Friday, January 14, 2022

What We're Writing--Debs on Decor

DEBORAH CROMBIE: We've been having some fun conversations about building character this week. As writers, we use dialogue and appearance, clothing and mannerisms, but describing a character's environment can also give us clues to a character's makeup. It can also be a lot of fun--and take us down research rabbit holes!

For example, the character in the scene below from A KILLING OF INNOCENTS belongs to a profession from which you'd expect a fair amount of tidiness and reasonably good hygiene, but I imagined that his private life might be quite different, not to mention odd.  I thought he would collect something unexpected and this is what occurred to me:

Kincaid found the light switch and a ceiling fixture threw the room into sharp relief. It took him a moment to sort the visual jumble of too much furniture in too little space, all of it seemingly brown and assembled from flat packs. Two sofas faced each other with a long coffee table squeezed in between. There were piles of newspapers on both, leaving only one clear space where the owner apparently sat. More newspapers were spread across the coffee table, splattered with yellow stains from an empty takeaway container—curry, from the smell.

This, Kincaid had taken in in a glance. It was the rest of the room that held his attention. Cheap book cases filled every available wall space. Their shelves were crammed, not with books, but with pair after pair of china dogs. Two tables on the other side of the room were similarly filled. One dog lay face up on the coffee table, its black painted eyes staring blindly at the ceiling.

“Good god,” breathed Sidana, stepping forward to stand beside him. “What is all this rubbish?”

But Kincaid had moved to the nearest bookcases and was examining the figurines more closely. The paint had faded on many of the dogs. Some were chipped, or cracked and re-glued. The small faces had distinct personalities—even within a pair, there were minute differences. Most were King Charles spaniels, the most common type, but at the end of one shelf Kincaid spied a pair of Dalmatians, rather crudely executed.

Shaking his head, Kincaid turned back to Sidana. “Not rubbish, I don’t think. We have a friend who’s an antiques dealer. I’ve seen similar dogs on his stall once or twice. These are Staffordshire, and I don’t think they’re reproductions. If I’m right, some of them”—he gestured towards the Dalamatians— “are worth a small fortune.”

I knew something about Staffordshire dogs, which were popular in English homes in the first half of the 20th century, but had no idea they were such a thing now! They are indeed very collectible and there are pages and pages of them on Pinterest and Etsy.

But they are also just a bit weird, especially those with the muzzle baskets--they look like little Hannibal Lecters! Perfect for my character!

And then we have something completely different, as Kincaid interviews the first character's neighbor :

He supposed he’d been expecting fussy, or at least cluttered, after the chaos of the downstairs flat. But when he’d knocked, and greeted Wallace the terrier, he was met by something very different indeed.

Light from the street-facing windows filled a sitting room that seemed airy despite its small size. The white walls held a series of bright, contemporary paintings, giving the space a gallery-like feel, and the furniture had been kept neutral so that it didn’t distract from the art. The ceiling was higher than the lower flat, and the kitchen had been opened up to the living area.... 

Kincaid saw that the glass-topped coffee table already held a teapot, two cups, and a plate of biscuits. The teapot and mugs were a deep glossy blue and looked hand thrown. As Kincaid took his cup, he noticed a rather incongruous stack of the Radio Times on the other end of the coffee table.

                                                                        In the Blue Light by Winston Branch

I could see this flat and its paintings so clearly in my imagination, but here's the fun part. I'd decided that this flat's owner was a retired appraiser for the famous auction house Christie's, and when I took a little look at Christie's website, what popped up in their catalogue but absolutely gorgeous paintings by an artist named Winston Branch. I'd never heard of Branch, or seen his work, but his painting were exactly what I'd visualized when I was describing the room.


                                                                                        Sunrise on Bodega Bay by Winston Branch

I love it when art imitates life. I did attribute the paintings to Branch, later in the scene.

Readers, do these little excerpts tell you something about these two characters? 

P.S. For the spoiler-averse, I've snipped out the characters' names.


 




57 comments:

  1. This is so interesting, Debs . . . it really makes me want to know more about the story.

    I think seeing the characters’ homes and their interests away from whatever their work may be gives them a depth that we might not otherwise see. And it’s pretty amazing that the painter was one who created exactly what you’d envisioned!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The painting I envisioned were a little more tropical in color pallet than the ones in the posted photos. But Branch does paint using those colors--he's from Santa Lucia originally. But that was such a fun discovery!

