I just read an essay by Karen Brown in the Glimmer Train Newsletter. In it she talks about the way using remembered objects can bring your writing alive both for you as writer and, more importantly, for the reader.
She describes a particular artifact – a cigarette box belonging to her grandmother – she used in a scene in one of her books. As I read this sentence: “A lid lifted at the top, and a wooden black terrier appeared holding the cigarette.”, an image from 70 years ago flashed in my mind.
You should know by now that my father was killed in action during World War II. One of the few things he left behind, that I played with as a small child, was a trick cigarette box. Outwardly a standard box made of thin cardboard bearing the maker’s branding, it was of the type where you pushed a tray out to reveal a line of cigarettes. Except that, in the case of this trick box, when you pushed the tray out, instead of cigarettes, a pair of tiny mice popped out attached to a piece of wire.
Analysing the memory I realise I cannot be certain of the brand of cigarettes: Capstan or Player’s Navy Cut?. Nor am I certain that it was a pair of mice that appeared when you opened the pack. It might have been a couple of birds. All I remember is that they were white. It doesn’t matter. The point is that Karen’s description of her grandmother’s cigarette box invoked that memory for me. A memory that had probably been buried for upwards of 60 years. Thereby demonstrating the veracity of her claim about the importance of using such images to make your writing real and vivid in the reader’s imagination.
In the same Glimmer Train newsletter there is an essay in which Danielle Lazarin talks about the importance of creating, in the reader’s mind, the places in which your characters live.
“To achieve intimacy with your reader,” she says, “You have to say to them: here is your key to the apartment, here is the school, there’s a set of trees that perfectly frame the river, that’s where your friends live, your sister’s down that road. You have to make them know, without a doubt, the boundaries of the map, of the imaginary world you believe in so much that it’s startling to realize it’s all coming out of your head.”
Two valuable lessons, from two successful writers, that are well worth taking note of.