Sneaky Exposition

From my LDavisCarpenter – Writer blog:

Sneaky Exposition

Posted on January 17, 2014

The Gift of Rain - Tan Twan Eng

The Gift of Rain – Tan Twan Eng

One purpose of this blog is for recording observations on the nitty-gritty of writing.

I am currently reading Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain – longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. As I picked up the book this afternoon, a few paragraphs in Chapter 6 stood out as worthy of a little dissection.

The text reads as follows:

We walked to the temple near her house. The crowd was thin, as it was still a few days before the actual festival. We entered the grounds of the temple and walked past the stone statues of snarling, serpentine dragons and mythical birdmen, all painted in brilliant hues of turquoise, red, blue, and green.

The temple was constructed in 1845 by the Siamese community on an extensive piece of property granted by Queen Victoria. Built in the traditions of Siamese architecture, it was trimmed generously in gold and maroon.  Stone reliefs of the Buddha decorated the walls in a repeating motif.  We walked past two guardian dragons on long concrete plinths, their bodies curling like waves, and left our shoes by the entrance, where a sign in English warned: “Beware of She Thiefs!” Aunt Yu Mei was disgusted at the misspelling.

I wish I could scribble lines and arrows to explain my thoughts but I will try to break this apart with text.

I have included the first paragraph to show the context of the second: that the writing is in first person and that the next paragraph takes place during some activity of the Point of View character.

So, to pick apart the main paragraph:

The temple was constructed in 1845 by the Siamese community on an extensive piece of property granted by Queen Victoria. Built in the traditions of Siamese architecture, . . .

This one and one-half sentence stretch is straight exposition. But it sneaks in without feeling like author intrusion because the reader already knows that the POV character is familiar with the building, and so, can believably bring this information to mind. Being in the first person, there is a sense of narration to the text which allows retelling by the POV character, so exposition becomes part of the storytelling.

But that’s all there is. Just one and one-half sentences of backstory. It must have been tempting to run on with more historical information about the temple’s history, etc. But instead, the 2nd half of the 2nd sentence and the next one: . . . it was trimmed generously in gold and maroon. Stone reliefs of the Buddha decorated the walls in a repeating motif. . .  –  describe the environment presently experienced by the POV character and anchors the observations in the here and now. It is informational but it feels more like a sensory perception.

Next we are right back to the movement or action of the characters: We walked past two guardian dragons on long concrete plinths, their bodies curling like waves, and left our shoes by the entrance, . . . – descriptive detail tied to the moment’s movement and, therefore, sensory rather than intrusive telling.

Finally, Mr. Eng ties the descriptive detail — . . . where a sign in English warned: “Beware of The Thiefs!” . . . to a wonderful character expression in, Aunt Yu Mei was disgusted at the misspelling.

There is also the feeling of the paragraph going from a wide to a telescopic lense focus: wide angle for the bit of backstory, zooming in on the general description and drawing closer to follow the characters’ specific movement and then the close-up of Aunt  Yu Mei.

I have no idea how conscious Mr. Eng was of writing technique while composing this paragraph – whether it was deliberate and hard won or flowed subconsciously from a well practiced craft, but it is fun to pick apart and shows there is much to be gained in a few sentences.

Lemon Tree – Mural Process

Just posted this on Marsh Hawk Studio site:

Main Wall Completed
Main Wall Completed
DSC_0034 - adjusted smaller
View from Entrance

There were many challenges to this design. The first was how to have lemon trees reaching up into a night sky? I didn’t want the trees directly against a deep blue. My clients were also concerned that the room not become too dark.

I suggested we transition lighter walls up through dusk and into a night sky. I had in mind the beautiful medieval Book of Hours, Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry which beautifully moves from day to night in one image.

Medieval Book of Hours
Medieval Book of Hours

This meant taking an ombré effect from night to dusk on the ceiling and into the walls.

Adding to the challenge – as I designed the walls, I knew I did not want a horizon line cutting across the imagery. That meant obscuring the horizon by taking the ombré right down to the base of the image – the chair rail.

Here’s a shot of one wall’s design elevation in progress:

Lemon Tree elevation
Lemon Tree elevation

In order to visualize the overlap of corner trees on the ceiling, I built a rough, white model and attached the wall and ceiling elevations to it. The resulting model was taped and pinned together for easy disassembly and transport. Presenting this to the clients helped them visualize their future dining room.

Model view of entry arch and colums
Model view of entry arch and columns

Watch the slideshow and see further explanation below:

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Of course, I began with the background. The ceiling and walls were textured, which added to the challenge of the gradation.