      Delete
  2. Those kind of details can definitely help us get to know the characters better. I'm intrigued.

    ReplyDelete
  3. You definitely told us something about the characters, Debs. Creepy dogs!

    I'm afraid to go look at my own sitting room as if from the eyes of a stranger - what does it say about me?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Isn't that the truth, Edith! I do think about that when I look at my own house. Duncan always looks for books and he'd certainly be able to tell something about me from my shelves!

      Delete
  4. DEBS: These scenes are vivid and certainly helps us to know more about the two characters.
    I don't think I have ever seen a Staffordshire dog. Some of them are definitely weird-looking!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They were very popular in the UK, Grace. For a few decades, almost every home would have a pair on the mantel.

      Delete
  5. I know Staffordshire dogs are popular, but I always found them a bit creepy. I'm much more an Imari sleeve vase kind of person (Kensington Church Street antique shop. I didn't have the eight thousand pounds to buy the vase so I used it in a story). I love melding the architectural details of an old building with modern art and subdued, but comfortable, furniture. The character who lives there has one foot planted in a previous world and a new world. Loved your excerpt.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What a clever way to “own” something without the expense!

      Delete
    2. Oooh, oooh, Kensington Church Street antique shop!! Imari vase!! I love both! And yes it is fun to give things one can't afford to our characters. I'd include the Winston Branch paintings above.

      Delete
  6. Yes, “creepy dogs”. But what great scenes Deborah, and thanks for leaving out character names. For collectors of dolls there is a category of “creepy dolls” which I think refers to dolls missing some parts. Wondering if there is a similar category for china figures.
    Seems that blogger may be welcoming me back this morning. With fingers crossed, I tap “publish”

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fingers crossed, Elizabeth. I wish we had a charm for the Blogger demons... I have some slightly creepy dolls in this book, too, but not the sort you see in horror movies!

      Delete
  7. I think personal settings like these tell a lot about a character. I can’t wait to “meet” them!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Yes, these snippets gives insight into the character

    ReplyDelete
  9. Just terrific, Debs! I love how you develop spaces as you do characters. Your settings are always vivid. I just began listening to Where Memories Lie and Erica's home tells so much about her. The China dogs in the scene you shared above, reveal something creepy about your new character.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love Erika's home. I need to go back and reread those descriptions. Some of the Staffordshire dogs are actually rather charming, in the right setting. Especially if you're aiming for an "English country house" look. But not a whole room full of them!

      Delete
  10. Wow... can't wait to read it! I find both characters intriguing!

    ReplyDelete
  11. My mother kept two Staffordshire dogs on the sideboard; now my brother has them. They were just always there, and I never saw them as creepy. But a whole room with shelves of them, now that's definitely odd! I do look forward to meeting these characters, Debs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Amanda, you might want to look up your dogs, just for fun. If they are original Staffordshire and not copies, they might be valuable!

      Delete
  12. A classic example of showing the reader, not telling them--in this case about character--and the character of everyone the scene involves whether the person is present or not--the owners of the flats, Duncan, and Sidana. Their observations, their reactions. These snippets are ramping up my impatience for this book! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, good, Flora, and thank you. I had a lot of fun writing these scenes. I loved Sidana's reaction. I'm having a lot of fun with her in this book!

      Delete
  13. This really strikes a chord... when I first started writing I thought setting was all about window dressing, literally "setting the scene" and giving the characters surroundings. Absolutely it is SO MUCH more! First off, every setting can be loaded with clues and insights about the person who inhabits (and created/assembled) it... but best of all it also gives the reader insight into the *narrator* who's describing the setting, and the other characters who are experiencing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so glad you agree, Hallie. But I realize I'm much better at setting than I am at clothing, which also gives good insight into character. Something to work on!

      Delete
  14. I agree with Flora: so much in that example to inform the reader, and so subtly. Masterful, Debs.

    And wow, are those dogs homely. It's amazing what people think to collect--and to prize so highly, isn't it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think "homely" is the perfect word for those dogs, Karen.

      Delete
    2. Not as homely as Toby jugs, which I also considered. But the Staffordshire dogs were emblematic of a certain period of British domestic life, which matters, for convoluted reasons, to this character. Nowadays you're more likely to see them artfully displayed in British country home magazines.

      Delete
    3. Um...I used to collect sugar packets. A deluded ambition I agree, and I finally wised up and tossed them when a mouse got interested. Gah!

