Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 1, 2010

Chariots and Clouds

When my husband and I were bicycling this weekend, he brought up a sentence on the first page of my book in process. “The mud-bricks under her bare feet hummed the way they did when chariots clattered toward the palace.”

Peter said, “I know you’ve never lived in a palace and I don’t think you’ve ever heard a chariot, so how did you get to that humming floor?”

It’s a kind of physical imagination, I said. It’s what we do in life when we exercise compassion, or really try to feel myself into another person’s shoes. Or sandals. Often I write from the outside-in, beginning with place more than character, and I especially try to go there when I feel stuck inside a character’s unclear heart or murky thoughts. What is she looking at, hearing, smelling, touching? What is the world around her saying that I might be missing?

I doubt that there’s a writer alive who hasn’t been advised to show-not-tell. Most of us crave the specifics, so we don’t get mired in another mind’s murkiness or even clarity, that maybe isn’t as interesting as blueberries on cornflakes for breakfast, or the sensation of a twisted ankle. We like the scent of an aged, creased love letter as much as the words. There’s a sort of magic in the senses, and when stuck on plot, this is often where I look. Or listen. Or sniff. What kind of floor is under her feet or what kind of table under her hands? The details can rescue us as writers and, if we’re lucky, enchant readers. So when I’m doing research about a time over four thousand years ago, I’m not just studying a picture of a chariot, but imagining the sounds they made and how riders must tense their muscles to keep their balance and the smell of the dust it raised.

And sometimes the present and past collapses into one. Here are some clouds we saw when bicycling past fields by the Connecticut River. Who’s to say clouds like these might not be over the head of a girl who lived long ago? I’m not saying we should never write, “It was a cloudy day.” Particular descriptions of particular clouds may be too much. But it’s good to at least imagine the shapes of haze, the intensity of sun, the shades of blue and white your character walks under.

We may find what we need by reading, sometimes by dreaming and inventing, and sometimes just by looking around.

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Responses

  1. An excellent post on how place influences character. And I am going right to a dictionary to look up enheduanna! New word of the day!

  2. I loved the sensory details in BORROWED NAMES in particular — the way that the lotions Madame C.J. Walker smelled as she created them; the way they felt underneath a woman’s hands, or as they were smoothed into a woman’s hair; the glow of radium that shined like a nightlight from Marie Curie’s husband as he told his daughters good night. You have a way with detail that really draws the reader into the character’s world and makes the reader want to know more, too. (I learned so much about each of the women in reading your book, and wanted to continue learning after I finished, to the point that I searched for more information about each of them online.)

  3. That sentence makes me crazy. I want to read that book! And my inner kid is yelling nownownow!
    I am being brave and going to a SCBWI workshop this Saturday on picture book writing. Got an idea for my bugs…
    I love detail. Loved Borrowed Names.

  4. Thanks, Candice!

  5. Jeni, your comment means so much to me. Thank you! This is just the kind of response I hoped for.

  6. I’m so happy you love detail and Borrowed Names, and I laughed with your inner kid. If only editors and such heard those nownownow voices a bit louder! We must be patient.
    I hope you have a wonderful time at the SCBWI workshop. I know you’re brave! It’s nice to walk in with a new idea under your belt!

  7. I love that the way you link “showing, not telling” with compassion, Jeannine. And I’m not surprised. Your work is brimming with it.
    I know myself that I’m in a good place with a story when these visceral details find their way onto the page without my consciously setting out to construct them. It’s as if I truly have found the heart of the characters. I only wish I were better at finding my way there!

  8. As one who has had the pleasure and privilege of reading this as-yet-upublished work, I think I can say with complete confidence that however long you must wait to see it in print, it will most definitely be worth it. — PL

  9. I find this subject fascinating, and this post very illuminating.
    The “show-not-tell” advice is, I think, often useful not just in writing, but in life as well.
    And that was a lovely bicycle ride we went on. — PL

  10. I believe it. I have read quite a few of her books.

  11. This was a great post, and very helpful. Thank you!

  12. I swear, I got a whiff when I read “the scent of an aged, creased love letter.”
    Great post, Jeannine.

  13. Thanks!

  14. Thank you!

  15. Thanks, Amy. I’m so happy just seeing you here. And that is a cool way to know you’re there with a story: it makes sense. I hope you are finding a few cracks in the moving chaos in which to find those new ways.

  16. What a beautiful and inspirational post, Jeannine. You’ve reawakened my senses!

  17. It makes me so happy to see you here, too. Not much progress in finding the cracks at the moment, but just having the time to read and savor your words is helping me feel more like a writer again.

  18. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed clouds and river over the weekend, too!

  19. So glad you and hubby can talk about your writing. Part of the creative process also includes talking our stories out with our life partners!

