by Lucy Marsden
I’m writing to you today from the Middle Ages (currently docked at a Radisson in Manchester, New Hampshire), in order to talk about artist dates.
Artist dates are not, as you might suppose, episodic romantic forays with attractive specimens of the aesthetically and spatially-gifted population (although there’s nothing to rule this out, either, and best wishes to you on that front, say I). Rather, artist dates are field trips taken with the express (or professed) purpose of engaging and stimulating our imaginations, our creativity, our sense of wonder, and our sensory experience in general. It’s a way to fill up the well that we draw from when we build worlds, and it’s a place from which fresh ideas—and even characters—can emerge, ready to captivate and populate our work.
The date you go on doesn’t have to directly apply to your current work-in-progress; in fact, it can be more fun if the field trip seems to be purely tangential. My current story is set in a faery-tale version of 18th-century France, so the temporal and aesthetic “vibe” of this weekend’s date wasn’t particularly helpful. But as I wandered the merchant area dressed as a 10th-century Viking lass in a linen shift, cotton tunic, and wool apron made with my own fair hands (and a Brother CP 7500 computerized sewing machine, praise Jah), lifting my skirts so that I wouldn’t trip (because transport me to whatever century you please, I am still a klutz), and debating the relative merits of wool versus linen for camping in a 14th-century kirtle (NOT wool—Sweet Jesu, I was DYING in that apron after two hours), I amassed a whole host of tactile and visual impressions still relevant to living in a culture where female dress is more traditional, synthetic fibers are unknown, and nothing is mass-produced.
Another textile-related adventure once took me to a huge warehouse specializing in home-decor fabrics. This was the place to soak up 18th-century rococo with a vengeance: silks and velvets and brocades everywhere I turned, juxtaposed with rack upon rack of tassels and trims. One fabric literally made me stop in in my tracks, not because it was baroque, but because it was this rich, vibrant pattern of embroidered green vines with scarlet flowers against a background of shimmering blue. A coverlet of that fabric would be like sleeping wrapped in all the enticement and enchantment of a faery tale, and it was only because Cali kept repeating in my ear, “It’s one hundred dollars a yard,” that I was able to tear myself away. I still long for that fabric.
And as a final example, let me suggest an outing to your local museum. One of the most thought-provoking presentations on paranormal world-building I’ve ever heard was given at a Romance Writers of America conference by Shannon Delany, who was talking about getting ahead of the curve on genre trends, and taking new approaches to familiar legends and characters. She discussed many great approaches, but the one that stuck with me was the suggestion of spending time looking at historical and mythological scenes in fine art. Delany proposed taking the opportunity to imagine what’s going on behind the scene that’s being depicted, or just out of the viewer’s line of sight, or what’s simmering in the subtext of the scene, then using this as a jumping-off point for characters and stories. That idea would never have occurred to me in a million years, but now that the seed’s been planted, I’m busily planning my next outing to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (maybe with a little Isabella Stewart Gardner on the side).
So what about you? What kind of field trips do you take to refill the well of your imagination? What kind of sensory or creative treasures have you brought back?
And wherever and whenever you go in your adventuring, I wish you many moments of pleasure and inspiration!