Recently, I was trying to figure out who the original author was that was referenced in “the curtains are blue” story. I couldn’t find it, but what I did find, to my surprise, were a number of angry ranting posts pushing back about how the readers don’t understand that this is complete tripe and every detail is important to setting the scene and conveying something, or else the editor should have cut it. And how every single item in a movie set or theater stage is carefully chosen to convey something and set you up to have an emotional reaction.
I admit, I started laughing. First, because when it comes to film and stage, I assure you, there are incredibly relevant details. But there are also plenty of “What do we have on hand that we can use” and “What’s the cheapest and easiest to acquire?” going on. (The diner’s seats were maroon and walls were red and brown because The Quality Cafe has been in over 30 movies and TV shows. Years after it closed as a working diner, it’s been kept around as a filming location.)
As for books? One of the fun parts of knowing authors, or of knowing the same places (and sometimes the same people) is the ability to look at little details in a story and laugh, knowing where they came from, or who that was riffing on, or what event spawned that line that just came out of a character’s mouth.
This is something that literary critics miss – in their rush to proclaim that the author may not have known why the curtains were blue, but the critic fancies himself smart enough to deconstruct it, they forget that there are many reasons the author could be doing that.
Sometimes it’s lifted from a real place (the curtains at that friend’s apartment are blue, and the floorplan and furniture layout was lifted wholesale).
Sometimes, the curtains, or better yet the dress, is teal-blue because of that one time back in school when a friend, E— (female) looked at a mutual friend J— (male), and suddenly said (quite firmly), “You’re taking me to prom.”
“Okay?” He looked confused at the sudden non-sequitur, or perhaps the command. Or the existence of prom.
“My dress is teal.” She nodded, and walked away before he could protest.
He turned to me in bewildered confusion. “Teal’s a duck?” (I did enlighten him, after howling with laughter, that teal is named after the duck. And that he’d need to know for cummerbund and corsage.)
…If you see me sticking teal in a story, it’s only because that memory still, to this day, makes me laugh every time it comes up.
Sometimes the parts AJ & Jenna bought were the synchronized cardinal grammeter and the unilateral phase detractor because I want to make anyone who’s seen the Rockwell Retro Encabulator skit (a fine, fine example of technobabble done with a straight face) laugh along with me.
Sometimes, I’m putting details in from specific incidents with the permission of friends who were there and survived that. (Apparently, it is no fun at all to be in a helicopter, conducting a raid on a terrorist camp when the hut where they stored the explosives decides to go up with a bang, and levitates the roof to eye-level… Amusing after the fact, but not so much at the time.)
(Given the paucity of combat vets among literary critics, I’m willing to bet they’d find some strange symbolism in it, when really the only symbolism is “No sh-t, there I was…”)
Sometimes the building is a vampire-owned nightclub because that old brick warehouse is really badly sited for warehouse now that the streets have been relaid and two highways go almost directly over it, and has been turned into a goth nightclub several times. Many’s the person who’s partied there and gone “Man, I wish I could live up in the offices back there, and party every night!” (It’s a vampire club or were-critter club in at least two completely different series I know of, because this thought has independently occurred to multiple authors who have gone clubbing there.)
Sometimes the curtains were blue because it’s a colour that hasn’t been mentioned recently, and therefore won’t seem overused, and the best way to keep from having “talking heads in a white room” is to add all five senses into the story. Sometimes I can write a splash of colour here, a scent there, a tactile impression as well… other times I’m literally going back and editing it in as and where appropriate, to make the world come alive. Why were the curtains blue? Because I needed a splash of colour in the scene, so when he draws back the curtains, I edit in that they’re some common curtain colour, like green or blue.
Sometimes the curtains are blue to illustrate the difference in worldview. He notes the curtains are blue, and not heavy enough to keep any watchers from seeing when the lights are on and someone is home… and the way they’re open means any terrorist can see the layout of the bedroom, so they only have to wait until they’re sure their quarry is asleep, then come back and fire through the window into where they know the bed is, to get the target. As safehouses went, its only value lay in being far from anywhere their enemies were currently looking for them.
She, meanwhile, notes they curtains were once sheer in a beautiful sky blue, but now they’re sun-rotted, covered in cobwebs and turning (insert the colour of the local dust), and desperately in need of washing just like the rest of this run-down house he’d taken her to.
At that point, the blue is basically “insert common curtain colour here.” And on the mental dropdown menu, the author picked… blue. They’re not thinking about that, (or if they did, it was to pull up Home Despot’s website to confirm what fancy terms a woman would call the curtains.) The author is focused on researching the colour of the local dust in that part of the world, because one of their readers WILL call them on it if they get it wrong.
