A Reader’s Road Trip to Orchard House

Touring Orchard House, however, was at once familiar and filled with contrasts. Stepping into the parlor felt like walking into the opening pages of Little Women, where the teenaged March girls prepare for a modest Christmas during the Civil War.

houghton_fhm_ms_am_2242_-_louisa_may_alcott
(Photo credit: Unknown. Printed in a collection published privately, 1915. Source: Frederick Hill Meserve’s Historical Portraits [MS Am 2242], Houghton Library, Harvard University, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain in the U.S.)

A recent trip I took to Boston to visit with family and friends included a side trip to nearby Concord, Massachusetts. Concord is a charming rural town known widely for its role in the Revolutionary War.[*] It also possesses the quirky distinction of being the birthplace of the Concord grape. Specifically to my reading interests, though, several famous authors made their homes in Concord, among them Louisa May Alcott. Long before I learned of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, or Nathaniel Hawthorne (all Concord residents), I read Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women and loved it. She was one of the first authors whose works I sought out and binge read everything I could then find: the remaining novels about the March women (Little Men and Jo’s Boys), followed by Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom. Discovering her connection to Concord guaranteed my visit there.

A Place to (Finally) Call Home

Orchard House wasn’t Alcott’s childhood home—or even the family’s first home in Concord—but it is, as I noted in a different post, the one she employed as the setting for Little Women and the place where she lived the longest. Unlike the genteelly poor Marches, the Alcotts suffered dire poverty. Although many of her father Bronson Alcott’s ideas to reform children’s education are common now, they were revolutionary then and soon left him unemployed, as did favoring his principles and dreams above self-interest. Abigail May Alcott, her mother and an early social worker, managed their household with very little—inspiring  Louisa to become the family breadwinner. The publication of Little Women, the book Louisa wrote reluctantly at her publisher’s suggestion, would achieve this goal.

Orchard House in Concord, MA
Orchard House served as the setting for Little Women but Alcotts only lived here as an adult. (Photograph by Rita E. Gould.)

Touring Orchard House, however, was at once familiar[†] and filled with contrasts. Stepping into the parlor felt like walking into the opening pages of Little Women, where the teenaged March girls prepare for a modest Christmas during the Civil War. Yet Lizzie Alcott (model for Beth March) never lived at Orchard House, and older sister Anna (Meg March) wed soon after the house was purchased; she would not truly reside there until after she became a widow and moved in with her two sons. Louisa’s youngest sister, May (Amy March), however, literally left her mark on Orchard House. May’s parents permitted her to draw directly on the walls of her bedroom and throughout the house.[‡] In Louisa’s room, her writing desk is exactly as described in the novel. Unlike her fictional counterpart, though, she served as a nurse in the Civil War until illness forced her to return home with her health irreparably damaged. Also unlike Jo, she preferred literary spinsterhood to matrimonial dependence.

Social Circles and Movements

Replica of Thoreau's cottage and statue of Thoreau near Walden Pond.
Someone thought Thoreau’s statue at Walden Pond needed a snack and fittingly chose an apple. (Photo by Rita E. Gould.)

In addition to Louisa’s own personal history and writing career, a visit to Orchard House illuminates the interconnected literary and social circle of the Transcendentalists. Emerson was both friend and financial supporter of the family. Thoreau, who tutored the Alcott children during a previous stint in Concord, remained an admired friend who helped Bronson make Orchard House habitable. Hawthorne, neither a Transcendentalist or friendly with the Alcott family (unlike his son, Julian), lived next door at The Wayside, a former Alcott homestead. Of interest, Hawthorne and Abigail May Alcott shared something in common besides real estate: both were descended from different judges who preside over the Salem witch trials.[§] Samuel Sewall, the Alcott ancestor whose portrait is displayed at Orchard House, was the repenting judge whose other mitigating claim to fame was being an early proponent for abolishing slavery, a stance his Alcott descendants shared. Abigail and Bronson, also firm abolitionists, hosted at least one fugitive slave during their time at The Wayside. The Alcotts were deeply involved with the significant social movements of their time, something which the guide was careful to note was part of the value in preserving this home.[**]

Pondering

After leaving Orchard House, I headed to Walden Pond. One could imagine a young Louisa and other students traipsing after Thoreau there, listening as he pointed to the small and often missed marvels of nature. Thinking on that younger Louisa, you could easily argue that Little Women seems to be a happy reimagination of her deeply impoverished youth, with hunger replaced with longing for “nice things” and constant uprooting for permanency. Yet, Alcott’s novel continues to inspire because of its inclusion of an ambitious, unconventional young women and its unpatronizing view of women’s lives. Having caught a glimpse of “the real Jo”, it seems like a fitting legacy.

