Describing the same thing over and over for a writer is hard work. We know what a wood looks like, we think we know what a medieval street looks like and we know how a gun must feel like when it goes off in your hand. So how, as writers, do we find new ways of telling the same old, same old? How do I describe to you, the reader, yet another mad gallop through pastures or woods because of another enemy chasing our heroes?
It comes back to real life, the life of the author. I’m lucky, I started riding horses at five years old and I’ve done just about everything with them – including bronco but it wasn’t intentional! I’ve trained in martial arts for about fifteen years now, so swords, bows, knives, open hand – again not difficult to understand but the real key for me is location.
I often stumble over these when I’m writing. It has to be right. It can take a whole day to write a few hundred words if I’m looking for the right location. What does Lancelot see when he and the others emerge from a cave network? How does the forest of the wolves look? Or a castle in the mountains? What kind of place is he living in when Tancred finds him in Grail? It’s a difficult job because I have to key into a reader’s experiences and imagination. I also don’t want to waste time or words. You all know what a tree looks like, I’m not going spend three hundred words describing it, but I can describe how my characters feel about it and that’s the key.
How does a loamy earth make Lancelot feel? What does it remind him of? How does it feel under his boots as he runs toward Arthur to save him from some enemy’s attack? Does he love the dry autumn leaves or curse them because of the sound they make? Is the rain refreshing or is it yet another curse from the gods because everything they own is wet? How does the moon reflect on the snow? Is there a moon at all or is it too soon during the long cold night? And how does the world smell?
As a writer I firmly believe you must never just describe something, you have to allow your characters to experience it as we do in our world. When I’m out walking my dogs I think of the words to describe the heat of the sun, the bite of the wind, the lash of rain or the sound of the river. I think of how to make you feel what Lancelot feels when he looks at the mist swirling through trees and the new day’s sun making everything shine.
I want you, the reader, to feel, see, smell, and hear, exactly what Lancelot does, that’s my goal. We don’t always pull it off – sometimes we’re too busy killing or screwing to pay any attention to the world we inhabit together – but we do try and endless practice on my behalf should always make that forest feel fresh even if we’ve been there a thousand times before.
If you are a writer, as I know many of you are, it’s worth practising this art next time you’re walking down a street or a wooded path. How would you describe this to someone you love? How would your hero or heroine feel about being here?
Practice, endless practice and making those descriptions tight – like an impressionist painting – that’s what makes reading fun and that’s what makes storytelling fun.