Murder and Matchmaking

Murder and Matchmaking
A novel mashup of Sherlock Holmes and Pride & Prejudice

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Odd Nature of Realism in Fiction

Part 1 – Setting and detail

I have been heartily enjoying a reading through various nonfiction books and other sources recently. I’m justifying it all as ‘research’ for my current book, but frankly I’m also indulging in skipping down a bunch of avenues that wind far away from any details that are likely to end up in the book. It’s like window shopping for a bunch of academic endeavours that I don’t have the time and money to purposely pursue.

The question is how should such ‘research’ benefit or inform the writing of fiction?

I recall listening to an interview between Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming in which Chandler admonishes Fleming for getting a detail regarding the serving of ice water in Las Vegas casinos incorrect in his book. The impression I had was that this really annoyed Chandler whereas Fleming regarded as it an insignificant detail he couldn’t even remember. I like to think this points to a crucial aspect of Chandler’s approach to writing: a strong focus on veracity in fiction.

In Chandler’s writing the setting is more than a backdrop to the story; it breathes life into it. He’s not heavy on the descriptions and yet he creates an intensely visceral and convincing world. As a reader I have always believed completely in the authenticity of Chandler’s Los Angeles as much as I do Dickens’ London. I can’t travel back in time to find out if their depictions were accurate, but they convince me completely in them. I become immersed in those worlds for the time of the story and feel as though I’m experiencing every sensory detail they share.

I think partly this trust in the ‘truth’ of Chandler’s setting is created not by a deluge of facts and precise details so much as an absence of the implausible or inaccurate. He does not waste time informing the reader of the obvious information that everyone would notice when they entered a room. He is far more likely to note the peculiar or distinctive details that tell so much more. A bland attempt at description of the overall appearance can at best build up a police identikit picture in the reader’s mind; a striking flash of colour or an unexpected brush stroke can help create an impressionist work of art.

I am curious about the thoughts of other writers and readers. How important is detail or authenticity in setting to other people? Do people prefer more or less when it comes to descriptions of the story’s world? Is it affected by genre or whether the setting is a real or imaginary location?

2 comments:

Rachel said...

I love reading detail, I do. It's so much more vivid to sometimes have a flash of a name, a brand, a place that's specific (even if not automatically recognisable, I guess) rather than generic. I don't know... like, okay, someone has a rug. Cool. Is it a homemade rag rug they got from their gran? Is it a worn but still gorgeous Aubusson? Is it a so-cheap-it's-squeaky thing from the Warehouse? Any of those'll tell me something - though it may be something later disproved - about the person who has it, too.

Not all the time, cos then you'd be bogged down in irrelevant crap, but detail can be really scene-setting. I remember - not the book, nor the author - reading something about fifteen years ago in which the author spent half a page detailing how the central female character made rice pudding. And it was an Amish setting, so there were these sort of anachronistic things for a modern period, and it sucked me right into the scene.

If it could be set anywhere, it's not usually as engaging as something saturated in its place.

Debbie Cowens said...

I think you're right about details having potential to imply a lot about character or to really set the scene.

I like your phrasing 'saturated in its place'. I suspect most of my favourite books have had this quality, some times without the setting being explicitly described in any great length, it just feels as though it has seeped into everything.