NOTES:

[*] Minute Man National Park preserves several sites associated with the Battle of Concord.

[†] Orchard House contains around 80% of the Alcott’s original furnishings, undoubtedly aiding the sense of familiarity.

[‡] May left home in 1870 to study art in Paris and embarked on what appeared to be a very successful artistic career cut short by her early death.

[§] Nathaniel Hawthorne likely added the “w” in his surname to distance himself from the association with his infamous ancestor, William Hathorne.

[**] The credit for preserving Orchard House and The Wayside belongs to another woman writer, as it happens. Harriett Lothrop, better known by her pen name Margaret Sidney to fans of The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, saw the value of saving these old homes. And as it happens, I read her novel, too, as a child.

Getting Women Right: Science’s Evolving View on Women

The timing of Angela Saini’s recently published book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story,[*] seems almost prescient following the publication of the Google memo. Once again, science has been invoked to demonstrate that inequalities between men and women exist because of biological difference instead of lingering prejudices about women’s capability. But, as Saini cautions us, such science isn’t without its biases[†] nor is there necessarily consensus on these findings. In Inferior, Saini seeks to provide insights into controversial studies and theories existing in several scientific disciplines that intimate or have claimed that huge biological gaps exist—ones reinforcing damaging stereotypes—and the new research challenging these findings, even when the facts don’t readily dispel such stereotypes.

Evolving Science

Sciences Asides: Getting Women Right: Science’s Evolving View on Women. Text by Rita E. Gould
Darwin assumed men drove evolution but newer studies focus on how evolutionary forces affected women, dispelling notions of female passivity, inferiority, and even chastity.

When they do, however, the results can be quite eye opening. Among the disciplines that Saini investigates, evolutionary biology has greatly altered its view of women, in no small part due to women scientists. Charles Darwin argued that the pressure only men experienced to obtain mates drove evolution, cementing male superiority to women in every way. Men became hunters, while women, passively engaged in childcare, evolved only because they inherited some of their father’s better qualities. For Darwin, men’s preeminence in all fields proved his point.[‡] Recent studies of increasingly rare modern hunter–gatherer groups, however, reveal cultures where men are caregivers and women are hunters, disputing the idea that such roles are predestined. Indeed, scrutinizing these populations (not to mention animal populations[§]) also contradicts the notion that females are universally monogamous.

Contentious Science

Sciences Asides: Getting Women Right: Science’s Evolving View on Women. Text by Rita E. Gould
Among the cases where “facts are greyer” than people find comfortable, testosterone appears to produce small behavioral sex differences.

However, some areas of study still are poorly understood and others hotly debated. Notably, the role of sex hormones (responsible for sexual development and reproduction) remains less clear. Once thought to be the agents that made men masculine (testosterone) and women feminine (estrogen and progesterone), it’s now understood that these hormones are produced by the gonads of both males and females, albeit in differing amounts. While this discovery dismissed the view that masculinity and femininity were opposites, lingering questions about how these hormones interact within our bodies and affect our minds remain. The theory that sex hormones create significant differences between the brains of male and female fetuses, predisposing them to certain roles, is among the more controversial topics. However, it’s important to recall that the roles of culture and child rearing cannot be ruled out in such cases. And while “small behavioral sex differences” associated with testosterone have been demonstrated in young children (72), most studies tend to show more overlap than difference in typical child development.

Inferior serves as a much-needed corrective to assumptions that science provides clear, objective evidence that significant differences exist between women and men. As science strives to gain a clearer picture of women, it’s more than apparent that women are far from inferior. Indeed, the theme of humanity’s plasticity runs throughout Inferior, suggesting that men and women have more in common than not. And that, indeed, is a great discovery.

NOTES:

[*] Saini, Angela. Inferior: how science got women wrong and the new research that’s rewriting the story. Beacon Press, 2017.

[†] Saini observes that the biases that kept women from participating work likely prejudiced science’s objectivity. Women in science, regardless of how underrepresented they are due to social disparities (ranging from childcare to gender bias and sexual harassment), has influenced how science is performed, with new ideas being considered and old ones challenged, very often by women scientist. (10).

[‡] Saini argues here (and elsewhere when disputing how the Google memo got the science wrong) that Darwin was hardly the only man of his time to conflate structural inequality with biological differences (14–8).

[§] That’s not to say all species engage in promiscuous behavior, just that it’s incorrect to assume that all females are monogamous (136–7).

