Please welcome my guest, Caroline Stevermer!
I’m Caroline Stevermer. In addition to A College of Magics and A Scholar of Magics, both available from Tor’s Starscape imprint, I’ve collaborated with Patricia C. Wrede on Sorcery and Cecilia, The Grand Tour, and The Mislaid Magician, all from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (Their mass-market paperback line is Graphia.) Readers of the Kate and Cecy books may be interested to note that next summer, 2010, Dial Books will publish my middle-grade book Magic Below Stairs, which features Kate and Thomas as subsidiary characters in a story set at their country house Skeynes at the time of the birth of their first child.
Digging for the Metaphor
For the 19 years I’ve owned this house, I’ve used a shovel that must have been here since long before I moved in.
It’s a good shovel. The handle has an ominous sense of frailty when one leans on it to lever out a root. The blade is cracked, a horizontal tear in the steel just where the handle ends. Think of the digging that shovel must have done to get that crack. For 19 years I’ve thought I should replace it, but I was not about to pay full price for a new one. I got by, mainly by using the shovel as seldom and as gently as possible.
Last summer I found a shovel at my neighbors’ garage sale. Same blade shape, new handle. I paid two dollars for it. Only once I got it home did I notice they’d put the new handle on with the wrong sized screws, so half an inch of extra screw sticks out on either side, ready to scratch the unwary worker. I got by, mainly by using it as seldom and as warily as possible.
Yesterday I found a shovel in my cellar. It’s perfect.
I remember now. It was a housewarming gift. I put it away carefully, but by the time the frost departed and the possibility of shoveling returned for the season, I’d forgotten it. I’ve been storing it for 19 years. I found the shovel because I’ve been emptying the cellar, using up some of the stuff I’d kept just in case, the odds and ends I’d put away for a rainy day. Because it’s been a rainy year or so, I’m getting down to the corners. High time, obviously.
We’re all having rainy days. We’re all using the things we put away for a rainy day, literally and metaphorically.
Hang on, because I’m going to leave the shovels behind and talk about writing. I’m going to presume that anyone reading this blog is interested not just in reading but in writing too. I consider us all to be engaged in the struggle to get words out of our heads and into the world, in whatever form suits us best.
“Write what you know,” we are told. (I’ve never had much luck with that advice.) But what do we know? How do we know what we know?
No question, our writing benefits from the details we notice as we move through the world. Who doesn’t think, “I could use that,” at least once a day? But there are more things around us than just the moments we gather going through the day, more than the hard-won bits of research mined from the vast seam of background reading that comes naturally. There are the things we take for granted. The things we forget we know. Or the things we think everyone knows. Those things that feel so easy and clear to us can be the crucial things that tell the reader what she needs to know about the characters in the story. I know how a farmer picks up a piglet (by a hind leg). If my protagonist knows that, it tells the reader something about pigs and something about the protagonist, too.
Ideally, I could finish up with some small fact about shovels, but alas, I don’t have any. I only hope this newly rediscovered shovel of mine is a symbol for some inner strength I’ve taken for granted or set aside because I haven’t needed them until now. To find a brand new tool right here beside me lifts my heart. May there be more tools around here somewhere, inside me and all around me, and may I discover them soon.
I truly love this essay. Thank you.