Guest Post: From Visual to Verbal – How my Design Career Influences my Writing by Jacqueline Firkins

I’ve been designing costumes and scenery for the theatre for about twenty-five years now. I got into the career because I love working with a group of creative minds to bring a story to an audience. I particularly like developing the world the characters inhabit, and the feel of the characters themselves. How do they choose to express themselves? What objects or garments do they hold precious? Do they dress to be seen or to disappear? What resources do they have available? Connections to their past? Hopes for their future? Do they intentionally align themselves with a group or make themselves stand out?

These are questions we all grapple with, though seldom on a conscious level every day. With costume design work, they rise to the surface and need to be answered. I find the work endlessly fascinating. I do less scenic design than costume work because I love the detail, focus on personal expression, and working relationship I build with actors when I design costumes. However, scenery often allows for bigger symbolic gestures. I like these too!

When I was about 35, I developed Essential Tremor (known as ET). My motor skills decreased and I came to grips with the reality that drawing and doing detailed sewing work wouldn’t always be possible. I considered how else I might use my skills, training, and passion. Rather than take a script and extract the characters within, I began developing my own characters. Pretty soon all the hours spent over a sewing machine shifted into hours spent with a laptop as my brain burst with ideas begging to hit the page.

Ironically, when I first started writing, I got a lot of feedback on how I never described anything visually. I was so accustomed to reading scripts and working through a design process about the clothes and setting, I failed to weave these choices into a novel. With a script, the designers add visuals. A director adds blocking. The actors add gestures and tones of voice. A script isn’t a finished work. It’s a blueprint for production. A novel is a finished work. Everything needs to be included. Once I learned that lesson, I had more fun with setting and clothes.

As with my design work, everything in my written work has a meaning. This bears out in HSAOBT. I don’t pick a colour or a texture without careful deliberation. I’m also a big fan of visual symbols. For example, Sebastian is seen at one point wearing his brother’s college t-shirt. Later he wears his own. This signifies his shift out of his brother’s shadow and into more self-awareness. Edie gradually finds a compromise between the frumpy, second hand clothes she’s used to and the high fashion her cousins thrust on her. Over time, she develops a look that mirrors her growth as a character. She learns to blend her own story with the stories of those around her.

We all express identity through our clothes, and that identity can take several tries to figure out, or in some cases, one big epiphany. Edie’s in the first category. Julia falls more in the latter category. She’s always trying to wear what everyone else tells her she should wear. As women, we’re bombarded with these messages. I tried to critique that throughout the novel while making each clothing choice for the characters signify something about who they are in that moment and where they are in their character arc.

Edie’s prom dress was particularly fun to design/write. It’s a pivotal moment for her. She’s learning to express herself more and she’s still rebelling against her cousins’ makeover plans, but she also wants to fit in and feel beautiful. To stay true to her character, her dress had to be second-hand. Edie’s a re-purposer at heart. I didn’t want her to lose that. The dress then goes through a transformation, just like Edie does. It arrives in Mansfield dingy and rumpled, but its beauty is inherent, even if others don’t see that right away. Edie finds a way to give it more life by adding color and texture. It becomes something new, something more personal.

The prom scene in HSAOBT parallels a ball scene from Austen’s Mansfield Park, in which the heroine wears a white dress and has to decide which necklace to wear—having been offered one from each of her love interests. I wanted to keep the dilemma from the source material, but shift it so Edie makes the choice that feels right for her, which is different than the choice Austen made with her heroine. I carry the symbolism of the necklaces all the way through to the final chapter of the novel. Also—prom is the big Cinderella moment, so I kept the glass slippers. They’re such a great icon, layered with symbolic meaning. I tried to ensure they not only made their entrance, they impacted the scene.

Every location in HSAOBT also holds meaning: which streets are straight and which ones wind, what scene is located at the highest elevation, and what’s on the walls of every room. I select my interiors and exteriors carefully. When the characters are outside, they’re often more expressive. Inside, they’re sometimes more trapped by their confines. Edie has trees on her wall. Sebastian has boats. Images of what’s outside brought to the interior but stuck in frames. There’s a tension in all of that. I don’t expect—or want—a reader to sense any of that on an analytic level. But I do want those choices to support the story and align with the emotional journey.

I’ve also had a blast using my costume design and construction experience for book promotion on social media. Releasing a book that so overtly celebrates love and romance provided an opportunity to mirror that sensibility with a line of buoyant, heart-themed dresses. I’ve designed a lot of tragedies lately. Making cheerful poofy dresses was a happy respite. I’d also be thrilled if any of the dresses helped a girl like Edie feel a little more confident, a little more beautiful, and a little more joyous as she walked into a party or a dance, full of anticipation, the heroine of her own story.

I’m a writer, costume designer, and lover of beautiful things. I’m on the fulltime faculty in the Department of Theatre & Film at the University of British Columbia where I also take any writing class they’ll let me into. When not obsessing about where to put the buttons or the commas, I can be found running by the ocean, eating excessive amounts of gluten, listening to earnest love songs, and pretending my dog understands every word I say.

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Couple leaning on brick wall

In this charming debut about first love and second chances, a young girl gets caught between the boy next door and a playboy. Perfect for fans of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Mansfield, Massachusetts is the last place seventeen-year-old Edie Price wants to spend her final summer before college. It’s the home of wealthy suburbanites and prima donnas like Edie’s cousins, who are determined to distract her from her mother’s death with cute boys and Cinderella-style makeovers. Edie has her own plans, and they don’t include a prince charming.

But as Edie dives into schoolwork and applying for college scholarships, she finds herself drawn to two Mansfield boys who start vying for her attention. First there’s Sebastian, Edie’s childhood friend and first love. He’s sweet and smart and . . . already has a girlfriend. Then there’s Henry, the local bad boy and all-around player. He’s totally off limits, even if his kisses are chemically addictive.

Both boys are trouble. Edie can’t help but get caught between them. Someone’s heart is going to break. Now she just has to make sure it isn’t hers.

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This post does contain affiliate links. I will receive a small amount from any purchases made through Book Depository at no extra cost to you.

If you were to write a story, what passion of yours would find its way into the book? Let Jacqueline and I know in the comments!

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: From Visual to Verbal – How my Design Career Influences my Writing by Jacqueline Firkins”

  1. This was such an interesting guest post! I loved hearing about how being used to scripts impacted initial creative writing endeavors. It was also fun to read about how much thought went into costuming in a novel, as that’s not something I often read/hear about!

    Liked by 1 person

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