Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, July 01, 2015 22 comments
Image: TubeRadioLand.com
A trip yesterday to the Philadelphia History Museum got me thinking once again about people and their stuff. The museum is a small one, focused on Philadelphia's "material culture"--an archeology term that means physical evidence of a culture in the physical objects and architecture they make or have made. It's a study of objects to see what stories they tell us about people.

For instance, what does it tell us about an era to know it made horrid iron harness devices with a bell to be worn by enslaved people as punishment (as if being enslaved weren't punishment enough)?  What value did people in the 1940s place on radio, that they housed the ugly tubes and wires in mahogany cases called "cathedral style"?

If you write about historic eras or other worlds of the imagination, you have to think through these overarching, meta-level relationships between people and the objects in their environment in order to recreate the past or to create a compelling story world.

But how people relate to their belongings is significant on an individual level too. I'm perhaps more steeped in this aspect at the moment.

A character in my work-in-progress is someone who hoards aspirationally. He fills his home with things he thinks will enhance his image. But he's not wealthy enough to collect macho sports cars or hire marble sculptors to enshrine him in stone, so his collections are more modest but just as unable to satiate his underlying emotional need.

Next week I head south to help my mother purge belongings and pack for a move from independent to assisted living--going from six rooms, six closets to two rooms, two closets. It's not the physical work of packing I dread most, it's the emotional minefield I'll have to navigate as Mom contemplates parting with stuff she doesn't need but nonetheless can't imagine not having. Some deep ties will have to be severed so she has room to move in her new home.

We develop strong ties with objects over the course of a lifetime. Those ties in a sense can define our character. Perhaps it is a childhood toy that seems to hold all the magic of innocent, happy times (Rosebud in the film Citizen Kane comes to mind). Perhaps it's an inherited tool that confers familial blessing on an endeavor, like a pastry chef who relies on her great-grandma's rolling pin to create award-winning pastries. Perhaps it is a long-coveted object that once possessed gives one a sense of having "arrived" in the land of success, like a gold Rolex watch.

As you develop your story world, both large scale and small, consider the power of material culture to build and enhance your characterization.

What special objects in your life hold significance for you? Have you used significant objects in your writing to illuminate a culture or a person?

22 comments:

  1. I love the pic of that old radio! I don't write historicals, but try to work up psychologies for my characters about all the things that are meaningful to them (often shown in the writing but not stated outright). Your mother will be far happier with fewer things. It takes the concentration of the past and puts it where it should be - in the present. Good luck!

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    1. Definitely the idea of material culture applies to lots of genres besides historicals. I write contemporary YA and find it helpful for characterization.

      I know the assisted living will be a great change for my mom (company for meals, closer to some the community amenities), it's just the period of transition that will be hard. I like that idea of helping her enjoy the present. Maybe I'll encourage her to purchase a few new things to celebrate her new living space and make it special.

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  2. I heard Patricia Lee Gauch speak very eloquently on the importance of "things" in our writing. The items we include and possessions we bother to mention can say so much about character and world.
    I like to think I'm not very attached to my possessions...but as soon as I think of parting with them, I realize how challenging it is to truly be detached. Mostly, the gifts that have been made for me, like my husband's paintings and my girls' handmade jewelry, have a special place in my heart and in my home.

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    1. Gauch's ideas seem to ring very true to your lived experience, don't they? I can tell you deeply value relationships and handmade, custom objects in which labor is a part of the gift--just based on the possessions you mention.

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  3. Nice post, and good questions to ponder while developing characters with life in them. I suppose I'm hopelessly attached to books and notebooks. I have boxes of old notebooks I have to go through and cull out one day. But I wouldn't dream of just "junking" them without going through them. Sigh.

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    1. I hear you. There are a number of books that feel like friends that I turn to again and again. That speaks to a love of written communication. I'm reminded of the Horace Mann quote: "a house without books is like a room without windows."

      And now I'm feeling the inklings of a short story idea coming to me. Thanks so much!!

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  4. I like this idea. My MC, Clara, never appears to have any major material possessions other than her sword and armor, but I know she has a special quilt on her bed back home, one of her father's old instruments, and her mom's favorite cup. I may have to include more of that in the final novel of the trilogy.

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    1. I love that idea. I think in times of trial, those comforting objects can be a real lifeline in the storm. Like Katniss's mockingjay pin she received as a gift, or Linus's blanket, or Harry Potter's photo of riding his toy broom as a baby.

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  5. You will have some good insights on how your character feels about her stuff then. It is amazing how attached we become to objects.

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    1. The stories and meaning someone attaches to an object can show us a lot about them for sure.

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  6. Objects can be a great way into the head and heart of characters. Nice post!

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    1. Thanks. Hope the idea bears fruit for you. Happy writing!

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  7. I don't know that I've ever paid conscious attention to my characters' treasured objects, but now that I think about it, they're there. Definitely going to pay more attention now! They really can tell so much about a person - and a people.

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    1. Indeed, it wasn't something I'd previously given much thought to until I started working on this hoarder character. All the research on the phenom is pretty fascinating.

      The museum helped me think more large scale--how a whole culture is represented in certain objects.

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  8. The value we put on stuff is so charged with emotional baggage. This is an excellent point to bring up and added dimension to bring to a character. I know as I get old I am doing as much passing on and jettisoning that I can. But still, there's so much stuff!

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    1. The act of accumulating, as well as the content of what we accumulate says so much about underlying values and fears as well. Those who are raised with deprivation are much more likely to hoard than those raised with plenty.

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  9. Things do become so important. They hold the memories from days we no longer have and people who have left us. Good luck with that move. I went through that three years ago and it was a challenge with some very poignant moments.

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    1. Thanks, Lee. Fortunately, I only have to tackle phase 1, deciding what she IS taking with her. Two of my older sibs will take on phase 2 and 3--purge and relocate. I think my sister may have the toughest bit for sure, because there is so much emotion tied up in one's belongings.

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  10. I love being inspired by historical pieces. I'm kind of a closet history freak. You're right, though. We can learn a ton by truly pondering some of artifacts from days gone by. The medieval area is one of my favorites. And like with the Vikings ... #shivers Any image of an item those people used always gets me wondering.

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    1. I take it you've visited some places like the London Dungeon museum, eh? Yes, it is pretty interesting to consider how such a pious population taught to love neighbor could think up such extravagantly cruel punishments. Now I'm shivering.

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  11. One of my character's has her late mother's Bible. It's special to her because of all the notes and personal observations written inside.

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    1. Like a bit of shared wisdom she can turn to again and again. That is special. Love it.

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