I worked a textured underlayer beneath the final grassy foreground to give it some movement, then worked over it to lighten the final effect. It took me about a week of tones and half-tones and half-half-tones to get the transitions smooth.

Referencing my renderings, I chalked in the trees, then based and added minimal highlight and shade. I did not want overly dimensional trunks, knowing my leaves would be stylized. I also didn’t want the trunks to dominate the composition. My natural bent is for high contrast so I had to restrain myself from fully developing their form.

I ordered a variety of lemon leaf stencils from Cutting Edge Stencils. These were excellent shapes but I was a little concerned about scale. Would they be too small? So, before starting the project, I cut a bunch of additional leaf stencils in larger sizes. In the end, I used all of them. Layering the slightly different sizes provided a better sense of depth.

The stencils were applied randomly, layered and with mottled tones.

Once an area had the beginnings of leaves, I stopped and added the lemons. I wanted to be sure I had leaves both behind and in front of the fruit. I stenciled the lemons with a base color and then added lights for simple form. When the lemons were dry I continued with the leaves allowing them to overlap the lemons.

My client had been enchanted by the lemon blossoms at their Sorrento restaurant so I scattered blossom shapes throughout. I had pre-cut little stencils of 7 or 8 blossom shapes.

While I was working on the trees, I chipped away at the starry sky. I used a combination of Swarovski flat-backed crystals and silver mica-powder mixed with clear glaze.

The mural’s other special features are a peace dove, a sandhill crane and a a triple merhorse fountain. This unique feature was inspired by my client’s trip to Italy. There is a large, elaborate fountain in Taormina, Sicily, that has these adorable merhorses placed along its outer edge as you can see in my prior post here. My clients requested I include only the merhorses so I created a composition that would provided the best sense of all three.

A word about color:  It is coincidental that my mural colors appear so similar to the Book of Hours image. I did not actually reference that work during the design process – it was simply in my memory as an example of a prior artist transitioning from day to night in a single image.

The colors of my mural were based on the existing colors in the home. Every color used in the mural was coordinated with the near-violet blue of the large niche or the warm ochre-tan base color and of the surrounding spaces. Nearly every color in the mural has one or the other or both of these two reference colors in their makeup.

Light Reading

From my LDavisCarpenter – Writer blog:

Light Reading

Posted on January 1, 2014

Bedtime Stories

Bedtime Stories

I was so exhausted by Penman’s Plantagenets that I searched for something in my To Be Read Pile that would be light and fun. So, of course, I settled on Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

Really, I did. My other options were to start this or that series and I didn’t want to embark on another long-term commitment. Bring Up the Bodies was at hand, not nearly as massive as the three Penman tomes I’d finally completed and it is the 2nd in a trilogy I’d already started. So it took priority over starting something else.

The good news – I zipped through it in less than a week. It was strange reading more Henry stuff but this is No. 8, rather than No. 2. My brain wanted to merge them together for a while but I finally left the Plantagenets behind and caught up with the Tudors.

The first book in the series, Wolf Hall, started off as a difficult read. Mantel has chosen an unusual point of view – 3rd person present tense – all from the head of Thomas Cromwell. It took me about one hundred pages to get the POV and voice to sink up with my brain – sort of like trying to read Shakespeare after many years away from it. Once I found the right groove my only problem was the occasional confusing pronoun reference. Mantel’s writing is so immediate and nearly stream of conscious that it was easy to lose track of the “he” references in Wolf Hall.

Delving back into Thomas Cromwell’s head in Bring Up the Bodies was a synch. And I was thrilled to see that Mantel had found a device to solve the pronoun reference problem without tampering with her distinctive voice. In a given paragraph, if there is a risk of the “he” pronoun reference being unclear, she now writes, “he, Cromwell, blah, blah, blah”. Like the rest of the book, it is unusual but it works.

As to the story – Oh, my. Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is a disturbing enigma but how else do you explain the contradictions present in this singular human being? I flew through the book even already knowing the historical outcome.

Highly Recommended.

Interview with Annamaria Alfieri

Another Cross-post from My Long Ago and Faraway blog:

Interview with Annamaria Alfieri

Posted on October 30, 2013

I met Annamaria Alfieri at the Historical Novel Society Conference in St. Petersburg, FL in June. She was so much fun to talk to that we have kept in touch.

Annamaria is the author of three murder mysteries set in South America. She has graciously agreed to take a little time out of publicizing her new murder mystery, Blood Tango, to answer a few questions for our blog. (Yay! Our first interview!)