Writing Using Your Experiences: What We Really Mean by “Write What You Know”

Writers, particularly inexperienced ones, often are exhorted to “write what you know.[*] I first heard this advice mentioned during a session for my school’s creative writing workshop. While the remark wasn’t directed to me, I nonetheless considered it. Much of what I knew as a reasonably well-behaved teenager didn’t strike me as “page turner” material. It also wasn’t the sort of fiction I wrote then; among other things, I was dabbling in horror fiction without the dubious benefit of supernatural events in my life. But no one seemed to have objections to my writing in this vein, either. It was a moment where advice left me confused instead of enlightened.

Sleepy reader on a log
The response I imagined that fiction based on my teenaged experiences would generate.

I’ve since realized the problem with this too pithy prescriptive involves how little guidance it provides. A short acquaintance with fiction demonstrates countless stories that incorporate research (eg, historical fiction) along with imagination instead of solely relying on the author’s personal history or knowledge. While we’re clearly not instructed to only write about what we know, the lack of further instruction (eg, how we should write about what we know) could be misinterpreted to imply that very limitation. We also tend to assume the “what we know” refers exclusively to our life events. The conclusion many arrive at (myself included) is that we’re told to fictionalize our lives. If what I know includes everything I know, then I certainly have permission to write about what I’ve learned from any source.[†] As a voracious reader of horror fiction, I knew quite a great deal about the genre—and that meant I already was writing what I knew though I didn’t appreciate it in that moment. But if such advice creates confusion, perhaps it’s time to reconsider what we really mean when we advise people to write what they know.

Inspiration and Information

  • Inspiration

The student in my workshop had asked for suggestions regarding what she should write about, and our mentor recommended writing about what she knew in the spirit of examining her personal experiences for topics that might work as a story. It’s the most common interpretation of “write what you know”, and I suspect it’s what most people intend when they dispense this advice. And drawing stories from our personal well of memories can be quite inspiring. Autobiographical novels such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women rely heavily on the incidents of the author’s life. Other authors use certain autobiographical details as a springboard for their stories, among them Amy Tan. Her novels often involve a strained mother-daughter relationship of an immigrant Chinese mother and her American-born daughter.[‡]

Orchard House, home of Louisa May Alcott and the inspiration for the March family home in Little Women
Louisa May Alcott used Orchard House (Concord, MA) as the basis for the March family home in Little Women but did not actually live there until she was 25. (Photo by R. Gould)

The crucial observation here is that these authors were inspired by their experiences. While Tan’s history as a first-generation American undoubtedly informed her novels, she chose to avoid fictionalizing actual events in favor of writing their emotional truth. And neither author felt beholden to strictly adhere to the literal truth because recreating actual events didn’t suit their stories. Alcott’s novel diverges factually from her life in several places. For example, Alcott did not grow up in a single home as a child (unlike the March girls) but moved 22 times. Faithfully replicating all those moves, however true to life they were, would have taken too much focus off the March girls’ adventures. Our experiences can be the starting place when we write fiction, but real events shouldn’t get the final word.

  • Informing the Text

If we’re rethinking “write what you know”, then it’s important to consider how else personal knowledge and experience otherwise influence our tales. Many authors use locales they know well to serve as their setting, as Alcott did when she based the March family home on her own home, Orchard House. Character development, of course, is another area where our knowledge helps us round characters by gifting them with skill sets, opinions, and interests (like hobbies) that we or others we know possess. Agatha Christie used her familiarity with her own profession when she created named Ariadne Oliver, a friend of Belgian detective Hercules Poirot, who just so happens to write mysteries featuring a foreign (not English) detective.

The response I imagined that fiction based on my teenaged experienc
Including sensory details (crunching carrot) that we know lets the readers share our character’s experiences such as eating vegetables.

The familiar often diffuses subtly throughout fiction. Our knowledge of social scenarios, for example, guides what our characters’ behavior during dialogue. Characters in a kitchen don’t stand at attention and declaim lines: they lean against counters, clear away dishes, or sip beverages, depending on the story’s set up. Our experiences also provide us with the sights, sounds, touch, and smells we include in stories. Sensory details such as the crunch of a carrot allow readers to vividly experience what the characters do. Importantly, our experiences also allow us to make imaginative leaps. Even when we haven’t faced the same terrible ordeals our characters have, we know how we’ve been hurt, lost, abandoned, and heartbroken. We can use the emotions we’ve experienced in these moments to connect ourselves as well as our readers to what our character undergoes. Knowledge of our identity, too, lets us question how people different from us may feel differently or similarly in a given situation. And yes, our experiences, when they’re lacking, signal when we need to research and fill in what we don’t know.

Writing Using Our Experiences and Knowledge

What we know and our experiences, in some ways, define where fiction begins. They inspire what we write and give narratives depth that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And that’s why using our experiences to inspire our work as well as fill in the myriad details of story is good advice.

