Friday, 11 March 2011

My Story, My Collage

I recently read an essay by Jennifer Crusie which really caught my fancy (you can read it here). It was on the art of collage making as pre-writing inspiration.

I like art. I have a near-forgotten GCSE in the subject and have dabbled with acrylics and oils over the years. And when I say dabbled, I don't mean I'm a self-deprecating secret Picasso, I really mean dabbled. I'm not particularly good, but I enjoy it. For quite a long time I've fancied trying a collage. I like artworks which look visceral, textured and tactile. I have a friend who is brilliant at creating stuff like this. She will capture a image and transform it into something multilayered and fascinating using nothing but a few pairs of old tights and some fishing wire. She can see things other people don't see. I'm not as creative as that, but I loved what Jenny Crusie had to say about using art to bring out the themes your subconscious is trying push in your story - so I thought I would give it a go.

The story I wanted to focus on is a half-written novel I'm calling Merely Players. It's set in 1821 and centres on the relationship between an aristocratic playwright and the daughter of a primitive methodist preacher. My heroine, Rachel, has been brought up on the bible and spends her days working in the slums of London. In the novel she is caught between the glittering and somewhat tawdry world of the theatre and her father's mission in the slums of London.

I started writing this novel a month or so ago when my poor, beleaguered fantasy historical ground to a halt because I couldn't make the behaviour of the characters correlate with what I felt their personalities to be. My fantasy historical and I parted company, due to irreconcilable differences. I will rescue my heroine from it at some point because I love her dearly, but she deserves better than I am able to offer her right now.

So Merely Players commenced. Not a fantasy - I lost confidence in my world building - but a straightforward historical romance, taking a theme which is closer to home for me (a very religious father) and written from the heart. I started by writing a scene, which is how I always start (I have a scene in my head I want to get down on paper). Then I wrote from there, allowing the story to flow and not doing too much plotting or research. I just wanted to get it out on paper.

The problem with my method, is that sooner or later I run aground. I find myself having to skip back constantly to check for consistency and having to rewrite bits because I'm getting to know my characters and find I understand better how they should behave. So it is at this interim stage of 40,000 words or so that I find myself stopping and digging into research and deciding to make a collage.

Here is the finished product:

Like I said, not Picasso. But it did tell me some interesting things. For example, the largest part of the image has ended up being a makeshift impression of 19th century Whitechapel (where my heroine lives). I wanted claustrophobic narrow streets, dark housing and factories coughing up smoke. This is the first part of the picture I completed. In the context of the whole collage, this part of the picture enables the viewer to peek at slum housing through the frame of an archway. When I think about it, the arch looks not unlike the proscenium arch of a stage. That wasn't intentional. I put that in because I liked the composition, but when I think about it, perhaps there is something in my story about people being actors in spheres beyond the conventional stage. It's interesting that the slums spread so far across the image. When I thought about the story, they were merely a footnote - a reason perhaps for Rachel to be in London. In fact, in putting together the collage I realise that poverty and its influence is far more integral to the story than I had realised.

The slum part of the picture was built up from stripped out cardboard, brown paper and (taking a tip from my friend) old tights. One thing personal touch was to use some pages of one of my Georgette Heyer books (Frederica). The book was yellowed with age and had fallen to bits, beyond the point of repair. Sacrilege or homage, who can tell? I then stippled and sponged dark paint over the whole. The execution is far from artistic but I know what I mean. Here's a close up:

The next part I put together was Rachel herself. In my mind's eye, Rachel has a look of Clare Danes in teen series My So Called Life - though not her personality. She is pale, dark eyed and red haired with a certain gravity about her. In the story, I have perhaps been making Rachel too timid. She has more depth and maturity than I have been giving her credit for. She is wearing her trademark cap and dark cloak (made of a doily and, you guessed it, woolen tights). It gives her a puritan look, almost nun-like - but also mysterious and a little alluring:

I wanted to add a touch of the theatre to the collage, but no more than a touch. When I was trying to visualise it in my mind's eye, I considered making the theatre the backdrop, all gilded and glorious. It felt wrong. It looked wrong. The slums are the backdrop, the theatre is merely spice. So I added a theatre curtain, just at one side. It partly obscured Rachel and that's part of the story too - the theatre becomes a place to hide. The curtain is made from an off cut of sari silk - it represents something exotic in Rachel's life:

I wanted to have a cluster of jewels on the collage. I'm not really sure why, but my suspicion is that they will work their way into the story at some point. I have a brooch and a cluster of "emeralds" and also a gold ring, though you can't see that on here (it needs reattaching). I'm almost curious about why they are there - but I feel sure that they should be and that these were the right jewels to pick. I had a load of beads to pick from but I was drawn by these:

Lastly, running across the image is a swathe of translucent white material which divides Rachel, the theatre and the jewels from the dark poverty of Whitechapel. Again, I'm not sure about where this choice came from - it just seemed right. I wanted to have something like a veil floating across the collage and I wanted it to drift a little, hiding and revealing depending on where it lay. There's something in this about hiding, deceiving, separating and revealing - all of which I think will be worked into the story.

