Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Just the Facts, Ma'am

by Joan Kayse
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Just the facts. Wouldn't that make for a short and incredibly boring story? Boy meets girl. Girl saves boy from crucifixion. Boy saves girl from mad villian. They lived HEA.

What? That isn't just the facts? What about a crucifixion, you ask? Well, you're right. I dropped a kernel of description in there and it might have gotten your attention.

Many times on these blogs or loops we writers talk about point of view (POV), conflict, plot, etc. But there is another aspect that is often maligned. And that is the use of description.

Now, I'm not talking about a ton of backstory that drags the plot down. Or distracting purple prose that jerks the reader out of the moment.

Description in its best form enhances the experience of the character, sharpens the impact of the POV and...in the case of historicals....weaves a sense of time and place into the very fabric of the story.

Here's an example from my manuscript THE PATRICIAN'S FORTUNE:

They reached the bottom of the affluent Palatine neighborhood and turned toward the center of the city. Damon set a quick pace, navigating the twisting thoroughfares with ease. He knew this city like a man knows a lover. A boiling cauldron of arrogance, greed, and excess, Rome was the focal point of the civilized world, though Damon was certain a majority of the Empire’s conquered regions would hotly argue the point.

The crowds began to thicken as they continued down the Via Sacra and approached the two enormous pillars marking the entrance to the city center. Damon eyed the carved statues of Rome’s legendary founders, Romulus and Remus, circling their circumference. There were dozens of similar statues scattered around Rome, adorning public buildings, heralding a general’s successful campaign, an emperor’s benevolence, but this one had always been his favorite.

The famous twins faced each other, swords tightly clutched, expressions reflecting the stoicism of a conquering race, prepared to defend the nation they’d founded. Romulus’ free hand rested on the head of the legendary she-wolf who had suckled the abandoned infants. An omen the ill fated Remus, murdered by the brother who named an Empire, should have heeded. Take care who you trust. A lesson Damon had learned good and well. With Kaj flanking him, Damon stepped through the stone arch into the Forum.

The market was well designed. A large open area provided ample room for pedestrians and shoppers to go about their business. Weavers, jewelers, bakers, oil merchants, and pottery makers vied with tavernas and wine shops for their share of the citizens’ coin.

Street philosophers chalked their thoughts on the sides of buildings, some accompanied by unflattering drawings. Candidates for political offices spouted grand promises from stone block perches while those who had already been elected bustled about the business of government. Temples dedicated to one god or another stood wall to wall with brothels where, Damon mused, you were more likely to get your prayers answered than kneeling at an altar.

The city pulsed with life and Damon reveled in it. This was where he’d first experienced life after Jared had granted him his freedom. He closed his eyes for a moment, savored the sounds of bartering and badgering, inhaled the scent of spices and perfumes and—he cocked one eye open and looked at the painting of a pork hind gracing the side of a building—the butcher’s shop.


In this passage, I tried to show the power of the Empire as reflected by daily life in the epicenter of Rome itself....and my hero's connection and response to it.

Can you remember a description someone gave you about something? A trip or a gift or an event? Something that made you wish you had been there?

23 comments:

Anna Campbell said...

Joan, dang! I want to read these books! I wish some visionary editor would pick you up and give you a HUGE contract. A contract huge as the Colisseum!

Dorothy Dunnett, who's one of my favorite writers, described so many settings in her masterpiece, the Lymond series. I can remember travelling in France and England and Scotland in my middlde 20s and just living those places through her eyes. That's the power of brilliant descriptions.

Great post, Joan!

Christine Wells said...

Wow, that's masterly, Joan. Thanks for giving us an authentic taste of Rome! I love it when we see a place through the filter of a character's eyes. It makes it more interesting and immediate.

Loretta Chase has a wonderful way of using setting as metaphor--for example, she likens Dain in Lord of Scoundrels to the bleak, treacherous Dartmoor where he grew up. Mr. Impossible, set in Egypt, is another novel of hers in which she uses this technique and it enriches the story immensely. Thanks for the reminder, Joan!

Donna MacMeans said...

Joan, you would swear you were actually there, but wait - you're too young for that. Excellent passage. Can't wait to read the rest.

When I think of narrative description, I think of James Michener. His historical epics would pull you out of this century and place you in another country, in another time, and you'd swear you had lived there all your life.

Well done, Joan!

Kim Howe said...

Joan, I'm with Anna and hope someone picks up your books. I was captivated and wanted to keep reading!

I really enjoy Barry Eisler's settings. His half-Japanese, half-American assassin hero trots across the world and Barry goes to every place and you really feel that you're there in his books. Definitely worth checking out.

Caren Crane said...

Rosamunde Pilcher always painted beautiful word pictures for me. Her books are memorable for that reason, as well as wonderfully satisfying stories. *g*

Hey, Joan, where are the pictures of the Romans?

jo robertson said...

Oh, Joanie, I soooo want this book published. I love Roman history, have Shakespeare's Julius Caesar memorized and still remember my Latin from Caesar's Gallic Wars.

Don't those editors know that's the NEW THING THEY'RE LOOKING FOR???

Louis Lamour wrote a great short story "Trap of Gold," in which the trap of gold (a rickety granite upthrust of mountain veined with gold) acts as the antagonist. The description is amazing as it parallels the miner's greed (the other trap of gold) and his temptation to go back for just a little more with the mountain trying to kill him.

Anna Sugden said...

Love the passage Joan! I could visualise Rome in all it's 'glory'. These Romans have to sell!

