I recently read an interesting article, “Polish Your Prose” by Paula Munier posted on the Historical Writers of America website. Ms. Munier outlines how to evaluate your writing in terms of either a quilt or a tapestry. Are you writing in blocks, or chunks? A chunk of narrative or backstory, followed by dialogue or action, followed by info dumps of details. Or, are you writing a tapestry where elements of 1) descriptions/details, 2) dialogue, action, and conflict and 3) inner thoughts of a character are woven throughout your prose? The writing exercise and other valuable tips are further detailed in Ms. Munier’s book, Plot Perfect: How to Build Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene – highly recommend for the first-time novel writer.
Using some of these tips, and as a historical fiction writer, I know over-done details can bog down a reader and turn a story into a text book. Although I haven’t started my editing phase in earnest yet, the article piqued my curiosity. I decided to choose a couple of random pages to see if I’m crafting a quilt or a tapestry. Choosing a random number between pages 1 and 145 (my total pages to date), I pulled two pages out for analysis. Take a read – what do you think – quilt or tapestry?
White ruffles descended down the length of the dress in tiers, its final layer brushing the bedroom floor where the inanimate dress form stood, ready to cede the dress to the vibrant young woman. Puffs at the shoulders tapered along the arm where a flare of lace cuffed the wrist. The laced bodice insert covered the chest area, a semblance of inlaid modesty. Eliza fingered the fine silk of the skirt, bringing a swath of the cloth to her cheek. Days and nights spent in classrooms and laboratories, hospital wards and settlement houses, and occasional clinics with the men from Jefferson Medical College never called for finery of silky ruffles and lace. In fact, professors discouraged them from wearing such attire at all times. The less feminine they appeared, the better their chances of being considered as serious students of medicine.
Eliza rejoiced at the chance to shed four years of darkness, dullness, drabness. Plain shirt waist dresses, loose fitting suit jackets and ribbon ties at her throat. Today, she would don the type of dress her mother hoped she’d wear four and a half years prior for a Presentation Ball. Today, she would enter a larger society, a more meaningful and purposeful society. A society and sorority of women doctors. Women who would give lectures, not attend them. Women who would treat charitable cases, not raise funds for them. Women who would make a real difference in the lives of others.
The dress form stood as a sentry next to the door. A gentle tap on the other side as Eliza’s mother nudged the door open with the tip of her boot. In her arms, she held a wrapped rectangle, firm and solid beneath floral paper with a white grosgrain bow.
“I’m glad I caught you, Eliza. You’ve been so busy with exams and all, I feared I wouldn’t get a chance to speak with you alone before we left for the ceremony. This is for you.”
She placed the gift in Eliza’s hands. With a sure and steady hand, as steady as when she held a scalpel, Eliza untied the bow and slid a finger under the paper edges to reveal an Oriental jewelry box. The inlaid dark walnut wood with tiny figures of mother-of-pearl reflected the light from the bureau lamp. Cherry trees lined a path leading to a bridge where a rickshaw pulled by a male figure carried a woman clutching a parasol. Eliza placed the box on her bureau and lifted the lid. Nestled in the folds of blush pink satin, which covered the bottom and sides of the box, lay a string a pearls, a pair of pearl earrings, and a cameo brooch carved from glistening ivory, its oval shape edged with gold filigree. The etched profile of the woman resembled Eliza’s Aunt Maria. Her hair swept back in waves and held with a thick ribbon band, tight peonies clipped to the band above the right ear, her downcast eyes covered by long lashes, her hand drawing another peony to her rosebud nose for a sniff of its sweet scent.
“Mother, it’s beautiful! The pearls…”
“Yes, Eliza. The pearls are for you. I consulted with the woman at Wannamaker’s jewelry counter for quite a while. Did you know pearls are said to symbolize wisdom acquired through experience? And pure white ones, like fresh snowfall, signify new beginnings? I think they’re quite appropriate for my graduate who has acquired great wisdom over the past four years and who is ready for her next beginning. I know it has not been an easy time for you, and, Lord knows, I’ve had my reservations each time another semester started. But, here you are, ready to become Dr. Edwards. I am so proud of you, my dear.”
“The cameo brooch, too, Mother? But it’s so dear to you.”
A quick scan and my thoughts of which words fit into the three elements indicate I’m doing a decent job of balance: 34% descriptors/details, 50% dialogue/action and 16% inner voice. I think a check-in at this point is a good idea. Moving forward now into PART TWO of Eliza’s story, I will be more conscious of pulling more “inner voice” into my writing.
While I found the exercise useful and like the comparative of a quilt to a tapestry, it also made me think. Am I crafting a quilt of words which readers will want to wrap tight around themselves, warm and comfortable within my story? Or am I crafting a tapestry, a work of art to be admired and exulted? I hope I’m creating both.
For fun, here is my exercise in color:
UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2020: I have edited those two pages at least four times since I first wrote them over a year and a half ago. I’m much closer to a tapestry now with my polished manuscript. 🙂
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