Posts Tagged ‘Ted Nasmith’

Where the Ceiling Is

January 23, 2010

A good friend, being complimentary of my writing, once said, “In your stories I always know where the ceiling is.” We were discussing settings and descriptions of place in the books we loved, and she meant (and I agree) that in my stuff, a firm grounding in the physical surroundings is essential. I’ve said it before on this blog (probably dozens of times now, in various ways), but I am truly a writer of place.

Almost invariably, my story ideas start with places I’ve been to . . . or places I’ve read about . . . or places I imagine. I’m often inspired by pictures — ones seen recently or remembered from childhood — photos, illustrations in books. Some settings just beg to have stories to take place in them.

I frequently linger and gaze into some lonely ditch where water gurgles from a culvert as if from the mouth of a cave — or where weeds stand thick in the tepid mire, a jungle in miniature laid out there just beside some ordinary road. I stop in mid-stride to peer into a thicket on the university campus (Niigata’s is wilder and woodier than most). The shade is deep under certain trees, with light shimmering somewhere beyond, as if somewhere among the tangles, a door into Faery has been left standing ajar. I know I’ve written before of the staggered line of potted pine trees on the traditional Japanese Noh stage — the differences in distance from the viewer meant to suggest passage into another world. These trees border the covered walkway by which certain characters enter and exit. If a ghost passes the trees, it is coming into this world from the realm of spirits. And that leads me to think about how so many writers throughout history have made use of forests as the avenues of passage into a supernatural dimension. Shakespeare, Hawthorne . . . I’m sure you can come up with a better list than I can.

And for what forests can’t handle, we’ve got caverns! And then there are rivers, the sea, and mountains. Do you follow me? My point is that, with the natural world on his/her palette, the painter of fantasy can do anything!

But coming back to “I always know where the ceiling is”: it’s not enough simply to evoke a setting and tip the hat to it only occasionally. I believe it has to be an inseparable part of the story’s fabric. The setting is always there from beginning to end, influencing — often determining — the things that happen. We can’t forget it any more than we can deny the real spaces we occupy in our lives. Oh, we can get lost in conversations or ideas, for sure, and that’s good to do. A story isn’t a real estate brochure, and if you stop with the setting alone, you don’t have a story yet. But if we forget where the ceiling is, we’ll bump our heads sooner or later. And we daren’t forget the yawning stairway.

Whoever does not fully appreciate the crucial importance of setting to story would do well to read Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” or most of Lovecraft’s stories, or watch Lawrence of Arabia or Field of Dreams. . . . Again, I’m sure you can make a more intelligent list than I can.

What I find quite often is that a vital consciousness of the setting helps to generate story ideas every bit as much as the actions and personalities of characters do. Having a map — and thinking about all that it was telling me — helped me immensely with the writing of Agondria. So did having my cousin’s graphite sketches, which spoke volumes about the characters’ surroundings.

I recently came up with this advice when another good friend and I were talking about writer’s block: I’m sure this isn’t original with me, but I suggested gathering some pictures that the writer found intriguing or inspirational — magazine photos, pictures from the Internet, whatever — and pretending that they were illustrations for the story under construction. There’s something delightfully satisfying about such a technique, isn’t there? It’s like making a mold of some object, then pouring some substance into the mold, then breaking the mold when the substance has hardened. We’ve made use of the intermediary vehicle — the visual images — to create something else, something of our own.

During the year that “The Star Shard” was being serialized in Cricket, I had the delightful privilege of answering questions from young readers on the magazine’s website; and a good many readers of Cricket are themselves aspiring writers. One question I was asked over and over again was, “How do you keep a story going? How do you know what to write once you’ve started?” My advice is that a stalled story can quite often become unstalled by the writer’s imagining him/herself to be in the story, a part of that described world. Look around, and pay careful attention to the details. Chances are good that, within minutes, you’ll know what has to happen next for your characters — and what has to happen after that, and after that. . . . I’ve noticed that, at times when the writing is going badly or I don’t know where the story should go next, it’s quite often because I’ve lost a sense of being in the setting — I’ve begun writing from some outside point. If the story becomes an abstraction, it suffers — at least in my writing.

“Where the ceiling is” makes me think of two other titles that put “Where” to good use: Where the Wild Things Are, which I’m planning to go see about 90 minutes from now. (It was one of my mom’s pet peeves when she’d ask schoolkids if they knew [she'd say the title of some wonderful book], and the kids would say, “Oh, yeah! I saw that!” — It bothered Mom that they knew the story only from its movie or TV incarnation, and had no idea that it was a book at all. Of course she didn’t take her irk out on the kids, but you can be sure she made them aware.)

For the record, I have read Where the Wild Things Are, so I’m allowed to see the movie. Yes, I’ve read the whole book! Yes, cover to cover. More than once!

