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Archive for the ‘8 Image & Senses’ Category

“Short Shorts: Sudden Fiction” by Nancy Margulies brings to mind in the very best way those colorful foam Magic Grow bathtub toys that begin as little gel capsules. When my son was small, we’d drop a capsule into the warm water and watch it miraculously birth a lion or giraffe, elephant or dinosaur within minutes. Even knowing the science—a dry sponge squeezed tightly into a small space will expand exponentially when wet—didn’t make it less amazing and fun. What Nancy Margulies brings forth in stories quickly inspired by one-word, emailed prompts is similarly marvelous. Her “Short Shorts” expand vividly and unpredictably on the page.

On first reading the book, I assumed that these crisp, visual, and emotionally charged stories had evolved through revision for publication from the author’s initial “free writes” sent as replies to her writing group’s prompts. When I learned that these published versions were drafted in twelve minutes or less and not reworked, I was impressed and mystified. How does she do it?

Lesson: Choose precise details 

This author is gifted in making us see. From the opening in “Preparing to Meet My Birth Mother”—”…as cherry blossom explode off their branches, wrapping around houses like so many pink scarves”—to the final entry “Not Here” on page 53 (yes, it’s a short book) —“As people paint Hitler mustaches on the image of our President…”—Margulies uses images to establish emotional tone, define character, create scenes, and extend meaning beyond the poetic prose. The prompt for the first story is “mother.” The character tells us she “should be packing instead of watching” the cherry blossoms out the window. She then steps through the imagined packing, telescoping the twenty-nine years missing from life with her birth mother through bursts of autobiography and could-have-beens. She sums up her first short marriage to LeRoy Pratt in these eight one-syllable words: “He won races. I wore a pit pass.”

Throughout the book, there are these “magic grow” details that encapsulate a relationship or era of a character’s life. These gems could be dropped into the warm bath of imagination and expanded into longer works of fiction, but they serve this short form beautifully and economically.

Lesson: Deliver meaning through form

“Strip Poker,” a scant page of story prompted by the word “layers,” is a confession by a girl that she’s been raped. Margulies devotes four brief paragraphs to layering her character from childhood through teenage years with skirts, shorts, slips tucked into shorts, and a bra stuffed with toilet paper, only to strip her bare in one final sentence. “Turns out she was wrong” is the narrator’s response to her mother’s belief that no one would have the patience to rape a girl so layered by clothes. We don’t know when the rape happened or any hint of the perpetrator, but the horror lingers in those final five words which ravish the girl’s modesty and innocence, along with the belief in a wise mother who could keep her safe.

The story “Backwards” (prompt “backwards”) is a witty and pithy unraveling from the narrator’s gentle present time through past generations spiked by family tragedy, dislocation, and finally to a pre-literate time when the ancestors “told stories that were passed down then forgotten” leaving the rest of this story “anybody’s guess.” The remaining inches of blank page loom large with possibilities.

Lesson: Try it!

Prompts can inspire writing at any stage of mastery. Whether working alone or in a supportive group, writers can discover more about their characters, their stories, and themselves through random prompts and timed exercises. The prompts used by Margulies in this book are Mother, Dream, Time, Mask, Adventure, Photo, Short, Imagine, Missed, Morning, Layers, High School, Backwards, Secrets, Clutter, Regret, Goals, New Job, Sun, News, Wanting a Child, Sacred, Boyfriend, Yellow, Last Words, Crush, Committed, Late Night, Candy, Wanting, Who I Was, Photo, Assertive, Pause, Independence, Ocean, Songs, Fitting In, Memory, and Garden.

Choose a word. Allow twelve minutes or less to write. Dig deep. Have fun. Risk revealing what you have never before revealed. Surprise yourself. Intrigue your readers. Email the story to your own address or to fellow writers. If you’re like me you’ll end up with a notebook full of promising free writes, any of which might produce a publishable story upon considered revision. If you’ve mastered the short form as Margulies has, then you’ll soon be working on your new collection. Watch for “Sudden Friction: Stories That Rub You the Wrong Way” to see what emerges next from this author.

