About a month and a half ago, I was reading The Debutante, by Kathleen Tessaro. It’s a mystery story, about two people who are sent to catalogue the contents of an old English house after the owner’s death and discover a locked room nobody seems to have known about, and inside it, hidden behind some children’s books, a shoebox filled with an odd assortment of mementoes. Instantly, we are transported back to the 1930s, and to the story of two beautiful and wealthy sisters, one of whom disappears without trace on the eve of the Second World War.
I enjoyed the story, though at times I found the references to the Mitford sisters a little too obvious for comfort. Note to self: if you want to write a historical novel, by all means read up on the real-life protagonists of the era, but then make sure your own characters are wholly unique. It’s a bad sign when your reader is obliged to pretend they’ve never heard of Nancy Mitford in order to be able to concentrate on Baby Blythe!
In fact, what interested me most in the whole novel was a short paragraph in the Author’s Note: in it, Tessaro explains how she originally wanted her two modern-day characters to find all the clues to the mystery in the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, but then got bogged down in lengthy explanations and excessive details on the way the institution functioned. One evening, she complained about her difficulties to a fellow writer and friend of hers, who told her she needed to narrow the scope of her gaze: to consider, not an entire museum, but a box filled with a few choice items. And a week later, she handed Tessaro a shoebox, containing a pair of 1930s silver dancing shoes, a page torn from a newspaper, a photograph of a handsome sailor, a diamond Tiffany bracelet, an old badge from a girls’ boarding school, a bit of lace and a spoon. She told Tessaro she could incorporate a few or all of the objects into her story, and that they had to add up to the resolution of the mystery. Which is exactly what happened.
Never mind the mystery of the locked room and what happened to Baby Blythe – that is what really fired my imagination! And it set me wondering about the creative process. The apparent insignificance and yet the utter magic of a shoebox containing a few random objects. And how an imaginative person can somehow make them all relate to each other and shed light on a bigger picture. The mystery/detective story is the most obvious way to exploit this method, with each item becoming a clue, a piece of the puzzle. But I think it could be extended to other literary genres – indeed I think that the shoebox, under various guises, has triggered any number of plots. How many authors have confessed that their novel was born from the desire to write about a house, a painting, a face, a garden, a ring, seen once and never forgotten? You take a little piece and little by little scratch the veneer to see what mystery lies beneath.
One last comment: this shoebox method of constructing a plot reminds me of something the pianist-protagonist says in The Legend of 1900 (the movie based on Alessandro Baricco’s work). Born and reared on board the SS Virginian, 1900 has never set foot on land. When the ship docks in New York, his friend Max tries to convince him to come ashore and see the sights. For a while 1900 hesitates, clearly tempted. And then he turns away. When Max remonstrates with him, he answers with words to this effect: “New York – the whole world – is too huge to be fully known by a single man. At best, you know but a tiny part of it, and your world narrows correspondingly. With a piano, it is different: you have 88 keys, no more, no less. But with these, you can do whatever you like – there is no limit. You have infinity before you.”
© Florence Berlioz 2010