Tag: victor hugo

victor hugo

Descriptions. What's your preference?

My neighbor is a big reader and we had an interesting conversation over the fence this lovely spring weekend. He doesn’t like to read elaborate descriptions. To him, an elaborate description is the gun on the tabletop in scene one that never gets discharged. He gave an example: in the thriller he is currently reading there is a scene where the protagonist walks down a long corridor. The scene is complete with a detailed description of the doors the protagonist passes, what he sees at the other end, etc. In the end, the man gets to the end of the hall and goes into a room. My neighbor read the passage carefully, sure that the careful attention to detail meant that there were important clues in the text – or at a minimum something would happen behind one of those doors. He felt that the description made it difficult to separate important detail from general atmosphere.  This is a problem for writers. First of all, no two readers are the same, so you can’t satisfy everyone. Some people like to use their imagination to fill in most of the details of places and people. A long narrow corridor. A tall dark stranger. Good enough. They’ve got the idea and the tall dark stranger gets filled in with their ideal, not the writer’s. Same thing with places. My long narrow corridor may look different from everyone else’s, but does it matter if there is crown molding or not?  I believe that there should be enough detail to get close to what the author imagined, but I can sympathize with the notion that too many details are information overload for a reader. This came up in my conversation with my neighbor. Afterwards it struck me that the average reader’s access to information has altered what we want. Think of Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy or Victor Hugo. These men were literary giants in their day, hugely popular in every sense of the word. They set a scene that was possibly unimaginable to their readers – a glimpse of the darkest side of industrial England’s workhouses and slums and law courts. The vast battle fields of Russia and the gaiety of aristocratic balls. The dark currents of Paris, including those running under the streets. These scenes were so finely wrought that they are useful to historians today. Modern society has access to images on television, at the movie theater and on-line. Take Industrial England. Google it and you are overwhelmed by images and descriptions (not all accurate, but that’s a separate issue). No longer are novels the main form of exposing people to faraway places or ideas. As a result, we have adapted as readers and therefore as writers.  Or have we? Description still plays a vital role in a novel. I read to remember places I’ve been, and to dream about places I’ll never go. For me, it remains a balance. I want to see into the mind of the author, all the while knowing I’ll continue to fill in details from my own imagination. That’s also my goal as a writer.  I’m curious, though, what do others want? Plenty of description or spare spare spare? There is definitely room for both. 

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What place makes for the best writing?

I’m peripatetic, finding many places in the house, on the porch, and occasionally in a library to sit and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t re-think this. What did the greats do? P.D. James worked anywhere she could rest her notepad. Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickenson composed poetry in their heads while at work and doing chores respectively and wrote them down at night. (I know I can’t manage that.) Henrik Ibsen sat at his desk facing a portrait of August Strindberg, so that his countryman and “mortal enemy” could “hang there and watch” while he wrote. It’s tempting to come up with a mortal enemy, but likely not worth the effort. What if they didn’t inspire me? What if they intimidated me? Although if you have a mortal enemy who inspires your creativity, I’d suggest investing in a good portrait right away. There are a few examples that I think might be workable… or at least aspirational. Edith Wharton wrote in bed, tossing the pages on the floor for her secretary to pick up. In a nice parallel, Victor Hugo often wrote naked, after telling his valet to not bring clothes until his writing was complete. The problem with these examples is that I lack the household staff to fill all the roles. I’m better off sticking to the example of John Keats who rose early, dressed as if going out, and sat down to write. Simple, diligent and clearly effective. Actually, not so different from what I do. Perhaps I’ve found my inspiration. What works for you? 

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