Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[process] Description and setting

As I've mentioned, I'm currently reading Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon Powell's | Amazon ]. A travel memoir of a nationwide roadtrip in the later 1970s, it's a delightful book for a number of reasons. One thing that has struck me is how well Least Heat-Moon describes place. He offers brief, strong descriptions of literally a hundred different variations on USAnian landscapes, from Kentucky's limestone hills to the Arizona desert. This book is highly worth reading just for the craft of that alone.

I go back and forth on description in my own work. Generally, if I want to I can spray on the adjectives like an air compressor with a busted shut-off valve. Sometimes that works. Some stories call for a rococo voice and baroque language. Steampunk works well in that metre. So does New Weird. On the other hand, something spare and taut and emotional may need the briefest of sketches. So consider the difference:
Wind whistled down the raddled canyon, plucking at tortured piñons standing mute testimony to the cruelty of time.
Compared to this:
A southwest wind bore memories of the hot Chihuahuan sand along the spiny twists and turns of the blackrock canyon. It worried the ocotillo, set the cactus spines to rattling like old women at canasta, and forced the jackrabbits to remain snug in their gravel-lined beds. The ancient piñons groaned as they turned on their roots, twisting in the endless dance forced upon them by the cruelty of time.
Sorry, raw feed there, made up on the spot for illustrative purposes. Each serves a purpose, depending on what I might want to be doing in that scene or story.

Least Heat-Moon seems to be a showing me another way to approach description and setting, almost for his own sake. He's writing virtually without plot, and one major point of his book is place. Still, I really like learning from him.

What's setting mean to you? A few brush strokes to bring the characters on stage? Or do you live inside it, as I often do?

Tags: klog, process, writing

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