Exploring the Imagination: Fictional Characters From Art Museums

Brochure for Zurbaran exhibit showing painting of woman in red, brocade, dress, long black hair, ivory face and a scratch that symbolizes a halo.
Art museums are treasure troves for fleshing out characters. This beautiful painting inspired a queen antagonist character in my latest work-in-progress.

See the trailer for the exhibit here:

The stunning poster drew me in for the latest exhibit in Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunstpalast. It’s called “Zurbarán: Meister der Details” [Master of Details] and features 16th-century full-size portraits by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664).

My first reaction to the poster was: “There she is!” She is the queen antagonist for my new middle grade work-in-progress.

The extreme contrast of ivory skin and long, black hair, the 397 pearls on the hem of her gown, and the intensity of her eyes, almost scornful–certainly assessing–give the sense that you’ve caught her attention and it may not be to your advantage.

She’s caught up her brocade gown with one, white, elegant, hand and is ready to move. She’s only paused to run her eye over you.

Only after I went into the exhibit did I realize that the tiny flaw in the canvas above her head is actually a halo. The painting’s subject is St. Casilda, not an evil queen at all.

If I borrow his St. Casilda and embroider a character for my latest middle grade adventure, I’m only following his example. The rich gown is an invention of the painter, the son of a cloth merchant, who invented the elegant fashions of his subjects based on his father’s cloth samples.

There are advantages to drawing characters from a master. The artist works in a visual medium and the character traits that are words to me, are the artist’s details of dress, expression, and gesture. The artist paints a mood with colors and light and, through his painting, I can borrow his eyes to sketch a vivid character.

If you’d like to try it yourself, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Cast an eye over the museum guards and visitors. Anyone who thinks there’s no romance to a museum guard hasn’t read FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER (or seen Audrey Hepburn in HOW TO STEAL A MILLION). What visitors say and do in museums tells another set of stories. Sometimes I catch a moment of conscious or unconscious mimicry or hear a wonderful snippet of dialogue that helps my story along.

2. If your museum doesn’t have portraits, try a more literal use of a painting. In C.S. Lewis’s THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, a painting of a Narnian ship turns into a portal to the imaginary world of Narnia.

3. Prep a character or two before your museum visit. The Reverse Backstory Tool is an efficient tool for working out the connection between your character’s want, need, flaw, and wound. The “Reverse Backstory Tool” appears in Appendix B of THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS by Angela Acker and Becca Puglisi. The tool is handy to prep before your museum visit or to develop characters who’ve caught your eye in the museum.

Art museums are a treasure trove for characters. The artists have done all the work of people-watching and the paintings already express personalities and stories. It’s all ready-to-pick, so go ahead and fill the well.

Do you find art museums inspiring? What do you enjoy about them?

 

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What’s it like to visit historical sites for a story world you’ve only imagined?

Men in red and gold and blue medieval woolen tunics accompanied by shield and spear bearing knights
The Middle Ages come to life in Arezzo, Italy. ©Jan Decher, 2002.

After I moved to Germany, I planned a trip of a lifetime to visit the physical places in my children’s adventure story set in the early Middle Ages. I wrote the story with spreadsheets, maps, Google, and libraries. It was a work of imagination based on research.

The itinerary included the most important and accessible places in the story:

  • Bologna (nearest airport and unexpectedly beautiful)
  • Casa Cares near Tuscany (a family visit to this retreat center brought me to Arezzo and the story)
  • Camaldolì monastery (an 11th century monastery and hermitage)
  • Arezzo (Birthplace of Guido d’Arezzo and my main character’s home. Site of an annual medieval festival that clothes the whole city in the Middle Ages.)
  • Pratovecchio (a beautiful medieval town with arcades)
  • Poppi (site of an ancient castle, and on the route my characters traveled over the mountains)
  • Classe (known for its byzantine mosaics and churches. Site of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinaire with the mosaic mural of a shepherd with sheep that Bella admires on her way to Venice.)
  • Ravenna (the modern city near Classe and the sea. Organic market under the arcades with medlars, sausages, ricotta cheese and Napoleon squash.)
  • Pomposa Abbey (a powerful medieval Abbey, today much further from the sea)
  • Venice (colors, light, flavors, a museum of boats and the beginning of the sea journey)

I hoped to collect images, recordings, and maybe video to use on a new website. My husband and child #2 are photographers and agreed to be pressed into service.

