Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 12, 2015

A String of Pearls and Paint

I often feel adrift before I commit to pen and paper. Maybe that’s what some writer’s rituals are about: the pencil sharpening, coffee making, or cat petting help us make the transition from mulling to dredging up words, crafting a vision into a book. We’re about to spend time making something out of nothing, or of memory, imagination, thin air. I trust what I can touch or taste, but since I make a life with words, I chose a vocabulary that leans to the tangible.

Sometimes a small detail pulls me into a story. I can hear my heart briefly stop as I spot an object important to my character. This may rise after lots of scribbling about what she wears, where she walks, what she keeps in her handbag or drawer. More details come as I keep writing, and now that I’m in revising a manuscript, details guide me along the way. Looking for ways to show more about Edmonia Lewis, a nineteenth century sculptor who is at the center of my forthcoming book, Stone Mirrors, I envisioned her helping someone in her dormitory arrange her hair. Might the girls talk about pearls, and how Cleopatra wove them through her hair? Might one girl look for a string of pearls her father gave her, and not find them, breaking trust? Could all of this echo what’s in a statue of Cleopatra that Edmonia sculpts years later? Those missing and found pearls serve as a sort of flashlight as I get lost along the way, and try to kick up tension between those plot points. After writing a lot of bad stuff, I’m getting to see once ragged edges of scenes form tight corners. There’s the detail, then the work, then just the right place to put those details.

It’s good to work on something new, though my attention doesn’t stray too long from May Alcott, who lived around the same time. I’m having fun sorting through photos as I put together a talk about art and Little Woman in Blue at the Dickinson Library in Whately, MA this Saturday Nov. 14 at 11 a.m. I’ll be at another favorite place, Jones Library in Amherst MA on Tuesday Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. For Paintings Hung in Parlors.


I’ll show slides of May’s work as well as that of some of her teachers, such as William Rimmer, her student Daniel Chester French, and her friends Mary Cassatt. I’ll discuss the role of art for women in the nineteenth century, including May Alcott’s forward thinking in wanting a life that included both art and a family, and her feminism as shown in her book Studying Art Abroad and How to Do it Cheaply. There she comments not only on good places to buy paints (and shoes and hose) in London and Paris, but also about how the teachers in Paris charge women three times what they charge men, who get to work with more experienced models and are given more serious criticism. She suggests that women protest to make a change, which might happen, as she’s seeing excellent work by women, and instructors may want to take credit for such talented former students.

There’s so much to learn from the past, as is suggested by these chairs I photographed outside the art library at Smith College.


A short piece I wrote about the ways and possible whys of Louisa’s decision to depict May in Little Women as less talented and driven than she was in life was just published on Passages to the Past. Thank you, Amy! Also, I recently answered questions about writing challenges and inspiration at Wordswimmer, where there are often interesting conversations about writing and yoga. You can click on the link for a radio interview I did for New Books in Historical Fiction with the smart and lovely-voiced C.P. Lesley. We discuss the differences between writing for children and adults, writing poetry and prose, and between the real lives of the Alcott family, those depicted in Little Women and yet again in Little Woman in Blue.

Big thanks for everyone’s interest as I get back to finding out what happened to those pearls, and a missing paint box, too.


  1. Oh, I love those chairs! So Smith College! Thanks for sharing your process, as always, Jeannine. I haven’t been writing much, laid low by Lyme and finding it takes all I have just to get through the school day, but I always want to have another go at my writing when I read one of your posts. You are a gift!

    • I’m sorry you must cope with Lyme and exhaustion, but am glad of any words that inspire you to get back to writing. Take care of your good self.

  2. Ohhhhh, I’m intrigued by your imaginings! A strand of pearls, woven through someone’s hair, and also ensnared in a tangled web of deception…genius.

    • Thanks for your help in nudging me to find these pearls. I don’t know about genius, but I’m going to hold your faith close today and through the week as I put together gems, marble, and memory. Thank you!

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