Filed under: Marc Lecard
When I got out of grad school I holed up in my shitty little apartment and read crime fiction every day for a month or so, sometimes at the rate of two books a day. This was obvious recovery mode, psychic healing after two years of plowing through the dull pile of disconnected nonsense that is much academic writing. And I was a creative writing major.
I probably learned more about writing fiction in those several months than in the previous two years of directed study. (To be fair, I was majoring in poetry.)
One of my big writers during this period of recovery was Georges Simenon, especially his Inspector Maigret novels. These books were short enough that you could easily read two a day, and rich and compelling enough that you would want to.
After the character of Maigret (a taciturn guy who relied on his deep insights into personality and the kinds of accommodations and compromises people make with life in order to solve his crimes), the thing that hooked me most about these books was their setting.
The Maigret novels took me into a Paris of narrow back streets, dark little boites, bureaucratic office warrens where the cops ate sandwiches at their desks, prim bourgeoise apartment blocks, shabby hotel rooms. I could smell the caporal, black coffee, baking bread, the furniture polish, spilled wine. It always seemed to be raining.
I was there. I felt I knew the city well enough to drive cab there.
But when I went back to the Maigret books recently (I hadn’t looked at them since that post-grad orgy), I was astonished to see how little description of place there was in them.
What was definitely missing were any big set pieces, any long descriptions of the city, any poetizing over atmosphere (less than in this blog post, in fact).
The effect–and these books were still pungent and atmospheric–was cumulative , quick hits in passing as Maigret navigated his world. Every little hit of atmosphere was given in the course of some action. The story moved quickly, without stopping to look around and take notes.
Yet I was left with Paris.
Now I am not trying to say that this is the only or the best way to convey atmosphere and place. Some writers–James Lee Burke comes to mind–are capable of rich and extended passages of pure description that put you completely in a particular time and place. But it is remarkable how much can be accomplished with very minor means.
Weighing down the story with too much description is a problem I have had in my writing, and to cure it I feel I sometimes go too much in the opposite direction, and lose this valuable sense of place. So Simenon’s example seems useful to me.
Any thoughts on this? Any exemplary writers that put across a sense of place with minimal means?
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