Stonecoast: Wizard of Earthsea

*This post was originally published on Theodora’s website.

By Theodora Goss

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the workshop I led at Stonecoast last winter, on fantasy writing. I mentioned that I had given the students a series of quotations, and we had discussed them as examples of various writing issues and techniques. This is one of the quotations I used to talk about character: the beginning of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. But there’s so much more going on here than the establishment of character! I have a list of writers that I learned from myself, as a writer. Le Guin is one of the most important of them. She’s one of the reasons I try to write clearly, fluidly. I think lyricism is based on clarity of expression. She’s also one of the reasons I try to write about ideas, as much as I try to write about characters. She’s one of my models for what a courageous writer looks like.

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On Dressing Up

By Megan Frazer Blakemore

“For me, Halloween is the best holiday in the world. It even beats Christmas. I get to dress up in a costume. I get to wear a mask. I get to go around like every other kid with a mask and nobody thinks I look weird. Nobody takes a second look. Nobody notices me. Nobody knows me.”

– August Pullman in Wonder by R.J. Palacio (p. 73)

Wonder3Who hasn’t wanted to use Halloween as a chance to show off a different, hidden side of oneself? Perhaps this explains all the “sexy” Halloween costumes for women and girls: sexy nurse, sexy fire fighter, and my personal favorite, Sassy Rick Grimes (though I myself would prefer a “sassy” Darryl Dixon). For children, whose lives are constricted by parents, teachers, and friends, this instinct is especially strong. Alternatively, costumes can give children a chance to not only face their fears, but also to become them, and thus conquer them.

Costumes also offer an opportunity for writers to reveal their characters. For the use of costumes to be interesting, the outfits must do more than simply telegraph aspirations, or provide a chance for literary acrobatics in their description. Rather, like everything else in fiction, costumes must be chosen and used to serve the story. R.J. Palacio’s Wonder (Knopf, 2012) and Deborah WilesCountdown (Scholastic 2010) offer two different ways to use costumes to advance the plot and the emotional arc of their stories. Continue reading

The Lady Code

By Theodora Goss 

In Victorian novels, there is one thing characters always seem to know: whether or not a woman is a lady. And whether or not she’s a lady determines how they talk to her, treat her. It’s as though there’s “lady code” that immediately signals her status. The code has to do with the tangible, such as clothing, but also the intangible, such as attitude.

I was thinking about this recently because I saw a photograph of a college student who had written on her leg, in black marker, what the different skirt lengths meant. A skirt that came to the middle of the thigh meant “flirty.” One just below the knee meant “proper.” One at the bottom of the calf meant “prudish.” And of course one close to the top of the thigh meant “whore.” There were gradations in between.

If we look at this idea historically, it’s the same old lady code. That code always had to do, in part, with sexuality. But it also had to do with social class, and what the photograph can’t represent, being a photograph, is the extent to which the lady code is about economic and educational status.

"Portrait of a Lady" by Rogier van der Weyden

“Portrait of a Lady” by Rogier van der Weyden

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Focus on Character Development: A View from Behind the Lens

by Helen Peppe, guest blogger and Stonecoast Alumna. Helen will participate in a faculty panel at the 2013 Stonecoast Summer Residency titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Race.”

This post has been reblogged from Write Here, Write Now with Sheila Boneham.

This paw does not belong to a troll.

This paw does not belong to a troll.

Once upon a time there was a troll, the most evil troll of them all; he was called the devil. One day he was particularly pleased with himself, for he had invented a mirror which had the strange power of being able to make anything good or beautiful that it reflected appear horrid; and all that was evil and worthless seem attractive and worthwhile.

This is the first paragraph of “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Anderson who embedded moral lessons in fairy tales and other short works, many of which do not end happily ever after. Anderson created his characters using the rules of polarity: good and evil, beautiful and ugly, greedy and generous. He recognized that people universally think in terms of opposites, that it pervades our physical environment: north and south, night and day, dark and light, hot and cold. Anderson kept his characters deceptively basic, a flat land of generic stereotype. There is the wicked witch and the beautiful princess, the conniving hag and unsuspecting king, and their differences create conflict. It’s as simple as yes and no, as right and wrong.
But it isn’t.

Seven Drownings

photo courtesy of Michael Kimball

photo courtesy of Michael Kimball

by Michael Kimball

I’ve never been afraid of water. I’ve been a swimmer all my life. Summer days, vacations, my earliest best memories are swimming, diving off my father’s shoulders on Lake Chaubunagungamaug, riding the waves with my mother at Hampton Beach. In my suburban Massachusetts town, I took swimming lessons and earned my Junior Lifesaver certificate before my voice dropped. I could out-dive my sister and out-distance my friends underwater. So I was surprised to discover how many people drown in my novels. Sometimes two or three per book. Plummeting, tumbling, sailing over bridge railings and ridge tops.

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A Mother Who Played Mozart

“Piano Strings” by kevin dooley via Flickr

“Piano Strings” by kevin dooley via Flickr

By Boman Desai

When I was a child I would crawl under my bed, with my gilt-edged copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and a flashlight, to read. I felt adventurous hidden from the world behind the counterpane, snug as if I were in cave as I pored over stories illustrated with toothpick fairies and anthropomorphic animals. My mother would be practicing the piano, indefatigably repeating bars, mostly by Mozart, whom she found divine.

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Infatuation: An Exercise to Build Character

By Aaron Hamburger

“I’ll Give You All I Can” by Brandon Christopher Warren via Flickr

“I’ll Give You All I Can” by Brandon Christopher Warren via Flickr

When I was in high school, I had a deep, all-consuming crush on a young man we’ll call Austin.  Bear in mind, this was high school.  In suburban Detroit.  In the late 1980’s.  I had no hope of his returning—let alone recognizing—my affection.

So I learned to satisfy (and perhaps stoke) my longings by studying him from afar.  I became especially knowledgeable about Austin’s scuffed shoes and socks, the hairs on the back of his neck, the door of his locker after he’d closed it and walked away…  basically, anything I could learn about the guy without his noticing.

I savored each new tiny detail about his life that I believed or maybe hoped might illuminate larger truths about his existence, like the fact that he commuted to our school from Detroit’s “East Side,” or that he liked Smarties candies, or that he wished that instead of AP World History, we could just watch Mel Brooks’s History of the World Part I.

Little did I know that through my Austin-worship, I was building skills that would serve me well, later on, as a fiction writer.  Novel readers encountering characters for the first time go through much the same process as a lovestruck teenager gazing from a distance at his love object.  As we read, we’re constantly picking up on the tiniest of details about each character we meet, whether consciously or unconsciously.  The difference is that while Austin never noticed or cared that I was studying him, readers are under the delusion that the author has chosen to sprinkle the narrative with purposefully chosen details as clues to suggest some larger and more significant patterns of personality.

Why do writers and readers go to all this elaborate bother?

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