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Here I am writing a review of The Gathering by Anne Enright. Here is the story briefly: Veronica Hegarty’s brother dies from a suicide drowning. She travels from Ireland to England to claim his body, arranges its return to Ireland, and gathers her many surviving siblings to their mother for the memorial service. While doing so, she travels into the past—her own, her grandmother Ada’s—to reveal a dark detail of sexual abuse she witnessed long ago involving her brother and an older man, a friend of her grandmother’s.

This book thrusts its enormous and hugely loving emotional reach through generations, across relationships—sibling to sibling, daughter to parents, granddaughter to grandparents, mother to children, wife to husband.

Lesson: Use clear “gatekeepers” to frame time shifts and emotional range. 

Veronica’s life becomes unmoored by Liam’s death and by her memory of the incident from their past. Her journey through time and places could be as chaotic for the reader as it is for her, but Enright gives Veronica the good sense—she is the organized sibling, after all— to orient us with each shift of time and emotional focus.

Here are Enright’s “gatekeepers”—first lines for the first several chapters—that orient the reader to each chapter:

 1. I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.

2. Some days I don’t remember my mother.

3. The seeds of my brother’s death were sewn many years ago.

4. I ring the bereavement people in Brighton and Hove from Mammy’s phone in the hall, and they give me the number of an undertaker who, very nicely, takes my credit card details while I have it handy.

5. Here is my grandfather, Charlie Spillane, driving up O’Connell Street towards his future wife in the Belvedere Hotel.

6. This is how I live my life since Liam died.

7. But let that wait. Let the poor chicken wait awhile. Here I am on the Brighton line, on my way to collect my brother’s body, or view it, or say hello to it, or goodbye or whatever you do to a body you once loved.

8. When I was eight and Liam was nearly nine, we were sent with our little sister, Kitty, to stay with Ada in Broadstone.

9. The man beside me on the train to Brighton lifts his pelvis slightly, and settle it back down.

10. Here’s Ada and Charlie in bed a year later.

11. I was opening the car door for the girls one day before Liam died and, as it swung past, I saw my reflection in the window.

12. Bad news for Bea and my mother and all the vultures who will flock to 4 Griffith Way for the wake—which is that there will be another ten days at least to wait before they can feast on Liam’s poor corpse, because of the paperwork involved.

13. When I was in college, I decided that Ada had been a prostitute—the way you do.

14. I think of her when I do the dishes.

Enright’s powerful and disturbing emotional material tumbles in Veronica’s mind, but the gatekeepers keep readers grounded when they enter the chapter as to time, place, and emotional territory explored.

Memory can be elusive to the narrator—where did it happen, when?—but readers don’t want to be confused by the where and when of the story. A clear narrative structure is not only kind to the reader, it also helps the author deliver her punch. The more emotional the material, the simpler the transition exposition can be, so that the emotional narrative or scenes rise like shark fins on a calm surface.

Lesson: Use all the senses to crescendo emotional material.

Enright writes from the body and uses all the senses. Sex is a theme throughout the story — good and bad, loving and illicit. The sensuality of children, their innocence, is played against what Veronica, now a grown woman, views in hindsight and what we, as adult readers, also glean in her storytelling.

Page 98:

Here’s me at the age of three, with my ear pressed against the beige tin cliff of her washing machine…

Here’s me eating Ada’s rubber bathing hat whose famous yellow flowers appeared in my nappy the next day. Though, of course it must have been Kitty’s nappy—hardly mine.

Here’s me, definitely, pulling the bathing cap over my face. I lick the salty inside of it, until it seals me up—the smell of Ada’s hair in the sea.

Page 101:

Ada’s little garden was probably just a yard, but we thought it an exciting place, with crab apples and nettles: the door to the garage was sometimes open and sometimes bolted, and the fat that you never knew if Mr Nugent was in there only added to the interest.

 I just used to slide up and down the upholstery, or squirm across the nice rows of stitching, and talk in a grand voice to whoever was driving, whether or not he was actually there.

 On a Friday he came round to the front door to know, and he always had sweets for the children. He wore a hat, which he doffed when Ada opened the door. It was many years before I wondered at the formality of this arrangement, or what was going on.

The themes of love, loss, sex, betrayal, and forgiveness reverberate across the years. The mysteries of the body and the heart befuddle the child and the woman Veronica has become, perhaps as they befuddled Ada, a woman of a different time, more repressed by her era than Veronica is by hers. Yet the freedoms of a more openly sexual era don’t make it easier for Veronica, a modern woman, to sort out her emotions.

