Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Writing where you are...

Right now, I'm reading a thriller based in Bulgaria called Valley of Thracians by Ellis Shuman. It's really good, and Shuman does a great job describing the setting. Here's an example:

"The weathered tenements he passed on the road looked just like those he had imagined Eastern Europe would have, with laundry drooping from metal-railed balconies and faded, chipped paint barely concealing the aging cement bricks of the structures. Graffiti sketched in oversized letters and psychedelic hues shouted at him from the concrete walls..."

I admire writers who can describe places in such detail, partly because it's one of the skills I struggle with. No matter how many stories I've written, there comes a point where I think I have the work completed, and then I read a really amazing description by another writer who uses all the senses to describe the smells, the feel of the air, the hue of the grass... And I think, "Oh, man! I haven't described my settings at all!" Then I go back and re-think my work, trying to put myself into each scene, inserting key details, imagining what the characters see. It happens every time!

Perhaps it's because I tend to focus more on the characters and their dialogue, but I always have to remind myself that they are LOCATED somewhere -- and that that place matters to the readers! Plus, the setting is an impotant tool for writers -- we can use it to subtly set the tone of a scene (is the sky overcast, creating an ominous feeling?) and actually push the plot forward (what does the character see? Someone hovering in a darkened doorway? A dusty lace curtain twitching?).

When we talk about Southern literature, we automatically assume the setting is the South, and that in itself creates meaning before the reader has even turned one page! What do I think of when I imagine the South? Mosquitoes, heat, humidity, condensation on iced tea glasses, frigid air conditioning, cars, highways, lush greenery. That's my South. But I have to remember that others have different assumptions -- someone from Bulgaria, for example, may never have tasted syrupy sweet iced tea. As writers, we must constantly think outside ourselves and describe places as though we've never been there. It's a lesson I have to keep reminding myself!! What's your experience writing about setting?


Lisa Cresswell said...

Oh, I totally agree! I almost completely ignore setting when I write a first draft unless it's absolutely crucial to the action of the story. I always have to go back and embellish. My big one is trees - what kind of tree?? how big? what season? I do love to add smells to description, but I often forget to. I thin smell can bring so many memories to a reader. Powerful stuff!

Louisa said...

Thanks for sharing your experience, Lisa! I always forget smell, too! And you're right -- it's ironic because smells do evoke such stronge memories. Yes, I'm really understanding the importance of revising; you just can't do it all in the first one or two drafts... I think I did about 30 drafts of my novel!