as a dressing room. The unit we live in was once only the bedrooms of an entire four-story house, you see, which makes it quite laughable for me to think that what we now occupy as both our kitchen and reception room space was only the master bedroom. It is a place in which every petal in the ceiling’s floral moulding sends down whispers to me of all they have seen through the decades. Trees have grown tall around brick and stone that was once exposed, new, though sooty now and crumbling and left for fanciful folk like me to point to and sigh for a bygone era. But, my, how my feet would have pinched, my organs been crowded and lungs bereft of a deep breath of air…the dust kicked up on my hems and the humid sweat on a sunny day bleeding into the tight-woven fibers of my sleeves to cake in my dead skin and bake my scent. No, though I used to lose myself in imagination of how much simpler, more romantic a life back then would have been, I peer through the wormhole to see it as it was and feel quite thankful I won’t be lugging tins of water up and down all those flights of stairs, past the pretty banisters, thank you very much. Burgundy velvets, trembling fringes, clinking china, flickering flames…all these and the incantations of a seance fade to ivory. My computer materializes back into my field of vision. The organ music is muffled beneath the waterfall sound of speeding autos. It diminishes into a pleasant tune or subtle nuisance, depending on which I will choose it to be.
Category Archives: Setting
The Monkey is feeling the author-love today…
…first of all, through the recent shout-outs on newly-published novelist Josh Hanagarne’s The World’s Strongest Librarian blog and published authors Wendy Robertson, Avril Joy, and Gillian Wales’s Room to Write website (they’re hosting another Durham conference in November!).
…second of all, as I sit cradling my copies of Her Fearful Symmetry and Falling Angels freshly signed by their respective authors, Audrey Niffenegger and Tracy Chevalier!! Imagine my delight during a dull workday afternoon when I received the phone call that my wait-listed arse had scored a last-minute opening for last night’s lecture. Located in the 19th-century chapel of London’s Highgate Cemetery, the event began with a cocktail-half-hour of wine and milling about the gateway to Highgate’s West Cemetery (where poet Christina Rossetti and her brother, Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti are buried, among other notable deceased–Karl Marx is buried in the East counterpart). Filing into the intimate confines of the chapel, we were treated to readings from each author’s novel as well as explanations as to how they came to chance upon Highgate Cemetery and become inspired to build their literary projects around its historic, overgrown, and elegantly morose splendor.
Both American women had merely visited as tourists that first time, but the impression upon both was immediate, and they subsequently became volunteer tour guides as a means of interacting with this enchanting garden of flora and headstones as well as unearthing more of its history than any texts could reveal (Niffenegger continues to conduct tours here, and Chevalier lives just down the hill from the site). Following their brief “lectures” (which were structured as interviews between the two authors themselves), the floor was opened to a Q&A session with the audience.
Chevalier had originally written a manuscript divided between modern-day and a period backdrop, yet ultimately felt the graveyard and its history lent itself best to historical fiction, so her novel, Falling Angels, takes place during Edwardian England. She was most interested in how this once pristinely trimmed and pruned site came to fall into such decay and neglect following the Victorian Era, yet wanted to capture the local culture prior to the changes wrought by World War I, when many had lost their faith in God. The tale depicts two feuding families that ironically share neighboring burial plots in Highgate Cemetery.
Niffenegger had likewise begun her novel along a different path than the one ultimately taken, centering on a different character and a different graveyard (Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery—woo-hoo to my sweet home, Chicago!). She had realized that if a cemetery was to play such an integral role in her book, she would need to ensure that it was one of the ultimate ones. Just like Chevalier had visited the cemetery several years before actually writing about it, Niffenegger cited memories of a 1990s visit to Highgate Cemetery during which she spent half the time looking at it through a camera lens and fiddling with said contraption (her words to the wise are to visit the cemetery without your camera on your first visit, which I gratefully did just two weeks ago…I wrestle with the ethics of graveyard photo-opping anyway). She, however, essentially said her mind does not wrap around historical fiction naturally, so she maintained her novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, during the present day and incorporates an American element, given that her two main characters are American twins who come to inherit their aunt’s London flat that overlooks the cemetery.
