Nature, description and breaking the rules

August 4th, 2014Posted by Nancy

NB 2013 002


  I know that Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for writing include “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things” but I love writing those. Part of the pleasure of travelling is watching out the window of the train, finding ways to describe what I see, or discovering the perfect graffiti on a dumpster in your own town. I need a sense of place to avoid the “white room” syndrome, even if I end up editing out half the descriptions in the end anyway.  (Weirdly, I almost always know what the buildings look like and I never know what the characters look like.  I know what they feel like, but I tend not to have a strong visual sense of them.)  

The Toronto setting in The Night Inside was partially because that it’s where I live and I was able to set the story in neighbourhoods I walked around every day.  Being able to ground the story in something familiar helped me get a handle on the more difficult aspects of it. I also found that Toronto fit the vampires I was writing.  As Rozokov says of his decision to settle in Toronto in the 19th century:” It was a good place for careful men – it bred them, rewarded them”.  There is something “careful” about both Rozokov and Ardeth, despite the latter’s attempt to remake herself as a vampiric femme fatale.

Blood and Chrysanthemums and A Terrible Beauty let me indulge my love of writing about nature.  Both were shaped by time spent in Banff and the landscape of A Terrible Beauty was also influenced by the terrain of northern Ontario.  We rent a cottage for a week each year near Algonquin Park and I vividly remember camping as a child on the shores of Lake Huron, with the rocky beaches and the twisted cedars, and I wanted to capture some of that wildness.  It was the closest “New World” equivalent I could imagine to the dark “Old World” forests of the original fairy tale.  Coming up with exactly how anyone managed to construct a mansion on an island in the middle of the mountains was a challenge, but a few episodes of “America’s Castles” and some judicious hand-waving covered that one.

The new book, Cold Hillside, presented its own challenges.  I’ve never been to Bhutan or Nepal and going there wasn’t in the plan.  Fortunately, there is no shortage of books bursting with both facts and astonishing images about that part of the world.  Since the world of Lushan is NOT Bhutan or Nepal, I was free to take the parts of the landscape (both natural and human) that worked for the story and leave the rest.  One of the perils of writing a novel over almost 20 years is that the reason the description you just wrote that sounds so perfect is because you’ve already used it four times before.

So, if you’re a writer who likes descriptive passages about nature, have faith that at least one reader will enjoy them.  If you’re a reader who dislikes such things, well, you have my permission to skip those bits. Just don’t blame me if everything feels as if it’s happening in a white room.

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