A few days ago, I posted on @jenniferwaitteauthor about a photograph that popped up on my Instagram feed. The photograph stunned me, not only because it depicted an ethereal young girl who could easily be my character Michelle Seko at that same age but also because of what she was wearing—a black velvet dress with a white crocheted collar. In my FB post, I committed to write a blog that would elaborate on the significance of this black dress.
A description of this dress appears in The Fifth Language. The photograph did not inspire its appearance in the story. On the contrary, I wrote it into the story long before I saw the photograph on IG. Michelle is recounting to the character Jason Henrey the traumatic experience of her first piano recital, when she was four years old. She says to him, “The morning of the concert my father dressed me in a black velvet dress with a white crocheted yoke. It was beautiful. I loved that dress. Wearing it was the only thing about the concert that I was looking forward to.”
She continues, “When I saw the stage and the empty seats of the auditorium, I felt my heart explode out of my chest. My father tried to reason with me. I was paralyzed with fright. I couldn’t breathe so I started screaming. Then I vomited all over the front of my dress. It just gurgled up from inside me like a drainpipe overflowing. My father picked me up again and carried me back outside. We went back to the car and I thought we were going home.”
I will fast-forward here. When Michelle and her father leave the auditorium, she thinks they are going home. I don’t want to disclose here what they do instead, as it is integral to the overall story (and would be a spoiler).
Michelle offers to show Jason the video recording of her first recital:
Jason looked on as she logged into the Geneva University Music Archives. “The university has an extensive archive of my father’s work. Video, audio, written works, his memoirs. It is an important collection,” Michelle said as she scrolled through a list of videos and then clicked on one. “This is the entire concert, so I’ll fast forward through the children’s choir.”
Suddenly, there she was, marching across the stage. A tiny version of herself in a puffy, knee-length black velvet dress with a white lace collar and black patent leather shoes. Her hair was gathered into a neat bun on the top of her head and secured with a red bow. Jason could picture the eccentric Alexander Sekovich carefully brushing his little girl’s hair and securing it so perfectly. Jason stared at the video in awe. Four years old and an exact miniature version of her adult self. Rail thin, toothpick legs, sharp features, serious, knowing eyes and an expression of intent focus as she climbed up onto the platform chair. She looked even smaller seated in front of the grand piano.
The dress makes another appearance later on in the story, although I don’t describe it specifically. Again, she is talking to Jason Henrey. The conversation between them begins with her asking him about growing up with three brothers. She then offers some insight into her own childhood, which starkly contrasts his: “When I was a little girl, I wished for a sister. There were only adults in my life. I so wanted a companion who was my own age. I wanted a friend. I would sit in front of the dressing mirror and pretend my reflection was my twin. I would talk to my twin, and she would answer me. We would have tea parties together and dress ourselves in matching outfits. We brushed and braided each other’s hair. I would read to her and she would read to me. I would ask her questions to see if she knew what I knew, and she always answered correctly. My father had a Polaroid camera. He gave it to me with a pack of film and I took a picture of myself and my twin together in our matching outfits. We are both smiling. It is one of my favorite pictures.”
As I wrote this, I pictured young Michelle dressed in the same black velvet dress. My intent was to provide an anecdote which, although simple, illustrated that she lived such a lonely, isolated life that her only friend was her own reflection in the mirror. I had originally written into this paragraph how she had been able to capture both herself and her reflection in the photograph by holding the camera at a certain angle, a selfie before there were selfies. But I took it out. I wanted as little detail as possible—just enough for the reader to understand what she was doing and what it represented.
Descriptions of Michelle appear throughout the story. The reader knows she is 5’6” tall, which is important because she is far below average height for a fashion model, especially one who “walks,” meaning one who is a runway model. She is extremely thin, fined boned and fair skinned. She has long, white-blonde hair, light blue eyes, and extreme features. Her fingers are disproportionately long compared to the width of her narrow hands. All these details are meaningful. Otherwise, I would have left them out and let readers form their own mental images of her. I have collected only a few pictures over the years of young women who resemble my image of Michelle Seko. In a previous blog, I included a photograph of Kirsty Hume that was an early inspiration of the character. In general, however, I have not sought out photographs that best represent this character. I don’t need to; I have an image in my mind of what she looks like. That said, the photograph of the young girl in the black velvet dress is hard ignore. She absolutely could be my character. I have looked through the hundreds of other images of this child on IG. She is a child model and social media sensation named Viola, from Russia, and her mother posts photos of her on a daily basis. @viola_dima_official has 500k+ followers. However, I have not found another photo of her that evokes the same sense of similarity. Like the photo of Kirsty Hume, it is just that one which inspires resemblance, not the person.
Michelle Seko is the only character that is described in detail in the story. For the other characters I just give vague descriptions. While I have in my own mind what these characters look like, I don’t elaborate. I try to do a good job of developing their “character,” but I leave their appearance to the reader’s imagination.