“Sometimes you may find it useful to let your characters huddle in the wings without you preparing for their roles, improvising dialogue, while you set the stage for their appearance. Imagine yourself the set designer for a play or for the movie version of the story you are working on.”
-Anne Lamott, bird by bird
I was a strange child. By fifth or sixth grade, I was attempting to read Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Dickens, in addition to more predictable childhood favorites like R.L. Stine and Madeleine L’Engle. What I remember most about those classic authors was the detail with which they described almost every scene. Even my adult eyes now sometimes grow impatient when met with that much description.
One of my theories about why these authors included such long descriptions of space was because the world was a different place when they wrote. Mass media did not exist. People’s prior knowledge of places beyond the familiar was much more limited. Today you mention practically any major city around the globe and mental images abound, helping to catch the reader up to speed without the necessity of a two-page Steinbeck description of Salinas.
However, I also recognize that good writing needs to put you in the setting, so that you can see, smell, feel the place where the characters exist. Admittedly, I have a tendency to glance over this aspect of writing, more fixated on the inner workings of my characters and the actual action of the plot/dialogue than taking the time to carefully establish scenery. I blame this on being part of an impatient generation that is bombarded by imagery in fast-paced entertainment.
So, of my own accord, I am going back into each chapter and making sure I created scenery that provides enough detail, inspired in part by those same great writers that sometimes make me impatient. Today I took myself back to the Gare d’Austerlitz train station in Paris. As I imagined all of the sights, sounds, smells, etc., I began googling for inspiration. Funny how six seconds on YouTube can evoke such strong memories. I am now aching to hear the anxious clicking of that departure board again in real life.