S. Lee Manning: International espionage thrillers, by definition, include scenes in countries besides the United States. The reader needs to know something about the location of the action. Yet what matters most is not merely the description, but pulling the reader into that description.
In other words, how do you make the location come alive?
In the novel I am currently writing, Ride a Red Horse, my characters arrive in St. Petersburg, Russia and I start with the most prosaic of descriptions – because the reader needs to know something about the city.
St. Petersburg was a city of canals and bridges, built by Peter the Great, out of what had once been swampland, at the cost of the lives of men who toiled on its construction.
Something the reader needs to know, but it doesn’t really express what I want the reader to experience. To better capture the city, I decided to go into Kolya’s mind – and his reaction to being back in the city where he was born.
The last time he had walked this stretch of the Neva during the White Nights, the city had still been shabby, with decaying facades and few tourists. But he remembered it as beautiful. He had been nine years old, and his mother had held his hand. Nine o’clock at night, and the bright summer night had smelled of lilacs. Six months later, his mother was dead from flu.
Wasn’t it absurd to die of something so common?
So in seeing the city through Kolya’s eyes, you get a sense of place – but you also learn something about Kolya in how he views the city. His mother’s death when he was a child was the event that changed him into the man that he has become. The description of the city not only brings the place alive, but illuminates key aspects of Kolya’s character.
I do something similar in the beginning of Ride – where a Canadian smuggler is planning to bring a package across the border. I set the scene in an odd little town where one side of the street is Canadian, the other, American.
Despite the dark night and the pelting rain, he could see flags decorated with stars and stripes waving in the cold gusts of wind in the front yards of the Vermont homes, while across the street flags bearing the maple leaf of Canada whipped back and forth in the front yards of the homes there.
An interesting town, but how the smuggler views it is more important than the mere fact of the international line running down the middle of the street.
He’d grown up here in Beebe Plains, on this odd street that divided two nations. Back then he’d cross over to play with American kids, and they’d cross to play with him in Canada. In his teens, he’d briefly dated an American girl he’d met in a library in Stanstead where the international border was marked by a black line down the building’s center, the front door in Vermont, and the parking lot in Canada. Back then, everyone smuggled, at least a little.
The smuggler is not a major character, but it’s important to understand how he sees the border. He sees it as fluid, as something that should not be closed. Smuggling is something casual for him, like flirting with a girl when he was a teenager. Again, by describing the town through the smuggler’s eyes and experience, I am trying to not only convey a sense of place – but a sense of character – so that you understand who the smuggler is – and why he does what he does.
How about you? What are the most memorable descriptions of place in books you’ve read? When is a location more than just a location?
You are so right about descriptions and what we readers can glean and imagine and experience from them. Love your choice of examples!
I really like the way you describe your settings "through the eyes" of the characters. Wish I could see St. Petersburg – but your writing helps me to make an imaginary visit! Great post.
Love the idea of a black line down the middle that separates countries. Illustrates how arbitrary borders can be!