Gathering the Story for “A Dance with Death”

Imagine a sack full of notecards, each containing a single story fragment or idea that all link in some way to one original idea. Now imagine taking that sack full of notecards and shaking it loose in the wind.  Imagine yourself chasing after the cards as they flutter down the street. Your task—to gather as many of them as possible before they blow away.

I wouldn’t call this my process for my contribution to the Triptych this time around, but at times it did feel that way. My mind scribbled dozens of its own notecards when first taking in the rousing, partly-finished music for A Dance with Death. My first impressions were of some kind of swashbuckling situation, swordplay, a duel, but between who exactly was still a little muddy. Perhaps a man of the law and a thief? Perhaps Death is like a thief from a certain perspective if Death is seen to “steal” lives. I dabbled around a bit with this until I saw the preview of the art Candice would be contributing. It was stunning and took the narrative concept introduced by Natalie and reshaped it in a way I had not at all conceived. I wasn’t prepared for it. Down the street the notecards fluttered with my original impressions as I watched, bemused.

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Apparently this same thing happens to Japanese writers. (Hokusai’s “Traveler’s Caught in a Sudden Breeze at Ejiri”)

I had a new set of questions turning the cogs in my brain. In Natalie’s music, I heard a fight, while in Candice’s image, I saw a dance. In the music, two forces were at odds with each other, while in the image, there seemed to be a duality between the two figures. Yin and yang, “dark” and “bright.”

I couldn’t fight the urge to reconcile these ideas in my story, though in the future, each of our contributions to one triptych may not correlate directly to one another in subject matter. What resulted was a creation myth focusing on two personified powers who began the cycle of life and death. (It’s funny to me in hindsight how these two characters align with certain ideas and words associated with “yin” and “yang,” which was never really intentional on my part. A reliable[?] Wikipedia source for the curious: Yin and yang.) In my story’s beginning, these two beings exist in a precious partnership that maintains the balance and distribution of life force in the world. But ultimately, as time goes on, the beings realize a fundamental difference in their beliefs that ultimately disintegrates their partnership. At the passionate height of their confrontation (inspired immensely by Natalie’s composition), the Dark Being inadvertently destroys the Light being, and in so doing destroys the bond the Dark Being had sought to preserve between them. The result—a world in which life, uncontrolled, outpaces death, and reincarnation exists, along with spirits, ghosts, and other supernatural beings.

It was an entirely different type of story for me as a writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed telling the tale once I’d finally gathered precisely the notecards I was looking for. This is again an experience that brings home to me what a great exercise it is to collaborate. Who’s to say I ever would have written anything like a creation myth if it hadn’t been for Natalie’s original musical idea and then the illustration from Candice inspired by it?  One thing is certain: we’ll continue to generate fresh ideas in this ongoing collaborative exploration.

If you haven’t had a chance to check out our latest Triptych, look no further: A Dance with Death.

Also! On April 9th the Triptych Trio will be hanging out at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the largest book festival in the United States.  We hope to some day have our own booth there, but for now there’s more than a enough fun at the festival for an artist, composer, and writer.  See you there, fellow bibliophiles!

A Dance with Death

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At the world’s beginning, two great beings brought Life to the land and seas.  Their images still exist on ancient temple walls.  The Light Being, garbed in pale robes billowing and boundless as the clouds.  And the Dark Being, wielding at times a glaive, at times a scythe, but most often a clean and ready sword.

Through their union, they made Life in the depths below the salty waves.  As ages passed, Life spread slowly under the control of these two original parents and the pact they shared.  The Light gifted a small piece of its essence to every creature, and when each creature met its end, the Dark was there to retrieve that piece and return it to the Light.  And, grieving, the Light remembered each piece it ever gave and every creature that ever carried it.  With every piece the Dark returned, the Light’s sorrow only grew.

“Why can our children not exist forever, as we do?” the Light finally asked.  “I would rather they carry on my essence than lose it.”