Read More

Bret Anthony Johnston’s article “Don’t Write What You Know” in The Atlantic. I found this article after I’d written much of mine, and it provides thought-provoking nuance and insights on this topic.

NOTES:

[*] I’ve previously written about how writing advice often is presented as a set of “rules” when it should be treated as guidance that can be used or dispensed with as needed. “Write what you know” isn’t specifically discussed there, but it certainly warrants some clarification.

[†] To give a somewhat snarky example, I don’t have to experience radiation poisoning to explain why uranium can be dangerous. I can refer to what I learned in science courses.

[‡] Fiona Mitchell discusses the concept of having “one story to tell” in her article “Have You Got More than One Story?”. As she observes (and Tan illustrates), there are many ways to tell that one story.

Social Reading Recs: How Social Media Grew My Reading List

We often talk about what we’re reading but not how we choose what we read. The story behind those to-be read lists, however, deserves its share of spotlight.

This past weekend, I went to the Baltimore Book Festival for the first time. Greeted by unseasonably warm weather, throngs of readers strolled among tents featuring authors talking about their works. I attended lectures on editing bon mots,[*] social justice, monsters in modern horror, and food in science fiction. I bought and discussed books whose titles I just learned that day. Being an avid reader, I loved having the opportunity to delve into new topics and books I didn’t know existed. Perhaps the only book-related topic I didn’t hear mentioned was how we find the books we choose to read when we don’t have a handy festival to suggest interesting titles. We often talk about what we’re reading but not how we choose what we read. The story behind those to-be read lists, however, deserves its share of spotlight.

Social Reading Recs: How Social Media Grew My Reading List
Baltimore Book Festival 2017, as seen from the Ferris wheel. (Photo by R. E. Gould.)

Polling the Readers

I’ll admit that this topic that occurred to me well before I sauntered forth to bake in the Baltimorean sunshine amongst the bookish. Perhaps a week or two earlier, I’d been looking over lists of books I read or intended to read and came to the realization that many recommendations came from Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, WordPress, and even (on occasion) Facebook.[†] Being curious, I conducted a small poll on Twitter to find out whether any other readers saw their reading lists expand courtesy of social media. Slightly over half of my respondents agreed that social media helped grow their reading lists, with contemporary fiction writer and blogger Nastasya Parker observing that these recommendations made her reading “even more rewarding”. Novelist Anne Charnock (Dreams Before the Start of Time) concurred, stating that “Twitter is good for book recommendations—from a bunch of people whose recs are pretty reliable”. The remaining individuals divided into those who felt social media hadn’t increased the length of their reading lists (slightly over 25%) and those who were unsure. Arguably, these results could depend on how those individuals use social media. Not everyone goes to Twitter and asks, “Read a good book lately?” or finds people whose reading habits resonate with their own.

Social Reads

I certainly hadn’t expected better to-be read book lists to be part of the bargain when I’d joined some social media outlets.[‡] However, my first Twitter chat revealed the power of the social reading community. When several like-minded individuals gather to talk about books, there’s a good chance for discovering new titles to read. In this case, the July 2016 #women_writers chat focused on reading women in translation, and, as I noted in a different post, I discovered a gap in my reading. It wasn’t long before several books were proposed to remedy that problem. I could (and did) find articles suggesting books to read for #WITmonth (like this one), but receiving multiple recommendations for certain books or authors from this group really identified worthy titles.[§] And I’ve had similar experiences with Instagram (The Reading Women come to mind) and my Goodread reading groups, to name a few.

Social Reading Recs: How Social Media Grew My Reading List. Text by Rita E. Gould
Social reading isn’t just for libraries.
So, spending more time on social media perversely improved my offline reading. Of course, it’s not the only place to find captivating books to read. There’s reviews (in print and online), best-seller lists, and so forth. There’s even the simple expedient of walking into the local library or bookshop and checking out what’s on display. Social media, however, makes it easier to connect with people who share your reading tastes and make reliable recommendations. Reading tends to be a solitary pursuit, but looking for new books to read needn’t be lonesome.

Has social media improved your reading list? Let me know and share your suggestions for a good read!

NOTES:

[*] The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing by John E. McIntyre.

[†] I also created an imaginary click-bait link: “How Twitter Improved My Reading Life!” (In my head, titles like this seem to read by an old-timey news broadcaster). Naturally, should this article have existed, it would have parodied articles devoted to improving one’s romantic/sex life.

[‡] Except Goodreads. Because that’s rather the whole point, isn’t it?

