A Chiaroscuro of Words

I’ve heard it said, if you can live in New Jersey, you can live anywhere. Sometimes, I believe it’s true. Certainly, 2011 has been a year to test the heartiest of souls.

For those of you not in the northeast, and who weren’t affected by the extremes, I provide a little recap of the year so far.

The year started off with record cold, blizzards, and record snowfall.


Spring was wet, summer was wetter, thanks in large part to Hurricane Irene. Did I mention, this summer was also extremely hot, setting temperature records on multiple days? It felt more like Texas than the Garden State.

Oh, and just in case you thought there was nothing else you could possibly have to endure, Mother Nature threw in an earthquake, too.  Sure, why not?

As writers, these extremes excite us. Weather helps us set the scene, creates tension, joy, anticipation, fear. I have truly come to dislike the physical restrictions imposed by extreme amounts of snowfall. However, I also find joy and inspiration in the elegant form of my neighbor’s giant blue spruce, bedecked head to toe in a gown of snow, spangled as if with sequins as it glistens in the sun. Somehow, that glorious tree manages to beckon me out into the cold.

A couple of weeks ago, I took one of my favorite walks, on the Henry Hudson trail between Atlantic Highlands and Highlands. The path, partly paved, partly covered in fine gravel, winds alongside the bay, past large rocks set as breakers, over streams that empty into the larger body of water. The other side of the path is a steep hillside, atop which are spacious seashore colonial homes whose spectacular views I covet. I really need to make friends with someone who lives up on that hill!

In summer, sea grasses grow ten feet tall between the trail and the bay, seed fronds waving in the breeze. Any whiff of air off the water gets absorbed by the grasses before they reach my skin, and the hot sun, high in a deep cerulean sky, bakes down on the exposed sections of the trail. Sea birds provide a not-quite musical score. Cormorants bob about, their backs barely visible, so low do they sit in the water. I hurry to the shaded parts of the trail for relief.

On this day, however, the air was cool, about 60 degrees. The sun, which now hangs lower, turned the sky a watery turquoise, which reflected in the still bay. The shore birds were silent, only the occasional duck or goose appearing. Crows took the place of the seabirds, perching on those same seed fronds, now dry. There were no waves, barely a ripple. Much of the trail, even in mid-morning, was already in shade, and the air was light, as opposed to the oppressive, heavy, humid air of summer. It occurred to me that this different air was just the harbinger of another winter, but it didn’t bother me. In fact, the way the light played on the water, and through the almost bare branches of the trees, was soothing.



In theatre, and in art, the play of light and dark (chiaroscuro, in Italian) is used by the artist to evoke emotion, whether it be awe, sadness, hope, joy or despair. Warm golden colors or light signify hope and renewal. Cool blues denote mystery, nighttime, sadness, despair. Blinding whites inspire awe. Red portends death. Black, of course, is the color of mourning.


Landscape by Jan Both





As writers, I like to say we use a chiaroscuro of words to evoke these feelings. Dark words portend doom, bright words describe joy. Sharp words provide humor, dull words are boring. Different words are used when writing suspense, versus writing romantic comedy. Our word choices affect how the reader feels about a character, the scene, and the story in general. Every word must be measured for the effect it has on the reader. Writing from the wrong angle can ruin a scene. After all, in the theatre of life, it’s all about the lighting.

The quality of the light that day in early November inspired me, not only because it renewed my spirit, as a walk with nature invariably does.  It reminded me to look at the same scene I had worked on, that I was so familiar with, from a different angle.

So, what about you? What makes you view the world in a better light? What things make you more hopeful?  Or, put another way, when has changing the way you looked at something made it better?

Wishing you bright, inspiring days,



Leave a comment


  1. Michele

     /  November 14, 2011

    Janet, I imagined walkingalong with you on that path. Today is a beautiful Autumn day, snow-free. I think I’ll go and get my “chiaroscuro” on!

  2. What a lovely, thoughtful post, Janet. Love the “chiaroscuro of words” idea. As someone trained in the arts, I am very aware of the colors and textures around me, and they definitely influence my mood. And so in writing I try to create visual images in my scenes, as I feel they really do influence the “look” and feel of charatcers and settings

    • jmpwriter

       /  November 14, 2011

      Cara, thank you for your kind words. The way nature is lit can be quite breathtaking, and it is one of the things I love about living here in the northeast.

  3. New Jersey is a great place to expand a writer’s imagination.
    Big Cities…little hamlets…dense forests…inlets and coves that would stir anyone’s creative juices…
    Great post


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