Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Pausing to Take Note
In my third mystery novel, Not Death, But Love, several of the key characters gather for dinner at an Italian restaurant in a small mountain town, and considerable relevant information is exchanged. But any reader of the book will get more than the relevant information.
I devote a bit of space to explaining the history of the restaurant; to giving the owner a few lines of dialogue that flesh out his character; to describing the interior and furnishings of the place; and to telling readers what music is playing on the sound system. None of this is at all essential to the story or the solution of the mystery. But I put it in, regardless, because I believe it helps to create a real sense of place that, along with other descriptions in the book, ultimately makes the story seem more real, more genuine.
And I do this because it’s often the incidental details — the “feel” of the book, if you will — that linger in my mind long after the story has receded into the mists of memory.
When the Place Is a Character
In my second book, Wash Her Guilt Away, most of the action takes place at Harry’s Riverside Lodge, a remote resort tucked into the dense forests of Northeastern California. I put a lot of effort into describing the place and how it felt to the characters as the story moved along. If I pulled it off, the lodge should have come across as another character in the book, and several readers have told me they felt they had come to know the place intimately by the time they finished reading.
I tried to do something similar for the McHenry ranch in my first book, The McHenry Inheritance. In that aspect of that book, I think I succeeded less than in the other two, but I tried nevertheless and believe I conveyed some sense of the place.
This sort of description used to be de rigueur for a novelist. In Great Expectations, Dickens spent more than a page describing the stormy night on which Magwitch turned up at Pip’s doorstep in London, building a highly charged atmosphere that made their encounter the more memorable.
The Interstate or the Scenic Route
Quite a few authors these days don’t bother much with descriptions. It’s possible to read novels by bestselling authors where the reader doesn’t know what time of year it is or what the weather’s like because the author never says anything about it.
James Patterson and Mary Higgins Clark, for instance, don’t linger much on details and focus on driving the story forward. They sell exceedingly well, so there’s clearly an audience that’s fine with that. But there are other authors, such as Louise Penny and Sue Grafton, who do stop along the way to give some atmospheric description, and they do all right, too.
I liken the two approaches to the difference between driving from San Francisco to Seattle on Interstate 5 or taking Highway 101 up the coast. The first way gets you there faster, but the second way exposes you to sights and places and people. It makes the journey a travel experience, rather than a headlong rush to a destination. Because I believe that reading books should be an experience of discovery, I’m partial to a little well-done description along the way.