Creating a backdrop

So I’ve been busy reading – am now on my fourth book from the library – and I’ve made another discovery. I’ve noticed that when I read I often skim over the descriptive prose used to identify a place. So, for example, if a sentence begins ‘The stone cottage was set into the valley…’ and further down the paragraph I spy, ‘…ivy clinging to the walls, caressing it like a lover…’ I tend to skim read the entire thing until I find some action to continue with.

I’m a fairly rapid reader as it is and it makes me wonder how throughly I read anything given the pace at which I race through novels. I just don’t appreciate the author building up a perfect image in my mind for me; the reason I read is to work my imagination and having the details all written down dulls my appetite for the story itself. Okay, if the descriptive passage is vital for the plot – so perhaps the stone cottage was later ambushed by trolls from the hills above, but they can’t gain entry because they are severely allergic to ivy, for example – then, yes, I understand the significance and it would be my own fault if I struggled to comprehend the retrospective issues with my skipping said paragraph on the particular location and style of the cottage.

However, I also know that perhaps some individuals aren’t as adept at me at building pictures in their minds and the aspect that they most enjoy as readers is the writer painting that picture for them! I guess I’m just not that particular type of reader. Yet as a writer I have to accept that there are those individuals out there who do appreciate those soujourns into the specific visual inspirations of the author.

Interestingly, this also leads me to the conclusion that I am also not that type of writer. I struggle to write descriptive prose at all, not least when it comes to landscapes and places. I have a friend who is excellent at detailing the necessary idiosyncracies and pertinent historical context of towns and cities so that you build up a very clear understanding of where he is talking about, even before you know the particular named place. I find myself totally stuck when I try to do the same in my writing. I stumble awkwardly over attempts to define certain places that I can see so clearly in my mind, yet cannot commit to it paper. I suspect I’m terrified that my reader won’t see what I see, or – like my reading alter ego – they will despise me for explaining the supposedly banal features of a place that might not even matter in the long run.

I’m a realist though. I know that I may never be excellent at writing such passages, but I feel I have to put in some practice – because what is a story without a setting? So, I’ve decided to try (harder). This week I’m going to attempt simply to describe places in my writing: to pick out the interesting details, perhaps the things others would not see, and set them down in order to encourage myself to feel comfortable using this type of language. It will be an interesting challenge; it will allow me to scrutinise my environment anew, explore language I might not often use and really get to the bottom of what it is I’m looking for when it comes to providing that setting for a particular scene.

Writing might be about showing how a story develops but being able to provide a backdrop for that developing story is a skill I definitely want to try and add to my narrative toolbelt.


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