It happens all too often when manuscripts come across my desk, the author operates in a safe and sterile zone, moving characters across a stage with a green screen backdrop. Put another way, there is a palpable lack of environmental detail. Are there curtains on that window by which the character is standing? Is the window open? Are there drapes? Are the drapes stirred by a breeze? Is that breeze cold or warm, damp or dry, stiff or a zephyr? Are there sounds coming in that window? Children playing? A lawnmower buzzing? Birds singing a morning paean or an evening requiem? Is there sunlight? Harsh and hot, or gentle and soothing? Is there rain? Soft and steady, or pelting and tempestuous? And how does all that impact the character? The mood of the story?
There are several well-known authors who excel at offering up environmental detail, and thus creating mood; some of my favourites are Bernard Cornwell and C.J. Cherryh. I remember clearly reading one of Cornwell’s stories about a Saxon warrior travelling across country. Without stopping the action, and in the meantime developing character, environment and mood, he describes seasonal flowers in bloom along the roadside, specific birdsong. For those familiar with the landscape, this will conjure familiar images. For those not, it is an introduction to a foreign environment as it relates to the character and the action.
Equally, Cherryh, in one of my most-beloved of her series, describes forest and plains which are completely alien and unknown, but does so in a manner which completely familiarizes the reader with the terrain, and as Cornwell does, relates it all back to character, mood and action.
In Michael Skeet’s forthcoming novel, A Poisoned Prayer, he demonstrates this sort of writer’s-craft with ease.
“Please,” a voice cried, as from a distance. “You’ve got to help me!”
The words were well-enough spoken, though the voice had something coarse, lower-born, about it. Lise felt her throat and stomach tighten as she heard the crunch of footsteps on snow; that meant that someone was approaching the carriage from the verge, because the road itself was a muddy slough. She lifted one of the heavy curtains to peek through the window in the door. The moon was full, which would mean good enough light were she able to withstand the biting cold. She was a daughter of the south, though, and the wind bit into her cheeks and fingers; in less time that it took her to breathe in she was forced to drop the curtain. At any rate, from the side of the coach she couldn’t see anyone. The man who’d stopped them was obviously standing in front, or to the other side.
See how Skeet handles description of the speaker in the second paragraph, relating that back to the main character, Lise. We immediately are able to infer something about Lise’s station in the life and her view of those born beneath her status. We also know it’s winter and the state of the road, and her inability to deal with the cold.
D.G. Laderoute handles environmental detail with equal facility in his forthcoming novel, The Great Sky:
The Preach family camp surrounded him, canvas tents gleaming whitely under the pale light of stars and a low, crescent moon. It was laid out the same way it was every summer, eight tents occupying a rocky point thrust into the same lake that bordered the rez itself, but an hour’s boat-ride to the west. He stood shivering in the cold darkness, not even sure why he’d gotten up, but then a glow of firelight down toward the beach caught his attention, sparks flitting up from behind the kitchen tent like panicked fireflies before vanishing among the stars. Piper gave his eyes a moment to adjust, using the time to relieve himself into a patch of scrawny willows. Then he started toward the fire, careful to raise his feet high enough to clear rocks and roots and fallen logs. The fire burned in the stone-lined pit at the top of the beach, so it had to be deliberate, but who’d built it? It should be banked down to embers, ready to re-light in the morning. Piper angled his course, steering wide of one of the grown-up’s tents so he wouldn’t wake anyone who’d want to stick him back into bed. In the clear, he worked his way back to the beach until he could see the fire and whoever had stoked it.
In the first few sentences he creates an iconic image of a northern Ontario reservation experience, and does so with a sense of peace and permanence, of things belonging. Through that description, he very clearly defines Piper’s place within the Preach family, how he feels about his life and situation. For anyone who has either canoed and camped in Ontario’s northern wilderness, or lived on a reservation, the environment is familiar. For those who haven’t, the environment is described in such a way as to create a portrait. And so Laderoute has deftly drawn a connection between character, environment and reader. Put another way, he’s populated the green screen of his story.
This is story-telling at its best. This is one of several essential elements of writer’s craft which captivates readers and transports them to a world that only exists in their heads, and while there that world is real, vital, vibrant.