A certain I don’t know what.
Last night, the wife and I went to a place called Lee Harvey’s in downtown Dallas. Yeah, it’s a ballsy move to name your place that in this town, but I really dug it. It had a very cool dive-bar feel without any of the dive-bar drawbacks (weirdo alcoholics, strange smells, sticky floors, getting stabbed). Well, there was one dive-bar drawback — the neighborhood around it was, at least to my untrained eyes, a bit ghetto. But more on that in a bit.
As I said, I really dug the place. And it got me thinking about writing descriptions and atmosphere, and how a lot of writers (I’m not counting myself out) over- or under-do it when describing a place. I do both, in varying degrees.
I think the trick to describing a place perfectly is to pick out a few key things that speak to the place as a whole. For example, in Lee Harvey’s, I’d pick the ancient Falstaff beer clock, the cigarette machine (as an aside, you almost never see those anymore), and the flatscreens with DirecTV. I’d mention, of course, that the place is actually an old house, and I’d mention the picnic tables and outdoor fireplaces in the front garden, but I wouldn’t go into detail on them too much.
One of my problems with reading certain “classic” works of literature is that inanimate objects or places tended to be overdescribed. In newer literature, it’s the opposite. I won’t claim that I can hit the mark often, but I think a perfect middle ground in description does exist — explaining just enough to let your audience’s brains fill in the gaps the way they want to see them. I might get it right about 30-50% of the time.
So what authors have you seen that do description well? Who overdoes it? Who doesn’t describe enough? And, for bonus points, pick a place you know well and choose three or four key things to describe the entire place — it’s harder than you might think.