I dunno – I guess I’ll stop this eventually but these notes have just sort of grown.
Shortcuts to a sense of place?
Shortcuts can work quite well with contemporary stories with a high romance content. In fact, sometimes all one needs is the right cover. Paris – Eiffel Tower. Rome – the Colosseum. New York – a yellow taxi. London – Big Ben or a red bus. Australia – Uluru. I have read many books where, apart from an establishing paragraph on the first page – Space Needle, that means Seattle, right? – and an occasional reminder, the location is completely irrelevant to the story.
People fall in lust/love, consummate and commit all over the world and sometimes that relationship story arc is so important that no further frills are needed. In a London set story, arranging for your characters to meet by the London Eye or a scene on the Underground can be enough to remind the reader where they are. You can go a step further and have them decide not to go on the Eye because they didn’t book. Or on the Underground they can talk about the weird smell and remind each other to mind the gap. In Paris they can nip into a café-tabac to buy some stamps. But in other genres the readers often has no idea what they are getting into and location is just one of the things that need to be established.
Sci fi and fantasy may graft fantastical elements onto a solid foundation of familiar facts – for instance, Tolkien’s world is deeply rooted in Anglo-Saxon myth and legend and is filled with details familiar to people who live in rural areas – but others need their world’s built from the bedrock up. With a completely alien world, flora, fauna and society the author will have to spend a lot of words on establishing enough information for the reader to get a toehold while the story grabs them. In the Helliconia Trilogy, Brian Aldiss describes a planet where season last for centuries. His way to make this weird and wonderful place more accessible to the reader is to have a space station staffed by humans orbiting it to observe. The big advantage is that sci fi and fantasy readers tend to be a bit more forgiving of info dumps than m/m romance readers who want to get on to the action. So how much is too much?
I remember reading a fantasy novel once – book one of five books, each of which was 600+ pages. The author started the series with a fight scene that was fine but then spent 5 pages describing the codes by which the warrior class lived by. Then there was a scene in a library and 6 pages about education, comparative philology, and the social status of scribes. Later his quest party happened to need a boat – many pages about the local fishing industry, average yields and frequency with which boats are lost at sea. It was like being beaten up with an encyclopedia. Yes, the author had done his homework, had created a wonderful and vibrant world, but showed the reader ALL of it. It was a pity because the world and plot was fun but I just didn’t have the stamina to endure all the lectures. Tolkien got around this by using appendices [elves, very nearly immortal barring accidents, have a very low birth rate – I remember how relieved I was to see that because I’d been wondering why there wasn’t a lot more of them] and that is great if you’re writing in a genre that craves all the extras, while not perhaps wanting them as part of the narrative.
In Romance, readers expect things to be a bit more straightforward, but I still think that it’s very possible to give a terrific sense of place without over burdening readers with information or being overly clever.
Jan Struther used this bit of description to give her readers a sense of place – in the summer [because we need to locate in time as well]:
It was a Wedgwood day, with white clouds delicately modelled in relief against a sky of pale pure blue.
For some people she could have stopped at Wedgewood day, because they would have made the immediate connection from Wedgwood to blue and white to the sky. But Wedgwood made many patterns of pottery.
Also there may be readers who have no idea what “Wedgwood” is. Adding the second clause, provides a way in for people with a different experience. I still feel that a modern editor might blue pen “Wedgwood” and insert ‘beautiful’ instead to avoid the risk of alienating readers.
In Part 4 I think I might cut to the chase and use examples – show not tell, eh?