10 June 2020

Native American Plains Decoration Techniques

Today on her Happy Ever After website Sharon Booth is hosting my guest post explaining how I came to research Beneath The Shining Mountains. If you’ve just hopped across from there, Welcome! If you’ve arrived here first, please follow the link above to read the original post – it’s not long and this one will then make more sense (probably).

It seems that I was almost born with an interest in Native American Plains peoples. My mother, who cut my first coup bonnet from newspaper when I was four, doubtless rolled her eyes and thought I’d grow out of it. I didn’t. I ended up making a tipi, haggling with the local tannery for sheepskins (no bison or antelope skins being available), and dragging my own family to weekend pow-wows and week-long summer camps. Yes, in the UK. The British are renown for their eccentricity.

If a writer’s watchword is What if…? then a re-enactor’s must be How did they…? closely followed by Why did they…? Why did the native peoples of the northern plains decorate just about everything they owned? Good question. Some of the colours and designs were tribal, some denoted status, some had religious significance, some encapsulated a bit of all three. Click on the images for a larger view.

Parfleches c1880-85. Left a Brulé Sioux design; right a Cheyenne design.
The two peoples lived in relatively close proximity, sometimes trading, sometimes skirmishing, 
yet the distinctive designs are particular to each.

Earth and vegetable pigments were used most often on items of luggage, which was usually made of rawhide for strength and durability. The pigments were crushed, mixed with animal fat or tallow and applied to the rawhide by brush and/or stick by pressure so the dye impregnated the rawhide. Parfleches were often made in pairs and carried whatever was needed, from clothing to the winter’s dried meat supply. They were tied to a travois platform when moving camp, hence the need for durability.

 Moccasins with porcupine quillwork decoration.
Left Seneca 1808; right Crow (Apsaroke) or Sioux 1882. 

The Seneca are an Iroquoian Great Lakes people whose territory abutted the plains. They favoured the one-piece soft-soled moccasin against the separate, often rawhide-soled moccasin of the plains. The central strip of decoration masks the seam. By the 1880s enforced reservation life was a reality and the bright yellow pigment of the moccasins on the right may have been from a traded dye. The design was for a religious Sun Dance ceremony, the old-style of decoration probably part of the vow rather than using quicker beadwork which would have been the norm by that time.

Before the influx of fur trappers and traders, porcupine quillwork was the most extensive form of decoration for clothing and small bags. It involved a great amount of work. Porcupines were trapped or, if in abundance, sought and a skin thrown over them so their hooked quills came away. The quills were boiled in a natural pigment mixture and dried for future use. Decoration involved holding several in the mouth so they softened, flattening one between the teeth, then folding it between two sinew threads pushed through a fine hole in the skin punched by a thorn or bone awl. Adding further quills constructed a band of decoration as thin as the width of your smallest fingernail. It wasn’t so much hours’ as days’ or even weeks’ of work.
Left Yanktonai, Nakota woman’s strap dress, early 19th century.
Right Crow or Nez Perce man’s exploit shirt 1860.

The dress is made from two very soft and whitened deerskins and is unusually tailored; certainly more ceremonial than everyday. It carries both traded early pony and some later, smaller, seed beads alongside the fine quillwork hoops. Pairs of tin cones adorn the lower skirt so the woman would ‘tinkle’ as she walked. Small sheets of tin, or later even food tins, were sought as trade items for this purpose. Pony and seed beads were made of glass and produced in Venice and Bohemia. The man’s shirt was worn to exemplify his worth among his people to visitors and to enemies during conflicts. The ‘strap’ decoration, made separately and sewn as separate pieces to the shirt, are made from quill-wrapped horse-hair edged in both pony and seed beads.

 Two dresses from the Sioux confederacy: left 1875-1900; right c1870 Lakota or Teton

Trade routes between the peoples of North America extended long before Europeans arrived, and shells were a highly-sought exotic: abalone, cowrie, and shown left dentalium. Most women might have aspired to earrings or a necklace; this blue trade-cloth dress was owned by a woman of a powerful family, the dentalium shells probably gathered over generations, re-used and added to. Again, the skin dress shows social standing. Even by the 1870s glass beads imported by traders from Europe were not a cheap item, and to have an entire sleeved yoke decorated in seed beads was a mark of prestige. Sky-blue designs were a feature of the Sioux peoples.

I hope you have enjoyed this small snapshot of the decorative techniques of the northern plains peoples. Read Beneath The Shining Mountains if you’d like to hear how these were used in an everyday setting.

All images are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum and used under a Creative Commons License.