Lesson: Use the tangible body to contrast with a psychological, emotional state.

Veronica veers back and forth from past to present and to and from her brother’s death and her own disintegration— her marriage to Tom, her sense of self. Enright plays Veronica’s fragile state of mind against tangible flesh and domestic objects.

Page 133:

I can not feel the weight of my body on the bed. I can not feel the line of my skin along the sheet. I am swinging an inch or so off the mattress, and I do not believe in myself—in the way I breath or turn—and I do not believe in Tom beside me: that he is alive (sometimes I wake to find him dead, only to wake again). Or that he loves me.

 …I wake to a livid tumescence on his prone body; a purple thing on the verge of decay. Tom is flung wide on his back, asleep like a dead saint, or a child.

 …And I turn around again and gather the covers about me, as the thing my husband is fucking in his sleep slowly recedes. A thing that might be me…Or it might not be me.

This is a setup for the abuse scene Veronica witnessed as a child and which appears in the book ten pages later. It also sets her more adrift.

Lesson: Follow Chekhov’s advice.

An often-quoted piece of advice from Anton Chekhov applies here.”If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Substitute “penis.” His advice also concerns the economy of story elements put them there for a reason and make good use of them.

Enright prefigures the abuse scene Veronica witnessed as a child with a perfectly legitimate and ordinary bedroom scene featuring Tom’s “cock so purple and dense it was a burden to him.” (Page 133)

We have that image in our mind when, in the next chapter, the child Veronica happens upon Mr Nugent and Liam, in Ada’s good front room.

Page 143:

What struck me was the strangeness of what I saw, when I opened the door. It was as if Mr Nugent’s penis, which was sticking straight out of his flies, had grown strangely, and flowered at the tip to produce the large and unwieldy shape of a boy, that boy being my brother Liam, who, I finally saw, was not an extension of the man’s member, set down mysteriously on the ground in front of him, but a shocked (of course he was shocked, I had opened the door) boy of nine, and the member not even that, but the boy’s bare forearm, that made a abridge of flesh between himself and Mr Nugent.

As an adult, Veronica questions her memory. What did she really see? But readers see the penis—an echo of Tom’s erect and spousal, but this one erect and terrible—a threat to the young Liam. Neither he nor Veronica, at the time, understands the harm. We readers do understand. We know the difference between right and wrong, between a man naked with his wife in a casual bedroom scene and a man exposing himself to a young boy. Veronica, the young girl, could not have given us the vivid description of Mr Nugent’s penis that she gave of Tom’s. It would have been crude and inappropriate within her narrative. The unadorned description “so purple and dense” from the woman Veronica’s bedroom contrasts with the “flowered at the tip” from the child Veronica’s memory of her intrusion into her grandmother’s “good room.” There’s another contrast—not such a “good” room, after all.

Like Chekhov’s gun, the penis is a necessary element. It’s better to describe it before the crime, because in the heat of the moment, can we trust our eyes? And even if we could, the description would impede the crime scene, especially if we want doubt about what was witnessed to linger in the mind of a key character or the mind of the reader.

Lesson: Reveal emotions through the body.

We know bodies. We each have one. Usually our bodies know before we consciously understand what is wrong, what is right, and what our emotional state is. Enright gifts Veronica with body awareness, and Veronica lets us read her body along with her. We discover her emotional state as she does.

Page 244:

I have been so much touched these last few days. I cross my legs over the memory of the ex we had the night of the wake. Or he had. And wait for the Mass to begin. Everyone wants a bit of me. And it has nothing to do with what I might want, or what my body might want, whatever that might be—God knows it is a long time since I knew. There I am, sitting on a church bench in my own meat: pawed, used, loved, and very lonely.

I won’t tell here how the story ends. Veronica’s memory of Liam’s abuse appears halfway through the book. It’s the trigger for her bodily and emotional journey through time and space.

But even if you know how the book ends, you’ll want to read it again and again for the Enright’s exquisite and profound sensory gathering of emotions.

