Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Nostalgic Mist

What path do you follow to your imagination? My first step is memory. These damp November days are bringing me back to England. Last week the view out of my window in Maine reflected the images inside my head.

Of course the landscape is different. Maine is wild; England (above) is pastoral. The weight of water still hangs heavy on the air. The colors were muted to grays. I looked for brightness and found it in the woods.

Is my son wearing a yellow raincoat or a mac with rain boots or wellies? Are those gold leaves of autumn or fall? Is the dog off leash or off lead?

Bloody dog! Stella ate the boy’s i-pod. Really.

I know when I’m speaking French (poorly!) or English, but somehow the line between American and British blurs. I’ve lived half my life with an Englishman and three years of that in his country. Our children use a mixed vocabulary especially since coming back from our Oxford sabbatical. Quite a few of my friends are similarly split between countries. In my sidebar you’ll find ex-pat bloggers, even though I’m not one anymore.

When writing dialogue or using first person narration, I must be true to character and that includes nationality. NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE) is a book that will need readers to flag my transgressions. Even if the aim is to show confusion, I must not confuse the reader.

By the final draft, I’ll have cleared the fog. The first draft introduces me to the characters and follows the branches of the plot. It’s messy, but this is how the structure emerges. The weather seemed to follow my writing. The sun came back on the day I talked to my agent, Jean Naggar. She liked the sound of NOT CRICKET from my description. I won't be showing the manuscript to her until it's polished. I find revision easier than writing the first draft.

Sometimes I don’t sleep as well in this creative stage. I shut my eyes and hear the characters chatting; I dream different scenarios. I leave scribbled note-cards all over the house. There isn’t such a clear line between sleeping and waking or working and resting. Swimming laps or walking the dog is my time to plan that day’s chapter. When I sit down before my computer, I’m ready to write.

Another part of my work is creating a setting. In the first chapter I discovered that my character lives in Portland by the water. With my daughter for company, I set out last month to find inspiration. Now I’m processing it.

Eastern Prom is a park overlooking Casco Bay and backing onto a quiet, residential neighborhood. You might expect grand houses with these views, but many of the buildings are subdivided into apartments. Paint is peeling; vinyl siding is cracking.

What excuse is there for adding a brick entranceway to this old classic? My character lives in a divided house. She’s an artist who craves beauty beyond the confines of home.

My daughter suggested this house. The color is awful, but don’t you love that quirky triangular window in the attic? The haphazard modern additions attach to what must have once been a stable. My search is part real-estate and part archeology. My home will be fictional, but the neighborhood will be real. I need to set the mood, and look what street we’re on:

Portland is a small city but still the biggest in Maine with a population of 64,000. Compare that to Oxford’s 151,000. The Eastern Prom is often hidden in thick fog. I like this parallel to foggy Oxford (below), a low-lying city between two rivers.

My research expedition translated into maybe one page of my novel, but it was worth it. Now that I know where my character lives, I can imagine how it would shape her. I can see how looking across the Atlantic and north towards England, she’d long to sail free.

Blog Watch: My neighbor, author Cynthia Lord had a short but beautiful post on November. Her blog also features her husband's stunning photography. She's under author blogs in my sidebar.


Cindy said...

I love those mist shrouding photos. The evoke thoughts of quiet reflection and serenity.

tina said...

Great pictures and the name of the street? Moody street? You sure set that mood this morning. I do hope Stella is okay!

Rose said...

Sarah, I enjoy reading about your writing process all the while seeing these beautiful pictures. Actually "being" in the setting must make it so much easier to write about it, especially with a street named Moody:)

My sympathies to your son on his ipod; when our dog was going through his puppy stage, my daughters spent a lot of money replacing shoes!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed seeing the process of imagination and finding your character a place to live. I have a little trouble with language too but can only blame it on watching too many British sitcoms...
Cheers, kris

Tess Kincaid said...

I've only been to visit England once, and it was in a very grey and misty November. So now I always think of it this time of year.

Ralphy always chewed up everything! That part of doggiedom I don't miss.

troutbirder said...

Fascinating. The process. The places. And finding the people.

Brenda Pruitt said...

Beautiful, mystical imagery. Your life sounds so full with all those characters crying out for attention in your head. I find myself the most creative wandering the gardens with camera in hand. Sometimes the most mundane aspect of nature will call to me, and I will get a shot I hadn't even dreamt of.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

What glorious grey days. Tangible atmosphere. And you are so correct about the processing of inspiration. Wonderful ideas often materialize long after their inspiration.

Edward is sincerely sorry about Stella's little indiscretion. But, he is firmly on her side.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cindy, it was pensive weather. You have a new profile image - a bluebird?