I was captivated by everything each woman said in its entirety, yet my pea-brain is unable to reproduce an accurate transcript of everything wonderful and insightful about it. A couple other comments that do linger in my mind, though, were their reflections on after a novel is written. Chevalier said that she continues to “collect” ideas from the places that inspire her, whereas Audrey felt that her characters and their story lines eventually go “quiet” in her mind, and thus she moves on.
I wonder which will ultimately happen to me…Ironically, I found great inspiration to write at another Victorian cemetery just a block from my flat and which I’ve been visiting ever since the day after I moved here two years ago, so I had more affinity for this particular lecture than merely the fact that I did love reading the authors’ other books, The Time Traveler’s Wife and Girl With a Pearl Earring. And, like Niffenegger, I do sense my protagonist’s voice and immediacy fading from my consciousness lately, which signals to me that it’s time to bring her story to rest. May it requiescat in pace for her, then, yet stay alive in my imagination and those who will humor me and read it some day 🙂
*** For more coverage of this event, please do also see author/illustrator Sarah McIntyre‘s blog post, “audrey niffenegger & tracy chevalier at highgate cemetery” —this is a comprehensive trove of observations, sketches, photos, and video! ***
“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Today I’m skipping to page 26 of Room to Write, which asks us to write about Nature—we can discuss it in terms of either the outdoors or our human nature. Or, as a third alternative, write about both and connect them together.
Nature peeks in at my window from the flower box, offering a contrasting visual to the street traffic that I hear below. The roof that I otherwise view out our flat’s front windows is gradually becoming obscured by the tree buds that are cracking open to unfurl their vibrant sources of shade. While Autumn will always reign as my favorite season, there’s no question that Spring is the one that consistently unleashes the euphoria…in Chicago, it meant the cessation of the bitter cold with no more fear of a surprise snowstorm to dig your car out of as you curse into the winds; here in London, it means more gaps between the oppressive cloud-cover that has given me mole-eyes with extreme sensitivity to this golden, natural light we’re delighting in now. As opposed to the droning hum of fluorescent lighting that dulls our pallor to that of corpses, the sunshine has slurped up the puddles for the time being and is grinning at all the people glad to scurry about in lighter jackets and exposed toenails.
But I don’t mean to make this about the weather, just the effect that it has on the human psyche, making us feel an urge to interact with it, be a part of it. Nature expands our lungs, colors our cheeks, infuses us with a sparkle that we risk losing when all we may come into contact with day-to-day is the plastic of pens, kettle handles, or keyboards pushing against our fingertips along with the cool metal of doorknobs and pocket change. Even the natural grain of our wooden furniture’s once living existence is separated from our skin with a layer of varnish, the embalming fluid of trees.
I once attended a series of debates at St. Paul’s Cathedral during which theologians and scientists discussed the nature of the soul (if interested, you can read the full transcript here). While they went on to distinguish the soul from the spirit, one panel member (Keith Ward, Emeritus Regius Professor of Divinity, Oxford University) had this to say of both:
“[A]ll living things—all animals, even vegetables, potatoes and tomatoes—have souls. They all have living principles. So having a soul, for the Bible, isn’t what makes human beings special.”
“Every living thing has the breath of life, which is the spirit.”
Regardless of anyone’s religious beliefs—that is what made these debates so fascinating after all, as panel members across the series represented Christianity, Judaism, Agnosticism, and Atheism, and found more common ground than disparate, as far as I perceived—I think the above captures a sense that people can share universally. It is that “living principle,” that “breath of life” that we share with Nature, and this is what binds us together no matter how much we try to distinguish ourselves by our intellect and emotion. If this is a way that we humans are not special, that means we can commune with Nature as our brethren, giving and receiving energy from one another in much the same way we breath the oxygen plants give off only to expel the carbon dioxide they need to photosynthesize in return.