“It does not belong to them,” said the Dark.  “They are earthly.  Their bodies are not made to carry it forever.  Therefore they cannot keep it.”

“But why must their existence end?” asked the Light.  “Why can it not continue beyond the body, the core of their being, carrying my essence?”

“Then how would your essence ever be returned to you, with you giving and giving with no replenishment?  And how would this eternal Life, now boundless in the world, ever be controlled?” questioned the Dark.  “Who is to say where it would go, what bodies or forms it might choose?”

“Perhaps it is not meant to be controlled,” said the Light.

And with those words, the Light Being and the Dark Being both knew that their bond was no longer as it had been.  Though they both were bound as one by their pact, would they now be at odds evermore?  Could one win the argument?

Meet the Writer!

Our third Q&A features our writer, Holly Hoenshell-Nelson. If you missed the first two Q&A, find out more about our composer here and our artist here!


What are your aspirations?

Aspirations…Mine are probably nothing that unusual for a “writery” type. I aspire to some day have a career centered around my writing, in whatever form that might take. Whereas the ultimate aspiration before in my life was to become a novelist, since I started collaborating with some very gifted individuals on a variety of projects, I’ve realized how invigorating it is to dabble in different mediums and genres. While I still aspire to become a published novelist, I would love to continue to collaborate with my friends on various artistic endeavors (operas, graphic novels, children’s books, and whatever else!). Another aspiration? Establishing and maintaining a web presence. I’ve started constructing my own website to feature a blog and showcase some work, and hopefully it will help me track my progress on some big stories I have in the works.

What inspires you?

My mind gets such a charge out of so many things. As with my friends, fairytales have always intrigued me, both the traditional and the reinvented/reinterpreted. You have things like the Grimm brothers’ fairytales…and then you have things like Tangled. I grew up on Disney and don’t mind at all the nostalgic sway it holds over me. I also remember distinctly the first time I read what really happened in the traditional telling of Sleeping Beauty (and don’t read that version to your kids, folks). When it comes down to it, I’m fascinated by the ways stories evolve, and I’d love to try my hand at re-imagining a few traditional fairytales myself. You know, just for funsies.

Lothlorien Concept Art - Paul Lasaine

Lothlorien Concept Art by Paul Lasaine for The Lord of the Rings

For anybody who has read the biggest novel I have in the works, it’s no mystery that Tolkien is a huge inspiration. Not so much in craft, but in world-building. I admit I haven’t touched The Silmarillion yet, but I have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and watched the films as well. Talk about being transported to another world!

Mythology too is something that tickles my brain, along with scientific articles relating to psychology, sociology, memory and brain functions, primitive instincts, early man and evolution, and archeological findings. Closely linked to that is world history—always an enormous source of inspiration for my writing. (Please don’t ask me to narrow it down to one era/region.) I also probably have an unhealthy fascination with mummification…which may eventually emerge in a future Triptych…

I hope you guys like bog mummies.

Prelude to the Dance

Emperor, your sword won’t help you out
Sceptre and crown are worthless here
I’ve taken you by the hand
For you must come to my dance
— Anonymous: Vierzeiliger oberdeutscher Totentanz, Heidelberger Blockbuch (ca. 1460)

The stage is set, the candles lit, and the curtain will soon rise on our danse macabre… But first, a tantalizing little prelude for your eyes and ears.

The foundation of the musical material is derived from an idea I explored and then set aside, unused, during a brainstorming phase for a collaborative Masters flute recital presented by Noniko Hsu at the University of Michigan in October 2015. Asah and Raeq wove a story through flute performance, manipulated video projections, dance, and animation sequences. It featured two main characters, one representing life and growth, the other death and decay.

I’ve rarely1 had time to resurrect abandoned fragments, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to shed new light on an unused motif. This piece is not a literal representation of the danse macabre (“an artistic genre of late-medieval allegory on the universality of death”2), but the parallel was irresistible to include and it spares my Logic rants ramblings for another day. Plus who doesn’t love checking out creepy medieval artwork?3

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A segment of Lübecker Totentanz by Bernt Notke (ca.1463). Very cheerful.

