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evoking place and character
by William deBuys
Writer, conservationist and Pulitzer Prize finalist William deBuys is the author of seven books, which range from memoir and biography to environmental history and studies of place.
Do journalists sometimes borrow from the novelist's toolbox? You bet they do, and they have to, if they want their stories to be memorable and to matter deeply to their readers. The facts of a given issue may be important, but the reader won't carry them away unless, like the germ of a seed encased in a burr, they have a way of sticking to whomever brushes by. Good narrative makes facts sticky, and good narrative depends on lively evocations of place and character.
How do you get to the essence of a character in just a few lines? Check out your favorite novel and see how the protagonist is introduced. As often as not, you'll find that an intriguing element of conflict or contradiction is introduced as the character enters. For example, when Leo Tolstoy finally lets us glimpse at Anna Karenina (making us wait until we are seventy-some pages deep in the book!), he tells us that her eyes say something that her lips will not. We are drawn to know more about this internal tension, and we are charmed, instantly. No one is so bland as to be bereft of contradiction, and good writing makes use of the "clues that don't add up" to keep us turning the page.
And place? Well, everything happens somewhere, and there's no substitute for the vicarious sense of being where things are happening. The trick, almost always, is to write sensibly. I don't mean that you should put low-heeled, brown shoes on your story, but that you should strive to engage your reader's five senses of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. Just a few sensory details, like the wind-blown leaves described in the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms, and the reader's imagination will do the rest. It feels like magic, but it makes things real.