My example is Judith Arnold and her fabulous book Love in Blooms. She describes a fictional NY deli (which is based on Zabar's) so clearly and enticingly, I had to go to Zabar's to check it out!

Helen said...

Joan I would really like to read all of this book you have given me a taste of something that sounds amazing. I have read so many books over the years and all of them have left me yearning to see other parts of the world the highlands of Scotland being the main place as well as the beautiful estates and homes throughout England and the plantations in the American South. I love the way authors can take you out of your life and take you eleswhere for a fantastic journey. Thanks Joan.
Have Fun
Helen

Aunty Cindy said...

Tantalizing little passage Joan! MORE! MORE! I must have MORE! ;-)

Diana Gabaldon's descriptions of the Scottish highlands in Outlander really BLEW ME AWAY! I think she was my inspiration (along with Mary Stewart) when I started writing my "foreign" settings. I want my settings to become another "character" in the book. Our own Foanna does a masterful job of that in CTC and I HOPE I prove equally adept in my books.

AC

Anna Campbell said...

Hey, thanks, AC, my newly published colleague ;-)

Actually I'd always said I'd never set a book in Scotland because I loved it so much and I couldn't do it justice but this book just came out of the deepest part of me so I couldn't stop myself. Glad the descriptions worked for you! It's wonderful when you're writing a setting and you can just picture it so clearly, right to details like the bracken on the hill. Sigh. I wanna go back to da Highlands!!!! Whaaaaaaaahhhhh! Or perhaps I should say MacWhaaaaaaah!

Beth said...

Joan, what a wonderful passage! I love reading stories that transport me to another place and/or time *g*

I'm a huge fan of Nora Roberts and I love how she describes settings :-)

Joan said...

Hey guys,

Thanks so much for holding up the blog all day, my fellow Banditas. I DID try once to sign on at work (shhhhhh....must not let the computer fairies know) but alas, work and duty and crazies called.

Beth, you reminded me of how masterful Nora does description. Her Irish "anythings" are so vivid and incorporate the very FEEL of the place, the ESSENCE (sorry, lapsing into Plato world here) that just reaches in and grabs you.

And thanks for all the good thoughts about my story. I'm doing my best to get these boys in black and white.

Now, a quick dash for dinner....at 8 pm...

jo robertson said...

Oh, Anna, I know what you mean about Scotland. When we visited, my husband just cried; he said he felt like he'd come home.

doglady said...

I must concur, Joan. That is an incredibly descriptive passage. Are these editors nuts, or what?? There is a young Southern writer, Ace Atkins, who writes detective novels in the old film noir style. They take place in Louisiana, primarily New Orleans, and his descriptions of the city, the atmosphere, the weather and most of all the FOOD, will put you right there. I swear the man writes about food and makes me salivate

For emotional landscapes and intense trips into characters' heads, your own dear Anna C is the queen. There are so many passages in Claiming the Courtesan where you feel as if you are in the character's head. Few people can make a character of the love/passion between two people - its flaws and assets - but Ms. Campbell does!!

doglady said...

I completely forgot why I dropped by to post. What did I find in my mailbox today but a package from a little cottage in Swindon England. My prize from Nicola Cornick's visit to the Bandits!! Of course the novel is divine! Some lovely postcards as well. But oh, dear ladies, the pampering touches from the Jane Austen Center are TO DIE FOR!! Hand-made soaps Elizabeth's fragrance (heavenly) and Darcy's (if he smelled like this no WONDER the ladies loved him) the hand cream to match Elizabeth's soap. All wrapped in lovely fabric wrappers. AND a Jane Austen pen which I am saving for my first booksigning (she said optimistically) Is that not a divine sounding prize??

Keira Soleore said...

...pork hind gracing the side of a building...

Fabulous, fabulous line! Joan, wish I could steal it!!!

A recent Bandita post with all sort yummilicious pictures (no, it wasn't you, Kirsten, so you're off the hook) really made me yearn for the midwest summer fairs of my teens. Usually, I'm a "words" kinda person, not pictures, but what can I say? These pictures left behind just the right, um, taste.

Julie Garwood really painted a picture of a yummy medieval Scotland for me. I mean, really! With zero toileting facilities, how can an age be "romantic"? She made me believe it completely.

Anna Campbell said...

Doglady, I read these out of order. So the first bit was you gloating (admit it, you were!) about your prize. But then the next one was you being so lovely about my writing so I can't begrudge you the joys of those goodies from the Jane Austen Centre! I told Nicola I wanted to enter under a false name (Canna Amble, anyone?) and she had to pick me. But she's a woman of honor, our Nicola, darn it! Isn't it lovely to get mail from overseas anyway? Congratulations again! Those presents sound divine!

Joan said...

Thanks doglady and Kiera!

Ummm...Kiera? Are you craving "pork hinds" now along with your Starbucks apple fritter?

:-)

Off to the world of crazies

Caren Crane said...

Keira, sorry about the State Fair pictures! I still have about three weeks before our Fair, so there is time to drop 5 pounds before I go. Ha!

Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Joan, I'm woooooeeeeeefully late in commenting - day late, dollar short - but LOVED the exerpt. I was right there and was thinking, hey, where's the REST OF IT!!!?? I concur - this HAS to sell so I can read it. Any day now...

I love Harper Lee's descriptions in To Kill a Mockingbird. And Anne Rice's steamy, creepy N.O. at night made my skin crawl. I wanted to take a shower and turn on all the lights. CTC was lush in a much better way. And a book called Green Mansions, forget the author, but the vivid imagery stays with me still.

Thanks for the reminder...

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