[§] Two different Goodreads groups recommended works by Han Kang (either The Vegetarian or Human Acts), as did Twitter chats and various Instagram posters. Both books were compelling, challenging reads.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot

The hobbies we see in fiction represent the writer’s use of a practical and versatile approach to character that extends past its initial role in characterization to developing other areas of a narrative as much or as little is needed to achieve the story’s goals.

In the previous post, I discussed how hobbies in fiction help develop characters, something which can set up expectations of character behavior as well as lend itself to exploring a work’s thematic elements. In part II, I look at how hobbies influence setting and plot.

Setting and Hobbies: Everything in Its Place and Time

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot. Text by Rita E. Gould
While exploring his passion for travel in a horse-drawn caravan, Toad (from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows) and company’s road trip goes horribly awry when they are run off the road by the agent of Toad’s future downfall: the motorcar.

Because characterization is the most obvious effect a character’s hobby has, it’s perhaps less intuitive that character hobbies make demands of the setting. Hobbies, however, must be conducted somewhere and that’s where setting comes in. Some hobbies, being rather portable (reading), can occur wherever it suits the writer, while others dictate the setting where they occur (surfing). Writers, therefore, can use hobbies as a reason to place characters into a specific setting where they wish the scene/story to occur. Travel for pleasure[*] happens to be a rather effective hobby that allows writers to introduce their characters to new people, places and experiences. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel The Wind in the Willows regularly falls in love with new means of transport (whether its rowboats or motor cars) that let him travel and adventure. While Toad’s hobbies often reveal his impulsiveness and reckless side, one of the book’s notable adventures begin when Toad’s enthusiasm for the latest vehicle spurs him to gather his friends to travel and seek excitement. Similarly, hobbies can signal the story’s timeline. In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the presence of Garbage Pail Kids collectible trading cards reveal Tracey’s subversive edge and her tendency towards divisiveness as well as places the timeline in the mid-1980s.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot. Text by Rita E. Gould.
The popularity of the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards was sufficient enough to warrant a vinyl doll. Cuddle up! (Photo credit: R. Gould.)

Setting the Plot: Hobbies, World-Building and Plot in the Harry Potter Series

Given the greater burdens that exist for establishing settings in fictional genres that involve world-building,[‡] character hobbies can be a useful means for conveying information about these settings. Fantasy novels, for example, typically involve intense world-building since they diverge from strictly realistic settings. J. K. Rowling based her Harry Potter series in a hidden magical realm that exists alongside the real world. Although a portion of her setting existed, the magical areas of the world did not. Therefore, she needed to create the parameters for these magical places, their inhabitants, their society, how these realms and their elements interact (eg, magic makes electrical items malfunction), and so forth. Newcomer Harry Potter acts as the reader’s stand-in for these discoveries in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.[§] Rowling uses a common childhood hobby to allow for comparisons between the magical and nonmagical settings to illustrate how the former operates (in its role of world-building) as well as cleverly introduces a mean of revealing information that forwards her novel’s plot significantly.

The Famous Witch and Wizard Cards: Hobbies as an Approach to Establishing Setting

Much like Smith, Rowling employs trading cards in her story—but with the expected magical twist. While traveling to wizarding school, Harry purchases the unfamiliar foodstuff of the magical world. Among his sweets are Chocolate Frogs, which come with the Famous Witches and Wizards (FWW) cards. In the real world, trading cards that feature real people often provide an image of the person and some relevant information about the individual (eg, baseball cards indicate the player’s position and stats). The FWW cards Harry receives mirror such cards in that they include a picture of the witch or wizard accompanied by a biography that lists their claim to fame and other interesting trivia such as their hobbies.[**] What makes them different is that the cards are enchanted, with the images moving like living people (Rowling 101–3). In addition to allowing readers to see how trading cards differ between these realms, these cards also prepare the readers and Harry for how other pictorial representations behave in the magical world (eg, portraits that he encounters speak to people and travel from frame to frame). Its role in helping establish expectations for this magical setting, then, even supersedes that of delivering (or confirming with some details) biographical information about school headmaster and major character Albus Dumbledore—the subject of Harry’s first FWW card.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot. Text by Rita E. Gould
In addition to confirming Albus Dumbledore’s academic credentials and reputation for dealing with dark wizards, his Famous Witch and Wizarding card informs us that he enjoys chamber music and ten-pin bowling, a possible nod to Dumbledore’s more whimsical side.

