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.


Terry Stone said...

Great post, Gillian, and I love that picture.

When I do descriptions, I try to visulize myself at the place. What would I be feeling? How would I be feeling about being there? Where would I look first if I just arrived here (since the heroines are just arriving in towns in both of my wips)? What's the weather like, and would if affect my mood?

I don't know if it helps, but that's what I do. I'm not much into the lush descriptions, I pretty much try to describe it as plainly as I can, leaving alot to the readers imagination, because that's what I do. If I don't like something in a book I read, I change it in my mind. So I describe the setting but leave room for the reader to put their spin on it. At least, I hope I do.

Terry Stone said...

Oops, forgot my description of your picture.

An slight ping follows each drop of dew as it lands on the ferns below. A soft rustling of leaves announces the presence of life as a rabbit forages for it's breakfast. The fog lands on my face with a dampness that both chills and invigorates. And although you can smell the underlaying decay of fallen leaves, you can taste the freshness of a new day.

Gorgeous picture, I hope I done it justice.

Gillian Layne said...

Wow, Terry Jo. . . I'd say that MORE than did the picture justice. :) Beautiful! That last sentence is especially evocative.

Alice Audrey said...

I don't do nearly enough description. I think it was about three episodes into Suzie's House before I gave anyone an eye color. Even now I forget to mention things like that.

Kelly Krysten said...

I definitely need help with my descriptions. My characters need a more grounded universe for

Kelly Krysten said...

Oh ,and , Terry what a great description!

Gillian Layne said...

Alice, I hear you on the eye color. I started talking about someone's mossy green depths :) and I couldn't remember which character it was.

Hi Kelly! Terry did do a wonderful job, didn't she?

Your new group blog certainly is going well!:)

terrio said...

I was about to say I'm not good at descriptions of locations, but I like Terry's philosophy better. I keep it simple and let the reader fill in the spaces. Though from her description of that picture, I think Terry might be pulling our leg.

The first thing I noticed in that picture was the light. I love when light plays through things like that. The shadows and the perfect lines of the rays. They look as if you could reach out and wrap you fingers around them. So alive.

Gillian Layne said...

Oh, Terrio, that was so pretty! I'm really enjoying this--I love how people pick up such different things from a single picture.

Maggie Robinson said...

What a gorgeous post, both picture and word-wise. To Rescue a Rogue is one of my favorite books, and I truly believe there are "thin" places, as they say in Scotland, where the mundane meets the divine. Thanks for reminding me to use all my senses when writing.

Gillian Layne said...

Thanks Maggie. I've never heard that saying about Scotland. I love learning new phrases.