Monday, 18 June 2012

Describing Places

The holidays are looming and lots of writers are heading off for places with notebooks hoping to capture some local colour that they can use in their writing.  But what to capture, and how to use it?

When I go to a location I'm going to use I take a camera  but my notebook is much more useful.  In it I record any thing about a location that I couldn't get from a guide book, such as smells, sounds and tiny details that you'd only know if you'd actually been there.   I write details about specific places at the front, and more general observations in the middle.

These are some general details about Rome, as written in my notebook:

Tiny cars - have some that look like Cousin It in the Adams family
Down every street lines of parked scooters - Lambrettas & Vespas
Constantly changing road surface - tarmac, cobbles, flagstones
Lots and lots of specialist shops.  Row after row of different knives, for cooking, for doing anything.  Clippers for nails and nasal hair - who would have thought that the world needed so many varieties of nasal hair clippers? Pen knives, chisels for wood carving, Canadian dental cream with retro pictures of Canadian Mountie, at the back an advertising poster with Mountie plus blonde haired girl in red chequered shirt, drawn into impossibly tiny waist and v 50s pointy breasts.
More is definitely not less here.
Pope shop - red, purple, scarlet, orange. Flat shoes for nuns - 69 pairs.

(I can remember counting the shoes.)

This ended up in A Single to Rome as:

    Another cobbled narrow street, then another, punctuated by random shops.  One was selling nothing but clerical items, everything from wimples and dog collars to shining gold-embroidered capes fit for a pope, and sixty-nine pairs of sensible shoes and sandals in shades of grey, beige and black.  Another had nothing but rows and rows of different types of knives.  Knives for cooking, for cutting, for hacking down jungle undergrowth, penknives and chisels for wood carving, and an extraordinary selection of nasal-hair clippers.  It had never occurred to Natalie before that there could be so much choice for a nasal-hair clipper, but here they were, offering different sizes, different grips, different mechanisms.
    Street surfaces constantly changed from tarmac to cobbles to flagstones, and down every street were lines of motorcycles, mostly Lambretta and Vespas but also other bigger machines.  Dotted between them were minute cars, some that looked as if they belonged to Cousin Itt in the Addams Family.

(The Mountie and his girl never made it - not specifically Italian enough.)

The most important point is that if anyone wanted to use your novel or short story as a guide book they would have gone out and got a guide book in the first place.  Your descriptions need to create the world your characters live in, rather than be a list of facts.  

This section has quite a lot of description in one go, but Natalie is exploring the city for the first time, and this is what she sees...what I saw...what I hope the reader sees along with Natalie.  Obviously writers are able to recreate places without having been there - in A Single to Rome, I also wrote in detail about an entirely imaginary museum - but the more real stuff there can be, and the smaller the detail, the better.  Real rings true.


Paul Sampson said...

I note the difference between your notebook entry "who would have thought that the world needed so many varieties of nasal hair clippers?" and the way it turns up in your work "It had never occurred to Natalie before that there could be so much choice for a nasal-hair clipper". I'm wondering if this is conscious avoidance of something that risks reminding the reader of the line from Macbeth "Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him"?

Which is rather more sombre.

I can imagine this being an example of a problem which I dare say pro-writers must constantly face - i.e. trying not to say something you believe may remind your readers of something else, especially where that something else is distant from the mood you're currently trying to establish.

Sarah Duncan said...

Paul - oh, I'd love to claim that I was hoping people might pick up echoes of Lady M. But no. At a workshop group once, long before I was published, one of my fellow workshoppers drawled wearily, 'I can't stand rhetorical questions in fiction.' Since then, I can't help but hear her voice whenever I write them, so they get edited out.

But you're quite right that I wouldn't want to have that association at that particular point and would have edited it out for that reason, ditto certain images, metaphors etc. The language used has to match the mood.