“It was, but there’s something different about him.”
She looked at me incredulously. “Of course there is. He has a beard.”
That in a nutshell is a major problem I have, and it impacts my writing. I am unobservant to the core. Sure, I noticed something was off about Bill, but I couldn’t pinpoint the cause. Whether or not someone has a beard simply is not important to me. In fact, as I bumble through life so much of what I encounter goes in one eye and out the other.
That’s not good for a novelist.
If you meet my friend Bill in a story, you might be interested in the fact he’d recently sprouted a beard. And you’d probably want to know if he’s tall or short, stout or thin, long-haired or buzz cut, etc., etc., etc.
And what about his clothing? Jeans or suit, tank top or sweater, loafers or sandals?
If you’re chatting with him in his living room, what’s it like? Are the walls painted light pastel or oppressively dark; do they display art? Is the sofa leather or cloth? Are there end tables; constructed from what; do they contain lamps and what kind?
If Bill suggests strolling to a nearby park, is it cool or warm? Is there a gentle breeze; do the trees rustle; are the branches bare or full? Where’s the sun; are there long shadows? Is the street we’re on crowded or are we isolated enough so conversation is private? What about that couple we just passed? Are they married; was the man angry?
All right, that’s enough. You get the idea. Sadly, if you asked me any of these questions upon arriving home after my time with Bill, I’d be unable to accurately respond to most.
When I was a kid radio was in its golden age. I’d listen to Hop Harrigan, Jack Armstrong the All American Boy, The Shadow, The Green Hornet, Captain Midnight, Inner Sanctum and a host of others. It was nothing like the Saturday excursions to the theater to watch a ten-cent double feature. Because with the radio I had to imagine the surroundings of my heroes, and I could! Somehow the scriptwriters had enabled me.
Isn’t that what’s required when reading a book? Imagining the settings, clothes, the entire environment? But help is needed, and that’s the author’s job.
I do think that job can be overdone, a stand I fear might be challenged by many. P. D. James was an accomplished, popular and renowned English crime writer who received a life peerage in recognition. Her plots are clever, her characters interesting, her knowledge extensive. For me, though, there is too much detailed description throughout her books. As I read them I beg them to end and let me move forward in the story.
But description cannot be ignored.
So here I am, daring to write fiction without the most basic of observational tools. What do I do?
“Well, duh, train yourself to be observant.”
“Thanks, Elmo, that’s very helpful.” This from a guy who strolls his campus immersed in a book and winding up who knows where.
But, of course, he’s right. And I’ve tried. I really have. And I’m getting better. I have a long way to go, though, and I need help. So where do I find it?
I’m one of those antediluvian ancients who subscribe to something called a newspaper whose pixels actually appear on paper. And it contains ads that can be clipped and saved depicting immaculately dressed men, women and children; or gorgeous living, dining or bedroom settings; or guns. The designers of these promotions might be surprised how they are influencing fiction.
Often I turn to my good friend, Google.
And I do try to follow Elmo’s admonition. Now, when I visit a home, I take in the furniture and strive to recall it later, pretending I might have to describe it in a novel. Clothing receives similar scrutiny. Another example is flowers that are no longer “flowers,” but are tulips, daffodils, daisies or snapdragons. The list goes on.
There are times when none of my tricks help.
Then I resort to what fiction writers are supposed to be good at. I make something up and hope for the best.