I’m away through the end of January at a writer’s residency at the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts, where I’ll be hard at work on the Next Novel. During my absence, I decided to repost some old blog favorites about publishing and the creative process. Enjoy!
Many of you know that the Waterhouse painting of the Lady of Shalott (above) served as inspiration for my novel A GATHERING OF SHADOWS. Turns out I’m not alone in my obsession: I’m pleased to report The Lady of Shalott was recently voted the most loved painting in the United Kingdom as part of Art Everywhere’s incentive to celebrate British art.
As such, it will be featured on billboards for the next two weeks, along with 57 other popular British paintings, in what is being billed as the “world’s largest art show.” How cool is that?
Here’s my description of the painting from my novel. It’s written from the point of view of Elizabeth, the young woman who models for it:
Though The Lady of Shalott clearly wasn’t finished—loose brush strokes indicated much of the composition—I easily recognized myself in it. Gazing at the painting was like looking into a strange mirror reflecting back another time and place. There I was, a fragile-looking young woman on a barge, my sorrow-filled eyes half-shut in anticipation of death. One hand held a lily; the other grasped the side of the boat. My blonde hair was scattered about my shoulders, as it had been that first morning when I’d first posed on my settee. The landscape surrounding the barge was marshy and tangled, threatening and wild. Water lilies past their bloom filled the foreground. The overall sense was one of tragic beauty. Of yearning that extended beyond grief. Lost possibilities. Lost love.
My obsession with the Lady of Shalott goes back years before I ever learned of the Waterhouse painting, or caught a glimpse of the novel that would become A GATHERING OF SHADOWS. My first exposure to her came at the age of six, when a favorite cousin gave me the Golden Book of King Arthur illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. It included a lush painting of the Lady of Shalott, here called Elaine the Lily Maid, that was simply the most stunningly romantic thing I’d ever seen. I must have spent hours staring at it, trying to comprehend her death from heartbreak. I couldn’t—but what child can?
This was only the beginning of my relationship with the Lady of Shalott. She stayed with me throughout my childhood, this tale of a girl trapped in a tower weaving tapestries of the world forbidden to her; to my mind, her story mirrored my favorite fairy tale of Rapunzel. Later, as a high school senior, I made an illuminated poster retelling the Lady of Shalott—one of my first attempts to integrate art and words as one. A teacher at the time said to me, “I’d be very interested to see you attempt this subject after you go to art school.” Alas, this was not to be, at least in painted form, for it was at the School of Visual Arts I was introduced to Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott by another art student. How could I attempt to paint her in the wake of such a glorious painting?
Though it’s been some years, I still recall how my fellow student pulled out a much-thumbed postcard from his sketchbook. “It’s a painting of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott,” he said with the hushed tone of a junkie hawking an illicit drug. “It’s on display at the Tate Gallery in London. I returned every day to view it while I was there. I want to go back this summer.” However, that wasn’t all he found at the Tate Gallery: standing beside the famed painting was the young woman he was convinced was meant to be his true love and eternal muse.
I wonder still if they ever reunited. If so, I like the idea that the Lady of Shalott’s tragic love might have inspired someone to a happy ending.
Above: the chalkboard wall in my studio at the end of 2014.
There’s something about the start of the new year that reminds me of a blank slate where everything is filled with possibility and wonder. I’m especially glad for this blank slate—if I am to be completely honest, 2014 was truly difficult. For starters, my mother died early that January, which set the tone for the remainder of the year. While Mom’s passing was not unexpected—she’d suffered from Alzheimer’s for years—the loss of a parent is regardless an intense experience. You simply can’t prepare for it.
Burying a parent is a definite reminder of the cycle of life: Those who grant us life will die, just as we will die one day. As sad as I was over my loss, I sensed there was more at play beyond this most primal of leavetakings—deep transformations within myself as an artist and as a human being that I needed to understand more deeply, yet wasn’t ready to.
Then fate intervened.