Setting to Plotting

Rowling’s ingenuity is not limited to creating comparisons between the world Harry knows and the one he’s joined. In contrast to Smith’s Garbage Pail Kids, the presence of the magical trading cards reveal little about the children collecting them (as I noted above, we learn more about Dumbledore here). However, Rowling’s inclusion of this hobby is inspired because such cards are natural things for children to collect—as Ron and Harry do—and it allows her to interject information into the narrative as needed. During his first weeks at school, Harry and his friends (Ron and Hermione Granger) become aware that some important item recently arrived at the school for safekeeping and that there had been attempts to steal it. Having learned through unintended admission that the hidden object involved both Albus Dumbledore and another wizard named Nicolas Flamel (a name Harry is certain that he read previously), the children begin researching Flamel in hopes of finding more information about the object and why it is being hidden. Shortly after the Christmas holidays end, Neville Longbottom gives Harry one of the FWW cards for his collection. It’s the Dumbledore card, which mentions his alchemical work with Flamel—hence the reason Flamel’s name seemed familiar to Harry. With this insight, Hermione locates the necessary details about Flamel, which in turn reveals that the Philosopher’s Stone is the item hidden at the school (102–103, 218–220). Discovering that the mystery item is the Philosopher’s Stone (as well as why someone would steal it) is a major plot point here, and it’s Harry’s modest hobby of collecting FWW cards that allows the children to make this leap.

Hobbies and Fiction

Rowling frequently and often playfully employed hobbies throughout her Harry Potter series, using them to reveal facts about characters, forward plot and even provide opportunities for her fictional adolescents to change settings (Quidditich, for one, gets them outside the castle). Writers such as Rowling, of course, rarely add details about characters to provide a laundry list of biographical data, something which most readers would likely find dull. Instead, she provides hobbies with specific goals: showing Molly Weasley’s kindliness when she knits Harry a sweater for the holidays or revealing Hagrid’s pet hobby of raising dangerous critters, something which informs the plot in a few places (in this book and others). Including character hobbies is among the important decisions a writer makes when developing a character, one that stretches beyond the role of characterization. Therefore, the hobbies we see in fiction represent the writer’s use of a practical and versatile approach to character that extends past its initial role in characterization to developing other areas of a narrative as much or as little is needed to achieve the story’s goals.

NOTES:

[*] Travel for personal enjoyment allows many fictional detectives to leave their normal environment and discover mysteries in the wild, as it were. It’s also a matter of practicality in detective series: mysteries always started at the detective’s office or set in an amateur detective’s hometown can become formulaic.

[‡] Genres most identified with world-building are science-fiction/speculative and fantasy fiction, both of which constructing new worlds. I’d argue historical fiction also belongs here, as world-building in this genre takes the form of reconstructing the world of the past.

[§] However much it annoys me that the American title differs from the British one, it’s the title of my copy and therefore the one I must use for the citation:

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.

[**] Hobbies within hobbies! Of note, the FWW cards play a role in characterization here, although it’s not the scene’s focus.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part I: Characterization and Theme Exploration

Depending on how a writer employs character hobbies in their narrative, these pastimes can influence the characterization, setting, plot, and thematic elements.

Sufficiently realistic characters are part of fiction’s great juggling act—its need to appear plausible enough for readers to suspend their disbelief and engage with the story and its emotional truths. When writers develop their characters, they provide them with relationships (friends, family, lovers, etc), careers, backstories, hobbies, and so forth to achieve this verisimilitude. Of these items, I find how writers use hobbies in their stories fascinating because hobbies can serve many purposes besides filling out a character’s biography sheet. For example, hobbies[*] (to paraphrase what I’ve said elsewhere) often serve as a shorthand form of characterization because they can reveal aspects of the character’s personality through their interests. Depending on how a writer employs character hobbies in their narrative, these pastimes can influence the characterization, setting, plot, and thematic elements. In this first of two parts discussing the role of hobbies is fiction, I’ll take a look at the clever ways in which writers use hobbies to develop characters and explore theme. Part II will look at the roles hobbies have in establishing the setting and forwarding plot.

Rounding out Characters

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part I: Characterization and Theme Exploration. Text by Rita E. Gould
We may not know how Sylvia Keene plays tennis, but we know she looks good doing it.

As I’ve implied, the primary role hobbies play in fiction involves characterization. The degree to which they inform the text about the character, however, varies. Providing biographical details is an excellent way to flesh out relatively minor characters. Sylvia Keene, a young woman discussed in Agatha Christie’s short story “The Herb of Death”, played tennis. This detail is mentioned as part of a brief “verbal portrait” provided by characters (Arthur and Dolly Bantry) who are discussing the circumstances of her death. Arthur observes she played tennis gracefully, which (along with youth and good looks) was part of her charm. In this regard, tennis reveals Sylvia’s characteristic grace but tells us little else about her. Similarly, a hobby might confirm or provide additional evidence of a character’s known interests. Librarian Polly Duncan, love interest to James Qwilleran (the main human character) from The Cat Who series, is an avid reader, a detail that merely confirms the bookishness her career choice suggested.

