Marriage ala Mode

As a writer, I know that inspiration comes from many sources. It can be the lyrics to a sad song, a stunning picture or a vivid dream. Some of these ideas come to fruition and some of them lack enough depth to make a truly good story and are discarded.  Sometimes we write half a story before we realize the idea is dead. But when we are truly inspired, the idea blooms and grows and evolves becoming an inspiration of its own.

Recently I did some research on William Hogarth. You get to jump to the next square in Trivial Pursuit if you know who he is. I did not before I started researching his work. Small sketch:  Hogarth was a prolific British painter. Born in 1697. Died in 1764. He painted in a time of upheaval for Britain. The nobelity's grasp on English society was dying. The middle class businessman and merchant were gaining power. People were moving from rural Britain into the cities.  The Industrial Revolution was about to sweep Britain.  Hogarth was apprenticed to a silver engraver at eight years old and learned the printing business from the bottom up. Yet his greatest talent was painting. Sounds like every other painter from that time, right?  Except Hogarthwas the first painter to paint with vivid strokes and pointed criticism in single and series paintings. Then he would engrave his work to copper and print for the masses.  A deep sense of duty to society and a need to support his family drove him to look widely for ways to do what he loved and profit from it. Hence, the concept for the political cartoon and the comics section of the newspaper was born. He is considered the father of this industry.

He painted portraits and scenes for many years. Finally, he had this series brainstorm and his first series of paintings were done.  The Harlot series was painted during a time when British officials had decided to clean up the streets of the unholy temptress prostitutes.  Hogarth's series of six paintings portrayed one such harlot - a victim of circumstances with no other choices. From there a whole new genre of paintings were born. My favorite is a series he calls Marriage a la mode. The target was marriages of convenience for money or power and supported the idea that the only reason to marry was for love. Are you surprised?  I'm a romance author after all.

Take a look at some of his paintings. Gorgeous, rich colors combined with a vivid depiction of people's emotions.

Yet, that still isn't why Hogarth fascinated me so.

The reason he fascinated me is because he painted in details. Every single image he placed in his paintings had a reason for being there. Some were to comment on society, some were whimsical, but each item deepened the texture of the work, leaving layers and layers of meaning. Whether he did this with deliberate care or let his subconscious rule, it doesn't matter. The end results are works of art as lasting as any Shakespeare play.

We are artists of sorts, aren't we? We don't use paints or a camera, but we do paint pictures, tell stories with our words. It occurred to me if we all used the same deliberate care with constructing those words that Hogarth used in painting his images, we'd all have best sellers.  I'm editing right now, so this may be why this struck me as so vastly important. I know I'm not the only one who has used Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook to get down to the very core of my characters  I can't be the only one who has read Sol Stein's On Writing chapters on using editing triage to cut the fluff. Or even Randy Ingermanson's snowflake concept to refine an idea from elevator pitch, to blurb, to outline, to manuscript. 

Hogarth's work inspired me to dig deeper into my editing and have the patience to put in place what my imagination intended to be in the words. Hogarth painted what was in his soul, but he used what he did wisely, ultimately understanding his responsibility to his patrons. His work has lasted for centuries. In this new world of ebooks, where the potential for work to exist forever in cyberspace, every attempt should be made to write and edit with that same verve, don't you think? After all, isn't that our legacy?

[Originally published on Happy Endings, July 2011]

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