Bill Harrison used to say to us in workshop, Block that metaphor, Block that metaphor. You could imagine that in some Golden Age back at Vanderbilt there existed sophisticated cheerleaders cruising in tasteful but devastating skirts and sweaters, chanting, Block that metaphor.
If you are going to write a metaphor into historical fiction and make it reveal character, you need to do some thinking along the timeline. Your own life metaphors are enriched or polluted by all kinds of contemporary gadgetry, some new knowledge and theory, and, of course, your own moment’s contemporary bullcrap and huggermugger.
Your characters are just as rooted in their timeframe. Here’s an example. This is in the sequel to Morkan’s Quarry. The time is about 1872, a time when there is a recovery beginning, and our main character, Leighton Shea Morkan, is sensing the blessings of peace. I wanted to get in his exhausted head after a day at the quarry.
Now, Leighton’s very smart, but I have to think in timelines. Leighton knows a lot about calcium, and a lot about where it is and how it acts in nature, and a lot about calcium carbonate, limestone, the stuff upon which he makes his living, CaCO3. But guess what? He won’t know the periodic table or that symbol. That table we all memorized (well, we should have) was created by a Russian chemist in 1869. Leighton’s formal schooling was by Jesuits in St. Louis before the Civil War. So the way I use the metaphor of calcium is going to have to be natural, elemental (pun-pun), and stripped of some of what I know about it. Did you know that it makes up 5% of the earth’s crust, behaves so like a metal that it has long been classified as such, and yet a primary way this dead stuff comes to be and moves around in nature is through some secretion, production, effusion, interaction by living creatures, me, you, shellfish, plankton. You have bone cells that divide and when they were still growing made compounds in your body that were astonishingly, chemically akin to CaCO3. Your teeth, less their amazing enamel, are very near this compound, too.
Now I need to block some of that metaphor. Leighton is smart, but he won’t know all that in any academic way. It has to be organic, and frankly the book won’t need this unless the metaphor opens the character’s heart to the reader.
Let’s try it, mindful of our timeline, mindful of what he knows and what we know. And one contextual hint, he’s sitting in the mudroom to his house—we don’t have many of those in suburbia, though I grew up with the linoleum equivalent. In the adjoining kitchen are his wife, Patricia, and an African American former slave and servant, Judith. Beneath him are stones he and his deceased father mined and set for the floor. His father, upon returning from imprisonment in Gratiot Prison during the war, kept the unnerving habit of sleeping on the floor in the mudroom. He could not sleep in a bed after his sleeping on the floor so long in prison.
Maybe I have the metaphor blocked and timeline just right. And above all, we need to keep the metaphor drilling down into Leighton’s heart. Here goes:
On the stone at my feet, an agony, five comets scratched across a gray firmament. Da’s fingernails there driven by nightmare that could burn limestone to marble. Patricia’s milk was gray. Judith’s milk, I can still see it, hovering and thin at Gustasson’s lips, gray. In the kitchen, warm warbling of two women roasting oxtail… they do not fight any longer? Our milk, our bone, gray. Five white comets drawn by bone just harder than the calcium in the gray stone. A clanging mishap—the women laugh. The sorrowful passion of him clawing there desperate in the dead of night. White comets, white metal, ever seeking. A gasp of happy exasperation, and Patricia calls my name, Leighton Shea Moorken, the Devil with you! Asleep with eyes open! Komm! Whatever did I do to justify bounty and peace?