Backdrops: Tinting the Canvas
Back in the day, I enjoyed watching Boss Ross paint wonderful scenes on his tv series ‘The Joy of Painting.’ With his loving attitude toward nature and the desire to show others what can be done with colors and techniques, he share the image he had in him mind, step by step, with his viewing public. To this day, I find myself repeating the phrase, ‘happy little tree’ or ‘maybe nestled in the background’. He was a generous soul and one I found creative and talented. In the same vein I would like to share the process I am going through as I begin to craft a new tale.
Each of the episodes started with a warm welcome, a blank canvas and a list of the colors he would use. I thought perhaps that is something I might do today, though the picture I’m painting would take far more than one episode to cover. I not a painter, but I can share my thoughts as I put stories together in hopes that will encourage you to set your ideas to paper.
Though I will attempt to keep analogies to a minimum, I do want to point out a similarity painting and writing have. Not unlike the blank canvas painters stare at when first considering what he or she wishes to produce, writers stare at a blank page. This blank canvas, or screen in this case, can be intimidating as you question the first words or stroke of your pen. All worldly things have a beginning so we must at least make an effort to prepare our canvas for what is to come.
How to start? Well, we need something to set all other things against so they can be seen. A backdrop. It can be very unobtrusive if we wish but the background scene is still necessary in order for our themes and characters to show up. In the case of ‘Endfield’ (a working title), I could just start with a fictional town and that would be alright, for a time. But soon I would run into trouble as people moved in and out of the area. Just disappearing stage left, leaves voids. So, I need to step further back from a focal point and paint with broad strokes the world beyond what I will later fixate on.
Avoiding a huge conversation about world building, let me just say that all stories show you only the tip of an iceberg. The rest is comfortably float beneath the sight line, supporting what can be seen. In this, your ‘world’ is the iceberg. It is, in fact, your backdrop. It does not need to be fully described and I humbly offer to you that one should probably avoid trying as it is often boring to read. In full view or not, we still need something to build from. For ‘Endfield’, I started with a continent broken by catastrophic earthquakes. Since I’m a visual person, I will create a map of what that looks like. Will it be shared? Who knows. But the point of this map is only to give me a framed boarder to work within while creating the needed backdrop.
If you consider many of the stories you’ve read, you may begin to notice the backdrop is there. Consider ‘Middle Earth’ in Tolkien’s works, or, more recently, the plains of Nebraska in the film ‘Homesman’. These backdrops give a reader a place to stand in their attempt to comprehend the world. They are not defined in chapters of description. There are other stories that take place in specific places, such as Casablanca. But I would suggest to you that even stories set in a specific town are set against the backdrop of a larger world. Either way, each of these backdrops support the story that is being told. They are a foundation. Sometimes, in cases of ‘person vs nature’, these settings are very important and even become a character in themselves. In others, they are vague in appearance. No matter which is true, the author has in his or her mind what the backdrop looks like and how it influences the characters. And that, my friends, is their purpose.
For ‘Endfield’, as I stated before, I had to decide what my backdrop would be. I decided it would be a fictional history of the United States in a blurred and varied version of 1878-ish. That doesn’t sound very concrete but it’s a start. Like a painter deciding how much Titanium White to add to Phthalo Blue, I’ve chosen a color to tint my blank canvas and begin my painting. All I am doing at this point is painting a sky that people may or may not have seen. It does not need to be the subject or the study focus, but it can be later should I wish it to be. Just like the black curtain behind a subject being photographed, it is to help define the object of importance.
My vague backdrop will become more defined as I add elements. Like painting a shadow of a creature behind the tree, I only need to hint at what is there to the reading public, but I, as the writer need to know. In the case of ‘Endfield’, I brushed my canvas with a general ‘where’. Next, I further define this world, whether or not I add it to my painting, with questions that writers need have in mind. ‘How did it happen?’ ‘How does it affect those in the world?’ ‘What has changed and how have people adapted?’ This, I would equate to painting wispy clouds in your sky. Again, it may or may not be focal point of the story, but it will certainly influence it.
In the next blog, I will describe some of the decisions I need to make in order to create the clouds and perhaps a thought or two as to why I considered them important. Until then, I just wanted to lay down the beginning of something to work from (tinting the canvas). I would humbly advise not to ‘jump the gun’ on your story if you can manage it and give some thought about your backdrops. They are necessary for your upcoming clouds to live in and how the world beneath them react. You don’t live in a vacuum, so allow yourself time to create a world for your characters to exist in.
Until next time, happy painting.
Bless and Keep,