Decorating MC’s Room, Part II: Discovery

I’ve heard from other writers (the more artisty types) that when they go to think about what’s in a character’s purse or pocket, they find a surprise or two–something they’d never thought of as being part of who that character is. So I was kind of expecting a surprise–for Caro to sneak up behind me as I browsed through online photos from her century, her decade, looking for ways to fill her bedroom on paper and in my mind.

I’m not sure if that’s what happened. Or if the room I’ve ended up with is actually just the result of my limited artistic abilities. Either way, I have to say the experience–the process–has been pretty cool. Here’s how things went.

Yesterday, after finishing up my prep for the conference this weekend, I started looking for pictures of furniture from 1913. This is trickier than it sounds–I actually stuck 1910 into my google search, and I tried lots of variants on furniture, furnishings, “girls’ bedroom furniture”–things like that. I ended up with a lot of hits for stuff from Gustav Stickley and his Craftsman style furniture. Which was cool–our house is kind of a mish-mash of various craftsman styles, all through the interpretation of the man who built it for himself almost 100 years ago, and so we do know about Stickley, and we love his stuff. But…I’m pretty sure Caro’s family was not furnishing their home with the modern-at-the time, expensive furniture he was building. So I ended up just going with some stuff that looked “old” to me and basically picked out a bed, a mirrored dresser, a student desk, a bookshelf, and a rag rug. I’d been thinking that if I had the patience and talent, it would be cool to print it out all in black-and-white and then wash various bright colors over it–because Caro is struggling to reconcile her dreams about the wider world of modern Chicago with the tight boundaries of the world her mother has created in their home. But…the work and the skills needed for that felt a bit overwhelming. My goal was for this to be done before I leave for the conference, not to be left for me to work on when I get back–that’s when I’m going to dig into actual writing again!

So I decided to let my printer do the work for me. I did print out all the basics in black & white, but then I went for a second layer of things in color. I picked out the perfect quilt for Caro–in a light burgundy with blues and silvers–to go onto the plain bed. I left the rag rug in color–figuring this was something that she made as a school project & worked on with her grandmother’s help. I filled the bland, boring bookshelves with books in bright colors. This was fun–it made me think so much about what Caro’s struggling to do, to keep herself interested in all the life “out there,” while her mother pulls at her to stay in the narrow, safe world of their home. And I think, when I hang this collage in front of my workspace, it’ll remind me of that struggle as I write–and of the difference between Caro’s personal energy and the dull darkness of her home. Just to give you a taste of how that looks, here’s Caro’s camera–a 1910 Brownie–on her desk.

There were a couple of magic moments. Photography is becoming increasingly important to my story, as I work through the first draft, thanks to a suggestion from one of my critique partners. Somewhere in Caro’s room, her real room, a photograph is tucked away–one from the past that will (if I can make all this work) play a huge role in the changes she will need to make. At the same time, Caro is actively involved in modern photography, having taken classes for a while, helping out a teacher of photography at Hull House, and just recently getting her own camera. So I was looking for an old photograph that I could–I didn’t know, maybe glue UNDER something in the room–to be hidden like she’ll need it to be, but that she and I would know was there.

Instead, I thought of that dresser with the mirror–the mirror Caro’s mother would have made sure was in Caro’s room, so that she can check on how she looks, get ready for spending time with young men, all the girl-on-the-path-toward-marriage stuff. And of course, I knew, in a flash that Caro doesn’t use the mirror for that. Instead, she covers the mirror with the photographs she’s been taking. I’ll be attaching photos of Chicago landmarks to Caro’s mirror this afternoon.

And then I’ll be putting the whole collage together–using a lot of other photos to kind of connect the whole room, to add a layer of the book’s story threads onto the physical furnishings of Caro’s room. Here are some of the photos I collected:

  • Jane Addams-by herself and with the children she did so much for
  • Ida B. Wells–I wasn’t able to find any actual old photos except for those I’ve seen on book covers, but I did come across a few that I hadn’t seen, and I grabbed those.
  • Suffrage marchers.
  • Immigrant children and families in the tenements.
  • Sisters who look a lot alike. These connect up with an important piece of back story will be one of the big threads I need to weave into Draft 2.
  • Mothers and daughters. I think, ultimately, this is what Caro’s story will be about, and I wanted portraits that somehow showed the difference in generations, or the differences in dark fear and bright life between the two women. For these photos and for those of the sisters, I let myself step completely out of the 1910s and out of the U.S., just looking for women who made me think about the personalities and threads I need to remember and develop as I write and revise.

Does Caro like her room? I’m not sure. I think she likes that I haven’t left her to the boring gloom her mother would have her live in, and I think the spots of color are definitely her doing. In truth, though, I was decorating this room for me–not for Caro, and the exercise has–as I was hoping–brought story elements closer to the surface for me, has given me something that will remind me to keep the tension, the conflict, and the importance of what Caro is trying to do in the front of my mind as I work.

And maybe, every now and then, we all need to spend some time with our scissors and glue sticks.

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8 thoughts on “Decorating MC’s Room, Part II: Discovery

  1. Fun! My great aunt (born 1892) had a desk that looked much like that one. Good pick.

    I go through glue sticks on a regular basis. Always sticking something onto store bought cards, or making birthday cards, etc., from scratch.

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  2. I work in a museum and we just (last night) opened a temporary exhibit of Stickley furniture 😀

    Yes, a lot of those beautiful wooden pieces were over a hundred years old. i’ll have to do this exercise for Lani. So far, we’ve only seen the inside of her room when it’s dark.

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  3. This was a great post, Becky. I just wrote a scene about my MC’s bedroom and never thought of going into so much detail either in my mind or with artwork. What a tangible way to not only create her room, but also to build layers into her story. Thanks for sharing this process. By the way, one of the books I have on my shelf is, “FUrniture of teh Depression Era” by Robert W and Harriet Swedberg. I’m sure this is too far in the future for you to use, but they actually have lots of other books on earlier periods of furniture. I got this book off of ebay for pretty cheap, and it’s fun to leaf through. Now I have to go find some glue sticks! Carol

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    • beckylevine says:

      I keep looking at books like this & someday–when I write a later draft, I’ll probably need to own one! Have fun with the cutting & pasting. 🙂

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