I’ve never been to South Carolina, or even seen an ocean yet – but I can smell the sea salt air and feel the sun dancing across my bare shoulders. I hear waves lapping against the shore as the sand wedges into the grooves between my toes. In my mind’s eye, I have a vivid feel for this place that I’ve never seen.... weather worn wooden furniture on oversized porches.... comfortable old pillows and blooming flowers... the soft lilt in the words of the people who populate this world. I’ve seen it because I’ve been there in books.
I’ve been a lot of places in books. Ireland and Italy, most of Europe, a good deal of Asia, and about every State in America I can think of... some of them sing more than others. Some of their authors, though, they paint the world so vividly that you, never having been there, still have a feel for the place. A feeling, sights, smells, contentment, excitement – something pops into your mind the second the place is mentioned.
A great writer can make me long for the sight of their favorite forest, make me want to soak in the smells of a meadow the feel of the leaves on the overhanging trees... basking in the sound of the rushing water from a nearby creek. In reality, I hate the outdoors. I hate bugs, I’m not a nature person, I know this. But in the right hands, the author’s love of these things comes through so thoroughly that I forget it’s not my beauty, not my ideal... not my home.
This isn’t every author. Some writers are more sparse than others – nothing wrong with that, it’s a stylistic choice more than anything. With some, it comes through in their voice alone. Not in the description so much as the way they phrase their words... you can hear the accent. Not dialect, phrasing... I LOVE THAT....
For me, it’s got to be in there. I can cut out the extraneous, but man, I want you to taste it and smell it, and get where they come from – my characters. And my beauty can come from the oddest places, a rainbow in the sewer grate. I think for me the descriptive parts come in the least expected ways, because they’re new to you and something to revel in for me.... some of it gets cut because it’s more writerly masturbation than story progression, but still, a bit of a feel for the place is important to me.
How about you? How much does it matter in your reading? Does the setting have to evoke a feel for the story for you? Is it foreshadowing or just description? How about in your writing?