Your Slideshow

The itch to travel leads to encountering new panoramas. The natural step beyond that, for a writer, is to describe the novel scenery. Everything is fodder for a future novel. You can compile pages upon pages of material that, like a photo album, brings back warm memories of a visit. Upon reading them over, you realize you could grab certain pieces for the book you’re writing.

I strongly advocate scene setting. I always want to find out about places or customs I don’t know. This curiosity extends even to locales I know pretty well, such as an interesting sidelight of the meatpacking district in Manhattan. If a character is discovering interesting recesses, I like him better just for that.

Yet I caution against the travelogue approach adopted by less skillful writers. A paragraph describing Notre Dame as viewed from the Ile Saint-Louis may immerse a reader in Paris, but if that is followed by a walk to Shakespeare and Company to buy a book, I may start to get restless. Because the descriptive work takes so long, I am pulled out of the head of the narrating character and firmly into the embrace of the bragging author. I was there! I saw the ghost of Ernie!

You may be better off treating every destination as local. By that I mean: as used by a character in that locale. Multiple scenes set in Paris are featured, for instance, in Jean Echenoz’s terrific Je m'en vais (I’m Gone), and they are all put in service by his characters. A warehouse district is described not because it sparkles in the sun, but because a character hides stolen art there. As a reader I still enjoy the thrill of discovery, but I also know I’m getting somewhere in the novel’s journey.

A good way to fit in descriptions is thinking in terms of interstices. While your characters are engaged in their business, you slip in an interesting detail. Maybe a few on one page and a few more on the next. That’s the way a character—who is supposed to be telling your story—would regard her surroundings. She notices the massive rosette window of Notre Dame and puts that in the context of her feelings. The sight of the gargoyles later on inspires another feeling. Now your slideshow is put in the proper perspective.

Exercise: When you are reviewing photos you’ve taken, allow yourself the time to dwell on different aspects of a single one. If your husband is smiling in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, try to remember how he was feeling about you that day. Or during the preceding days. Or, think about what Versailles means in the bigger scheme of history. Would your character feel: All that splendor, or All that waste?

“My interest in photography is not to capture an image I see or even have in my mind, but to explore the potential of moments I can only begin to imagine.”
—Lois Greenfield

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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