  20. Oh my goodness, your posts of late are like a rich dessert. I take a bite and savor it and then must come back for more. Then I get to the end of the post and I have to go back and read it again for another taste.
    I love the idea of “physical imagination” but I also love love love that your husband asked that question!

  21. Love this, Jeannine Although this kind of detail is exactly what scares me away from ever trying historical fiction–sure the clouds may have been the same, but nothing else was! I’ll leave that to writers braver than me (like you:>)

  22. Love this, Jeannine Although this kind of detail is exactly what scares me away from ever trying historical fiction–sure the clouds may have been the same, but nothing else was! I’ll leave that to writers braver than me (like you:>)

  23. Good point, Joyce. It’s something I treasure.

  24. Good point, Joyce. It’s something I treasure.

  25. Susan, your enthusiasm means a lot to me. Thanks!

  26. Susan, your enthusiasm means a lot to me. Thanks!

  27. I think there is a certain obsessiveness that leads us to this kind of research. Thankfully there is plenty to write about from the world around us, and you do that well.

  28. I think there is a certain obsessiveness that leads us to this kind of research. Thankfully there is plenty to write about from the world around us, and you do that well.

  29. I don’t know what’s prettier–your words or his photo!

  30. I don’t know what’s prettier–your words or his photo!

  31. Although I like my photo, I’d vote for Jeannine’s words. — PL

  32. Although I like my photo, I’d vote for Jeannine’s words. — PL

  33. Thanks, Ann! … And Peter!

  34. Thanks, Ann! … And Peter!

  35. wow
    Jeannine,
    Love love love your posts. I always learn something useful and wonderful. Your ideas make me want to tear into whatever manuscript I’m working on and see how I can apply a new technique or approach. Having JUST self-publishing my first novel, A Lot Like Life, via Lulu.com, your posts also make me wish I could go back and revise yet again. But alas, I think for better not worse (otherwise I’d never let go of a manuscript!), it is now published. I just created my own blog here, “Explorastory,” to share my journey into self-publishing. It was arduous, I made some doozie mistakes, and I learned a lot about the current but constantly evolving state of self publishing. Write on!, Jayne

  36. wow

    Jeannine,
    Love love love your posts. I always learn something useful and wonderful. Your ideas make me want to tear into whatever manuscript I’m working on and see how I can apply a new technique or approach. Having JUST self-publishing my first novel, A Lot Like Life, via Lulu.com, your posts also make me wish I could go back and revise yet again. But alas, I think for better not worse (otherwise I’d never let go of a manuscript!), it is now published. I just created my own blog here, “Explorastory,” to share my journey into self-publishing. It was arduous, I made some doozie mistakes, and I learned a lot about the current but constantly evolving state of self publishing. Write on!, Jayne

  37. I’m a little late to this wonderful post, but as always, you inspire me.
    “It’s what we do in life when we exercise compassion, or really try to feel myself into another person’s shoes.”
    “And sometimes the present and past collapses into one.”
    So perceptive! Isn’t it interesting that when we are most present and keenly aware of our physical surroundings, we step outside of time and the limits of our selves and are able to feel (for lack of a better word) the deep connection to all who have lived on this earth.

  38. I’m a little late to this wonderful post, but as always, you inspire me.

    “It’s what we do in life when we exercise compassion, or really try to feel myself into another person’s shoes.”
    “And sometimes the present and past collapses into one.”

    So perceptive! Isn’t it interesting that when we are most present and keenly aware of our physical surroundings, we step outside of time and the limits of our selves and are able to feel (for lack of a better word) the deep connection to all who have lived on this earth.

  39. Re: wow
    Jayne, thanks for the blog compliments, and good luck with yours (I’m going to friend you) and the book. Unfortunately I’ll be away the weekend of your launch party, but I look forward to the book. You’re so right: sometimes you do need to know when to let go or we’d forever be revising, and that’s not a good thing.

  40. Re: wow

    Jayne, thanks for the blog compliments, and good luck with yours (I’m going to friend you) and the book. Unfortunately I’ll be away the weekend of your launch party, but I look forward to the book. You’re so right: sometimes you do need to know when to let go or we’d forever be revising, and that’s not a good thing.

  41. Lorraine, you’re never late. The door’s always open for you.
    And you put it so well, that sort of paradox that by getting really down to the nitty gritty, really into one small place, that the world can seem to widen.
    Hope June goes well for you! It’s a bit muggy on the porch here, but a little heat is not such a bad thing for my thinking. I hope.

  42. Lorraine, you’re never late. The door’s always open for you.

    And you put it so well, that sort of paradox that by getting really down to the nitty gritty, really into one small place, that the world can seem to widen.

    Hope June goes well for you! It’s a bit muggy on the porch here, but a little heat is not such a bad thing for my thinking. I hope.


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