Writing Right with Dmitri: Handling the Past

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Handling the Past

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That which was…, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled…

1 John 1:1, KJV.

Sometimes we think we can't write about the past. After all, it's another country. Yeah, sure. But we're travellers in time and space, because that's what writers are: travellers. Like Thoreau, we've travelled far in Concord. But how do we tell the story? How do we put the reader there?

One way, of course, would be to draw a map and put an X on it. Or write grand introductions, like Dickens' 'it was the best of times, it was the worst of times...', but that can get old quickly. What about looking down – into the characters' hands? What are they holding that nobody you know could possibly be holding, outside a museum? Why not start there? What is that thing, and what are they doing with it? (Keep it clean, you people.) Let's do some time travelling with material culture.

The Cult of the Cult Object

For years, they haunted the museum cases: the 'cult objects'. Whenever an archaeologist didn't know what something was for, she labelled it a 'cult object'. This is an arrowhead, check. This is a necklace, good. This thing is a drinking cup made out of an enemy skull. Disgusting, but okay. But what's this? Obviously manufactured, but what's it for? Oh, label it a 'cult object', and be done with it.

Until a knowledgeable carpenter/shoemaker/weaver/seamstress, etc, showed up on their day off. And recognised the 'cult object' for what it was: a perfectly good tool. The tool in question might still be in use, for an arcane skill unknown to the clueless academic.

Moral of the story: one person's 'cult object' is another's tool. Put these things to good use.

Assignment: Scavanger Hunt

Okay, here's what we'll do. Let's assume you have a character. That character is holding one of the following objects – a real object, mind you, not a 'cult object'. Your task:

  1. Figure out what the object tells you about the character's time and place.
  2. Figure out what the object tells you about the character.
  3. Figure out what the character is doing with the object, and why.
  4. Write a short passage around the use of this object that introduces your character.

Simple, eh?

Here's the list. Pick one. I'll put in links with pics and background.

  • A Victorian pen wipe, or pen wiper.
  • A strigil. (Homoerotic subtext, anyone? Can you spell YMCA in Greek?)
  • A button hook. (To what sinister use could it be put?)
  • A Pythagorean cup. (Come on, you can make a funny or menacing incident out of that one.)
  • A Crakow or poulaine shoe. (Oh, golly, think of the legal issues involved. Think of the social scenes you could make up. Think of the fashion victims…)
  • A spinning wheel. (The go-anywhere, do-anything mechanism. Are you thinking Gretchen, or Gandhi?)
  • A hair receiver. (Yes, there was really something called a 'hair receiver'. In the book I Remember Mama, a young lady wants one very badly indeed, and learns a moral lesson from her mother. What else can you do with this marvellous vanity accoutrement?)

Get it? Got it? Good. As Danny Kaye said. Go for it. Put your passages on the bottom of this page, and we'll publish them for the world to see. Maybe we'll even illustrate them, courtesy of artists and public domain. Don't like my material culture selections? Add some of your own to challenge us. What's in your ancient closet? What could your characters be holding?

And where will the adventure lead next?

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

09.02.15 Front Page

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