I came to Blood Tango with zero background knowledge of the events surrounding Peron and Evita – in my theatre days I neither worked on nor saw a production of the Broadway hit “Evita”. Even so, I was able to enter right into the story context with Annamaria as my guide.

Why historical fiction?

I read my first historical novel when I was fourteen: Katherine, by the great Anya Seton. I hated studying history in school. It was all about memorizing dates, the causes of war and which country won. No context, no understanding of the people involved, certainly not of their emotions. Dry.

I did not think of writing historical novels myself, however, until I went to Potosi (Bolivia) and became entranced with its beauty and then its history. That’s when I decided that, rather than continue with the contemporary fiction I had been working on, I would write a historical mystery that took place there, as a way of communicating more broadly some fascinating and mostly unknown history. The result was City of Silver. (See the YouTube interview of Annamaria discussing her inspiration for City of Silver!)

Why Argentina? Why not some topic more familiar to readers?

Blood Tango is my third historical mystery. Once I set out telling about South American history, I stuck with it through three books. You are right. It is unfamiliar territory for many North American readers, but that is why I chose it. I think fiction readers in general, and mystery readers in particular, like to learn as well as be entertained. Most North Americans know very little about the history of the intriguing continent south of ours. There aren’t many novelists writing about that and I hoped to open a niche for myself there.

Did you come to the project with much background knowledge? Or did you have to start from scratch like I did while reading the book?

In all three cases, I began on unfamiliar ground. I had to research thoroughly to get a sense of the times, the place, and especially the historical characters.

What was the hardest part about writing this story in this context?

In the case of Blood Tango, all most American’s know about Evita, for instance, is what they learned from the Broadway musical. And that version of the history is distorted. That made the writing more difficult because I wanted to tell a compelling story, and try to do it without fighting too hard against the readers’ possible misconceptions.

I understand you’ve done some particularly creative events to publicize the book. Can you tell us about those? What did you learn from these efforts?

My daughter is a dancer, and we came up with the idea of doing a film featuring tango dancing. She produced and directed it, the choreography was done by the Paul Pellicoro Dancers. You can see it on YouTube here.

It got quite a lot of compliments and has been seen by, as of today, almost 1500 people. I am proud of it, especially since the choreography between the principal dancers captures what I think was the real relationship between Evita and Juan Peron.

You said to me at conference that you planned to be back at work writing the next book by July 1st. Have you managed to do that with publicity and life continuing to demand attention?

I DID! With the book touring, I have not been able to throw myself into it completely, but I am closing in on 20,000 words. This is a first draft of course. It will need a LOT of polishing before it is done.

I’m always interested in other writers/artists’ work habits. Do you have a daily writing schedule or goals that you try to stick to?

When I am in the first draft, I try to work six days a week. It takes a lot of energy to get my head into the story. If I leave it for two days, it is harder to get back into it to keep going. I am much more productive if I can hold on to the thread of the story. Even if it is just for an hour. Besides, I am happy when I am in the story. All the slings and arrows of everyday life can’t reach me if my mind is in the long ago and far away. I do not have to be coaxed to write.

Any time management tricks you recommend? Or is it “just say no” to everything else possible?

Your readers may not want to hear this, but I gave up reading magazines and almost all TV watching. I stay in touch with friends mostly on FaceBook and email. I don’t chat much. I cook, which I love to do, but only my thirty-minute meals except on Sundays. I take care of my family responsibilities. After that, my first priority is writing. Period. Full stop.

And anything else you would like to add would be great!

I love the idea for this blog. Lots of historical fiction is appealing and I do read and enjoy the stories that take place in the familiar times and locations. But I have such a fascination with the exotic. I am happy to be able to come here and find out what’s new on that horizon.

Thank you, Annamaria!

My Name is Red

A cross-post from my Long Ago and Far Away blog:

My Name is Red

Posted on October 8, 2013

My Name is Red

In a prior post I explained that I do not intend to write proper reviews of books. I also mentioned that for a book to receive five stars from me, it would have to be more than entertaining and well written. It must also stick with me past the final page. Some books are technically perfect but forgettable. Others are unforgettable but could do with another hard edit, or they have some niggling thing that prevents the perfect 10 in my eyes. And, as I explained, trying to review books as a beginning novelist just feels awkward.

I don’t generally read reviews either. When I choose a book (or film) I like to know as little as possible before I begin. I don’t even read back covers. Writers work incredibly hard to create a story that unfolds and reveals information in exactly the right way. I hate to miss that experience by knowing anything before the writer wants me to. Tell me the genre and the period and that you recommend it – let the writer do the rest.