Soon after returning from Europe to inter my mother’s ashes, I broke my foot (above photo). It was especially frustrating because I do things quickly: I walk quickly, think quickly, and talk quickly. If that wasn’t distressing enough, I walk everywhere as a matter of course—if there’s a choice between walking, driving, or taking the subway, I choose my feet. However, having a broken foot did force me to finally slow down to acknowledge the complicated emotions I’d been avoiding: sorrow, frustration, the weight of lost time, and a conundrum of others.
And how am I on this second day of 2015? Better. My foot is healed, though it still aches a little when it rains. Regardless, I’m back to walking my usual several miles a day. More importantly, I feel less caught between past and future. More integrated into the present.
After feeling battered by 2014, I’m grateful for the blank state to begin again. As you can see above, I’ve already filled my studio chalkboard wall with my intentions for 2015. One of them is to share my photography on a wider platform. Toward that end, I’ve finally joined Instagram under KrisWaldherr. (Ta da!)
Another intention: to feature authors and artists more regularly on this blog, as I did before the Great Travails of 2014 intervened. I’m delighted to report that I already have the lovely Lisa Alber (KILMOON: A County Clare Mystery) lined up for my next Creativity Friday post. Lisa will be generously sharing about one of her favorite tools for inspiration—which I think will inspire you in turn, dear reader.
In other blog news, this Sunday is the first Sunday of the month, or Snippet Sunday. I hope you will check back then for January’s six sentence excerpt from the Next Novel. Semi-related note: I am counting the days until January 13th. This is when I leave for my two week residency fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I’ll be finalizing my first draft of the Next Novel. I’m excited and grateful for this opportunity.
So, onward! Here’s to a wonderful 2015 for all of us.
Photographed during a recent visit to Brooklyn’s Green-wood Cemetery using Hipstamatic’s new Tintype lens. A real treat!
Today may be Halloween. But tomorrow is November first, which marks the official start of National Novel Writing Month. For those of you not in the know, National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo for short—challenges writers to churn out a 50,000 word novel in thirty days. And in 2013, over 300,000 people did just this according to the official NaNoWriMo site:
310,095 participants started the month of November as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.
(For the record, 50,000 words would make for a rather short novel. Here’s more information on standard word lengths for various novel genres. Even so, 50,000 words in one month?! How amazing is that?!)
I have a heart-full of gratitude toward NaNoWriMo. After all, my debut novel A GATHERING OF SHADOWS first took form as a NaNo novel in November 2009. Five years and many revisions later, I’m launched into the next phase of my creative life, and am deep at work on the Next Novel. Before NaNo 2009, I thought of myself as an illustrator and nonfiction author. Today, I think of myself as a novelist. Would I have had the courage and craziness to write a novel without NaNoWriMo? Perhaps, but I hadn’t until that fateful November 2009. To state that NaNoWriMi changed my life would not be an understatement.
That said, from my experience you can’t write a finished novel in a month. This makes stating you can “write a novel in a month” seem a bit of a trick. Even if 50,000 words wasn’t too short for most novel genres, the main work of writing a novel comes in the revising and editing of it. This, as I’ve learned too well, can take years. (National Novel Editing Year/s, anyone?)
However, don’t let this harsh slap of reality discourage you from participating in the treat that is NaNoWriMo. Instead, think of these first 50,000 words you’ll write in November as the skeleton draft you’ll flesh out in December and beyond.
Big difference, eh?
So, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, go forth and write—but bear in mind NaNo is only the beginning of a long, wondrous journey. As for myself, I will be over on the NaNo website this month aiming to add 50,000 words to my Next Novel. Come by and say hello!
Want to know more? Here’s other posts on this blog about National Novel Writing Month:
Snippet Sunday is a monthly meme organized by Stephanie Dray in which historical authors post six sentence snippets of their novels. For the sake of organization, I’ve decided to post mine on the first Sunday of the month. You can read my previous snippets here.
