There is nothing more lasting in the mind of a reader than a description of a place, be it a city or village, barren desert or a mountaintop, a room in a shabby inn or the majesty of a castle. When a reader finds themselves transported, not unlike a time machine, to a place far from the reality of their life or experience it is simply magic.
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, California, in the remains of an orange grove that over time was sold off and became a typical Valley tract home neighborhood. Reading was my time machine ticket to the world, my escape from the mundane world in which I lived. Hence, I was never without a book in my hand. While other kids played outdoors on a Saturday, you’d find me laying on the living room couch reading a book. Often times those were classics, since we had a full set of Shakespeare, Dickens, Bronte, Tolstoy, well, the list goes on and on. I think my mother was in a mail order book club that sent a new classic literature book every month. Of course, I progressed to more current literature like Dr. Zivago (one of my favorites), and all of the James Bond books (loved those), and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, all of Hemingway (my favorite author). I was a reading machine, and to tell the truth, I had no favorite genre. I read sci-fi, literary, paranormal, romance, historical, biographical, fantasy, none of that mattered. What spurred me was my desire to travel the world, to live in another’s skin, to embrace the long tide of history. In a nutshell, to understand the world I lived in, or maybe, the world I’d rather live in.
I thought it might be nice to share a few favorite descriptions from novels that are unforgettable.
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy – “That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running…”
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen – “The Cicada sing an endless song in the long grass, smells run along the earth and falling stars run over the sky, like tears over a cheek. You are the privileged person to whom everything is taken. The Kings of Tarshish shall bring gifts.”
Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice – “Paris was a universe whole and entire unto herself, hollowed and fashioned by history; so she seemed in this age of Napoleon III with her towering buildings, her massive cathedrals, her grand boulevards and ancient winding medieval streets–as vast and indestructible as nature itself. All was embraced by her, by her volatile and enchanted populace thronging the galleries, the theaters, the cafes, giving birth over and over to genius and sanctity, philosophy and war, frivolity and the finest art; so it seemed that if all the world outside her were to sink into darkness, what was fine, what was beautiful, what was essential might there still come to its finest flower. Even the majestic trees that graced and sheltered her streets were attuned to her–and the waters of the Seine, contained and beautiful as they wound through her heart; so that the earth on that spot, so shaped by blood and consciousness, had ceased to be the earth and had become Paris.”
Big Sur by Jack Kerouac – “On soft Spring nights I’ll stand in the yard under the stars — Something good will come out of all things yet — And it will be golden and eternal just like that — There’s no need to say another word.”
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – “Though we’d been driving a while, there were no landmarks, and it was impossible to say where we were going or in which direction. The skyline was monotonous and unchanging and I was fearful that we might drive through the pastel houses altogether and out into the alkali waste beyond, into some sun-beaten trailer park from the movies.”
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – “I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”
The Sun also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – “Then we crossed a wide plain, and there was a big river off on the right shining in the sun from between the line of trees, and away off you could see the plateau of Pamplona rising out of the plain, and the walls of the city, and the great brown cathedral, and the broken skyline of the other churches.”
In my own writing, painting a sense of place is as important to me as creating my characters. One without the other would be a barren landscape, a painting or a book without color.
In my work in progress, working title Saving Layla I describe the Grand Bizarre in Tehran, Iran. Here’s a taste.
“The largest bazaar in the world, with more than six miles of merchants’ shops, teemed with locals and tourists. Cyrus held tightly to Layla’s hand as they walked. His eyes monitored everyone around them, searching for a tail as he pulled her through the crowd. Layla, wearing a dark pink scarf wrapped around her head and neck, appeared excited to be out among people. Her eyes flitted left and right as she tried to process the human energy around her. Stopping on occasion, Cyrus gave authenticity to their visit by pointing out architectural elements, explaining that some of the oldest buildings, walls and passages were more than four hundred years old.
“A footnote in the history of Persia,” he explained to her, “a land whose history and civilization dates back thousands of years before the birth of Christ.”
He wanted to make her comfortable in the environment. He pointed out the domes and the towering, vaulted ceilings that sported skylights admitting natural light. Streams of sunlight poured down like waterfalls that were strangely alive with dancing dust motes. Like a tour guide, he pointed out the beauty of the intricate tile and brickwork, artistically laid out in traditional Persian patterns that, after the Islamic conquest of Persia, nearly fourteen hundred years ago, were adapted into Islamic architecture.
Each corridor contained a different world. Everywhere Layla looked fruit and vegetable stalls, filled with a cornucopia of produce, overflowed their boxes and baskets. The scent of spices perfumed the air. It was exotic and intoxicating, the endless array of orange and yellow saffron, cumin, turmeric, and cinnamon, their pungent fragrances stimulating their senses. Each corridor of the bazaar specialized in different products for sale. One alley was devoted to figs, dates, and nuts, in all varieties, both dried and fresh. In the fabric corridor, thousands of yards of fabrics of every quality and for every purpose, from embroidered needlepoints for upholstery to fine silks from India and China, were displayed on bolts or rolled around cardboard tubes. If you could imagine it, it was for sale somewhere amid the hundreds of vendors flanking the passages. At one point Layla stopped, forcing Cyrus to wait as she admired a shop window containing hundreds of gold bangles strung across a display that covered the entire width of the store.
Layla had never seen anything like the Grand Bazaar, and Cyrus was pleased to see the color return to her cheeks and a smile on her face.”