Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Was It Really A Dark and Stormy Night?

I can't speak for everyone, but lately, it seems, people who read books are dissing description -- seriously. They don't have the patience to sit through anything that doesn't bark, scream, ooze, bite, suck, lunge or blink. Perhaps they are reading within narrow genres. Perhaps they have never read the classics. Possibly, they are young and so embedded into their cell phones and various pods, they've become pods themselves. It's sad.

Description in novels has its place and serves a very important function. It sets a scene, or imbues sentiment; it may even be that one wonderful pause in the pace or tension which cleverly allows the reader to take a breath. But descriptive passages can't go on and on and on with no purpose or they'll weigh everything down like bad hair conditioner.

You really can't blame description for making a book bad. You can blame bad writing, instead. And when it comes to that, heck, bad writing will give any device a bad rep. There's bad dialogue, bad plots, bad (as in bad, not way cool devious) characters, bad something or other that makes you want to toss a book against the wall. Or smash your Kindle.

But getting back to description. I was thinking about a few things I wrote having to do with the weather. Weather is a big deal in Montreal. It's big everywhere these days. It's so contrary, unpredictable and unsettling. And yet, in fiction, we tend to ignore the new realities, and probably will until it's official -- when the world is finally upside down; Montreal's a tropical paradise, and Nassau is a winter hideaway.

I use weather and descriptive images as indicators of interior mood and exterior ambiance. Regardless of genre, weather is universally recognizable and touches everyone with its unmistakable language and poetry.
We may not know what a two-headed vampire really smells like; we may not have ever walked through a desert or a snowstorm -- but, we can do it vicariously and that's what makes reading so habit forming.

Here are three winter contrasts:


"Every year, when the first snow of the season arrived, Emmaline Lerner stopped what she was doing to watch its descent. Today, it fell in thick silence and quickly blotted out the pitted roads, the garbage bins, and the squalor of poor neighbourhoods.
Then a hush spread over the city as invisible fingers sugared the many winding wrought iron stairways, church spires and cupolas. Traffic lights twinkled intermittently. Sparrows, tittering in sprays of excitement, left delicate tracks on tree limbs.
People, quite forgetting themselves, gazed outward in amazement as time and motion slowed in the gathering dusk. Freedom to wander and dream in a child’s faerie world – if only for an hour or two – this was the fleeting gift of urban snow." 


"Winter whipped along the coastline of Travemünde with the force of the Furies, shrieking in gusts of heavy rain and snow that blew in from the open sea. Like an uninvited relative with repulsive habits, it settled in for a painful visit bringing a penetrating chill that pierced bones.
Icicles formed into gargoyles and attached their rigid spines to the eaves where they surveyed their domain, until finally, drooling and dripping in the weak sun, they melted away.
And then the Christmas season announced itself in a feathery frost that etched its way across the open-shuttered windows of the fishermen’s houses behind Front Row.
The quiet streets grew festive; some prosperous citizens dressed public doors and lampposts with red berries and fir branches and everyone placed fragrant Advent wreaths and four red Advent candles on tables or walls inside their homes.
For a month of Sundays, even the meanest streets brightened at  sundown when a faint copper cast spilled pink shadows over snow and rutted walkways. The prized red candles burned in weekly progression until all four blazed together on the last Sunday before Christmas Eve. As the flames flickered in the dark, snowflakes hovered like white moths around street lamps, and in the air, the baking aromas of ginger Braune Kuchen and Spekulatius pierced the damp night with a sweet balm of hope and expectation.

When Otto walked up from the harbour with the fishermen, swinging a small lamp on a pole and stamping the numbness from his feet, he considered himself lucky. Soon, the metallic smell of gray ice and pungent fish oil would disappear into the warmth of a bowl of soup and a slice – albeit a thin one – of Tante Gertrude’s Advent Stöllen with its rich centre of marzipan. “Oh du froehliche Weihnachtszeit!” O, You Happy Christmastide!"


"January, dull in the aftermath of Christmas, limped with a sodden deliberateness through Travemünde, followed by a February whose bite reminded Otto of the oversalted herring he found on his dinner plate. His tongue swelled, he could taste nothing, and his appetite fell away.
The only antidote lay in Tante Gertrude’s fruit compote which he pilfered from the cupboard by the spoonful until the ceramic jar disappeared, no doubt spirited upstairs to the back of her wardrobe, where it would languish and then rot to satisfy her spite.
Otto moved woodenly in the thin gray dawn, loading bait, traps and nets onto the boats with the other fisherman on the wharf. They worked in silence against the cold, fighting inflamed joints and fatigue, their eyes red and encrusted with sleep. It wasn’t until they had cast off in triangular formation that they spoke in low voices and let tiny phospherous sparks fly upwards as they lit their pipes.
           Otto sat beside old Hein in the boat’s stern and observed the gray skies growing pink as a reluctant sun poked through the mists and streamed onto the smart houses and hotels along Front Row. He watched the shore come to life and imagined himself waking up warm to the aroma of coffee and cinnamon."
It's not winter yet -- but I can't put off rummaging through the hall closet to find my boots. Now, that's a description nobody needs at all!


  1. Thank you for the snips Carol! And oh my, that photo takes me back...

  2. You are so kind, Deniz, thank you!

    More snips to follow in the days and weeks to come.

    I love this McCord Museum photo as well.
    Almost makes me forget how much I hate winter if I have to be outside in the cold.