I complain sometimes about how doing my website/moderating the board takes up time I could be working on my fiction, but in other ways, the ATPo board has greatly enriched my fiction. I’ve made it one of my goals in life never to take a literature class (don’t ask me why, I have no principled reason, the thought just makes me squirm with the potential for sheer boredom).
Talking to ATPoers with literary expertise has taught me a lot about metaphor and symbolism. I never purposefully tried to incorporate those literary elements into my writing until recently. And now I seem to find interesting symbols and metaphors in passages I’ve already written.
Like this weekend. In one of the very last chapters of my novel, I have the protagonist (Valerie, a brassy graduate student) coming to a truce with the antagonist (Elizabeth, her control-freak advisor). The setting of the chapter is Valerie’s apartment. I wrote the first draft of this chapter years ago, and in it, I naturally had Valerie wearing no shoes, just socks. It’s her house; Elizabeth comes over unexpectedly.
But reading it lately, as I’ve been working diligently on details and descriptions, I noticed there was something symbolic in Valerie wearing no shoes. When she wears no shoes, her feet don’t clomp against the kitchen tile. Valerie is always clomping. She wears cowboy boots, and they are always heralding her entrance into a room. In one big early confrontation scene between Elizabeth and Valerie, Valerie ambushes Elizabeth in the laboratory where they work, and Elizabeth’s first awareness that Valerie has entered the room is through the clomp of those boots.
Naturally, Elizabeth tenses up at the sound. So in the final scene between them, Valerie’s new softer, emotionally spent attitude is symbolized in her lack of boots. Even as she and Elizabeth seem to clash one more time, they are on the verge of an understanding, and it is symbolized by the lack of clomping.
Now I find myself actually trying to incorporate more symbols and metaphors into my novel. Like with coffee. Nearly all my characters drink coffee (maybe too much, maybe I overuse this little detail). But each of their preferences in coffee says something about who they are as a character.
Felicia, who is in love with a playful artsy blonde, drinks her coffee with cream and sugar. At one point, her lover even comments of Felicia’s morning cup, “Just the way you like it. Blonde and sweet.” As the novel continues and Felicia starts having problems with her lover, the coffee she drinks becomes increasingly luke-warm and acrid.
Elizabeth, who is abrasive and a work-a-holic, drinks her coffee strong and black and bitter.
Elizabeth’s husband Arthur, who wishes his marriage was better than it was, douses his black coffee with sweetner.
Valerie, who wants to think she is nothing like her mentor Elizabeth, also drinks her coffee black.
Lisa, a teenager being drawn into Valerie’s more adult world, at first drinks orange soda, but later orders coffee and douses it in cream and sugar to make it palatable, but then doesn’t drink it. At the end of the novel, when Lisa has started coming into adulthood, she orders an mocha espresso and drinks it down. Grown up, but still sweet.