Description: Making the Unknown
By Scott Rhoades
Copyright © 2008 by Scott Rhoades, All Rights Reserved
"Write what you know."
Writing teachers drill it. The writing magazines repeat it. Our mentors
and writers groups won't let us forget it. But what if your story needs
to go somewhere you haven't been? How do you write about a place you've
The best answer, of course,
is to go there. Travel inspires fiction like nothing else. When you're
in a new place, your senses are wide open, you enjoy new cultural
experiences, and you get an appreciation for the planet that can add
tremendous depth to your own world view and, thus, your writing. But
most of us can't just pick up and go. It costs money, and we have
obligations that make it difficult to jet-set around the globe. Plus,
for some reason, the places we think of are usually exotic.
I've been fascinated with
Iceland since I first read about it in a Hardy Boys book when I was
about eight or nine. It's one of my dream destinations, but I've never
been. So naturally I chose it as a major location for my first novel.
When writing about Iceland,
I used a variety of techniques. First, I read everything I could get my
hands on about the place: history, culture, literature (classical and
modern), anything to give me a feel for the area and the people. Next, I
looked at a lot of pictures. Descriptions based on pictures are filtered
through what I learned while reading, so the culture influences the
Then, I did something that
some people might not think about. I contacted a professional
photographer who has worked extensively in Iceland, but is not native.
Not being native helps a person see things that natives don't
necessarily see. I had questions about light at different times of day
in the season when my story takes place, and I figured nobody pays
attention to light like a photographer does.
While I had his attention, I
asked about other things that a photographer might look at differently
than a tourist or native. He was also nice enough to look over some of
my descriptions and comment on them. Next, I had a native check my
details to make sure they felt authentic. This helped me find errors in
my description of a storm and helped validate that other things were
correct. If you can convince a native, you've won the battle.
If possible, visit a
restaurant that serves foods from the area you're writing about. Don't
be afraid to be a little adventurous and try some authentic foods that
might be outside your comfort zone. Short of traveling, there are few
better ways to experience a culture's sensual richness.
I'm fortunate to live within
easy driving distance of Spanish Fork, Utah, a town that was settled
partly by a community of Icelandic immigrants, and was the setting for
one of the classics of Icelandic literature, Paradise Reclaimed
by Iceland's Nobel Prize winner, Halldor Laxness. Every year, the
descendants of these immigrants celebrate Thorrablot, the midwinter
feast where Icelanders sample traditional foods that their ancestors ate
to survive the isolation of a long Icelandic winter.
This gave me the chance to
taste such delicacies as putrefied shark, pressed ram scrota, and singed
sheep's head, and to surround myself in Icelandic culture for an
evening. Trust me when I tell you there's no way to describe the
"pleasure" of eating shark that has rotted underground for several
months in its own body fluids without actually tasting it for yourself.
Suffering through four pieces of that stuff--it took that many tries to
be able to get over the shock enough to concentrate on tastes and
textures--provided some authentic details that I would otherwise have
Finally, remember that long
descriptive passages are much less common in modern fiction than they
used to be. You don't need to describe anything in exact detail. As with
any research, you'll probably only use a little of what you learn. That
little will be informed by the material you don't use, so you can make a
little detail do a lot of work. The important thing is getting a sense
of the place so your setting feels real and authentic. So climb aboard
the research train, and have a pleasant journey.