Tag Archives: exercise

Palimpsest Exercise: From Point A to Point C

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This term’s university module, now nearly over, has been all about the importance and methods of research. I haven’t learned a whole lot of new stuff this term but I did come across the concept of palimpsest exercises whilst writing an assignment on incorporating fact into fiction.

A brief history lesson

In Ye Olde Times, when parchment was super expensive, using it only once was pretty wasteful. A lot of manuscripts were written on, cleaned, written on again, cleaned again, and so on. That’s a palimpsest. The term doesn’t just apply to paper, incidentally – a bronze plaque that’s been turned over and reinscribed, or stone that’s been smoothed down and recarved, are also palimpsests. The word comes from the Ancient Greek palimpsestos, which literally means ‘scraped again’.

In a way, reused canvases (a la Monet) could be called palimpsests. They weren’t scraped off, just painted over, but technically the modern definition doesn’t require scraping. All it means is ‘used for one purpose and later reworked for another’.

When we read [a palimpsest], we see erasures from other reading and writings. History is the reading we make of this subjective, visually complex activity. It is made up of layers upon layers of fact and opinion and stray thoughts, so that one cannot always decide if one is reading one layer or another.   ~ Brian Kiteley, How Language Lives: Reading and Writing Historical Fiction

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The Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, a Greek manuscript of the Bible from the 5th century

The actual exercise

Pick a paragraph from a writer you like. Pick a second paragraph from a second writer. Got them? Right, now write a prose bridge between them.

The challenge is to somehow make them fit. Brings the settings together, make a logical progression of plot, or even turn two character voices into one. You can rewrite the original paragraphs a little to make this work – hence the name of the exercise. Start easy, with paragraphs that are vaguely similar in tone or subject matter, then graduate to completely different genres, voices, and worlds.

The point of this is to stretch your powers of persuasion. Make the reader believe that these two different paragraphs belong together, and always have. If you can do that, you can make them believe anything you put on the page, and then you’ve got them hooked.

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A Laundry Line Stole My Story

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Last weekend I went to something called a Writer’s Gym, which is pretty much what it says on the tin: cardioa work-out for writers. Not the physical kind, thankfully. Physical exercise and me, well, we’re acquainted but our relationship is strained at best. No, this was a mental workout. The gym leader – personal trainer? – set a series of exercises, each with an individual prompt, and a time limit within which to write a scene that fit those requirements.

I’ve done this kind of thing before and I love it because it forces me to think. It frames scenes in a way that I would never come up with on my own, and at the end of the exercise I frequently have a pretty pivotal result on my hands. The key to each one, every time, has been an entirely mundane object – an umbrella, a chewed pencil, or in this case a laundry line.

The exercise was to use whatever object you drew from a deck of cards and create a bad memory for your protagonist around it. When I drew ‘laundry line’, I had a flash-back to my own memory of the laundry line in my childhood house. It was a wobbly old rotary thing in the corner of the patio and I loved the way it span like a carousel. I’d help my mum hang the washing out just because I liked making it go round. This was a good memory for me, albeit an unimportant one. How to make it bad?

I already knew that I wanted my protagonist to have a slightly strained relationship with her mother – I just hadn’t been sure how to establish it. The image of her mother hanging out the laundry, and the complete incongruity of the protagonist doing the same, threw it into relief. Her mother is happy in her role of wife and homemaker, and can’t understand why her daughter didn’t want the same thing. The protagonist is a career detective, and single. The tension comes from the dichotomy of expectations between older and younger generation, and the lack of understanding for each other’s perspective. Suddenly that dissonance between generations, and the pressure it can create, unlocked a whole new side to the protagonist. I had one of the core drivers for her character arc – balancing the weight of expectation from both herself and her mother, and coming to peace with them – from the simple image of a laundry line.

My point, really, is this: the simplest things can make the most powerful points. When writing SF&F it’s very easy to fall back on magic swords and oracular crystals and so on, and they absolutely have their place. But the mundane amongst the magical has its own power – a more relatable power in many ways and therefore harder-hitting. The first Writer’s Gym I did, the image of a wooden-handled umbrella resulted in a scene revealing an old crime that was so horrific it actually made me slightly nauseous just writing it, and the hero’s violent reaction to it therefore entirely believable.

It’s very easy to overlook everyday objects as sources of inspiration, and surprisingly difficult to pick them for yourself. Ask someone – a friend, colleague, family member – to randomly select something that they use every day, or have lying around the house. See where it takes you.