Nov 17, 2015
How Writers Write Fiction: Weeks 5 and 6: On Setting and Description
I grouped these two sessions together, because they both focused on setting and description.
For week five, we talked about voice and setting, with interesting lectures from Naomi Jackson and Horacio Castellanos Moya. A lot of this was familiar stuff, and most of it was directed at literary writers, once again.
Jackson talked about research, living in the place you're writing about and picking up those little things that make your story ring true, like special words people use, what they eat, and what customs they have. These things are useful for building your fantasy and alien cultures, too, and understanding what makes a real-world culture tick helps with building your own.
Another useful tip was to use of real-world maps to track where your characters are going, and if you can't do your research in person, Google Earth is a useful tool for "seeing" your surroundings.
Using all the senses was familiar advice, but it was a good reminder to also think about filtering your description through your character, remembering that his or her state of mind, her age, etc. will affect how she sees the environment, what she notices, and how it will make her feel and react. Different characters will notice different things.
Another thing that stuck was Jackson's talk about the language of home, the language of the schoolyard, and the language of the kitchen; all of these languages are different and have their own vocabularies. An interesting way to look at it.
Week six focused more on description. Leslie Jamison offered an interesting exercise: try to describe the same setting or object through characters in different emotional situation, like a man whose wife has just died, a girl on the first day of summer vacation, or an elderly woman who has just heard that her children aren't coming to visit her for Christmas, for example. You'll get very different description of the same object from all of them. So a scene has to have emotional and physical textures to the description.
Paul Harding spoke about the similarities of detail in paintings and in prose, and how you can use a similar process to do some word painting. I found his ideas of scale and contrast interesting. He said that you should always put the light next to the dark, the large next to the small. An example he gave was that any thunderstorm can be compared to the storms on Jupiter.
He also talked about being specific, using specific detail, and mentioned Anton Chekhov's short stories as a good way to study this. Another volume for the to-be-read pile.
The exercise for week six was interesting, as it began with doing a description exercise where we took half an hour and just wrote description about our surroundings. I did this on the train back home from Helsinki. As you can imagine, a train carriage is about the most boring environment to examine, but I was surprised by how much vivid detail I came up with. I did a similar exercise in the workshop at Archipelacon last summer, and it's very useful, especially for someone like me, for whom overly abundant description usually isn't a problem. I'm a bit jealous of those people who can just fill page after page with description, making it look effortless.
Lots of food for thought. It's a good thing the course ends this week. I think my brain is full.