Tina, I love it when the signs point me in the right direction. Stella was totally fine; the i-pod, not so much.

Rose, I’ve been lucky to live in great settings. My “puppy” is 4 years old! Sigh. Luckily she doesn't chew up shoes. Her choices puzzle me.

Kris, welcome to my blog! I do love British humor.

Willow, I hear November is the wettest month in England. It’s unusual to have that type of weather in Maine so late. Today was more seasonal – freezing and bright blue skies. Stella has this thing for plastic. She wouldn’t make it a day in the wild.

Thanks, troutbirder.

Brenda, inspiration comes in many forms. Nature is one of the best sources of all.

Pamela, it’s odd because I like to paint on location, but for writing I need some distance. Stella shows no remorse at all. It’s a good thing our dogs are so cute.

Alyson | New England Living said...

Beautiful pictures. That first one is particulary ethereal.

So lovely to hear about your process. It inspires me.

Your son's ipod? That stinks!

Dave King said...

I have always thought that when something in nature moves us dramatically, it is because it echoes something in our mental landscape. I can see why these beautiful scenes reminded you of England. You have caught them perfectly. A couple of them are exquisite. Thanks

TBM said...

Oh dear. The iPod. Oh dear.

But look at that face!! All must be forgiven, right?

Lovely photos, Sarah, to fit my mood lately.

walk2write said...

Lovely photos and thoughts, Sarah, except maybe the dog/I-pod one! Ouch! Do you think maybe Stella was trying to tell your son "Pay more attention to me and put that thing away"? Our pets have always acted up when there is an attention deficit (at least from their point of view) present in the house. Your post definitely whets my appetite for your book. Great job!

LINDA from Each Little World said...

Those garage doors on the old house are the best part of the building. I have a friend who's a potter and his house and studio are on Tranquil Lane. I love collecting street names.

Kengot said...

Nice pictures and pity iPod are here.

Bee said...

These pictures are stunning -- and have a nice "moody" feeling to them. (Except for the I-pod pic, which is just plain sad!) It is fascinating to hear about your "process" -- to be given a glimpse into your mental meanderings and the devices by which you shape a story. I can't wait to read the finished product.

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyson, the whole weekend felt ethereal, and now we’ve shifted to real cold. Half the blame is his for leaving the i-pod in the mudroom.

Dave, I find parallels between weather and mood too.

JAPRA, it’s a good thing she has a cute face. Forgiven but not forgotten. I hope you’re foggy in a good way.

W2W, either that or she wants more food. Goldens are a bottomless pit for munchies and affection. Thanks for the push to keep writing my novel.

Ms. Wis, I did love those old barn doors. I wonder if your friend chose his home for the street or adapted to his environment.

Kengot, welcome to my blog and thank you! I’ll come visit later.

Bee, thanks for the encouragement as I really need it this week. Too many distractions but at least the fog has cleared!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful photographs - I love the mist.
You ask "What path do you follow to your imagination" - for me, in my textile work, it is feelings and intuition that start the design process.
I enjoyed the glimpse into your creative process

Cosmo said...

Sarah--I loved the juxtapositions of Maine to Oxford--and your "translation" issues. The one that always baffles me in England is "pissed"--by the time I translate, I've missed half the story. Really gorgeous photos--and the book's coming along well?

Audrey said...

Sarah, your pictures are gorgeous and very evocative. If I looked at them in July while I was on holiday in the Med I think I would still feel a shiver of November down my spine.

Haven't had bloody dog eat Ipod but have had bloody mummy (me!) wash it! Oops!

A Cuban In London said...

So many ideas came to my head as I was reading you post. The first one is that you're possibly right, yoru neck of the woods looks wilder than the usual British countryside, which looks more like someone's arranged it in a particular shape or form.

Secondly, as to your character's voice, my reaction would be that we all straddle different cultures and are influenced by them. It's funny how most of us laud our globalised world but still prefer to live in silos. I am also a culprit of that phenomenon, I rage against those who use Spanglish, a linguistic hybrid of Spanish and English used chiefly by those born in the US. And yet, this language is the effect of straddling two cultures. I honestly don't think that your novel would suffer from falling into British or American norms, however you might narrow down your market unwittingly and if I was you editor I would be a bit concerned about sales. Yes, I know it doesn't sound romantic, but most writers do want to be read and do want to sell books. It's a tough choice and judging by your writing on your blog I think that you will select the right one, which is...

Well, only you can decide :-)

Thanks for another beautiful post with breathtaking images.

Greetings from London.

Jan said...

November IS my best favourite month.
Lovely to read this, your thoughts and the processes of your writing.

Charlotte Agell said...

I love that your character lives "in a divided house." Symbolic?
And...that you featured Moody Street. Also, the mist photos were grand, as I might say were I English?

