Context and Reference

Walking in one of Prague’s many interconnected parks, it’s possible to spot this little blue head perched on a wall in someone’s house. In a museum, sterile and possibly behind glass, one might pass this by, or at most see it as one piece among many. But here on this wall, there is something moving and tender about this sculpture.

L1030275Perhaps it’s the red brick behind the head or the matter-of-fact way it faces the road. Regardless, you stop to look back. You  see the subtle asymmetry in the face in the way you might see your own face in a mirror. Character emerges from that face, as meaning emerges from Sis’s book, arising from its context, “quietly shimmering, motionless, as if frozen in time.”

The Three Golden Keys yields plenty of meaning all by itself. But reading it while walking through these streets, I’m moved by the power of place. Setting is more than an element to employ in fiction. Used with skill, setting is story.

Unsettling a Scene

Setting is a static word. I’m revising scenes right now that don’t need to be set but unsettled, so the characters can move on the page. My draft has scenes in it that currently run mostly to dialogue, with not enough blocking–that thing you do when you place people in relation to their surroundings. The problem is that you can’t do this by writing “about” setting, because that brings the movement to a crashing halt. Instead you need to stir it up, bring character into sync with setting, or place them at odds with it, or filter the scene through the viewpoint character’s perceptions, or jar it up against those perceptions, or any number of other little writerly ploys that create the illusion you’re after.

The other problem is that if I think of all this stuff too directly, it all seems to fly away from me. I can’t write anything because instead of Birnam Wood, I’m seeing matchsticks!

Fritillaria_meleagris_MichaD

By Michael Apel (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I deal with this inevitable stage of revision by flipping the pages of a few books on my shelf that have the capacity to breathe words into me, words that sing or soothe or awaken. Some are craft books, some are meditations, others are a bit of both. They include books like Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, and Dag Hammarsjöld’s Markings. This time, Markings gave me the connection I needed. He writes the disturbing account of a news item, the finding of a young woman’s body in the “clay-brown water” of a river during the spring melt, with this sentence:

It was probably a little too early for the snake’s-head fritillaries. 

I haven’t ever seen a snake’s-head fritillary but the name was unsettling enough that I looked it up, a far easier thing to do now than when the book was written in 1964. How about this for unsettling a scene?

One look at this flower with its freckled petals and you know that what comes next is not about to be ordinary.