My goals for the trip were to experience my story world with all five senses and to resist the temptation to go overboard and drive my family crazy.
What actually happened surprised me. Here are some quotes from my trip journal:

Imagination: How does it work? What is it good for?

“I’m constantly adjusting to two sets of ‘memories’: the set from a visit here in 2002 with my parents and the set from Bella’s [my main character’s] imaginary journey.”

“My husband said, ‘Your imagination is important’ meaning, it needed to be recorded and cared for in the midst of confusing landscapes and facts.”

Validation: I got some things right.

“I felt hopeful for the first time in a while when I saw Guido d’Arezzo’s house is close to the church and the park with the Medici fortress. It is downhill to the piazza grande from there.”

“The friendly man in the tourist office agreed that the Cathedral School might have been up where the Medici ruins are now.”

It was so much fun to talk to someone who knew and cared about the real Guido d’Arezzo. I had no idea how much it would help me with the story to get that boost.

Fortune from a Baci chocolate: ‘Metti il cuore in tutto ciò che fai.’ Or ‘Put your heart in everything you do.’

Disappointment: Some things have changed since the 11th century. In many cases, the particular medieval landscape I wanted to photograph didn’t exist any more. The places that felt most like my story were sometimes in the next village over.

“We didn’t get to Camaldolì because we would have been too late getting home.”

Note: we drove a car and my characters walked, went by donkey or in a litter. So much for the spreadsheet distance and travel time calculation!

“The winding roads slow the pace of modernity. Not that much faster than Bella.”

Generosity: the balance between getting it perfect and letting it go

“My husband is very generous to take me places when he would like to sit in the sun and talk to people.”

The experience: What it feels like to travel in unknown places:

“Luke Skywalker could drive a rental car through tunnels surrounded by trucks traveling at top speed. The Death Star is nothing to this.”

“My daughter’s order of ‘latte freddo bianco’ [cold white milk] came with a teacup and saucer and a spoon.”

“A list of things that could bother Bella: mosquitoes (+ malaria), fog and poor visibility, the smells of pig farms and old fish, injuries, cut fingers, blisters, wasp stings, the feeling of being cheated, the need to re-group, trying to recall what she’d seen, angry drivers. . .what is the medieval equivalent of a road with a slow bicycle, a Vespa between lanes, a heavy truck in front and another passing from behind?”

I never expected to walk around in my imaginary world with my family. It was hard to talk about things I hadn’t put into words before and to make a claim that my imaginary people existed in a real landscape. It was magical for me and I think it helped my family understand better too.

This trip reminded me that a story is a kind of hospitality. We invite people in and try to make them comfortable before they embark on adventure.

What makes you comfortable when you set out on adventure? What sparks your imagination?

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Collateral damage: What if there’s no one to vouch for you?

Ruins of the Castle of Are (Ahr) built by Theodorich of Are around 1100 A.D.
Collateral damage: Ruins of the Castle of Are (Ahr) built by Theodorich of Are around 1100 A.D.

Someone approached me on the street the other day, needing to talk. The situation was unbelievably bad: immigration and medical problems, grief and financial hardship, difficulties around work, worries about children.

After a little while, I was asked if I would buy some things for the kids. I felt uneasy because I didn’t know who could vouch for this person. I said I needed advice.

Tears stood in the person’s eyes. “You need advice to buy Pampers for my children?”

“No,” I said, ashamed. “I guess I don’t.”

As far as I know, there’s no diaper black market or any illicit use for diapers. They’re just diapers. And if you need diapers for your kids badly enough that you are willing to approach a perfect stranger to ask for help, you probably really need them.

I asked her for the person’s name and realized, when I was only offered the first name, that this person couldn’t trust me entirely either.

One of my children is seeking letters of recommendation to go to graduate school. This is the official form of vouching for people. Some people call it the “old boys’ network” or talk about how they can never get ahead because they don’t know the people who matter.

But who can vouch for you when everyone has fled?

This must be one of the great costs of war: the loss of trust and societal structure means survivors have the additional burden of convincing strangers that they are telling the truth. Most of us have no personal experience with horrific circumstances like these. We can’t imagine them and don’t really want to.

How do we plant the first seeds of trust?