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The visual is proof. We say “I see,” meaning “I understand.” We say “Show me,” intending “Then I’ll believe.” An artist’s job — writer or painter — is to make visible and felt using the medium of the craft: words or pigment. As a writer and painter, I am interested in how images gather meaning for the artist/writer and the audience/readers. I wonder how the mind and heart “see” the image, absorb and reflect emotion. A novel accumulates, as does a painting, a felt form in the process of being created.

Lesson: Draw it to explore it

Putting pencil to paper, an artist sees what is before her — let’s say an apple — and learns about it by drawing it. She knows what apples look like, knows their taste, but must see each new apple with fresh eyes and open mind if she wants the drawing to come alive on the paper. By drawing the fruit, she goes deeper into an understanding of the form and characteristics of the particular apple, which then will more truly represent the universe of apples than would a generic drawing.

Writers must do the same with words if they want their prose not only to be distinctive but to be distinctively resonant with the particular story they are telling.

In Waiting for the Barbarians, an allegory of oppression, J.M. Coetzee places us in the mind’s eye of the narrator — a Magistrate in a remote, colonial outpost. Coetzee could have told us that the Magistrate is out of touch with, even carelessly ignorant of, new developments in the governing cities of the Empire and could have foreshadowed, with larger brushstrokes, the brutality to come. Instead, he draws for us observed detail from within the sensibility of the “I” who begins losing his innocence with this first observation. And in doing so, Coetzee sets the theme of “blindness” that reiterates throughout the story.

The book opens with these lines: I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? I could understand it if he wanted to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind. The discs are dark, they look opaque from the outside, but he can see through them. He tells me they are a new invention. “They protect one’s eyes against the glare of the sun,” he says. “You would find them useful out here in the desert. They save one from squinting all the time. One has fewer headaches. Look.” He touches the corners of his eyes lightly. “No wrinkles.” He replaces the glasses. It is true. He has the skin of a younger man. “At home everyone wears them.”

We soon learn that the “I” is the Magistrate and the man with the sunglasses is Colonel Joll, who has arrived under “emergency powers,” embodying the oppression of the Empire, with plans to push back or eliminate the “barbarians” from the territory. But in this opening scene, we are only observing and questioning, along with the narrator, much like an artist seeing sunglasses for the first time, trying to draw them, to see how they fit the face, to wonder if the wearer is blind, and know that he’s not because he doesn’t stumble and his eyes are alert, moving, behind the discs.

Another observed detail — the man’s lack of wrinkles, youthful skin — also establishes character and intent. He is vain and superior. His arrival brings harsh consequences but he has no intention of suffering them. He wishes to be spared even a headache.

Lesson: Detail what needs to be seen for the story to gather meaning

Waiting for the Barbarians explores the ability and willingness to see or not. The “seeing” goes beyond observing to witness, knowing, and having empathy for pain, truth, justice, and injustice. The Magistrate befriends a girl—a “barbarian”—who has been nearly blinded by torture. He mumbles to her:

“Nothing is worse than what we can imagine.”  He wants to say, “Tell me, don’t make a mystery of it. Pain is only pain.” But he can’t speak.

Eventually, she reveals the torture that nearly blinded her— “a kind of fork with only two teeth… put into coals till it was hot…” “They did not burn me. They said they would burn my eyes out, but they did not. The man brought it very close to my face and made me look at it. They held my eyelids open. But I had nothing to tell them. That was all. That was when the damage came. After that I could not see properly any more. There was a blue in the middle of everything I looked at; I could only see around the edges. It is difficult to explain. But now it is getting better. The left eye is getting better. That is all.” 

The girl haunts the Magistrate’s dreams. Here again, we see and discover along with the Magistrate, whose dream Coetzee draws vividly with all the senses.

The children are playing in the snow again. In their midst, with her back to me, is the hooded figure of the girl. At moments, as I struggle towards her, she is obliterated from sight behind the curtain of falling snow. My feet sink so deep that I can barely lift them…Now I begin to see what the girl is doing. She is building a fort of snow, a walled town which I recognize in every detail: the battlements with the four watchtowers, the gate with the porter’s hut beside it, the streets and houses, the great square with the barracks compound in one corner. And here is the very spot where I stand! But the square is empty, the whole town is white and mute and empty. I point to the middle of the square.  “You must put people there!” I want to say. No sound comes from my mouth, in which my tongue lies frozen like a fish. Yet she responds. She sits up on her knees and turn her hooded face towards me. I fear, at this last instant, that she will be a disappointment, that the face she will present to me will be obtuse, slick, like an internal organ not meant to live in the light. But no, she is herself, herself as I have never seen her, a smiling child, the light sparkling on her teeth and glancing from her jet-back. eyes. “So this is what it is to see!” I say to myself. I want to speak to her through my clumsy frozen muzzle. “How do you do all that fine work with your hands in mittens?”