And the other “Where” is Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein. Isn’t that a perfect title for a book of fanciful poems for children? That title alone should win prizes. It evokes the little grassy areas where kids play, where order and adult-determined pathways end. We all have such places somewhere near our homes when we’re kids — those pebble-strewn verges where dreams begin. The ground is always uneven there, isn’t it? It’s never level, and the grass doesn’t grow uniformly. There are taller clumps, there are old stumps, there are places worn bald by stones or by our feet, there are squishy places when it rains, and there are bright places that the sun bakes. I remember coming upon one such place in Niigata years ago, when a friend and I were making a bicycle odyssey to follow the entire perimeter of what’s called “Niigata Island” in a complete circle, heedless of typical routes. There was a place, on a windy ridge facing the sea, where the paved sidewalk just . . . stopped. The wind blew, and the grass riffled, and the sun sparkled on the waves — and there was simply no more pavement. It was pretty cool, and I thought at once of Shel Silverstein.

In all this issue of settings, I was thinking again of The Lord of the Rings. (How often our discussions of great stories lead us back there!) It’s been said by more than one scholar that The Lord of the Rings isn’t primarily a character story; it isn’t even really a plot story at heart. It’s a milieu story, and that means that we re-read and re-read it because what we love is Middle-earth. We want to go again to those wonderful places and hear the poetry and steep ourselves in the legends and histories and interconnectedness of it all. Tolkien knew where his ceilings were . . . and where the mountains were . . . and what was beyond them . . . and what the other names for everything were . . . and why. . . .

And I’ll go you one step further. (Is that even a legitimate expression?!) Much of what we’re enjoying in Tolkien’s settings isn’t something fantastic, exotic, or overtly magical. It’s an echoing stone chasm, a mighty waterfall, a mountain range, light slanting through quiet forest spaces, or landscapes rolling away under shifting clouds. Tolkien recognized that what is most numinous about the world is right here in our own world, and he knew it intimately. Tolkien, too, was a gazer-into-woody-corners. (I wonder if the Oxford of his day had any brushy nooks between buildings?) The story is told of how, when Tolkien and C.S. Lewis would take walks in the countryside together, Lewis preferred to stride along at a good clip, but he was forever having to stop and wait as Tolkien gawked at a tree or crouched to study some leafy shoot or patch of moss.

I’m going to quote here from Ted Nasmith, in his remarks prefacing this year’s extraordinary Tolkien calendar, which Nasmith illustrated:

“Other authors have well-developed descriptions of the lands their characters move through, both real and invented worlds alike, but somehow the combination of Faerie Tale structure wedded to a distinct delight in the minutiae and moods of nature has raised Tolkien’s sub-creation to a level few authors achieve. Some have even commented that Tolkien’s landscape constitutes a character of sorts, and this may be partly due to the tendency of the author — in fine faerie tradition — to blur the lines between his characters and creatures and their environment. . . .

“Clearly nature and animals interact with ‘people’ repeatedly as a central motif in Tolkien’s invented world, and since nature has long been a universal source of artistic and creative inspiration, visual artwork inspired by Tolkien’s works would not be satisfactory without making sure that illustrations also integrate the characters with the settings.”

What other writers do this well? This would be a good time to tell us, dear readers, about the authors and books you love. What are some other tales in which you always know where the ceilings are? Examples are quite welcome, too!

Jan Retro

February 4, 2009

No, that’s not a fictional character. It’s short for “January Retrospective.” What a month January was! Part 8 of “The Star Shard” is on stands now (the February issue of Cricket), and Emily Fiegenschuh’s illustrations just get better and better. Before Part 8, my favorite portrait of Cymbril was the one where she’s kneeling at the door to her bunk, listening. Now I think it’s the one from Part 8, the picture of Cymbril, Bobbin, and Argent in the wagon. Emily pays such attention to detail! See the leaves embroidered on Cymbril’s cloak? Those are there in the text description! Bobbin reminds me a lot of the world of manga — maybe it’s the super-long ponytail. Oh, and I love the opening portrait — Part 8 — of Cymbril, too, at the rail with the two cats. Is it my imagination, or is Cymbril getting steadily prettier? Maybe she’s growing up. . . . I’ll bet there are more than a few teenage boys in love with her. I know I would be if I were the age of most Cricket readers.

Anyone who’s not getting the magazine (and even if you are) — you can see Emily’s astonishing illustrations for this story on her Web site. Go to www.e-figart.com. Click on “Gallery” and scroll down: she has an entire discrete section dedicated to “The Star Shard.”

But back to the point. Here are some January goings-on:

I have to quote this fantastic letter from a reader named Celia: “My favorite story is ‘The Star Shard.’ I think you should make the episodes longer! . . . . I love the illustrations. . . . They make Cymbril look so pretty. I love that name. If I ever have a daughter, I am going to name her Cymbril.”

Isn’t that far out? I remember reading — and feel free to correct me on this, if you know differently — that the name “Wendy” entered our culture through Peter Pan. That is, there were no girls named Wendy before that character came along. After the book, there were lots! There was a Wendy in my class in school. So just maybe a generation of Cymbrils is coming!