When I first moved to my little village in Germany, I didn’t know anyone outside my family. Since I love libraries, I asked if I could volunteer in the local library. The library board gave permission and I unexpectedly gained a group of friends.

They take me on field trips, give me advice about everyday life, and vouch for me in unexpected ways. They trust me and I want to extend that trust to others.

So we found a drugstore and bought cheap diapers. It’s not much. I wish it were more. But if we all trusted a little, it might be enough.

This is what I wish: that we all find places to belong and  contribute, places to trust and to be trusted.

_________________

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Dark and Light: Defense Against the Dark Hot Cocoa

Light yellow leaves on a dark path on a gray day in the forest.
Light leaves in a dark forest. Kottenforst, Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

This morning the day felt heavy for the first time this summer. The clouds are low and gray and the day looks dim.

But I went for a walk in the forest just now. There the light is trapped between the dark sky and the ground. Every dead leaf, blue flower, patch of moss and white stone glows with reflected light. Maybe there are more shadows, but everything stands out. The leaves on the trees are dark green and flat in this light, but the wheat-colored grass and the earth underfoot, that shines.

Hot cocoa is on the stove and I’m waiting for the foamy milk to rise to the top in the milk frother.

Defense Against the Dark Hot Cocoa
(Adapted from THE FANNIE FARMER COOKBOOK, 12th ed. Revised by Marion Cunningham with Jeri Laber. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.)
4 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
2 Tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
2 Cups milk
Vanilla

Foamed milk
2 Cups milk

Makes 3 giant cups of cocoa and milk or 6 small ones.

Mix cocoa, sugar, and salt with 1/2 Cup water in a small saucepan and boil gently for 2 minutes. Then add 2 Cups of milk and bring gently to boil. Add vanilla and pour into cups.

Pour 2 Cups of milk into the milk frother and heat gently. [A metal frother can go right on the stove, a glass one (no metal!) can be microwaved.] When a ring of bubbles form around the rim, the milk is hot enough to froth.

To froth the milk, hold the handheld frother right at the surface. It’s going to splatter, so pick a deep container.

Take the pump type frother off the heat, hold the finger grip on the lid and pump it up and down 10 or 12 times. Let stand until the foam collects itself at the top. Lift off, pour some liquid milk into your cocoa to taste and tilt the white foam onto its dark surface. Dark can be okay too.

Add a friend and a cookie for each and you have Defense Against the Dark Hot Cocoa. Enjoy!

 

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Impossible things to try before breakfast: Bicycle Gymnasts and JINX’S MAGIC

Two gymnasts riding the same bike. One standing on 1 leg with 1 arm in the air.
Things you never knew were possible on a bike. © Jan Decher, 2015.

What makes us decide to try impossible things? A thing can call to us, but we still don’t try it. Some of it must be inborn and some must be the recognition that a thing is possible.

In Crossing Unmarked Snow, William Stafford captures the “inborn” part beautifully.

The things you do not have to say make you rich. Saying things you do not have to say weakens your talk. Hearing things you do not need to hear dulls your hearing. And things you know before you hear them those are you, those are why you are in the world.

This weekend, I went to a summer festival for the local YMCA. Three bicycle gymnasts put on a show. Most of what we saw looked impossible. How do you learn to stand (on feet or hands!) on bike handlebars while the bike circles the floor? A bicycle pivots at the handlebars. We’re talking acrobatics with traveling scissors. Generosity was so evident. The performance was free and stellar: concentration, coordination among the riders, and now I can’t even remember if there was music. I was too busy clapping.

It’s so miraculous when something impossible works. Ice skaters, musicians, dancers, and others practice and practice, but when the performance comes, it’s still miraculous. My husband said afterwards: “They have so much CONTROL over their bodies.”

The encore was a fleet of smaller bikes for kids 6-12 to try out. Little kids lined up right away. Older kids looked on regretfully from the sidelines.

I still couldn’t imagine myself doing a handstand on a moving bike, so I went to help at the used book stand. A customer handed me a stack of books and beamed.

“How much work goes into writing a book?” She smiled, shaking her head. “I can’t even imagine.”

Since I’ve been writing fiction for a long time now, I can imagine that very easily. It looks impossible when you see only the finished product. But with consistent work, a miraculous fragment or two becomes less rare.