Characterization and Themes

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part I: Characterization and Theme Exploration. Text by Rita E. Gould
This angler ensures they don’t disturb the fish by leaving the area.

However, hobbies frequently provide readers with greater insights into the character’s personality and their behavior. Some hobbies tend to be associated with certain types of behavior or personality types. Angling, for example, is associated with quietness because it’s alleged that fish avoid noisy spots. Hobby stereotypes also exist: stamp collectors traditionally are thought of as reclusive and nerdy. Since these expectations exist, writers can use them to signal the character has certain traits or tendencies.[†] In The Lovely Bones,[‡] author Alice Sebold initially presents Jack Salmon as a father dealing his daughter Susie’s disappearance/murder. When Sebold introduces his hobby, readers gain insights into Jack’s personality and the family’s dynamics as she explore the novel’s themes.

Personality

A few weeks after Susie’s death, Jack enters his den to clean it up as part of an effort “to move forward” (45). As Susie (the narrator) explains, Jack’s den is where he either reads or builds miniature ships in bottle after work, with Susie often acting as his assistant. Sebold’s choice of hobby hints at traits Jack possesses. Since building these bottles requires painstaking effort, we’d expect anyone who attempting this hobby to be patient and meticulous. Susie confirms this impression by noting he “he counted numbers—due diligence” for an insurance company (45). Based on this description of Jack (reading, ship building, number crunching), readers might expect him to be typically quiet and mild mannered.

Family Ties

Susie also informs readers that Jack learned how to build these ship from his father, but she was the only other person in his own household who shares his love of these ships. Jack makes several failed attempts to entice his other children into building ships with him, demonstrating how important sharing this hobby is to him. Jack’s success with Susie also lets Sebold show readers that Susie shares some of her father’s qualities. As an amateur photographer who dreamed of becoming a wildlife photographer, she possesses that same careful patience—whether it’s holding the bottle while waiting for the ship sails to rise or catching the right moment to snap a photo. Obviously, this activity represents a bonding experience, one which likely held greater significance for Jack given that no one else wanted to spend time working on these boats with him. In some ways, losing Susie means Jack loses someone who understands this side of him.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part I: Characterization and Theme Exploration Text. by Rita E. Gould
Jack Salmon’s hobby lets him connect with oldest daughter, Susie.

Exploring Theme

Jack’s mission to clear away his treasured ships—now painful reminders of Susie—takes a violent turn as he begins throwing and crashing them against the walls. The symbolism here is evident: the bottles are as shattered as Jack’s world. Sebold, of course, could have chosen to have Jack break anything to demonstrate his emotional turbulence. Destroying his treasured ships, items so closely associated with his murdered daughter, is a more poignant choice: nothing else but his tremendous grief could have prompted Jack to ruin them—or arguably provoked such violence from him. As loss and grief are among the novel’s central themes, Sebold’s inclusion of this scene is brilliant because it lets us see how Jack’s emotional landscape altered in response to Susie’s murder. His reaction to her loss, his grieving, involves fury that she was taken suddenly and violently. It also prepares readers for a future occasion when Jack’s grief and anger erupt again, this time with greater ramifications.

Having shown Jack’s emotional state and prepared readers for other instances what otherwise would have been out-of-character behavior, Sebold could have abandoned further mentions of ships, letting them remain casualties of Jack’s grief. Instead, she revisits Jack’s hobby one last time to beautifully illustrate Jack’s progression through the stages of mourning. Years later, Jack learns his other daughter is expecting a child and dreams of teaching another child to share his love of these ships, even as he knows that doing so will always remind him of his lost child. While Jack will never stop missing Susie, he has accepted her death and is now truly moving forward as best he can. In this moment, we see all the novel’s themes—loss, grief, and love and acceptance—tangled in Jack’s humble hopes for the future.

Sebold’s thoughtful use of Jack’s hobby shows some (though not all) of the more complex ways a hobby can influence a story through characterization: it suggests his personality (supported by career choices and other pastimes), show us how his hobby connects him or distances from family, reveals how grief changes him, and how acceptance reconnects him to himself. In part II of “Fiction and the Versatile Hobby”, I’ll examine the roles, both small and great, hobbies play when we consider story settings and plot.

Next week, Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot

NOTES:

[*] Countless activities can be considered hobbies, ranging from sports to collecting. There are crossovers between hobbies and professions (an amateur painter versus the professional), with some people occasionally even supplementing their primary income with earnings from such pursuits and others managing to translate a hobby into a career (the home cook turned professional). However fine these distinctions may be, generally the hobby is the one that earns less, is conducted only in one’s spare time, and would not be considered as an occupation by its practitioner.