Lesson: Use point of view to make visual

The Magistrate is imprisoned for fraternizing with the “barbarians.” In the prison yard, he tries to stop a flogging and is badly beaten. Now a witness and reporter of his own torture, he gives the reader a play-by-play:

I can hear the blow coming and turn to meet it. It catches me full across the face. “I am blind!” I think, staggering back into the blackness that instantly falls. I swallow blood; something blooms across my face, starting as a rosy warmth, turning to fiery agony…What I wanted to say next I cannot remember. A miracle of creation—I pursue the thought but it eludes me like a wisp of smoke. It occurs to me that we crush insects beneath our feet, miracles of creation too, beetles, worms, cockroaches, ants, in their various ways….As I am hustled, a man at each elbow, back through the murmuring crowd to my cell, I even find myself smiling.”

He is taken again from his cell, brutalized and hung in front of a crowd, and continues reporting:

“…the rope is now so tight that I am strangled, speechless. The blood hammers in my ears…” Enduring what he perceives to be his death, he begins to “float back and forth in an arc a foot above the ground like a great old moth with its wings pinched together, roaring, shouting.”

The Magistrate is tortured and ridiculed, but is not killed. In the end, having lived through a horror beyond imagining, he becomes almost a non-person, invisible. He is left alive, discarded. He begins to reenter life, to accept his bodily needs and complaints, to explore beyond the gate of the outpost. He witnesses Colonel Joll, defeated in a disastrous attempt to conquer the “barbarians” on their own turf.

With nowhere else to go, the Magistrate stays on in the outpost, his personal knowledge of pain incorporated into his body and soul. The horror is no longer in his imagination, and thus less terrifying. It has become a thing — like a meal, like the rats that proliferate. It has lost its grip. He wants to leave behind a record, to “abandon the locutions of a civil servant with literary ambitions and begin to tell the truth,” but discovers that he is no closer to understanding. The torture has relived him of his imagined and unimaginable fears. The writing has given him a kind of power over the pain, for that is what writers do — capture experience and bring it under control for examination. But truth remains elusive.

He reports: “There has been something staring me in the face, and still I do not see it.”

Lesson: Use the visual to strengthen theme

In this visually rich and heart-rending tale, we readers are called to “see” who the “barbarians” truly are and where, in each of us, resides the ability to witness truth, pain, justice and injustice and make meaning from it.

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Writing a book is like juggling balloons. You pay attention to one element or the other, while a centrifugal force in your mind keeps them floating together in a big balloon cloud above your head.

Master Fiction Craft Juggling

A graphic depiction of learning fiction craft mastery

 

 In Read to Write, we begin with first sentences (front gatekeepers), because that’s where we begin as readers. A writer may, in fact, begin in any number of places—with a story seed (whether consciously or not), a character, place, theme, or any other craft element. This diagram shows how the course structure works for your manuscript draft or revision or to gain understanding of an author’s mastery. As we start at 1, thinking about beginnings, we’re also looking to the end (last sentences, gates swinging shut or opening out past the story) and to all that comes between. When writing a book, each craft element influences the development of all the others, and as the book builds from its essential reason for being, the cumulative effect of the elements reaches out to re-influence each element again individually.

This back-and-forth and circular dynamic enriches the writing and the book’s gestalt. Initial close examination of a few sentences sets the standard for mastery. The book is composed of sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, into which we infuse all the elements. The thrill and challenge of writing a book is in keeping it all juggling in the air, whether while writing or going about other activities and consciously or subconsciously tucking new thoughts and observations up into the individual thought balloons and the larger whole.

Books by masterful authors, whether read during the course of working on a project or echoing from having been read however long ago, continually instruct and influence a writer’s processes and projects. 