So much so, that the audience continually raises the bar. “We’ve seen that already.” Once you’ve proved that something can be done, nothing is the same. If you want to amaze people again, you have to create something else.

This weekend, I read JINX’S MAGIC and marveled over author Sage Blackwood’s performance. I was completely immersed in the story until the very end. Not an easy feat in a sequel.

Jinx’s learning style made me think of the bicycle gymnasts. He learns magic by climbing inside a spell and seeing how it works.

The bicycle gymnasts pitted their muscle control, balance, and ability to work together against gravity, acceleration, and painful falls. They kept coming up with new twists and combinations until you were sure they were going to fall off.

What kept me reading in JINX’S MAGIC was the tension between the characters. Were they on Jinx’s side or not? Would they support him at the critical moment or let him fall? I wondered if Jinx would make the right choices for his own life and for the Urwald. It makes me want to climb into the novel and take it apart so I can see how it works.

Author Joanna Penn commented that one of her goals is to show society that it’s possible to make a living with art.

Both JINX’S MAGIC and the bicycle gymnasts showed me unexpected possibilities. You have to see that something is possible before you start walking down that road to a new adventure. It doesn’t even have to be very possible. Just imaginable.

 

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Four Paintings for Writers in Cologne’s Wallraf Museum

P1050122
“The Art of Poetry” by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot. Wallraf Museum. Cologne.
Man lost in book in a big, green chair with feet propped up on books.
“Don Quichote” by Adolf Schrödter. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
Letters with red sealing wax, a comb, other things you might find on a dressing table.
“Quodlibet” by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.

Painting of Snowwhite asleep in a glass case in the forest. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
“Schneewittchen” [Snow White] by Marianne Stokes. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
The magical inscription on this painting reads: “We cannot lay her in the dark earth,” said the dwarfs and so they had a transparent glass coffin made so that she could be seen from every side laid her in it and wrote on it her name and that she was a kings daughter. Then they carried the coffin into the wood and some of them always watched her and the birds also came and bewailed Snowdrop. First an owl. Then a raven and lastli a dove. So Snowdrop lay a long long time in her coffin looking as though she were asleep. –GRIMM”

The “lastli” pleases me greatli.

 

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Creativity: How our challenging circumstances are the key to success

Lenne River near Werdohl, Germany
Power from obstacles. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

My daughter and I watched THE KING’S SPEECH the other day. I’d seen it before, but the story captured me all over again. In the film, the Duke of York’s stutter seemed to be a physical manifestation of the desire to hide. No idea if that is accurate or not, medically speaking. It struck me as a powerful metaphor.

[Spoiler alert!] Why would swearing be unaffected by a stutter? I’m guessing it’s because when you swear, you aren’t trying to please anyone anymore. Someone or some situation has pushed you past everything that hems you in.

We are wonderfully made and yet disaster lurks in each one of us. THE KING’S SPEECH made me feel yet again that life is about facing up to our own weaknesses and challenges. Each of us have slightly different ones, but the ones that are unique and personal to us are the ones that lock up our greatest potential. We have the potential to become experts in those particular challenges.

Another example of this kind of courage brought tears to my eyes. The strange syndrome of Tourette’s syndrome makes some sufferers spout obscenities against their will, a vocal manifestation of an uncontrollable muscle tic. THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN gave an amazing talk at the Hartford Public Library about his personal experience with Tourette’s.
It seems so mundane to find meaning in our current circumstances, but it makes some sense. Unlike an author, we can’t change our point-of-view character completely. Empathy can only take us so far.

So many of my husband’s relatives are struggling with serious chronic illness right now. When I worked in the health department, I worked conscientiously to help other people improve their health, to “solve” other people’s weaknesses and challenges. Does this work?

The most helpful health department project I evaluated during my time there was a project on breastfeeding. The breastfeeding project was both scientific and personal to me and to the others who worked on it. I applied my personal experience with two children as well as my epidemiology training. The project was effective at increasing rates of breastfeeding without formula supplementation because we applied our own experiences as well as our professional knowledge. Creativity takes all the skill and talent we have.

To really help other people, we need expert knowledge. Writers have to find resonant weaknesses in ourselves to draw a believable villain or a flawed hero in a novel. We need the same kind of imaginative vulnerability to apply knowledge to other challenges in our lives.

 

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