Sunday, May 4, 2008
A Picture's Worth . . .
. . . a thousand words? Maybe. Perhaps a hundred or so is a bit more on the mark. Really, how often have you seen a picture of a person or location and then experienced the real thing, only to think "Oh! Not quite what I had imagined."
A picture can give you the visual within a limited framework. But you're missing out on the sounds, the smells, the feel of a place. I do believe certain places (and heaven knows, people) give off a feel that is unlike anyplace else. Certain holy places have it. Jo Beverley talks about it at the end of To Rescue a Rogue as the "chi " or pure energy of Brideswell. (You haven't read the book? Go read the book! You will love it.)
So those of us who choose to write about places we've yet to experience face an interesting challenge. We need to get across the essence of a place (and time) that helps the reader immerse themselves in the story--and we need to avoid sounding like a travel log. It helps to key in on the sense that's most affecting the character at the time and focus on that. And there is nothing like reading first hand accounts of natives and visitors. Natives can let you know what it is about their home they value and dislike the most. Visitors can express what most struck them when they first arrived, and what was the most last impression when they left.
I like this bit from Luck Be A Lady by Betina Krahn:
"Now, the damp earth chill of the thick stone walls and worn oaken pews carried the forlorn mustiness of age and disuse. Forgotten, she realized; it smelled forgotten."
Betina's descriptions are lush. We have the visual, and we have the smell, and we know how these combine to create the feeling of this place for this specific character.
This bit from Ten Big Ones is a great example of Janet Evanovich's voice:
"He's an oily little guy with slicked back hair, pointy-toed shoes, and a bunch of gold chains hanging around his scrawny tanning salon-tanned neck."
Janet's descriptions are stark, vivid, and simple. We know enough to fill in the gaps. We're ready for the story.
This is a bit from my work. The hero is concentrating on the food, and the fact that he's never been in this particular room before:
"Low, angry voices drifted from the far side of the room, beyond a rough-hewn table strewn with an assortment of copper pots, a large plucked chicken, and several root vegetables. The tangy scent of rosemary and onion suggested all hope of food had not yet been abandoned. "
So how do you approach description? Is it something to draw out and revisit, or do you stick with just enough to ground the dialogue? What strikes you about the forest picture (above): the light, the shadow, the stillness, the early morning foragers skittering through the fallen leaves, the damp smell of last night's rain? Could it be Oregon, New Hampshire, Scotland, Columbia? Go ahead and try to describe it based on your frame of reference.