      Delete
  15. The comment by Sidana when she entered the room full of Staffordshire Dogs says a lot "what is this rubbish?" Art and/or precious are different for everyone. I will admit to being distracted by the paintings. Loving the colors and the second one really caught my eye; I leave near Bodega Bay. Now I want to learn more about the artist.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Such a beautiful part of the world, can definitely see it inspiring an artist.

      Delete
    2. Branch is very interesting and his works are collected by many museums, including the Tate. I was surprised to find that at least some of his painting are reasonable affordable. Maybe not by my standards, but affordable by someone who is a serious collector.

      Delete
  16. Well done, Debs! With that simple scene you have totally drawn us in. You have described the rooms so well I can almost smell them. Well, the first one anyway. No particular scent offered with the second. But yes, we now have a pretty good idea what we might expect when we meet the owner/tenet.

    Those dogs are definitely not for everyone, are they? Cannot wait to read the book!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Smells are so important, aren't they? I always try to include them somewhere in a scene.

      Delete
  17. Cannot wait to read this book! I love both scenes and how much they expose without telling us what to see.
    A friend has a pair of Staffordshire dogs but merely a pair. The whole idea of a slew of them plus all of the newspapers definitely gives off a hoarding vibe.
    I love that you found the paintings in your mind exist in reality! They are wonderful and made me look up the artist.

    ReplyDelete
  18. This is so great, Debs! You just have such a unique voice, and it is always fascinating to me how recognizable it is. Love love love. And the dogs are way too creepy.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I think the dogs' eyes must follow you around the room, and make you feel guilty no matter what you have or have not done. They are a perfect--and perfectly out-of-left-field--thing for this character to collect. Likewise, I didn't expect the clean, airy, modern apartment for the second character. Such fun to find surprises on every page. Good job!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Gigi! Thinking about all those little painted eyes following me around the room is going to give me nightmares now! And of course I want to live in the second flat.

      Delete
  20. Hey, I have a pair of Staffordshire Dalmatians I set on either end of a shelf of books. They make the ugly but practical L-shaped library bookends I use look very smart. I think. Or maybe they make me look like a killer. I do think it's funny that the old lady decor of my grandmother's time is once more becoming a thing. "Grandmillenial" is a decor term now!

    I take a lot of time with my interiors, because I think they reveal so much about characters. We are the most ourselves at home - either authentically, or aspirationally.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Grandmillenial!! I love it!! And your interior descriptions are one of the many things I love about your books, Julia.

      You might want to do a little research on your Dalmatians, just for fun.

      Delete
  21. Yes, the dogs are creepy and Branch's paintings stunning. I find inspiration on virtual house tours through realtor.com, etc. A wall stenciled with Wonder Woman vs a dragon, flowered contact paper on every kitchen surface, macrame everywhere. And I inherited from a great aunt a dachshund pitcher. Your remove the head, pour in cream, and pour it out the held-up paws. Looking forward to the book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ooh, we had a doggie cream pitcher when I was a child. I just remembered! No idea where it ended up.

      Delete
    2. Those sound a little creepy to me!

      Delete
  22. Happy birthday to Roberta today, too!

    ReplyDelete
  23. Oh, those dogs…so unattractive to my eye. But I want to understand all those newspapers! Why?

    ReplyDelete
  24. Those are some peculiar pups in the Staffordshire collection, but it makes an interesting part to someone. Attention to interiors really does tell so much about a character, and now I'm freshly aware of how much it adds to the characterization. And, the Winston Branch connection is nice, too. A new artist for me to look up. I loved these snippets from A Killing of Innocents. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  25. I am so relieved character #1 doesn't collect clowns. Really relieved.

    ReplyDelete
  26. And now I’m going down a Staffordshire rabbit hole…wonderful set up, Debs! I can’t wait to read more!

    ReplyDelete
  27. Those dogs are unsettling. Thanks for the paintings as antidote. <3

    ReplyDelete
  28. Hmm, Staffordshire china dogs. I never thought of them as creepy, more an exemplar of "Brit" but on this scale? This is more than a mere collection. I'd guess a man with OCD. I think the second character is a woman. Maybe the painter, but no, you attributed them later to a man, so not the painter. A true collector, with discrimination and taste. I wonder what the two of them thought of one another.

    How cool to create atmosphere and embed character into it. Developing character like this really gives dimension to characters. I like that Duncan notices the places and spaces that reflect the nature of the people who inhabit them.

    ReplyDelete