Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Finding Beauty

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?

8 comments:

Stephen Parrish said...

Setting rules. Local color binds the story. Take it out and the story feels shallow, even contrived. If you can transfer your story to another geographical location without making significant changes, I don't want to read it.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Stephen,

Okay, I'm not quite as rigid on this as you are. I've read stories that kept my interest even though there was nothing particular about the location. But I do love it... I think most of my favorites have that flavor of the place.

silken said...

yes! I read to escape this world and I want to be sucked into the new one! I want to feel what it's like in those places I've never been. Bring me to that place!

Mary Witzl said...

Yes, I want to know as much as possible about the smells, the sounds, the whole feel of a place. If we're on a ship, I want to hear the timbers groan and the canvas sails snap in the wind; if we're in a desert, I want the grit of sand in my teeth and the dryness of the air searing and sharp. I can enjoy a story without all that about as much as I can enjoy a meal without salt...

Erica Orloff said...

I set a lot of my books in NYC becausre that's home. And it has a rhythm all its own. But in general, I don't care as much about setting as I do characters. I don't know if that's because I read nonfiction in my free time versus fiction. I read American Prometheus this year, and I couldn't tell you where it was set (I could . . . but . . . )--because it was all about, in each place he lived, this tight community of physicists. It was always more about this powderkeg of intellect than being "swept away" to a place.

E

Merry Monteleone said...

Silken,

I totally agree - there's nothing quite like being so immersed in a novel that the whole world becomes real to you.

Hi Mary,

Oddly enough, one of the many reasons I love your blog is because you have so much flavor of place and people - and of course, I just like you!

I love that analogy, too, scenery being the seasoning...

Hi Erica,

I know there are books that I've read and enjoyed that really don't have anything much in scenery at all... they could have been set anywhere. And character is definitely more important than setting, but a lot of times they go together. The voice of the characters brings you a flavor of their world in the same way.

I think I tend to like the more descriptive better... but that's a taste thing. I think a story that's very plot and character driven can make you forget there's nothing special about the setting.

jerseygirl89 said...

I want to feel the setting, but I don't necessarily want to read a lot of descriptive paragraphs about it, either. And I can't write any story - fiction or from my past - without envisioning where it takes place.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Jersey,

For me, the description depends on the author. Some just have that touch, where every sentence is heaven and I don't mind wandering around in prose with them because it tickles me to be in that place... others, meh, I skip all the winding paragraphs looking for the action. Depends on the author.

I do the same thing when I'm writing. I can totally see everything going on with the character, location, colors, everything. Often the houses, rooms, and places are based on real places I've been... I change decor for them, or street names, but layouts are often similar to real homes and places.