Saturday, April 18, 2009
Ear Flare, 700-900 A.D.
Moche/Chimú, North Coast, Peru
Copper, clay, turquoise or chrysocolla, mother of pearl, spondylus shell
3-1/4 X 3-1/2 X 1/2 inches
(Scanned postcard; click on image to see larger version)
"Elite or high-ranking individual within the Chimú culture wore ear flares or ear ornaments like this one. The figure on this piece is a warrior holding his shield and club." -- description of object by OMA
You'd never think what amounts to an ancient earring could inspire an entire novel, but this one did.
When I first saw this tiny relic, it was in a glass display case of Ancient Americas Collection of artifacts at the Orlando Museum of Art (where it's still in display until the end of 2009, if you're ever in that part of the city.) To me it stood out from the other beautiful artifacts for a couple of reasons: the craftsmanship, which is tiny, precise and exquisite, the colors, which a millenia have not really faded, and the thing the figure is holding in his right hand.
The museum's description says it's a shield. My first impression from the shape of the object (two eyes, a nose piece and either a golden beard or hair) and the way the figure is holding it was "that's a mask." Which led me to wonder (if I were right and the experts were wrong) how a warrior would use a mask as a weapon.
I took that impression home with me, let it percolate for a while, and then started shaping it into a workable idea. For a mask to work as a weapon, it would have to make the beholder think the warrior was someone else -- someone who would never scare or harm them; someone they wanted to be around; someone they would absolutely trust. On the flip side, what sort of person would you have to be in order to use that kind of weapon? When wouldn't it work? What would be the consequences? It all came together and I had the plot, the conflict, and the book.
Very often in writing how-to books we're given situations, characters, and other ready-made ideas and prompts, which are all good writing practice. These are the story sparks we always hear about. But sparks fade quickly, and for an idea to endure and illuminate the path ahead of you, it has to burn a little brighter and longer. So to borrow the word from this Chimú jewel and use it in a sifferent context, what you want aren't story sparks, but story flares.
I think the best flares for your stories have to come from within, from some emotional reaction you have to a person, place, situation or object, because then you're dealing with inspiration born inside your head -- something no one but you can know or tap. This is how you stay original, too -- while everyone else is writing variations of ideas they've picked up from proven bestsellers, you're working from a new place where no one has been. Even if another writer uses the same story flare as you do at the same time (which has been known to happen) unless the two of you share your impressions their interpretation is most likely going to be very different.
Finding your own unique story flare is as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. You may hear a song on the radio, notice a gorgeous painting for sale at an art show, or notice something about house you drive past. You can make day trips to places like art museums, parks or the seashore to look for specific types of story flares (and I find art and relics fascinating, which is why I haunt art museums) but all you really need to do is open yourself up whenever you are outside your writing space and take in everything and everyone around you. Story flares are all around you, just waiting for you to notice them so they can light up the way through your story.
Now, your turn -- have you ever used something as a story flare, or have a dependable source of them? What's the most unusual story flare you've ever found? Let us know in comments.