The diagram above shows why a book project may feel like its spinning totally out of control at times or like its humming along at other times. The writer must make each element serve the cumulative effect of the book. Elements out of balance throw off synchronicity. 

Writers go through a semblance of this craft process many times, perhaps many hundreds of times, when writing a book. And with each new project, they begin again. Call it revision, but it’s more than that. It’s mastery, for which there are no direct routes, easy steps, or guaranteed results. No matter how skilled or famous the writer is, each new book calls for juggling its own way.

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Pain on page one

In Ferrante’s second paragraph, she puts our protagonist in bed—a double bed—desolate. Most craft books warn beginning writers: don’t start your story with a character in bed. However, so much has happened to this poor woman by the book’s seventh sentence that she deserves a rest. She can’t sleep, but only obsesses about her husband. She can’t figure out why he’s left. “I knew him well, I was aware the he was a man of quiet feelings, the house and our family rituals were indispensable to him.We talked about everything, we still liked to hug and kiss each other, sometimes he was so funny he could make me laugh until I cried.” She’s baffled: “It seemed to me impossible that he should truly want to leave.” She’s sympathetic: “When I recalled that he hadn’t taken any of the things that were important to him, and had even neglected to say goodbye to the children, I felt certain it wasn’t serious. He was going through one of those moments that you read about in books, when a character reacts in an unexpectedly extreme way to the normal discontents of living.” Hmm. Does she really know him as well as she thinks she does? She sees him as a character, just as we do. She’s a character too, after all, but by naming him as such, she (the protagonist guided by Ferrante) adds another layer of detachment to her crisis and moves closer to the reader. We feel her physically.

Transition to back story

Then in paragraph three, she confides: “After all, it had  happened before: the time and the details came to mind as I tossed and turned in the bed.” This is a masterful transition to back story for many reasons. Ferrante moves from the present to the past keeping the woman in place—in bed— for four pages. During this time the protagonist remembers what happened that other time her husband left, then muses over their relationship with a realtor, Gina, that they’d engaged to buy their house and her teenage daughter, Carla. With the back story, the protagonist can leave the bed in her mind and take us with her: she gives us a taste of Turin, the city to which they’d moved five years ago—metallic, green, yellow, red, leaves, stripped by the wind, foggy air, fresh sparkling breeze. She paints a picture of Mario (her husband is named on page three) with Carla, realizing “it wasn’t the mother I had to worry about but the daughter.” The girl has a “swaying body, restless eyes.” Though this is still back story, it’s sensuous, fully fleshed in our protagonist’s mind as if in the present. We’re told that the marital crisis of the past was resolved and that her husband “returned to being the man he had always been.” By now we’re not sure that is such a good recommendation, if, in fact, he was a man who, as she’s revealed, broke off relations with her for no apparent reason only six months after they had been together, because “there had come upon him a sudden absence of sense,” and then used that same excuse when he became infatuated with the the realtor and her daughter.

Transition to present story

The protagonist breaks her reverie, gets out of bed for a cup of chamomile tea. From her window, she sees the musician Carrano, her downstairs neighbor, “coming up the path,his head bowed, carrying over his shoulders the giant case…” He “disappeared beneath the trees in the little square.” She goes back to bed, believing everything will return to normal. We’re at the end of page six, all the major characters have been introduced, we have a sense of place and time, sensuous detail we can touch, taste, and see, full-bodied characters, an informative and vivid back story—just enough. We’d like to get in bed, too, and believe in normal, but we know that can’t be—or why would this story exist? The tension is palpable. We’re not sleeping tonight. We have to turn the page.

Lesson for writers

Create a “vivid, continuous dream”

Use sensory language to create scenes in the present, past and future. Bring your reader into the character’s consciousness and create the vivid, continuous dream that John Gardner talks about in his artful book The Art of Fiction. He’s not referring to a dream in the character’s mind, though the character may be dreaming. He says that “fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.”  The pull of place—in the above example the bed, a comfortable setting we all know and understand—and sensory language—casts a spell. Olga’s husband’s sudden “absence of sense” is replaced in our minds and its opposite heightened by familiar and vivid sensations. Even when she breaks her reverie, Olga’s desire for camomile tea steeps the transition from back story to present story in sensory detail.

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