Saturday, 15 January 2011

Light. Fantastic.

I was driving somewhere this week, listening to Radio 4 as it happens – having tired of obtuse CD compilations made late at night and under the influence – and Martin Jarvis was concluding a reading of an Agatha Christie mystery; one that lay mercifully outside the Poirot/Marple cannon, which I’ve done to death. As it were.
The closing line was arrestingly good. I won’t bastardise it here but it was a beautifully clipped and economical description of a stained glass window ‘investing (a character) in a cloak of coloured light’.
Working as I do on YA stuff set in period fantasy cities, I seem to find myself expending a huge number of keystrokes on the light cast by – take your pick; lanterns, candles, torches, gaslamps and all the other genre accoutrements of nocturnal derring-do. But I haven’t got near to Christie’s closing line and she’s a writer, it should be said, who churned ‘em out. It’s not like I’m vainly comparing myself to Keats, forcryin’outloud.
A cursory skim through my recent work reveals that my descriptions of light fall into two key semantic fields:
1.       Light as liquid.
2.       Light as dairy products.
 When I write, light makes ‘pools’. It ‘splashes’ on steps. It ‘floods’ a tight passageway. It ‘washes’ or ‘paints’.  Thicken the liquid and you have unctuous, oozing light. Gluey, blurred stuff. Candles  cast light that ‘wobbles’ or ‘rolls’. Then, for a change, I’ll play around with verbs and turn them into adjectives so that ‘pooled light’ illuminates a desk, for example.
Basically, I buy in an ‘instant description of light – just add water and stir!’.
But it’s not always that way. Oh no, if I’m not doing that I’m taking the road less travelled my friends; the ‘light-as-cheese’ road. This description is reserved for natural moonlight I’ve noticed. The moon’s light is ‘creamy’, ‘pale’, ‘wan’. Thrown through a curtain at night, it often forms a ‘creamy wedge’, a description longing for a cracker or oatcake. It’s ‘pale milk’ sometimes, or even ‘wensleydale’. OK, I made that last one up, but you get the picture.
There's a mould here, and it needs breaking.
So; conclusions: light = atmosphere, atmosphere = mood, mood = tension, and that’s without even touching on its metaphorical potential. I need to work my way out of this familiar, cosy rut, and challenge myself a little next time a character enters a candle-lit room.
It’s all in the verbs, I think.
‘Investing’ was Christie’s verb – essentially, she's thinking about ‘dressing’ something in light.
Certainly beats cheese.


  1. 'Light-as-cheese' LOL!

    But seriously, yes, light or its absence is often key to scene setting. I find that as with smell or music - a certain quality of light can invoke memory, emotion etc.

    You've inspired me - I think I might explore 'Light-as-wine' e.g a rosy glow like lamplight through Merlot... :)


  2. A wedge of cheesy moon. I love it! Medicine is full of food and drink analogies as well, so it's very easy for me to slip into the same habit. I am currently editing my MS and will now be on the look out for any dairy reference. Great blog post, as always.