[†] Or to contradict stereotypes!

[‡] Sebold, Alice. The Lovely Bones. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2009.

Loneliness and Grief in Yoshimoto’s Kitchen

“I got dressed to begin another day. Over and over, we begin again.”

The heart of the home truly is the kitchen for the young protagonist of Banana Yoshimoto’s debut novel Kitchen (translated by Megan Backus). University student Mikage Sakurai loves kitchens, which become her refuge when the death of her grandmother making her an orphan twice over.[*] Stunned by her utter solitude (“It’s total science fiction. The blackness of the cosmos.”), she only can sleep next to the humming refrigerator. Other obligations also press on her. While her grandmother left her money,[†] she nonetheless must downsize her apartment to stretch her funds. Still grief-stricken, the thought of moving and house hunting paralyzes her. Fortunately, Mikage also inherits her grandmother’s friendship with Yuichi Tanabe. Yuichi, a younger university student, works part-time at the floral shop her grandmother frequented. He and his mother, Eriko, offer a much needed respite by opening their home to Mikage, complete with a beautiful kitchen (“It was a good kitchen. I fell in love with it at first sight”).

Grief, Connection, and Magic

Yoshimoto’s novel (as well as its novella companion “Moonlight Shadow”)[‡] contemplates grief and loneliness with a delicate touch. While these emotions predominate, they are offset by moments of joy and connection. Yoshimoto uses light and dark imagery symbolically to reinforce these feelings: in the novel’s second half, “the telephone was glowing” in Yuichi’s mind whereas Mikage felt the line to Yuichi was submerged in deep, dark water, respectively suggesting his need for her companionship and her recognition of his grief. Part of the novel’s charm in negotiating such difficult topics involves its subtle use of magical realism that confers an almost fairy-tale quality to the story. Yuichi appears at just the right moment to offer Mikage a place to live while she sorts out her affairs. Both young people share a remarkable dream that takes place in the grandmother’s now empty kitchen, in which Yuichi implores Mikage to stay at his family’s apartment. Mikage even intuits which hotel room belongs to Yuichi before scaling the wall to deliver him katsudon. (This latter example also represents a brilliant gender role reversal, as Mikage plays—albeit comically—the traditionally male role of rescuer for a distressed Yuichi.)

Katsudon
You had me at katsudon. (Yōfū Katsudon [Western-style pork cutlet on rice] at Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, Japan. Siriusplot at Japanese Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated.)

Transformations

However magical her delivery may be, Yoshimoto does not shield her characters from pain. Eriko explains hers (and the novel’s) philosophy to Mikage: we must experience “true despair” to understand joy. Mikage also comes to accept that, even when we are with others, we are always alone. While she despairs that we’re “always defeated”, this knowledge lets her live more fully. Grief, therefore, is transformative in Kitchen. Having discovered a passion for cooking while living with the Tanabes, Mikage leaves university and successfully embarks on a cooking career despite her limited qualifications. Eriko’s own experience of grief literally changes her. Watching his wife slowly succumb to cancer forced Eriko to understand that “the world didn’t exist for [his] benefit”.[§] Becoming aware that he disliked being a man and realizing he would never love again, Eriko transitioned to a woman and opened a gay nightclub,[**] thereby straddling roles of provider and nurturer. Her story essentially serves as a loose guide for Mikage who also bridges these roles: cooking is her profession but it is one that nurtures.

The kitchen, of course, serves as an extended metaphor throughout this novel, representing that which sustains people through terrible loss, both in terms of sustenance (food, nourishment) and refuge. Kitchen creates this space as a haven for healing and connection, perhaps even new beginnings. And it’s this uplifting spirit that makes Kitchen a story that satisfies indeed.

NOTES:

[*] Mikage’s grandparents raised her after her parents died. Her grandfather subsequently died while she was in junior high school. Hence, she’s doubly orphaned by losing two sets of guardians.

[†] Discovering an orphaned character who isn’t destitute is a pleasure.

[‡] “Moonlight Shadow” (also translated by Megan Backus) typically accompanies Kitchen. My focus here is on the larger work.

[§] My pronoun usage mirrors that of the novel, using female for post-transition and male pronouns for pre-transition Eriko (formerly called Yugi).

[**] It’s worth observing that most characters seem to respect Eriko’s gender identity, even though it’s mentioned on occasion that Eriko is “really a man”. Given that Eriko’s fate is common for transgender women, a content warning is appropriate.