Seven-thirty a.m. in Georgetown, Penang and breakfast was an iced chai and a vegetable dosa hot enough to melt the paint off a car. I sat outside under an awning, wondering if the tiny vinyl chair, wilting in the tropical heat, would hold my weight until I was done. A dozen feet away, a Chinese man in a stained apron stood at a butcher’s block, lopping the feet off of dead ducks with a cleaver and dropping them into a white bucket. Every fifteen minutes, a young boy would arrive, put the feet in plastic bags, and take them to the market across the street. Exhaust from scooters put a gasoline tang in the air, but then a breeze from the ocean–never far away–would clear it away. Three-wheeled bike rickshaws pedaled by, flicking their bell every block, trying to attract custom. I watched the butcher wipe the cleaver on his apron as the sweat trickled down my spine and the small Malaysian neighborhood woke around me.
“Write what you know” is a writers’ mantra so old that you have to blow dust off it every time you use it. But the old workhorse still has it uses, and it’s in describing physical setting where I think it may do the most good. In fact, it might be worth recasting the saying as, “Write where you know.”
This may seem poor advice if you’re planning to set your novel in a dusky alley in Dar es Salaam or on a pirate ship sharking the waters around the Dry Tortugas; few of us have the budget to do field research in these places. I was very lucky to take a trip to Malaysia that gave me the experiences that I wrote in the paragraph above.
Despite the exotic setting, however, look at what stands out: the heat, the taste and feel of my food, the movement of the daily world around me. These “mundane” details are present around us every day and contain the nuances of behavior and habit and life that can add tremendous value to a story…and you don’t have to travel the globe to find them.
Try this not-so exotic Raymond Chandler quote from Farewell, My Lovely (kudos to Oakley Hall for pointing it out in The Art & Craft of Novel Writing):
I lay on my back on a bed in a waterfront hotel and waited for it to get dark. It was a small front room with a hard bed and a mattress slightly thicker than the cotton blanket that covered it. A spring underneath me was broken and stuck into the left side of my back. I lay there and let it prod me.
The reflection of a red neon light glared on the ceiling. When it made the whole room red it would be dark enough to go out. Outside cars honked along the alley they called the Speedway. Feet slithered on the sidewalks below my window. There was a murmur and mutter of coming and going in the air. The air that seeped in through the rusted screens smelled of stale frying fat. Far off a voice of the kind that could be heard far off was shouting “Get hungry, folks. Get hungry. Nice doggies here. Get hungry.”
Getting the Where
Whether you’re talking about Penang, Malaysia or the streets of L.A. or an evening in your hometown, you’re not going to pick up the details of setting you need sitting at a computer.
I live near Washington DC, at least an hour’s drive from the Chesapeake Bay and three from the Atlantic Ocean. I needed some details for a scene that takes place on a dock. I could’ve cobbled something together from memories of beach vacations or cribbing from a Travis McGee novel, but I talked myself into walking DC’s short, but lively, riverfront pier.
I was glad I did. It was a huge help to see, and smell, and taste the things I would’ve glossed over or never thought to put into a scene in the first place. And I’m convinced that walking the setting helped me season my descriptions in indirect ways, as well, helping me describe and place pieces of the story in ways I wouldn’t have if I’d just plucked them out of thin air.
Outside Lies Magic*
Take a day off from work. Grab a backpack and stalk the backstreets of your home town. Try to make your way from one end to the other without taking a main street or going to Starbucks or stopping at your favorite sandwich shop. What it would be like to face these streets as a homeless person? As a cop? As a crook or a fugitive? What do the backs of buildings look like? Where does the garbage go? Who lived there fifty, a hundred, two-hundred years ago?
Next time you’re tempted to stay in on a Friday night (or go out partying), try this instead: grab a cup of coffee, take a seat across the street from a popular bar, and just watch. Write down the excitement you see in people’s faces as they anticipate the night. What are they wearing? How do they look at each other? Look at the boredom on the doorman or bouncer’s face, but how carefully he picked out what he was wearing that night. Watch as others drive by, looking at the line to get in with disgust, or longing, or indifference.
Budget one day on your next vacation to get up at the crack of dawn and go to the local market or dock or town square and watch, even for an hour. Try out your new-found powers of observation on what and who you see; they’re bound to be different, yet–as people, trying to get through their day–fundamentally just like you. Look for the odd detail or the telling note that makes the place what it is.
* I stole this title from the great book of the same name by John Stilgoe. Worth the read and relevant to my message here.
There’s No Where There
Dive off the deep end of creativity and you’ll find yourself writing in circles, trying to invent tastes and sounds and smells you’ve never actually experienced…and don’t have the emotional vocabulary for. On the other hand, stick to the details of your own life and you may start to wonder who the hell wants to know about your fifty minute commute, your dog’s intestinal troubles, or how often your cell phone provider drops your calls.
A compromise between the two extremes can be difficult to find. But think about some of the lasting truths you’re writing about. Love? Conflict? Relationships? Daily life? At some level, you’re talking about people and how they interact with each other and their environment. And those details are all around you, no matter where in the world you are.