Recently a dear friend and colleague (Robert Runte) and I were discussing the craft of writing, which happened concurrently with a similar discussion I was having with my husband, Gary. In particular we discussed story genesis, and how to create meaningful environment detail and description in literature.
For example, I mentioned to Robert a story on which I’m presently working, that all I had so far was mood (eeriness) and one element (an owl). He wondered how I could start with two such nebulous concepts, rather than a solid character and an event, as example, and mentioned I must feel my way through stories rather than plot.
I had to think about that for a moment, and realized that indeed I sort of feel, yes, but more think.
For me, thinking about mood/emotion gives order and reason to chaos, and I suppose is a subliminal underlying theme in much of my writing. Reason over passion. Being aware of the effect of environment and cause, and reasoning your way to logical and beneficial effect. So it is a writer can come up with two concepts — eeriness and an owl — and from that shape a story. Those concepts set up a chain of thought processes: Why is the ambient mood eerie? Is there something metaphysical happening? Is there an impending storm? Is it the call of the owl? That can certainly be eerie. So, yes, the eeriness will derive from the mythology around owls (greatly undeserved given they are known to be as dumb as doorknobs). So given they are not clever birds, why eerie? They are known to be near-silent flyers, powerful. They have an ability to echo-locate and so navigate dense woods with ease. They have those strange rotating heads, which can raise the hairs on your arms with ease. Their calls are often heard during the twilight hours, which has always held a mystique in the human psyche.
And so it goes. You can see how a story can build from these elements. It’s like germinating seeds. Before you know it you have a garden, which is your story.
Which then brings us to environment detail. I’d never thought about how I write environmental detail until both Gary and Robert queried me regarding that process. The only meaningful metaphor I came up with was that it’s like echo-location, to borrow from my owl-friend. You are the centre of your universe, so all you know and do is based upon the data you pick up from environment. In order for the reader to understand the character, it is necessary to use echo-location in order for the reader to understand the character’s place in that environment.
Robert in particular has had an interest in a specific passage in my novel, From Mountains of Ice.
He heard whispers, dry and chittering, looked up sharply into the dust and gloom of the warehouse. Only the scuttle of a mouse. In the distance a horse whickered, followed by the firm but gentle command of an ostler. A burst of laughter then, plainly from the traders viewing Danuto’s horses. Whispers again beneath his hand, fading like a breeze lost in leaves. A swallow swooped along the vaulted ceiling, blade-like wings almost silent. Almost. Like the voices in the boxes beneath his hand.
In the scene above, we start with two points: Sylvio, and the fact he needs to think, which prefaces the quoted paragraph. As a result of the fact the main protagonist needs to think, he’s in the warehouse, taking time out, but he’s still very much connected to his environment by virtue of the fact he’s a living, breathing human being, and in order for the reader to get into Sylvio’s head, the reader has to be aware of what he’s experiencing.
So, just as you or I would do in real life, I describe that environment in writing not through slavish and sterile descriptions that are like an inventory, but through his own sensory awareness, his own echo-location, if you will. Thus he looks up both physically and through his senses from his thoughts, from that myopic state of both inner and within arm’s reach environment, and receives input, information: a sound which turns out to be a mouse, out further to the light beyond where he stands, which takes his senses out to the courtyard where there are horses, becomes aware of the movement and sounds there (you see how the sensory waves are pooling out?), and then, because his vision and hearing have reached their limits, pulls back, like a receding wave to the point of origin, himself and the box on which his hand rests, to the immediate pressure and concern that has brought him to the warehouse in the first place, and so hears what no one else can, the voices of the dead in the box of bows under his hand. Echo-location. And now the reader has a better understanding of what’s going on not only in the world around Sylvio, but his inner world.
I did a similar thing in the opening paragraph of my novel, Shadow Song:
I remember the summer I met Shadow Song was so green it hurt my eyes. It was as if the world were carved from jade – something sacred and equally fragile. I, Danielle Michelle Fleming, was to become mesmerized by this world. This land, this Upper Canada, was a place where I would learn to breathe.
Although I’m not dealing with specific environmental detail, I have immediately established what is to be the tone, place and environment of the novel. We know right off the novel is named for a person who will have a significant influence on the main protagonist. Why? Because he is named immediately, given pre-eminence. We know it’s going to be a land that’s verdant because of the import of the colour green. We also know that environment is somehow going to cause hurt or harm to Danielle because of the fact the colour hurts her eyes, that perhaps there is bane in bounty, and that no good deed goes unpunished, or that perhaps the yin/yang factor is going to come into play. Whichever it is, the reader is immediately set up for possible tragedy. We know this world is going to be precious to her, and also fragile, and because she is writing these things in past tense that the story is going to be a memoir of something once precious now broken and lost. We also know that despite pain, Danielle will fall in love and under the spell of such bounty. We are also given a glimpse into her history by the simple mention that she would learn to breathe in this new world, indicating her life until then has been suffocating, perhaps restrictive.
That’s a lot of information to pack into 54 words.
You will notice in both passages I’ve refrained from giving measurements, cataloguing specifics. By doing so I’ve still created environment, but also allowed the reader interface, allowed their imaginations to paint in the colour around the lines I’ve sketched in. I’ve established a dialogue, and by doing so have invested the reader in the story.
Equally, I’ve also sustained or established tension and the momentum of the plot, preventing the reader from closing the novel, perhaps permanently.
Certainly I cannot claim invention of this technique. It is used with ease by some of the great masters of literature. The first time I became aware of it was as an adolescent of 14,when I read Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles. I realized how well Hardy married environment to mood and character, that one was shaped and fed by the other. Later I found the same technique used in Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, in particular one of the first passages in which she describes Ofglen walking along a sidewalk, stepping over worms that have risen in the rain, how they look like bloated lips. In that moment I knew this was going to be a story about love and sexuality gone horribly wrong, and I was cognizant of the deftness of writing that allowed Ofglen’s inner world to bleed out into her environment, so that what she saw was a reflection of her inner thought process.
Candas Jane Dorsey, Rohinton Mistry, Joseph Boyden, Caitlin Sweet and many other writers whose work I study and admire employ this sort of echo-location and environmental detail.
How to employ that technique yourself? Try meditating in an environment of your own and practice that sort of echo-location. Start with your inner world, the sound of your heart, your breathing, allow your senses to swim out. What do you perceive next, second, third, and at what point do you return to the self and the origin of your thoughts? And how does your inner world affect your perception and reception of the outer world? It’s amazing how the same environment can be described differently depending on mood and personal stresses both physical and emotional.
In a way it boils down to what I’m always advising writers when I edit their work: BE YOUR CHARACTER. Allow yourself to get inside their head and then write the story as if you were them. Do that, and you’ll refrain from telling your reader a room is 20′ x 39′, made of dressed stone. Instead you’ll describe how your character feels the chill of the room, wishing there were tapestries on the stone walls to temper their grey and harsh welcome, how in a room of this size the fireplace and the fire in it are miserly, not even room for an inglenook in which to sit and dispel the dampness.
To put it simply, open your senses. If you’re going to be a writer, you have to be a conduit for not only the temporal world, but the metaphysical world you’re creating.