Being that my background is in interior design and visual merchandising, one of the things that inspires me most and drives a lot of my storytelling choices is visual aesthetics. Looking back, this has especially been the case with my WIP, TEROH.
For better or for worse.
I like the subtle complexity of dark espionage stories, the suffocating sense of paranoia, and the way this genre looks on the big screen. I like elemental magic and the larger-than-life way it can be portrayed. I also like the look and sound of old black and white movies like melodramas and film noir—fedoras and glamorous femmes fatales, chiaroscuro lighting, mid-Atlantic accents, psychological drama…
And that’s what drove a lot of my choices while developing TEROH.
The strange thing is that, when I first started writing, I really hadn’t watched very many black and white movies. Just a few. So for them to have such a big influence on the style of my novel seems almost…disproportional, in retrospect. Nevertheless, it’s this very combination of elements that helped determine the spirit of this story.
What got me thinking about all of this in the first place is because not long ago, I watched the 1946 movie Notorious with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman for the first time—and I realized something: the style of this film is almost exactly the blend of elements I’ve been trying to channel all along with TEROH. Not directly in a studied, intentional manner but in my own loose but inspired way. (There’s also some romance, I suppose, but it’s by no means the main story.) Granted, I tossed in some fantasy/occult elements, too, which is suited to a more gothic tale. Still, I feel like noir draws some things from the gothic genre, which I’m also drawn to at times. (Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea anyone?)
“Is he here? Is he seeing all of this?” Andre asks, referring to Voi’s clairvoyant handler as he knowingly runs a hand up her nylon-sheathed thigh, pausing on the garter straps.
She murmurs incoherent noises into his ear, struggling to make sense of words. Chamber music echoes off the walls—waltzes or trots or tangos. She forgets which.
“Mmm…thought so,” Andre says anyway. He stares into Voi’s unfocused eyes, undoing the garter clasps between his thumb and forefinger. Her pupils enlarge suddenly just as a gale bursts through the window.
Andre curses, flinching away.
Obliviously drinking in the fumes of ambrosia with another drag on her cigarette, Voi soon tosses her head back with a manic laugh as she allows herself to slip further from reality, no longer resisting Andre’s attempts to “parley.” All the while, the crowd continues dancing under the spell of the domesticated ball downstairs…
Just then, Voi gasps then exhales. The wind begins to die down, as does her laughter. Instead, she starts to hum to a familiar tune from the ball, gently swaying her head from side to side.
“You’ve been a naughty girl, Voi…” Andre carefully takes the contraband drug from her fingertips to examine it. “Wherever did you manage to get this from?”
Voi pulls her head upright, peering at him with dark eyes. They no longer seem unfocused. She says to him in a low voice, “Is that really what you came here for, Andre?”
Sometimes, I come across art or music that gives me a very specific idea for a scene in a new novel or, perhaps, one I’m already working on. This painting, “Night Geometry” by Jack Vettriano, is one such piece of art. Actually, a lot of Vettriano’s work has been inspiring scenes for my fantasy series over the past few years. It’s sultry and moody and full of tension, sometimes with noir-ish undertones, and that appeals to me. (Not your typical fantasy stuff, eh?)
Anyway, I had this particular scene in mind for a story that I won’t get to for another three novels from now—The Elementalist: Grand Masquerade, in fact—but hey, gotta catch that inspiration when it strikes, right? Also, my series has been in third-person limited, past tense so far, and sometimes it’s subjective because the narrator will add a bit of whimsical dramatic irony here or there, so I don’t know why I’ve changed forms here in this snippet. Not even sure what perspective this is in or if it’s consistent! Kinda feels omniscient, in a way—which would be fun to play around with later, given that Voi is apparently playing with drugs at this point in the series…
I guess that’s what happens when you try and wing things.
In other news, I’m about 70% done with my edits on Book I. Kind of a nice feeling, considering. 🙂 Planning on being done by the end of August, at the latest. If I keep making steady progress, I should be able to hit that goal.
Would be nice!
…And here’s a little (not-so) random music to go along with the snippet, just because.
As I comb through my finished draft of The Elementalist: Rise of Hara (TEROH from here on out), reading it out loud for awkward sentence structures and flowing cadences, I’ve come to realize that my novel has a surprising amount of dark writing themes—surprising to me only because I never intentionally sat down and told myself, “Hey, I’m gonna write a dark fantasy novel!” All the same, it’s making me seriously consider whether my story is even a bit neo-noir.
It’s very much dieselpunk and fantasy, sure, but that doesn’t describe the tone. Not that a series of labels for a novel has to, per se, but if I want to give people a better idea of what they can expect from TEROH, then I wonder now if I should also be adding “neo-noir” to the mix somewhere. (Depending on what version of my blurb I use, I could see people interpreting the story as a light-hearted, swashbuckling type, which could be misleading. Especially if I use my shorter “under 200 words” version versus my slightly longer “under 300 words” one, the latter currently showing on my site.)
Before I get ahead of myself, let me explain why I suspect my novel may be neo-noir.Read More »
Since Anthony asked about this earlier, I figured I’d just make a quick post about it! (Easier to find on the site than a comment on a post, heh.)
You may have heard of writer Raymond Chandler’s famous character before, Philip Marlowe–a hardboiled, wisecracking private eye. Several movies have been made featuring this character, including The Big Sleep (1946) with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe and a later adaptation The Long Goodbye (1973) featuring Elliott Gould, as well as some TV and radio adaptations.
Lots of radio adaptations.
I’ve only seen a couple of the movies like The Long Goodbye and listened to a handful of the radio episodes, particularly the ones voiced by Gerald Mohr. (I admit, I have a weakness for his voice! lol) Though, they were very entertaining and I’ve very much derived inspiration from them.
