Thursday, January 30, 2020

Travel and writing, not travel writing

I have the good fortune this week to be writing this post from Morgan Hill, California. I arrived Saturday afternoon, got my rental car at the San Francisco International Airport, and drove an hour south to Morgan Hill, taking in the scenery (and the traffic) all the way.

One of the interesting things about stepping into a new location is that your perception of your surroundings becomes heightened.

I called my wife from the car, passing San Jose, and said the area felt a little like El Paso, Texas, where we lived for three years. When I arrived in Morgan Hill and spent time driving around the town, I told her it felt like a combination of Bend, Oregon (big-money, outdoorsy), and El Paso (mountain ranges, farm land). Being in a new place forces me to observe, and being forced to do that makes me think about how and where I incorporate setting details into my writing.

I love atmospheric books. James Lee Burke’s rich portrayal of New Orleans. Robert B. Parker’s depiction of Boston. Alexander McCall Smith’s use of Mma Precious Ramotswe to offer insights into Botswana. Even settings that can’t be described but are present, like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the physical structure of which I can’t explicitly describe but I feel the weight of the lighthouse on the characters on every page of the novel, nonetheless. (I’m still not sure how she does that.)

The settings in these books offer a layer of richness and nuance that readers might not even notice as they follow the plot and grow attached to the characters. And writing setting details is never easy. Hemingway said, Writing is always architecture, never interior design.
Likewise, the “clever” metaphor is only clever if it helps the reader by saving her time. Symbol, unless you are Steinbeck, is a critic’s word, not a writer’s.

So the use of setting to enhance a work can be a tightrope walk. I find myself often adding and just as often cutting in the same scene. A brushstroke here. A cover-up there. How much is too much? Am I writing that because I like it or because it will add something to the scene? (Be honest, John!) All are questions I struggle with as I go.

I’d love to hear what others think about setting and the place those details play in one’s work.

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