Coloring The World With Words

Kate Flora: I’m late with my post today because I’m still recovering from spending the weekend with other humans at the always marvelous New England Crime Bake mystery conference. This year was the 20th anniversary of an event that born in my living room at a Sisters in Crime meeting. I said we needed our own conference here in New England, where we had such a rich field of mystery writers, and the presidents of the local chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, both present, announced that they would start one.

After a weekend inside, this morning, once I got my bleary eyes open, I went outside and took a walk around my yard. I’ve been thinking about teaching, and in particular, teaching one of my classes that focus on being observant, seeing the world, and then trying to see it through different eyes. This morning on that walk, I focused on how different the colors of late autumn are from the colors of spring or summer. More subdued, with darker, richer hues, the natural world’s last gasp before the leaves fall and our eyes begin to be drawn to structure and shades of gray and brown.

In thinking about this post, I went looking for some of my reference book that I often turn to in helping me to enhance or improve my descriptions. Alas! Ever since we had to move everything to have the inside painted, I haven’t been able to find anything. My reference books seem to have grown legs and walked off. I can see that my first project, once the current WIP is done, will be to round them up and return them to eye-level shelves in my office. For now, I am forced to rely on memory (not so great anymore), the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and my trusty Rodale’s Synonym Finder.

The colors of fall are challenging. Remember the giant 64 crayon Crayola box? It had odd colors like burnt umber. Can’t find that in Rodale’s, but luckily a search for brown offers up bay, chestnut, roan, sorrel, rust, brick, terracotta, cinnamon, ginger, hazel, maroon, chocolate, cocoa, coffee, mahogany, walnut, henna, auburn, dun, fawn, beige, tawny, drab, bronze, copper, and gold.

Doesn’t the world immediately feel different, depending on which of these words is applied? A tawny world is warmer and more appealing than a dun or drab one. Maroon suggest richness and majesty. When I follow that to purple, which is the color some of my hydrangeas have turned, they conjure up eminence, nobility, as well as brilliant, radiant, glorious, splendid, resplendent, and the ridiculous word splendiferous. Yet splendiferous is just how the world has felt these past weeks, as our slow and stately fall had kept the color glowing long after it has usually departed.

Following the trail of words is a habit from childhood when we kept a dictionary near the table so we could grab it and look words up. It is easy these days to simply type in a google search and get  definition, but that eliminates half the fun, which is seeing other words on the page. My search for purple goes on to the idea of “purple prose,” offering ornate, flamboyant, florid, flowery, grandiose, pompous, and the delicious words orotund and grandiloquent. And of course there are high-flying, pretentious, stilted, and lofty.

This is what happens to writers, by the way. We go searching for an answer, a detail, a fact, a definition, and find ourselves disappearing down rabbit holes of research. We do it with delight, with curiosity, and sometimes, after finding the answer, we don’t want to stop until the demands of deadlines force us to.

Today, despite the thousand must be written words on my horizon, I drift to quotations. Find John Clare writing:

Summers pleasures they are gone like to visions everyone

And the cloudy days of autumn and of winter cometh on

 Thomas Hood gives us:

I saw old Autumn in the misty morn

Stand shadowless like Silence listening to silence

 And from Shelley:

The day becomes more solemn and serene

When noon is past–there is a harmony

In autumn and a lustre in its sky

Which through the summer is not heard or seen

As if it could not be, as if it had not been!

 Go outside and look around at the colors, at the shapes that emerge as the green falls away, and think how you would describe them.

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5 Responses to Coloring The World With Words

  1. John Clark says:

    I used burnt umber in a short story not long ago, one of my favorite color descriptions.

  2. jselbo says:

    Yes, it was a rollicking great CrimeBake conference – in a very dull, nut-brown brick edifice with sandy-beige worn hallways, a buffet space committed to the tired shades of clotted cream and lead, a bar area trimmed in snuff-buff stained wood and accented with stools covered in pucey-khaki-colored faux leather. The wait staff (celebrating vaccinated guests), the participants, the laughter, the welcome, the old and new faces brought in all the brilliant colors of the fall season so fabulously identified in the above essay.

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