3 June 2020

Dissecting the Opening of a Short Story

I am finally digging myself out of Covid-19 procrastination with a short story which is fast turning into a novelette, as much of my short fiction seems to do. It’s quite a while since I uploaded a how-to post, so I thought I’d share the beginning of my work-in-progress. Upfront I’ll say that I am more of a pantser than a plotter, so when I started I knew little more than what you’ll read.

What is needed for an opening? Many writers just write, then see what they have, re-write it, and edit that into shape. I can’t work that way. I need more than a character: I need to know his/her general backstory and, most important, find the tone necessary for the character to embark on his/her journey.  If these aren’t in place when my imagination makes the leap then the whole thing has a tendency to go awry. Have a read:

The Forever House
    There’s an old saying that you never truly know a house until you remove its wallpaper. It’s proved correct with every house we’ve owned, from our first Victorian two-up, two-down with its dicey electrics, to the oak wainscotting discovered behind a botched plasterboard job in the house at Rutherford.
    So when the damp wallpaper lifted to reveal the message pencilled on the plaster, I didn’t think, just smiled and turned to call over my shoulder, ‘There’s nine—’
    I recall the metal scraper ringing against the wall as the jolt seared through me, and somehow my shoulder coming to rest in the corner of the walls, the smell of old glue and powdery plaster in my nostrils.
   That’s the problem with doing something rhythmic, something mindless. You sort of slip into a parallel reality where a normal action still means what it’s supposed to. Nine lengths to door. In that reality Jason would have looked up and grinned. In this reality, my reality, he’s no longer here to respond. 

A double-blank line follows, which even for me is some going after only 170 words. However, due to what comes after, it fits. I have given the title because it isn’t just a title, it’s a recurring motif which impacts both on the house and the character’s evolving mindset. Even at this stage, when I had little idea of genre, subsidiary characters, and only a glimpse of a possible ending, my creativity was adding depth. As an aside, the title’s phrase was passed to me in conversation by a friend, and immediately lodged in my subconscious for future use. Occasionally it happens like that; most times I’d need to write the complete story and then mine it for a suitable title.

The story is a first person narration, chosen because there will be a lot of internalisation and it is easier to convey that on the page using first person viewpoint. During the writing, the hurdle I need to watch for is the number of uses of “I”. At a pinch the character could be construed as male, but it was always destined to be female. There is no name, or description of her, because at this point I don’t want to detract from the importance of The House, hence going into such detail in that first paragraph, even to naming a non-existent town.

The exception to this is in the use of contractions to give a sense of an ordinary person narrator. [You thought the use or not of contractions was ad hoc? LOL!] The tone I wanted was one of bittersweet reflection, hence beginning with There’s an old saying… rather than straight in with You never truly know… At the very start the bittersweet slant might be more in my mind than on the page, but it grows as the story progresses and the character starts to question not just the house but her perception of her life and those who lived in the house before her.

A word about characters in general: I hardly ever describe them. The picture I wish to conjure in a reader’s mind comes from what characters say, or do, or hold, and that picture will be different for every reader. Instead, I try to convey glimpses of the characters’ lived lives to act as scaffolding.

Here the narrator and partner – the we – have bought and renovated a series of properties, moving up the price ladder as they did so. As much as this emphasises a type of person with the traits necessary to bring such to fruition, it excludes others. This reading-between-the-lines is for the reader to assimilate as they progress, thus building and continually adjusting their own mental picture of the characters, and in this case the house: ...the smell of old glue and powdery plaster...

The section finishes with the information that the narrator is recently widowed, fighting denial while both grieving and rationalising, thus I start to put across the turmoil of her emotions which will become a mainstay of the story. I deliberately slam on the brakes in the final paragraph via the multiple use of commas and the word reality – I use it four times and may yet edit it to three – but its use is as much about the house as the narrator. It is also the only occasion in the entire story when I pull the reader into the moment by the use of second person you.

Did I plan this conclusion to the section? No, I was madly creating as I went. Does what follows continue the tone and the character’s internal thought processes? No, it is real-world exchanges, hence the need for a double-blank line.

Other facets you may be interested in – well, this sort of thing interests me – is that by the time I’d reached this point I knew the genre, subsidiary characters, the house and its previous occupants, and the ending. The initial seed? I was scraping wallpaper and uncovered a long-ago decorator’s note pencilled on the plaster. Immediately it pinged the gifted title-phrase lodged in my subconscious and I stood back, scraper in hand, with What if…? roiling through my mind.

If you have found this post of interest you may want to read Research 1 – Is It Necessary For Short Fiction? Or just scan down the titles of my Writing Tips page. I dissect entire stories in Reading A Writer’s Mind.

Image by Wokingham Libraries via Pixabay