When I stand on a mountain or swim in the sea, there is something so gorgeous about the vision and experience of it that I could cry, for it taps into my own primal nature that remains embedded in my core, nonmalleable to societal influences that may otherwise shape me for better or worse. Nature vs. Nurture is a whole other tangent on which I could take this topic, but I shall hold off on that other than to say I personally believe both factors are at play when it comes to who we are and who we become. Our nature, however, is akin to that persistent vine that finds its way through the cracks of a stone wall; aspects of who we are at our roots are likewise things to be nourished so that they can flourish or perhaps be plucked like weeds when we recognize the bad that could come of them (the very duality addressed in my “Mad Me?” post and your comments). Think about it; we constantly address ourselves in terms of vegetation: early or late bloomers, budding, blossoming, being planted, rooted/uprooted, fertile, and so on. This metaphorical language doesn’t come from nowhere; we draw comparisons of ourselves to images we somehow intuitively understand, and, in doing so, better understand ourselves.
On looking back at this entry, I see that I automatically addressed the gentler side of Nature. This is the hopeful, inspiring aspect of the outdoors that we can embrace for a healthier mind, body, and soul. Yet I would be remiss not to footnote here that I stand in awe of Nature in a fearful way as well. It has a tremendous force that humbles us through what we term “natural disaster”: earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, tornado, and most recently, volcanic eruption. I literally just jumped out of my chair to look outside at the first sound of an airplane I’ve heard in days—sure enough, I just watched it fly past. It’s been an experience directly observing the impact of the ash, leaving people stranded in a way that didn’t occur 200 years ago when Iceland’s volcano last erupted (and did so for a year!). We take our air travel for granted and have felt practically paralyzed at being sent back to an earlier time when such was not an option. Of course, though, our next escape routes became our trains, cars, and boats.
But envision if we did peel back the layers of technological innovation and retreated to our more basic, natural selves:
“If we assume man has been corrupted by an artificial civilization, what is the natural state? The state of nature from which he has been removed? Imagine wandering up and down the forest, without industry, without speech and without home.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men
What are your thoughts on Nature (in any of its respects), and how do you think such contemplation impacts what and how we write?
…or, these days, the blank computer screen. Every true writer’s mind has a story just dying to get out of it, yet this doesn’t necessarily make getting started any easier. Following up directly on my previous post regarding the writing conference I attended last weekend (sponsored by the organization Room to Write), one of the topics we addressed was beginnings, which cannot be more critical to a story, particularly if you want to get it published.
First of all, as far as how you begin to write each day, the key is: 1) ensuring that you do write every day, even if just a few sentences; and, 2) the authors leading the conference particularly advised us to write first thing in the morning. That is when our heads can be freshest and leave us feeling for the rest of the day that we’ve already accomplished something massive (so you don’t have to feel guilty taking that nap 🙂 ). While I wish I could discipline myself to haul my keester out of bed earlier than the minimum allowable time for getting ready for work, I have to admit I have my most significant rush of ideas in the morning as I shower, as though I’m massaging them out of me noggin as I shampoo my hair. I always hate that I have to leave for work soon after then, just when I’m in the groove and risk losing the momentum by the time I return home drained from the daily toil.
As far as the actual beginning of our story or novel, we must note that the first chapter (indeed, first page) is the “imprint of the entire book.” The sense of place and voice established in that first page predicts the rest of the book. My tutors also stressed the impact of including a sense of smell right from the getgo, as it creates a lingering impression unlike the other senses (and is unfortunately one of the most underutilized, as I’ve mentioned before in my “Smell No Evil” post).
With regard to place, we were advised to give places names, even if it’s a fake name to anonymize an actual place. In this way, a place, if prevalent enough to the story, can become a character in itself. Closely related in terms of setting, the time period in which our story takes place should be implied well enough to give a clear sense, yet we don’t have to preach to the reader when exactly it is.
With regard to the sample of best-selling novels we read in preparation for the course, we evaluated the following common denominators that we noted across each of their beginnings:
– Drama or sense of impending danger
– Character (be it the main character’s name or an archetype to be represented throughout)
– Setting (again, the sense of time and place)
– Conflict (at least a sense of the issue at the crux of the story)
– “Filmic”—i.e., achieves ready visualization and engagement through drama and descriptive language
Finally, we may have a strong temptation to overly explain some aspect of the story right out the gate, be it the character, setting, conflict, etc. To avoid this, we need to give our reader credit and exercise restraint—we can always introduce this information in a creative way later on.
I do believe I am at the end of discussing beginnings, so meet me here next time for a few words on dialogue.