Monday, November 25, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

To all who celebrate Thanksgiving, we wish you a glorious family holiday with bountiful blessings coming your way in return for the thanks expressed and the helping hand you've given to others.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Choose, if you must!

On a tombstone in an English cemetery:

Remember man, as you walk by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so shall you be,
Remember this and follow me.

Someone later etched the following quip:

To follow you I'll not consent,
Until I know which way you went.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Description: A Writer's Challenge

Every reader’s real world visual perception has a deeper nuance and far exceeds what, with absolute certainty, the written word, even with razor-sharp precision, can create. Whether an author attempts to create a physical setting out of whole cloth or describe one that exists in nature, two challenges exist. How can you pinpoint everything to the nth degree and how do you bridge the gap existing between the totality of what you wish to convey and still maintain the interest of today’s reader? 

Let’s try an example. Dame Agatha Christie sets up her classic play, Ten Little Indians, with initial stage directions that are here reproduced with one minor deletion:

“The scene is the living room of a house on Indian Island. It is a very modern room, and luxuriously furnished. It is a bright sunlight evening. Nearly the whole of the back of the stage is a window looking directly out to sea. French doors are open in center to balcony. It should give the impression of being like the deck of a liner, almost overhanging the sea. There is a chair out on the balcony and the main approach to the house is presumed to be up steps on the left side of the balcony. . . French doors are wide so that a good area of the balcony is shown.

“In the left wall, near windows, is a door to dining room. Downstage left is a door communicating with hall. Pull cord below this door.

“Up right is a door to study. Middle stage right is fireplace. Over it hangs the reproduction of the “Ten Little Indians” nursery rhyme. On the mantelpiece are a group of ten china Indian figures. They are not spaced out, but clustered so that the exact number is not easily seen.

“Center are two sofas with space between. Chair and small table up left. Club chair with tabouret right and above it, down left, where there is also a bookcase. There is a window seat up right and cocktail cabinet below mantelpiece. Tabouret down right. Before fireplace is a big white bearskin rug with a bear’s head. There is an armchair and tabouret right center. A square ottoman at lower end of the fireplace. A settee with table left of it in front of window at the back.”

Can you imagine this scene? On your inner visual screen do you imagine colors? What colors? The only color actually mentioned is white in describing the bearskin rug. If you can see the sky through the balcony, would it be a solid blue or dotted with white, puffy clouds? Would this expanse be flat or stretch to the horizon? If either, does that affect the colors you perceive? How would it affect the reader? 

We are told the living room is very modern and luxuriously furnished. Would those words narrow your perception of color? Perhaps. But we aren’t given a date. Many colors can be perceived as modern. Some colors such as those replicating the patina of oak and mahogany are dark and have been associated with luxury for decades. Would they also be modern? Or, is there an unwanted tension created between the dark colors of wood and, say, the sparkle of gold or silver? How about visual intensity? Is one contrasting color concentrated in a small space to become a focal point?

The mantelpiece is mentioned as an important room element. Should it be noteworthy by being crafted from a light-colored stone or gilded with gold? 

Whatever the case, the discussion so far should kindle the thought that there can be no right or wrong answer in a vacuum. The purpose of room color description is most often useful only to create a mood. Dark colors conjure up gloom and/or depression and, while there are no characters mentioned in the stage directions, a dark-colored room makes it easier for a mystery’s burglar to slink into the background. Bright pastel colors could be the trigger to an older person remembering where they grew up as a child, e.g., a red lampshade, a green throw pillow on either or both sofas.

Color, important in itself, can also define shapes. Are the purple velvet curtains a vertical rectangle or visually impressive for their scalloped horizontal line at the top of the window(s) they adorn? We can probably inwardly visualize the shape and size of a bearskin rug. A fireplace or its mantel presents a greater challenge. They can vary greatly in size and design, although visually within limits. Determining what the word “tabouret” means is decidedly more difficult. There is an inherent ambiguity in the word for it can mean either a low seat without a back or arms or a small portable stand or cabinet. Since the word is used multiple times, a mixture of visualized furniture is definitely possible. Why confuse the reader? There is no good reason to. The reader would be busy enough trying to visual the room without generating more confusion, especially since we haven’t added any character yet.

And, even if one is confident in describing the room, how should it be done—all at once, or piecemeal in narrative between character dialogue, in character dialogue, or silently within the thoughts of a character? It’s a big decision. Too much narrative and you lose the reader experiencing boredom with a lack of action. Too little description and the reader will be lost for not being grounded in the context of the story.

While it would be an unending task to try to pinpoint what should be the final result of every written story, the point here is that each author needs to examine his or her setting description with an attempt to determine what is being projected into and absorbed by the reader’s mind. If the projected image is not the desired one, a different perspective is likely the best first choice for finding the solution.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Chocolate - Oh How We Love It

With Halloween a distant twenty-four hour memory, how can the mind not turn to chocolate?

Theobroma cacao --A barbarous concoction or noxious drug? Delicious indulgence or cause of migraines? Aphrodisiac or tonic?

The journey of the magical cacao bean and its chocolate byproduct begins, some say, in 200 B.C. Worshiped as an idol my Myan Indians over 2,000 years ago, the bitter seeds of the cacao bean have been transformed into sweet chocolate. The Spanish conquest of Central America introduced chocolate to Europe, where it first became the stimulating drink of kings and aristocrats. Industrialization in the 19th and 20th century made chocolate a food for the masses.

When first brought to the U.S. in 1765, it was available only as cocoa or liquid.

Sixty years later, a Dutch chemist invented a cocoa press that enabled confectioners to make the first chocolate candy. World War I made chocolate popular with the returning soldiers and The Hershey Chocolate Company finally mass produced a quality chocolate bar at a price affordable on public street corners. While it may have stayed available to the masses, it has often been revived as a "luxury item" and graces many a gift basket.

One can not get too much of a good thing for a bar with a higher concentration of cocoa is often bitter to the taste.

Godiva, Lindt, and Ghirardelli are three popular well-known makers of the gourmet product. But throughout the country, there are smaller companies producing quality chocolates to meet the many different needs of chocolate lovers everywhere.

We've, over the years, have heard of California-based Bodega Fudge and Chocolates and Adams Place located in Washington state. Kosher chocolates are not out of the question. The end product is not only for Jewish consumers. They are sought after by others, which include vegetarians and those who buy for various allergy and health reasons. Nor are claims to using a copper kettle process.

While the shelf life of chocolates can be four to six months without refrigeration or up to one year when refrigerated.

A major enemy of chocolates is heat. During the summer months, companies that ship chocolate often rely on two or three day air with frozen jellpacks to keep the chocolate cool.

So let that Halloween chocolate melt in your mouth. The cherry cordials don't come until Christmas.

Ps, Don't forget that this blog has a page two, top of the page tab, where one can read Author Dona' Berg's last excerpt of a yet to be published novel by the three-time winner in the 2013 Dixie Kane Memorial Contest. See details below in October 4 blog post.