Monday, November 9, 2009

Kicking a coin, or the unexpected benefits of a trip

You never know what kind of dividends a research trip can pay. I remember hearing Tracy Chevalier say that while she was working on Girl With a Pearl Earring she only went to Delft one time and that was for a few days. But even so the trip paid off because it was on that trip that she noticed the great star embedded in Markt Square, a physical nuance that turned out to be extremely useful to the plot and structure of her book. Well, on a much lesser scale the trip I made to Arles last summer paid a similar divdend just yesterday, in this case allowing me to enhance the verisimilitude of an action. I was revising the scene in which Paul Gauguin, in October 1888, arrives via train to Arles. I'm not sure why, but I inserted a vagrant character into the scene, a shabbily dressed man lingering on the platform who eventually scuffles with Vincent. The vagrant--if that's what he is--acts strangely and wants to communicate something, but he speaks in a language that is not French, Dutch, English, German, or Spanish. Neither Gauguin nor Van Gogh understands him. Prior to the scuffle, Vincent tries to buy the man's departure, if you will, by giving him a coin. The man, who apparently is not begging for money, reacts with horror, immediately dropping the coin and kicking it. Well, without really thinking about it, I had the kicked coin bounce off the wall of the Arles station house.

However, having arrived and departed from that very station myself last summer--that's the actual platform pictured above--I realized that my original conception of the scene was fundamentally flawed. Gauguin, coming from Brittany, arrived on a southbound train. Southbound trains arrive into Arles on the far track (i.e., the one on the right in the picture). So this vagrant kicked the coin, on a hop mind you, all the way over the tracks to hit the station house on the far side? Uh uh. Again, having been there, I know there is a waiting room beside the far track. So I had my vagrant kick the coin that way. The coin now bounces off the wall of the waiting room, which is perhaps two feet away, rather than the wall of the station house many yards away and across a set of tracks. Much better. A minor detail? Yes. It is. But it could be an extremely distracting detail to any reader who has actually traveled through the Arles station and knows its layout. The very last thing I want to do is take one of my readers out of the story. And as many writers of historical fiction will tell you, the greater number of little details you get right, the more likely it is that your reader will buy into the fictional story you have to tell. So there's one detail--having flown all the way across the ocean to get it--that I'm happy to make right.


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