In the latest issue’s The Letterbox, Henrietta C. writes: “‘The Star Shard’ is one of the best stories I’ve read. I think that we should have more stories from Frederic S. Durbin in this magazine.” And A.J.H. writes: “Right now, my favorite story is ‘The Star Shard.’ I love fantasy books!”

I think I already quoted the poem written by Amanda based on the September cover — “A cat by her side, eyes bright and green, / Sees what the girl thinks cannot be seen. / A stone to her forehead, magic inside; / An elf on the other end, linked to her mind.” There were three poetry contest winners who wrote poems inspired by that September cover picture of Cymbril in the windy night, standing on that high ledge on the Rake’s prow. You can read them all on Cricket‘s site! (www.cricketmagkids.com)

Also, the latest poetry contest invites readers to write “a song the Urrmsh might sing”!

And there’s new fan art up! The number of pictures doubled this month, and every single one is just amazing! On the “Corner” page, click the icon that says “Fan Art.”

But here’s perhaps the most jaw-dropping story of the month: in a U.S. state which I shan’t disclose, a wonderful mom began reading “The Star Shard” aloud to a group of kids–her two, plus six more from another family. The kids range in age from well below the typical Cricket demographic to well up into the Cicada range, and everything in between. This group sent me a photo of themselves (which was also sent to Cricket). Each of the kids is holding up a copy of the magazine, open to the story, all 8 parts represented. The group calls themselves “The Die-Hard Star-Shard Fan Club,” and they even managed to superimpose that name across the top of the picture digitally. And it gets still better! The club members are all dressed up as their favorite characters from the story and/or Sidhe in general! Right smack in the center of the photo are a boy and girl just the ages of Loric and Cymbril, dressed as Loric and Cymbril! The girl (who looks like Cymbril) is holding up that September issue, and her dress and cloak are the same color and style as those Cymbril is wearing on her high ledge! And it gets still better! I’m told that the kids play “The Star Shard” in their costumes, acting out parts and making the continuing story their own, much as we played The Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, and Star Wars as kids. In other words, the story has gone on to a life of its own, quite apart from me, just like a real story, not just something I wrote. Now, how is that for something to make a writer’s entire year, although it’s only January? Talk about a humbling experience! “Who am I, Lord?” Soli Deo gloria!

In other January news: I heard from Stefan Dziemianowicz that the anthology which includes my Hallowe’en tale “The Bone Man” is finally moving into the pipeline for publication. They had quite a time getting all the authors to sign the contracts. But the book is on track again now and should be out sometime this year! Woo-hooo!

Oh!–the most recent word from my agent is that he’d gotten about 2/3 of the way through the novel version of The Star Shard and is still really liking it. Whew! Haven’t heard from him in over a week. I hope he didn’t hate the last third! [Writer angst attack.]

Okay, those are the big things. Let’s see. . . . When I visited my friend “Marquee Movies” last summer, he took me for the second time to an extraordinary comic book shop, where I bought a Buffy the Vampire Slayer calendar. (Best TV series I’ve ever encountered, I kid you not.) This month’s page is all about Willow, my favorite character on the show. The picture on my William Blake calendar this month is his painting God Judging Adam; and moving down the row, the Tolkien calendar’s February picture is By Moonlight in Neldoreth Forest, by Ted Nasmith — a painting of that famous daughter of Thingol and Melian dancing in the lunar glow.

Finally, here’s another good night story (remember my one about encountering the maybe-a-chupacabras?):

I was walking home tonight from a nearby convenience store, where I’d paid a utility bill (can you do that in the States? It’s a really handy thing here in Japan). The street and sidewalk were very dark. It was a stretch of almost no car traffic. Light from an intersection far away behind me was projected at a low angle across a white metal fence in front of me. And suddenly, there on the fence, captured in that light from far off, was my shadow — only it wasn’t my shadow. It was in the right place for my shadow; it was the size my shadow should have been. But it was very clearly not my shadow. The shape, the clothing, and the movements were all wrong. Talk about unsettling! It was clearly the shadow of another person, although I seemed to be casting it. Eerily, there was no one else around me — I looked in every direction.

Finally, I figured out that it was the shadow of a lone teenage guy way, way behind me, back by the intersection. The light was just low-angled enough, and he was just far enough away, that his shadow was thrown onto the wall at a size and in a position that made it look like it should have been my shadow. Fascinating illusion!

So yes, I go on living in my twilit world of dreams and phantasms. . . .

Also just tonight I sent off the signed contract for Part 10 of “The Star Shard.” That’s the final part. I know, I’m starting to be sad already. When this story’s run is over, it will be for me like the end of that three-year golden age of The Lord of the Rings in theaters — very sad. But it has been, and that’s a significant comfort and encouragement. It was; it is a part of Cricket‘s venerable history. And, Lord willing, maybe it will yet be a book . . . a series? May it be like King Arthur: a “once and future” story!


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