I missed September’s snippet—I’d just returned from Europe and was totally distracted with Life and Stuff. To make up for it, October’s snippet is longer than the usual six sentences. This excerpt is from the newly retitled A Gathering of Shadows, which is set in the art world of late Victorian England. The scene is written from the point of view of my protagonist, Elizabeth, while she follows another artist’s model to spy on her:
Remaining several steps behind, I watched Eleanor’s red velvet skirt sway back and forth toward the Strand. Her bright hair gleamed through the fog like a slant of sun on a cold winter day. A thought appeared like an unexpected caller: Was this how others viewed me? Watching Eleanor walk, I had the sense of watching myself since I’d grown into a woman: the gentlemen nodding in approving appraisal; the woman staring with a hint of jealousy; the children craning their necks at her grace. Yes, there it all was, just as I’d experienced—and I’d disdained this with all my heart.
All the years I’d strived to ignore my physical appearance. All the years I’d judged my mother and my great-aunt for allowing their beauty to influence their fates—my mother with her troubled star-crossed union to my father, my aunt with her social climbing and vanity. I’d sworn my path would be different, that I’d lead a life of veracity. Alas, it had taken St. John Dulac and his painting to humble me.
Above photograph: Clerkenwell in the rain, a location I imagine my characters frequenting.
Photographed recently in Paris. What’s around the bend?
Ever since my return from Europe in early September, I feel like I’ve shifted into a new phase of my life. I suspect this is the aftermath of the main reason for my travels: to inter my mother’s ashes. Those of you who follow this blog and my social media feeds are probably aware my mother died early this year. However, it took my sister and I some months to organize the interment, which allowed us to defer the process of mourning in some ways.
And plan we did: my sister Jennifer and I chose to bring my mother’s ashes home to England, where she was born seventy years ago during the London Blitz. We also chose to inter her ashes in the same church where she had been baptized, and in the same rose garden where I brought my grandmother’s ashes in 2011. We decided to bring my daughter Thea with us, as a representative of the next generation of our family. We were very fortunate to be joined by members of our family who still reside in England, all of whom knew and loved my mother well. The service was as beautiful as can be.
While there were tears, Jennifer and I were also certain to make the trip a joyful experience. After all, it was Thea’s first trip to London, land of Harry Potter, Cadbury chocolate, and all things historic and literary. We followed our time in London with several days in Paris, where we ate pain au chocolate and walked along the Seine under perfect blue skies. I also spent many hours researching the Next Novel, which is set in both London and Paris during the mid-nineteenth century. The trip was exactly as we hoped.
Burying a parent is a definite reminder of the cycle of life: Those who grant life to us will die, just as we will die one day. The finiteness of physical life grants a preciousness to everything we experience. Even so, I’m sensing there’s more at play for me beyond this most primal of leavetakings.
For example, ever since I finished the art for DOOMED QUEENS and began writing THE LILY MAID (which now bears the new-and-improved title of A GATHERING OF SHADOWS on the advice of a renowned editor at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat), I’ve grappled with guilt over no longer yearning to illustrate books as I once did. The truth terrified me: these days, I’m far more creatively engaged as a novelist and writer. Another reason for my disinterest in illustration is that I’ve fulfilled the goals I’ve set*; I don’t possess the same urgent drive to spend countless hours curled over a drawing board painting the thousands of tiny details and decorative flourishes that go into one of my book. Yet it’s hard to leave the past behind, especially when you’ve spent years mastering a set of skills. Hence, the guilt.
And then I had a sudden insight that made it easier to let go: whether I’m writing, illustrating, or designing, my vocation is as a storyteller. It’s all interconnected.
And so this post is a post of goodbyes. Goodbye to my mother, Irene Patricia Prince Cowin, laid to rest in her native soil. May you be at peace. Goodbye to my years as a book illustrator**. I’m grateful for all I’ve learned, and the beauty I was able to create. Goodbye even to my studio betta, Clarimonde, who passed away this week after a happy, coddled life. Goodbye to remorse over my past, and trepidation over what my creative future may hold.
But this post is also a hello to the Next Phase of my artistic life as a storyteller: to finishing up and publishing A GATHERING OF SHADOWS. To immersing myself in the Next Novel. To moving onto new horizons and creative challenges.
I’m so ready for them.
*And how fortunate is that? I’m especially proud of THE BOOK OF GODDESSES and THE LOVER’S PATH.
**Not to say that I won’t illustrate books again one day. Just not right now.