by Elizabeth Musser
“The best images come unbidden”-so said my high school English teacher after reading my first novel years ago. While kindly complimenting me on many aspects of the story, he pointed out that at times I ‘beat the reader over the head’ with imagery or symbolism, saying effectively “Don’t ya get it? Isn’t that cool?”
His advice? Trust my readers and let the images spring forth naturally because they belong. I create the story and so involve the reader with her senses that she escapes and becomes part of the story herself. In short, she ‘gets it’ because the story whispers truth to her.
Often the images invoked come from inanimate objects or from nature itself: a house, a mountain, a poppy, a cross necklace. Carefully embedded in the story, they take on a life of their own, capturing the readers’ imagination and revealing another layer of the story. Nothing needs to be explained; it’s just there, to be discovered and enjoyed by the reader.
I have had many book clubs travel to Atlanta, Georgia after having read my novel The Swan House to visit the real Swan House, a lovely mansion, built in the 1920s by a wealthy family, now owned by the Atlanta History Center. These readers come to tour The Swan House and eat lunch in the nearby tea room because they have read about both places in my novels. They want more of the experience.
Whether describing an actual place or town or object, or creating it purely from our imagination, we writers can allow the inanimate, the natural, to speak to our readers. This of course requires careful research-either being familiar enough with the place or object to describe it in an alluring way or ‘knowing’ this fictitious place or object so well in my mind that it seems real to the reader, so that, when it decides to intrude in the story and become something more, it does so in a convincing way.
A place or an object can grab the reader’s heart, and she can become as fond of the setting as of the characters. Think of Tara in Gone with the Wind or the garden itself in The Secret Garden.
So how do I personify a place or an object? In all honesty, it happens quite naturally as I do my work of creating strong characters within a realistic setting, combining vivid word pictures with careful research and then paying attention to the spacious den with its bright red walls or the honey suckle tempting me from the yard and letting them naturally weave their way into the story.
Excuse me now. As I stare out the window of my writing chalet (the tool shed where I write), dozens of happy golden daffodils, spread randomly about the yard, are ‘tossing their heads in sprightly dance’, as dear Mr. Wordsworth said, distracting me. Miss Forsythia waves at me from beyond the vibrant daffodils as if competing to see which can outshine the other in pure, bright yellow. They are all simply begging for a place in my next novel.
Elizabeth Musser just completed a novel in which one of the main characters was indeed the ‘red room’ den in a young widow’s home. For over twenty-five years, Elizabeth and her husband, Paul, have been involved in missions work with International Teams in France. Find out about Elizabeth’s novels (The Swan House, The Secrets of the Cross Trilogy, The Sweetest Thing…) at www.elizabethmusser.com and on Facebook.