Since I began this blog it has been repeatedly and forcibly brought to my attention that the Brontë sisters permeate modern life on an almost-daily basis. There I was the other day, reading a new crime novel by a new writer -- young Irish actress Tana French -- called In the Woods, which is incidentally an absolute cracker, the kind of book that makes you understand why the Irish are just better than the rest of us at this literature business (the Brontës were of course half-Irish) -- anyway, there I was, deep in this grim and very contemporary tale of murdered children, a story with the mist of the supernatural glimmering around its edges, when I came upon this:
'In a little bookshop off Grafton Street I found a beautiful old copy of Wuthering Heights -- thick pages browning at the edges, rich red binding stamped in gold, 'For Sara, Christmas 1922' in faded ink on the title page.
... Cassie was already at her desk. "What's this?" she demanded.
"An apology. I am so, so sorry ..."'
See what French is doing there? Not just the force of Brontë books as message and gift from one detective to another, but also the most casual and effortless spin off into a very Brontë-ish narrative moment: another time, another place, faded relics of lives lived (clearly) intensely: a bit of mystery from the past that heightens this book's own use of past mysteries as part of its plot.
And who, thinks the reader in half a heartbeat, was Sara? Who gave her the book, and what sort of message was it conveying, as a gift? What has happened to these people? French momentarily positions her readers as a lot of Lockwoods, trying to decipher the messages from the past: scratches on a windowsill, scribblings in a margin, dates carved over farmhouse doors and ghostly visitations in the middle of the night. What's going on here in one apparently trivial little scene is a transaction heavily freighted with meaning and history, a complex exchange that tells you a massive amount about these two characters and their relationship.
It'd be a great Creative Writing exercise in characterisation, especially if you were trying to establish the nature of the relationship between two of your characters. What books would they give each other? Under what circumstances? What messages would those gifts convey, and how would the transaction enrich and kick along your own story?