And after 45 minutes of research on the colour of the dust in that part of the world, which turned into 3 hours on the meteorological effects in that part of the world, including the difference between a dust storm, a sand storm, and a haboob, and thus a haboob is going to happen in three chapters because now we know it’s an option and we can front-load it by mentioning how dust-covered everything is to foreshadow…
You want to talk about the colour of the curtains? No, they’re just blue! Notice the dust on them that sets up the haboob! And the way she wants to clean them, which will betray that the house is occupied! That’s going to be important, because…
No, it has nothing to do with depression! Or impotence! Or man’s inhumanity to man! You people need to get out more, go qual at the range, or something!
Long time ago or so the story goes Isaac Asimov heard that a professor was giving a lecture to his creative writing class using one of his novels as example so he snuck into the back of the lecture hall to observe. During the presentation the professor expounded at length on the hidden meanings contained in one passage of the book and the thought processes of the author behind them. Asimov spoke up and pointed out that the prof had gotten it wrong and identified himself.
As the story goes the lecturer defended his remarks, explaining that while Asimov may have been the author he himself was both an English teacher and a critic.
And Asimov went on to write a short story about it where a time traveler brings Shakespeare forward in time, enrolls him in an English class, and the professor flunks him.
I believe he quoted the teacher as saying, “Just because you wrote it, what makes you think you know anything about it?” Which gave Isaac a rare moment of, “Huh?”
Somewhere I heard that Asimov’s final comments was “what do I know, I’m just the author”. 😉
Reminds me of the scene in ‘Back To School’ where Thornton Mellon (Rodney Dangerfield) paid Kurt Vonnegut to write his book report on ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’.
The English Lit professor gave it an F, with a note: “You obviously don’t know anything about Kurt Vonnegut!”
That was a hilarious bit, and Vonnegut was the perfect author for that joke.
I note that if the writer actually writes “The curtains were blue,” it probably has some significance.
It’s possible that the story is written in a flat, Dick-and-Jane style, but that’s got to have some significance, or after the fiftieth “X was Y” sentence in two pages, the reader’s going to chuck the book into the wall, curtains and all.
It would be much more natural to observe, “The hotel room had mottled off-white rug, twin beds with a flat red coverlet, and blue curtains that let the sunshine only dimly light the room.” (For some point of view characters. More would notice less about the room, though.)
I also note that if you actually want to give it some symbolism, it pays to load your language. Sky blue, navy blue, and midnight blue all give not only different colors, but different impressions. Sober, drab, flat could also work. “I liked the room, it had the blues — curtains, rug, coverlet, shower curtain.”
The curtains were blue so were the walls, the floor and bed sheets.
“Is the author trying to depress me? I’m out of this world!”
I did have a pair of curtains be green and white (buffalo) plaid, because 1) it’s the color I personally associate with farm house curtains and 2) back when I was flying, I had a pair of black-out curtains that where that color on the room-side, and creamy white on the window-side. So I know what the light looks like coming through that combination. Symbolism? Nah, saved it for elsewhere in the book.
If I have a pair of curtains be blue in the WIP, would you suspect symbolism or smartassery?
Only if the story slowed down enough for us to notice.
After this? Smartassery… You should do it and see how long we take to find it. As Mary points out, it won’t happen first go around…
Smartassery, unless a character notes the color and says something along the lines of, “You know, those almost match the shade of [bad guys] naval uniforms” or something, in which case it is Foreshadowing. (Unless he looks closer and realizes that the material was once a [bad guys] naval uniform, in which case it will be a slow smile and relaxing because the home owner is either friendly, or neutral-detests-[bad guys].
In current almost-WIP, the heroine wears yellow and green to contrast with the male leads (hero wears earth-toned tweeds like most proper gentleman-adventurers, plus a dark blue coat; the Gaston wannabe wears leathers). And because she has red hair, and green goes well with that.
Nabokov, teaching Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, exam question ‘What color were the railway curtains?’
I remember a two-day discussion about why Jay Gatsby wore a pink suit, a minor detail in “The Great Gatsby” that almost every high school junior misses. We finally decided it was because his mauve suit was at the cleaners.
I had a friend in high school who had an old Ford Taurus in mauve. We called it his pink car, which would always upset him.
“It’s not pink, it’s mauve!”
And that line makes it into my stories from time to time, and you wouldn’t believe how useful it is in real life. Just used it this morning at work looking at the pictures of a house that recently sold for a ridiculous amount of money.
I did end up Googling Haboob.
But, I’m also going to review my current WIP and add in something about the curtains.
In the immortal words of Mel Brooks, filtered through a movie character: “You are der audience. I am der author. I outrank you!”
Writer: “I rolled on the color table I use for such things and got ‘blue.'”
Critic: “The blue curtains represent the howling chaos and utter lack of meaning in the larger universe.”