I decided to keep my working title, A Dance with Death, and accompanied my initial sketch for Candice and Holly with a few suggestions, the strongest of which was: this “dance” is really a battle. The other concepts were hazier: one character could represent “Death,” due to his or her prowess in battle, or alternatively could be battling a representation of Death? Perhaps a master swordsman/woman with a swift and sinuous style of fighting?

Needless to say, Candice and Holly ran with this premise in an awesome direction and transformed it into something even better, and I’m excited to share the finished triptych with you next week. Here is a taste of the forthcoming conflict:

Tune in Tuesday, March 22nd for our fourth triptych, A Dance with Death!


1 See: never.
2 Thanks Wikipedia.
3 Hieronymus Bosch is where it’s at.

Retracing My Steps for “The Path Witch”

She smiled, her lips bending without opening.  Then she turned away with a careless air and began sweeping.  She moved into the woods as she swept, making her way without hurry.  And where he knew very well that there had been no path before, a path now appeared in her wake, bare and smooth.

The Path Witch, Holly Hoenshell-Nelson

You know those movie trailers that give you a nice summary of the the whole movie you’re about to see? The ones that convince you to wait until the movie is released on DVD? The same pitfall of condensing a complex story into a rapid blur of events can be true of illustration. You don’t want to spoil the story. You should only give a small taste of what could happen to tempt your audience down the wandering path of storytelling.

For me, the most interesting part of the story is the Path Witch’s magic. It also happens to be central to the story, which is a more important reason when it comes to choosing what to illustrate. Next came the question of how to illustrate the Path Witch without literally making a portrait of the Path Witch. Drawing her in detail would kill some of her mystique–by making her more visible, she would become less believable. No problem! I could still suggest the character by her effect on the environment, which includes both her path-making and more subtle effects, like cast shadows.

My thumbnail sketch played around with a variety of paths and shadows. Once I was happy with my final thumbnail, I built a maquette based on the scene. I found that frayed twine does a great job looking like miniature grass blades.

These first two images go along with my initial idea for the composition. On the right you can see my set-up for achieving the perfect cast shadow: a couple of stacked books, natural sunlight, and a very unfortunate Princess Leia action figure. Even with my efforts it turns out that the shadow is hard to make out, especially at an angle. I had my doubts, but still continued with my illustration until I got a second opinion from someone else that convinced me otherwise. Second opinions are always good.

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I did a new photo shoot, but this time with part of the witch in-frame. Even just showing the witch’s foot provides more information than the shadow did. Now, we can tell that this character is on the move and has excellent taste in footwear.

A word of caution to maquette-builders everywhere: make sure to fray twine outdoors or in a very well-ventilated area. Fraying the twine releases little particles that cause major headaches if inhaled. Trust me on this one.

If you didn’t get a chance to experience The Path Witch, make sure to do so! We’ve also added a Facebook page if you would like to follow us there and a newsletter you can subscribe to for email updates!

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The Path Witch

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Once upon a time, there lived an unhappy farmer at the edge of a poor village. The woman he’d loved and had known since childhood had married another man from a better town. In his loneliness, the farmer had married a young widow shortly after, a chiding woman he soon regretted ever wedding.  She had a daughter who despised him and the world in general, and they all lived together in a rickety cottage, farming fields that yielded fewer crops with every year.

I’m sick of this wretched life, thought the farmer one evening, as he unyoked his dusty, old mule and led her to the barn.  There had to be someplace better out there, with dark, fertile soil he could farm into green, bountiful fields. Someplace to start anew.  From then on he began to imagine that place, embellishing it a little more each day.

Then one evening as he walked the perimeter of his land, he saw a girl he’d never met before lurking in the shrubs between his fields and the woods. She looked to be in the last year of childhood.  Her lips were dark, and though her inky eyes glinted in the sunset, her hair was a dull, leaden darkness, like iron covered in dust.  He called out to her.