I don't think my collage has written my story for me, but it has helped to crystallise my emotional response to the story that is unfolding. And it has enabled me to get to know my heroine. I feel like I know her inside out now - what has made her become the person she is; what her subconscious drivers are and what attracts her too. It's like the moment of falling in love.

The only problem now is that I feel like I have such a strong impression of Rachel that my hero, Ghis, now seems a bit insubstantial and indistinct.

Back to the drawing board!

More seriously, I would be curious to know what you see in this picture (and I'm not referring to artistic merit) - other perspectives might help me to pick up on themes and symbols I haven't yet noticed myself.


Laura Vivanco said...

I would be curious to know what you see in this picture (and I'm not referring to artistic merit) - other perspectives might help me to pick up on themes and symbols I haven't yet noticed myself.

This probably won't be at all helpful, but I'm getting a very Roman feel from this, because to me your Whitechapel looks like the Colosseum. The "swathe of translucent white material which divides Rachel, the theatre and the jewels from the dark poverty of Whitechapel" could be an indication of both the distance from, and proximity to, the past, since it divides Rachel from that section of the collage, but is "translucent."

I wonder which play or opera they're putting on at the theatre?

Rachel could, I suppose, be mistaken for an early Christian martyr and although you're juxtaposing and contrasting the theatre and the poverty, the Roman poor did have a taste for both bread and circuses. Could it be that she becomes a spectacle as she carries out her charity work?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Thanks, it's nice to appear here - you often make me sound far cooler than i am, but i like it :-)

what i REALLY noticed was a huge ominous black cloud hanging over head. It felt all pervading. Perhaps the God of your heroine's life? Who know's but it was one of the things I noticed first. Also is the division of white, and how I read it was a kind of distance created between the crumbling poverty and then a silence (the white) and then Rachel, kind of somehow hidden away. So I guess I'm thinking of the stories which allow you to see the povery and decay around a character, but them not to really notice it themselves???? I can't think of a good example.

Meg McNulty said...

Thank you both - they are really interesting comments! Rachel's God/religion is fairly ominous and all pervading but that hasn't been consciously acknowledged in the story. It comes out through juxtaposition with the attitudes of her friends. I like both your thoughts on the white too.

Laura - that's a really interesting comment about the coliseum. One of themes that I'm working on is that her sister who runs away to become an actress is reprimanded by their religious father for drawing attention to herself, when that is precisely what he does himself through very noisy worship and ostentatious good works. I hadn't really thought of the roman analogy but it works.


Marisa Wikramanayake said...

This is great stuff!

The thing is, most writers aren't really great artists right? But a visual clue of some sort helps us describe our characters, setting etc so much better so I think it's great that you have managed to create something that helps you visualise one of your characters. I would not advise you to do it for all your characters or you may never write the book but definitely for the main characters, it would be helpful.

I have done this in some way (not a collage) with collecting photographs and so on and I have even drawn a quick sketch of one of the main characters.

And now you have given me a topic to talk about for part of the series - how to visualise things to help with description.

Thanks for the idea! Let me know your further thoughts on this and maybe the post can take the form of a discussion on it between you and me. :-D

Cheers, Marisa

PS: I cannot wait to see the collage of Ghis now!

Meg McNulty said...

Hi Marisa

I didn't actually do one for Ghis - though actually it would have been good to do so, as I think his motivations and story would have become more distinct. It's interesting standing back and looking at this collage now I've finished the WIP (well I'm on draft 3). It says different things to me now. Certainly it helped me to understand Rachel's character better. As i've redrafted, Rachel's concerns about poverty have come much more to the fore - it drives her to judge people and actions in a particular way.

I would now always collect photographs/images of settings and people for my characters. It definitely brings it to life for me and makes description so much easier.

I'd love to have a chat on your blog sometime. Really enjoying your how to write a book series!