Thursday, July 8, 2010

Things I Realized in France (part 1)

I don't describe places in my fiction.

I mean, I do, to the extent that a character is observing something s/he finds relevant, but I haven't ever written one of those panoramic scenes where the locale is described ever-so-vividly to the reader.

My first novel is set in New York City, where I grew up. As a result, I never worked to describe the city in which my characters work and live and play. For me, Manhattan simply is. It's a city, like any other. Sometimes the bustle of the streets or the interior design of an office building lobby or the particular content of a neon sign stands out for my main character, and when it does, the reader sees what she sees, notices what she notices. But do I spend any time actively describing New York City in the novel? No. I didn't think it was relevant.

And then I spent a day in Paris.

How on earth would I even BEGIN to describe Paris? The profusion of architectural detail alone is staggering. Sure, I could describe any one individual landmark if it was integral to the plot, but what if it's incidental to the story? How would I handle the fact that you can pass Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and about three dozen other incredible bridges, sculptures, and buildings of great antiquity and beauty within a single 2-hour walk? I can't describe it all without bogging down the story, but neither can I gloss over it entirely, writing as if it's not there at all...

This will require some serious pondering. And I may have to write a story set in Paris just to figure it out. ACK!

WHAT IS ONE THING YOU THINK YOU DON'T DO (or don't do with natural ease) IN YOUR WRITING?

(And, sorry for the delay in posting what should have been a Wednesday post. Computer issues up the wazoo over here.)


  1. I don't always listen to my characters and the secrets they whisper to me. Sometimes I am like a parent, guiding a toddler by the hand, stuck in my own agenda. When I can let them go, let them follow their own path, the writing is always so much stronger.

  2. From a reader perspective, I find a lot of place description annoying. I'm more interested in the characters.

  3. I also have trouble describing places.

    But I was recently handed Flaubert. I haven't read Flaubert since I took French Lit in high school, and back then I was just trying to make sense of the French. I never read it in a language I could understand naturally.

    So when I read a passage from a Sentimental Education in English, about the Latin Quarter, I nearly cried it was so perfect. That's props to Flaubert *and* to the translator.

    What was so perfect about it, you ask? The description was not just the immobile and physical. And it wasn't just sight. It was sound and smell and flavor. It was impressionistic, in that it glanced over images or things in progress that gave you a sense of the place more than what it looked like specifically. Here here, I'm going to find it and reproduce it:

    He'd wander aimlessly up to the Latin Quarter, normally so full of noise and bustle but deserted at this time of year, for the students had all gone home to their families. The stillness of the high walls of the various academic institutions made them seem longer and even grimmer than usual; there were all sorts of peaceful sounds: birds fluttering in cages, lathes whirring, a cobbler hammering; old clothesmen would stand in the middle of the street casting a hopeful eye up towards every window, without success. In the back of a deserted cafe, the lady behind the bar would be seen yawning amidst her unemptied decanters of wine; the newspapers lay undisturbed on the reading room tables; in the work-yards, linen was flapping about in the gusty wind. From time to time he'd stop to look into a bookshop window; a bus grazing the pavement as it came down the street would make him turn his head; and when he reached the Luxembourg Gardens he'd call a halt.

    -- Flaubert, A Sentimental Education

    The reason this is amazing is that it doesn't really talk about the way the place looks very much, and when it does, it's not to discuss the architecture but to talk about how grim the academic buildings look in stillness now that the students are gone. That calls to mind a much sharper image than to describe the architechture itself...and it doesn't really matter. The rest of it impressions, things happening around the protagonist as he wanders around, the things that stand out.

    I'm terrible at this, but I firmly believe it's a muscle you can exercise and make stronger...

  4. Woah. I didn't mean to write a novel *here*. Sorry!

  5. I really enjoy novels with a strong sense of place. I have had Sentimental Education checked out of the library for the last few months--now I am inspired to read it! However, as Amy said, I don't really want to be bogged down by paragraphs of description of the architecture or the landscape.

    For a television example, Sex and the City has a very strong sense of place. It really wouldn't be the same show if it took place in Idaho. The city informs the characters, creates the mood, slips into the plot, etc. It's not just a skyline in the background; it's integrated into the whole show. Maybe your novel does something similar with place?

    (I like how Lisa references Flaubert and I reference an old HBO show. Ha!)

    As for your question, I think I'm really bad at "action scenes." If I had to write a fight scene or a dance scene or something, it would come out pretty tortured.

  6. You put your finger on one of the things I adore the most about Paris. I almost started sobbing at the beauty of Notre Dame when I went inside for the first time.

    As to what I don't do well in my writing... dialog. Dialog is really difficult for me; I frequently feel that I'm writing words that no one would ever say out loud. I'm trying to push myself by writing longer works (short stories play to this weakness, I feel, as I can frequently craft them to have no dialog at all). We'll see!

  7. Sex scenes. I simply can't write one. With luck, I'll never need to.

  8. Lisa brought up one of the best tips on writing description I've found. It's from Ray Bradbury, and he said to not simply describe something, but to give the character's impression of it. So that you're describing the character (or tone or mood) at the same time.

    So for the photo above, if it's a mystery, you'd say, "The building loomed over us, forlorn of any greenery. All bare stone, and yet hiding caverns of decadent history."

    But if it's a romance, "The gorgeous stonework shone in the sunset light, so that I wanted to rub my hand along it."

    Two very different reactions from two very different viewpoints.

  9. I actually did write a story set in Paris. Never been there, but the wonder that is Google Maps Street View did me a solid in that department. :)

    Welcome back, good lady!

  10. I'm terrible at setting the scene, especially at giving sensory details. I try to describe the way a place feels, sounds, smells, etc., but it takes some conscious work. It definitely makes my writing better, though!