Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Failure of The Imagination

In the dark of night a carriage comes trundling through a narrow medieval street.

How many times have we read that scene? I have written it at least five times.

In my mind I tend to see – at least if I don’t think about it – a narrowish street and a serviceable dark wood carriage. Which, of course, is fine if it’s a secret meeting – I wrote that once. But what about when your character is about to be taken up onto the lap of luxury and the refined haunts of nobility?

I confess I’ve once or twice made reference to gilded carriages and left it at that. It took a visit last week to the museum of carriages in Lisbon to make me realize how even I – who grew up, as my older son put it in a country surrounded by (and chained to and weighted down by) the past – often failed in imagination, and how it might fail to convey the sheer weirdness of a setting to readers.

And the setting is not just historical, either. There is no reason to believe the current fetish for form following function will endure. We could well end up with spaceships that look somewhat like this, inside or even out. (Given innovative materials.)

In the absence of clues from the writer that something is not as-in-present the reader tends to default to bare-bones past (assuming always the past was simpler, particularly for US readers) or to Star-Trek future. I try very hard to at least cue other possibilities, but I’m not sure how successful I am. The past – and the future – are truly different countries and sometimes imagination lags behind them.

Which authors do this sort of thing well? Are you even aware when it is lacking? Do you prefer barest of bare bones and let you fill-in the environment yourself? Do you feel more comfortable with a future or a past that are somewhat like the present? Do you want more “authenticity?” Is anything – narrative – served by more authenticity?


Anonymous said...

That's the sort of carriage we (in the UK) see the Queen travelling around in on state occasions. Up on the perch, cracking the whip at the horses, usually with a bottle of gin in her other hand. I may be lying about the last bit.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and remember how the interior of a submarine was portrayed in the fifties film of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, if you want a parallel for the gilded interior of a spaceship.

Anonymous said...

I think Barbara Hambly did a good job of conveying the ornateness of her locations.

When I was a kid I watched all the Westerns on TV. I tend to default to buckboards and stage coaches until otherwise clued.

Fads, styles, eep! A very good point. Famous designer spaceships. Classics. Golden Oldies. And the utilitarian, off the shelf version for the company fleet vehicles. Hippy conversions.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Anton, no, no, I seen the bottle of gin with me own eyes.

The weird thing is that these were not all royal carriages. Quite a few belonged to counts or even to "prominent families." Clearly you know, you must keep up with Lord Jones, or something.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

well, Pam, when I was a kid some of the older farmers still used horse drawn carriages (though mostly ox carts) for jaunts around the village, so that's what I tend to see, or at most the sort of carriage that people ride around for weddings.

I'd visited this museum when I was 14, and I wanted to take the kids there, but now I looked through a writer's eyes.

And yes, I'm inflicting my "vacation slides" on all of you. :D

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Good point, Sarah.

At least with TV, movies and cheap colour printing in magazines and newspapers we have a broader source to draw our imaginings from. That's why earlier books tended to be heavy on description, because most people hadn't traveled much.

And I think that's why we tend not to do as much description now. We don't want to bog the story down.

Chris McMahon said...

I've often thought about how drab modern car designs are - wind-tunnel optimised - and every single brand starts to look the same. If you take the dial back to the 50s and 60s there were some really fantastic looking cars.

So I've been waiting for the big Fusion breakthrough when enery conservation no longer drives design. Then you would see an explosion of fancy looking electric cars, all supplied off the grid with fusion electricity.

Well ... I can always dream.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, I miss the days when cars had personalities. Back before every other car looked like the one before it, we used to name our cars. Growing up, I always knew which of my parents was claiming the family's new car by who named it. Strangely enough, the names usually fit the cars.

As for whether we, as writers, put in enough detail about certain things or not, I blame TV and Hollywood for a lot of it. How easy it is to simply fall back on the image of a wagon or carraige from some old movie. I find myself doing that with a number of things and have to consciously tell myself to go do the research. of course, that also leaves us with the problem of how our readers react when we do the research and it doesn't match with their mental image, thanks to Hollywood.

So, what is the happy middle ground here? Is there one? Inquiring minds want to know.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I think if we do the research and describe a settlement for instance, that doesn't match the hollywood western town, then the reader either glosses over it and sees what they want to see, or they get jarred possibly out of the story.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


My cars like my cats had Heinlein names. Gay Deceiver was a little hard to explain to non-Heinlein fans.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Well, that brings the same sort of thing as other bits you want to put in there without stopping your reader cold -- background; science; character history -- you bury it enough so that people can ignore it or not. I'd say about fifty percent of the people appreciate the odd background. I'm one of those.

Kate said...


Gay Deceiver would have been VERY hard to explain during hte last 20 years or so. As the actress said to the bishop.

Mike said...

@Amanda? Just pondering -- part of this may depend on how you slide that detail in? For example, just announcing that the hearty band of pioneers walk up to a castle in the middle of the Kansas cornfields may be pretty hard for the reader to take. But let them see this strange peak poking up for the last 20 miles, wonder about what it is, and ask the farmer they pass who explains that this crazy Englishman built himself a castle... and now the castle in the corn makes more sense? Foreshadow, background, explain... make the reader understand?

Amanda Green said...

Mike, as with anything, how you craft it does have an impact. However, if you write that the Alamo was small, only so many hundred feet across, most readers won't believe it because, well, they saw the movie and the Alamo was huge. To support this, look at the study that just came out about the most overrated vacation spots. The Alamo was one because, well, it's SMALL and not what the visitors expect after the various movies.

I'll give you another example. So many people around the world have a certain impression of what Dallas and the people who live here are like because of that atrocity of a show by the same name. So, when you write about Dallas and its business settings, you'll get a lot of "but, where's JR?" sort of reaction if you don't make sure you have at least one cowboy-booted, cowboy-hatted, big belt buckled, hard drinking and conniving man present who is willing to sacrifice everything but himself to get what he wants.

You can get around it, but it is hard and your craft has to be very good to do it, imo