However, I would like to use this blog to make observations about various books and invite dialog on certain aspects. Which brings me to these thoughts about My Name is Red.

My Name is Red appears on many historical fiction “must read” lists and is set in a time/place which is well off the beaten path. So it seemed a good candidate for a lover of long ago and far away tales. Also, although 16th century Istanbul is many hundreds of years and miles from my current period of study – for my interests, that’s really close!

This murder/mystery was written in Turkish by Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. With all the accolades, I figured I’d better read this and was excited to find something so intriguing.

At the time I read it, I was working about 60 hours per week at a brutal day job. I think it took me four months of dozing off before bed to get through this book. At times it was only the need to finally learn the identity of the murderer, and my general reluctance to ever abandon a book, that kept me going. (Don’t worry, no spoilers here. After all of that, I can’t remember who the murderer turned out to be.)

Many aspects of the book appealed to me: as an artist, I loved that the story is set among a community of miniaturist painters; the structure, voice and non-western worldview is compelling; the characters are complex and therefore unsentimental in their portrayal. But I felt vast portions of the book were repetitive and going no where, slowly. I could have enjoyed more of this world, these characters, if it had been additional material rather than the feeling that I was going in circles.

By the time I was done with it, I was relieved. And finding out the answer to the whodunit was, meh.

But here’s additional support for why I won’t formally review this book or others. Sometimes it is only after time and distance that the true impact of a book is realized. I am now 5-6 months from finishing that slog but find the book is still with me. Something of it’s essence lingers. What is it and why? I’m not really sure. I think a large part of it is the believability of the characters. They were just fickle, inconsistent and imperfect enough to truly breathe.

One intellectual question persists – I wonder if I were capable of reading the work in the original language, would the word crafting have extraordinary merit? Is it more beautifully written in the original? Did I miss some important aspect of the work by reading a translation?

This question buzzed around my head while I read the book and resurfaced when I read the article in the last Historical Novel Review, “Translating a Genre” by Lucinda Byatt. Ms Byatt makes a great argument for more historical fiction to be translated into English (Hear! Hear!). She also notes the difficulty for publishers to be sure of their translator’s skills. I couldn’t possibly critique Erdag M. Guknar’s translation of My Name is Red, but I can’t help wondering if I’ve missed out on something in the writing?

This book is also steeped in historical references that are probably familiar to eastern readers but are well outside of my exposure. It was fun though, just today, while readingThe History of al-Tabari for my own research, to come across the historical account of Shirin and Husrev, who’s love story figures so prominently in My Name is Red. I felt like I’d run into an old acquaintance.

I get the feeling that My Name is Red opened my mind to things I have yet to realize. The more reason not to rattle off hasty book reviews using the grade-inflation-tainted star system.

Recommended.

I’d love to hear from others who have read My Name is Red and your reaction to it. Is it just me? How do you feel about official/starred book reviews?

Coordinating Multiple Blogs

As you know by now, this is my catch-all place. It is for unique, general posts which do not directly apply to my other blogs. And to cross-post from my other material so most of my blog-life is in one place. Don’t worry. It won’t be absolutely everything.

If you prefer a more focused blog experience, please see my other blogs:

Marshhawkstudio.com – My decorative arts business website/blog.

LDavisCarpenter – Writer  – My general writing blog.

Longagoandfaraway.org – A blog for historical fiction set outside the normal locals of the US and Western Europe.

Since I am still getting my workflow down.

The next few posts are entries from LDavisCarpenter that didn’t make it over here yet:

Lemon Trees with Night Sky Mural

Here’s a new post from my Marsh Hawk Studio LLC:

I recently completed this project in Ponte Vedra, Florida. There are few experiences so thrilling as seeing your once-imagined world realized – whether on stage or in a dining room.

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My clients wanted to recreate the feeling they experienced while eating lunch at the Ristorante ‘o Parruchiano la Favorita in Sorrento, Italy.

They explained that the town of Sorrento is all about lemons and this restaurant’s patio diningroom was surrounded by fruit-laden lemon trees – blossoms drifting down all around.

They also wished to reference the enchanting merhorse fountains which flank the larger baroque fountain in Taormina, Northern Sicily.

Client's Photo of Baroque Fountain
Client’s Photo of Baroque Fountain with Merhorses

In searching for a muralist they stumbled over a prior project of mine – a night sky with crystal stars. This expanded their vision.

They got in touch and we got to work.

In my next post I will walk you through the design and painting process.

I hope you enjoy the world we created!