Seeing Red

Kate Flora: When I was working on my last Joe Burgess, Led Astray, I noticed that I was using the weather, in particular the mysterious qualities of fog, and the discouraging chill and damp of a string of gray Maine days, to underscore the struggles of the central characters to find their way through a maze of lies, confusion, and lack of information to head off a killer before there was a full-on disaster. Once I noticed that I was using all these grays—and darkness punctuated by small bits of light—to create my atmosphere and mimic my characters’ challenge, I continued it throughout the story. The story began on a gray afternoon and the sun did not come out in Portland until the bad guy was caught.

Most of the time, we do this work on both a conscious, and an unconscious level as we’re crafting story.

A single bright red boat on a summer sea

I was thinking of that recently when I opened up a coffee table book that belonged to my late sister-in-law Emily, who lived in the world of fabric and fashion. The book was from an exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt, and the title was Fashion in Colors. As I leafed through the book, my eyes lit on a section called “The Two Faces of Red.” Red, the curators had observed, is a word with many powerful meanings.

There are words like crimson and vermillion, which suggest elegance and opulence. There

Orange-red roofs of a Czech village

are the red garments worn by Cardinals of the church. In these ways, the book suggests, “red endows a sense of the brilliant, dazzling, magnificent, or simply beautiful.”

On the other hand, red has negative implications as the color of executioners or prostitutes

—scarlet women. Red light district. The color of anger—as in “seeing red,” and “an angry red haze.”

And sometimes, over time, the early symbolism changes. During the French Revolution, a red flag signaled “the intervention of public forces to disperse seditious crowds.” Now, far from suggesting the assertion of public order, it is a sign that something wrong has taken place or should be investigated.

The warmth of sunset on Utah’s red rocks

Wikipedia says: Since red is the color of blood, it has historically been associated with sacrifice, danger and courage. Red is also the color most commonly associated with heat, activity, passion, sexuality, anger, love and joy. In China, India and many other Asian countries it is the color of symbolizing happiness and good fortune. In the United States, red pertains to the Republican Party and its supporters. Red is also a color widely used for getting attention, such as stop signs or royal dresses. In addition, red is widely associated with socialism and communism.

For writers looking to play with symbolism in their work, consider this. In Victoria Finlay’s book, Color, we learn that the shade of red paint called “carmine” was actually made from blood. Before the advent of artificial dyes which revolutionized the dying and fabric industries, red often came from the crushed shells of cochineal beetles or a beetle that lived on the Scarlet Oak called the kermes beetle.

The red in the rocks of the Southwest comes from iron, as does the red in our blood. If you take a few minutes and a sheet of paper, you can probably come up with a long list of words for the many shades of red. Then take the time to consider how different these words feel. Consider scarlet vs. burgundy. Let your senses go from the richness of vermillion or crimson to the softness of cherry or rose; from the brightness of cardinal to the subdued darkness of maroon. The exotic suggestion of cinnabar or cerise. The gemlike qualities of ruby or garnet. We readily use the terms “blood red” and “fire engine red.”

The gentle colors of a December rose

As the weather outside persists in the white of snow, the gray of ice, and the dull gray-browns of leafless trees, this is a good time for writers—and observers—to be playing with color. It doesn’t have to be red. How many words for the color gray can you think of? Iron gray, steel gray, battleship gray, pearl gray, slate gray. How many more might you add if you played with your dictionary or your thesaurus? Where might inspiration take you if you played with this a bit?

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5 Responses to Seeing Red

  1. Edith Maxwell says:

    Wonderful observations, Kate. Thank you for the reminders and the inspiration.

  2. Ellis Vidler says:

    Your post is making me consciously consider color and atmosphere. I’ve used color a bit but wasn’t fully aware of the effect. Good post!

  3. Thanks for the reminder to pay attention to the colors in my current project. And the weather!

  4. John R. Clark says:

    Did you know there was a high school in Maine whose nickname is the Red Riots, and another known as the Red Eddies and even a township-Red Beach.

  5. Mo Walsh says:

    Surely you know, Kate, there are 50 shades of gray. And somebody already took that color. Run with red.
    Seriously, a great post. Another layer for writers to play with in their stories.

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