If you had to choose half a dozen objects to depict your life or a certain aspect of your life, what would they be? And what would your characters choose, for themselves and for each other? I did this exercise for real a couple of weeks ago, and the result is the picture to the left of this text.
The story started at RWA in Atlanta last year. My husband and I went to visit a friend who lives in the city, and I fell in love with a painting I saw at her house. It looked like traditional still life, but on closer inspection it depicted my friend’s favorite foods – delicious Italian salami, fruit, provolone cheese and crackers, and a nice cold bottle of beer. It turned out that the artist was my friend’s mother, and she kindly agreed to do a similar painting for us.
Logistics were an issue, so we decided I’d take a couple of photographs for the artist to work from. The big question was, what to choose? I spent a whole day trying out different combinations before I settled on this picture. It’s not intended to make any kind of major statement about us; rather it’s in the spirit of my friend’s painting – a tongue-in-cheek composition of some of our favorite things.
There’s coffee from the wonderful HR Higgins (Coffee-Man) in Mayfair, made from freshly ground beans and served in our favorite mugs, and fantastic American wine from our friends at small, specialist wine importer The Wine Treasury with a selection of corks representing their impressive portfolio of wineries and our involvement in their company. The books are from our bedside tables. The biography of Einstein and the James Ellroy are a couple of my husband’s go-to reads; Loretta Chase, Jennifer Crusie, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips are mine. The red booklets in the front of the picture are opera and ballet programmes from the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden (the top one is Romeo and Juliet), capped with Green & Black’s organic chocolate and two pink flash drives which are back-ups of my WIP.
I found the exercise of selecting the items so interesting that I decided to do it for my characters. I thought I knew them really well, but it made me prioritize and I found it quite challenging. I followed it up by looking at each character from the other’s point of view, and to my surprise it showed up some holes in my understanding of my characters. Listing the items is a simple exercise, much quicker than collaging, so I’m planning to add it to my repertoire permanently. I’m also thinking that it’s something I could revisit at every turning point for protagonist and antagonist, and it would be a great measure of how the story values are changing.
Here’s my hero, Ian McKenzie Kinross at the beginning of the story, from his own perspective and from that of the heroine (Rose).
Ian would choose:
• Some sprigs of his clan plant (when tartan was outlawed in Scotland after the 1745 rebellion, clansmen wore a plant badge as a sign of defiance and identity);
• His late father’s watch.
• A hand-woven lamba (traditional cloth from Madagascar) made for him by local village women to commemorate the opening of the Kinross Foundation’s first school.
• Copy of the inaugural menu from his best friend Rob’s restaurant.
• Annual first-class rail season ticket between Inverness and London.
• His phone.
What Rose would choose for Ian:
• Pile of glossy magazines with Ian’s picture on the cover, usually with a beautiful woman.
• Large pile of shining golden guineas, spilling over everything.
• Large stage-style mirror framed by light bulbs.
• Bottle of malt whisky and jar of Scottish heather honey (her impression of his voice).
• Bolt of vintage Persian blue fabric (the color of his eyes).
The exercise works particularly well for Ian, because what you see is not what you get, and right now Rose is taking him at face value. I’ll do it again when I get to the end of my re-write; I’m not there yet, but I have a pretty good idea that the last two items on Ian’s list will change, and the first four or five on Rose’s.
What would you choose for yourself, or for your characters?