Anyway, if you’re into film noir and detective pulp adventures, then you should definitely check out some of the radio episodes from The Adventures of Philip Marlowe on the Internet Archive. They’ve got a pretty big collection there and you can listen to them and even download some onto your MP3 player!
Great for a listen while you’re stuck commuting in traffic. 😉
Gee, I’m just on an art kick this week! (Sorry, no post yesterday. Busy day.)
I’ve been looking at some more art and remembered an American artist I learned about in school a few years ago: Edward Hopper. And then a million thoughts started floating around in my head, which happens a lot when I’m browsing the internet. Though, a couple of words and phrases kept popping up: black and white, stark, depression, momentary blindness, and chiaroscuro.
In order for me to make sense of the word soups my brain sometimes generates I either have to (a) talk myself through it, or (b) write myself through it.
Today, I feel like I’ve got to write my way through it. Let’s see if I can’t make sense of this.
First, let’s define a term that may or may not be widely understood.
Etymology: From Italian, from chiaro (clear, light) + oscuro (obscure, dark). From Answers.com.
Chiaroscuro is an artistic technique in which the artist uses a stark contrast of bright lighting effects in combination with areas of deep shades. It makes for an interestingly bold effect and lends itself well to both photography and cinematography (B&W especially) and other mediums, to be sure. Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange is famous for her “stark” photographs (though not necessarily chiaroscuro):
Here’s a famous example of chiaroscuro in a B&W film:
I think Edward Hopper used it fairly often in his work, as well–like in Nighthawks above. Here are some other examples:
Okay, now on to why I’m writing about any of this.Stark Opposition: Understanding the World through a “Black & White Lens”…So to SpeakThe world is clearly not black and white, but I find it difficult to understand without at first filtering it through this approach. I think of the story of Adam and Eve and have wondered what it might have been like to never known sin, or that which was not deemed “good.”Complete innocence and ignorance. (In their case, ignorance was bliss…until they sought out knowledge, right?)To understand the value and meaning of good, you must first be exposed to that which is not, and I don’t think Adam or Eve understood this so clearly as the moment they ate from the Tree.It moments like this that are so stark in the human experience, so clear in one’s memory, that they forever define the way a person looks at the world. You are almost blinded by the contrast between what you once knew and what you know now. They are particularly powerful experiences.In a flash of a bright light you are momentarily blinded; it is impossible to perceive shades of grey during that time.I think this is what chiaroscuro is all about: capturing moments of stark (first) impressions–truths in their most naked forms. Only, as a viewer, when you experience it in a painting as opposed to real-time media you actually get a still snapshot of the moment and therefore have ample time to really process it and consider any “grey” aspects in the artwork, as with Hopper’s Nighthawks (why does it seem so empty there?)–though, you do still experience that “momentary blindness” at first sight because you can’t take everything in all at once (and this is true with any complex, multi-layered piece).I happened to write most of these thoughts up to this point in a moment of “stark impressions,” but as it settles in (and as I edit this) I find I want to explore those shades of grey as it pertains to fiction.Can Chiaroscuro Be Achieved in Literature?I think so.The Great Depression (or even just depressing themes) made an excellent backdrop for the practice of chiaroscuro in literature, thematically especially. Two novels that inevitably come to mind, here, are The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. At one moment in The Great Gatsby Nick Carraway was looking forward to life in the big city; look how that turned out. (Edit: I should acknowledge that this book wasn’t set during the Great Depression, but you still got this feeling of something rotten and corrupt happening in the city, a feeling of ruin and grit with references to ash, etc. It was depressing, in a way.) Similarly, in The Grapes of Wrath it started out as, “We’re going to California–yahoo!” Though, that excitement soon dissipated once they arrived and took in the reality of the “opportunities” out west.Blind, or perhaps just innocent, optimism (chiaro), met with stark reality (oscuro)…followed by disillusionment (grey–or grigio, as it is in Italian, according to Wiktionary, haha).I think another way to apply “chiaroscuro” in literature is using foils. What better way to show the difference between good and evil than to have characters which personify both in complementary ways? You can also have a chiaroscuro of setting versus context, where the setting reflects an opposite atmosphere or mood to what is actually happening in the story (a happy couple out on the town, having a pleasant stroll when two violent thugs come out of nowhere–an experience they’ll always remember afterwards); or a chiaroscuro of character (an ongoing internal struggle between two desires met with a moment in which the character is forced out of their “grey” understanding and expected to take a decisive stand).Of course, it could be executed literally, narrating how certain objects or persons are in shade and how others are illuminated in bright or harsh light. (A nefarious interrogation room, anyone?) It could also be accomplished with the clashing of themes: life versus death, hope versus despair, sanity versus insanity, truth versus lies…In the end, it’s about dichotomies: exploring the relationship between opposites and their effects on everything they touch. It’s just one way to look at conflicts in stories.In any case, I do think chiaroscuro works best when darker, more serious themes are being used, but it doesn’t necessarily have to end on a negative note. You could have a story that focuses mostly on despair and ends on an up-note, for example. Switch things around.Why I’m Drawn to These ThingsAs I mentioned, sometimes I have trouble understanding certain things unless I can compare them to their exact opposites. “This is a boy; this is a girl.”“Ah…”Not that I’ve ever had trouble understanding the difference there, though if I were, say, a sexless alien I might have trouble grasping this simple concept until I saw it with my own eyes.I think as children we learn a lot this way. “This is good; this is bad.” Only difference is now that I’m older I don’t always say “okay” but sometimes, “Why?”*sighs* Yeah. Life was much simpler as a kid. There wasn’t a whole lot of room for greys. Though, I’m pretty sure life would be boring if it were all black and white.So anyways…No writing prompt. Not sure what I’d ask, to be honest. Comments are still welcome, though, if you have any.