Anil P said...

This was almost like walking alongside, hearing you reflect to yourself, content in the silence the other afforded you even as thoughts tumbled out as if in response to invisible prodding.

Do your characters lead you along or is it the other way around?

Gretel said...

The phrase 'bloody dog' marks you down as an honourary English woman. Spoken like a true Brit!
I always love your take on your experiences over here, it makes me appreciate it more.

Sarah Laurence said...

Karen, that’s interesting that you start your work from feeling. That must be the difference between abstracting and trying to render. My writing is fictional but realistic.

Cosmo, “pissed” in British means drunk although “pissed off” means angry like it does in American. Brits also say “pissing with rain.” At this point, I have a much better idea of where the book is going.

Audrey, maybe Stella thought she was washing his i-pod.

ACIL, I must speak Englican! Some popular British writers can’t sell to the American market. It might be the insularity of a smaller nation and all the slang vs. the globalization of American culture through movies and TV. The trick will be writing a book that truly bridges the two cultures. My writing partner, Jane Green, has done that, and she's an English woman living in the USA. Lionel Shriver has accomplished that as an American living in the UK.

Jan, really? I like some days in November, but it’s not my favorite. Biggest problem here is deer hunting season making it unsafe to walk in the woods.

Ah, Charlotte, I could have guessed you’d catch the symbolism. This is part of why you make such a good reader for my novels.

Anil, that’s the fun of a blog. Through your comments, I’m never lonely in the woods. Interesting question! I create the characters, but then I follow their lead. In revision I may redirect the narrative. It’s more like being the stage director than playing god.

PG, I thank you humbly for the award. I don’t swear often, but when I do, the English epithets spill out. Luckily few people here have a clue about what I'm saying.

Donna said...

I really enjoyed reading this. I like how you interweaved the beautiful photos of Maine and England with the process you go through of creating your characters and writing your novel. How creative! Thank you for adding some culture to my day.

Synchronicity said...

I love the fall and even mournful november. You take such great photos...they really set the mood. It is always a delight to come and visit your blog.

Sarah Laurence said...

Thanks, Donna! I do tend to think in images as well as words.

Merelyme, I’m happy to bring moody delight.

Les said...

All of the pictures are nice, but that first picture of the river and the bare limbs was great, very appropriate for the season. I noticed when I visited Maine that many of the houses seemed to have grown in a very organic matter. Sometimes it appeared that two or more buildings coalesced into one, or a single building had metastasized into a much larger structure addition by addition.

Elizabeth said...

Yes, you're right!
Characters must use the right vocabulary.
For example no Americans would say finding a parking spot was" Brilliant!"
I get utterly confused after so many years of cross-cultural stuff.
And yes, characters do chatter to me in bed in that nice moment between sleeping and waking.

I'm afraid I smiled at Stella's disaster but I bet your son was not amused.
Super photos too.

Sarah Laurence said...

Les, that first shot was my favorite too. The rambling addition is quite the New England thing, especially for farmhouses. It’s the thrifty attitude personified in architecture. I used an architect when we expanded our home, but that was unusual in my town.

Elizabeth, that’s only because no one finds legal parking in NYC! I’m relieved to hear that I’m not the only writer hearing characters. My kids are convinced that I’m nuts. My first reaction to seeing the mangled victim was laughter: “My dog ate my i-pod?” Just as well computers and cameras aren’t that small yet.

There's an article on "slow blogging" in the NYT Style section today.

Dots said...

Some really beautiful, surreal pictures... While I loved the few with a misty, foggy look.. my favorite is the one in the woods.. with gold leaves.. your son walking away in a yellow raincoat and the dog wandering (Stella, is it?).
It really strikes me how sometimes, you are all of a sudden transported to a world you once lived in just by a few images that remind you of things as they were... Its lovely to read your writing..

PS: The house has a lot of potential... white, cream exteriors, with a dark-brownish or even crimson-ish roof roofs would look nice.. the triangular window should stand out in a different color :)

Sarah Laurence said...

Dots, yes, that photo is of Stella before she fell into disgrace. That is the advantage of blogging – capturing and sharing those ephemeral moments. For this novel I need a house with lost potential, probably rented. It will be fictional although inspired.

Yolanda said...

I loved this post. The weather has been much like this here In Oregon.

Sarah Laurence said...

Yolanda, welcome to my blog! I’ve been to Oregon once and loved it. I’m looking forward to visiting your blog.

jane said...

Have just stumbled across your amazing blog - am glad to find out I am not alone with the suffering caused by a dog with a depraved appetite

Sarah Laurence said...

Jane, welcome to my blog! I actually miss Stella's mischief now.