I write fiction set in other places—currently India—and in other times (sixteenth century for my first book, nineteenth for my second). I often struggle with how to convey the imagery of the place and time to my reader, to ensure that he or she is seeing what I picture—what I know to be true—as I write. And yet, am I imposing too much of my own idea and thus constricting the reader’s experience? This question is all the more salient now in an age of such easy “sharing.” (Check out this post by Jeff Bullas on the “visual sharing revolution.”) There are dozens of ways to get an image in front of someone’s eyes just like that, lickety split. The key to effective communication of these, and to finding the balance between coaxing out a feeling that was just waiting to take shape and overwhelming the reader with pre-formed images that might not match what he or she wants to imagine, is in delicate and thoughtful curating.
The significance of finding this balance was brought home to me just a few days ago when, after much resistance on my part, I dubiously opened a Pinterest account. My writing-group mate Crystal King, social media queen and writer of fiction set in Ancient Rome, had been making noises about it for a while, and as I have done with other things she’s prodded me about and for which I’ve then been grateful, I internalized what she said, grumbled a bit, and eventually acted on it. For a writer of fiction in historical settings, Pinterest is a treasure trove. My first novel, Faint Promise of Rain, is set in the Thar Desert of India, where, save for electrical wires criss-crossing the streets, much looks as it did in 1557. And if one positions a camera just right, one can avoid the wires. So it was with delight that I started a board for my novel, with gorgeous images of the Jaisalmer Fort rising out of the desert, a Marwari horse—like that ridden by one of my characters—as well as Ghadisar Lake where some crucial scenes from my book take place, the lush oasis of Mount Abu where two characters meet, and much more. I felt like the proverbial child in a candy store.
And then I stopped. I suddenly had this fear that I would be creating for my readers the visuals for a world they might have pictured differently. And as if on cue, my neighbor (whom some of you now know as Next Doors) popped in, took one look, shook her head and said No, this is messing with my mind. Sigh. This is a real place, at a real time, with historical references, but that is important to me, not necessarily to the reader. Even with a “real” setting, shouldn’t I let my reader form the images that she wants, based on the words on the page? Crystal checked out the board and said it helped her get a deeper sense of my book, and that seems like a good thing. But I am wary of the fine line between easing and imposing. After my neighbor’s comment, I wonder if I shouldn’t just delete the thing. And yet, now there are articles popping up everywhere, like this one in Poets & Writers, on how authors can and should capitalize on Pinterest to connect with readers.
I have a vivid recollection of going to see, as a child, the film based on Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Remember that one? I hadn’t realized what clear images I’d formed in my mind of the rats, their setting, the lab, until I saw the movie, and had a sinking feeling of that-wasn’t-at-all-what-I’d-imagined.
This is the cover of the edition I read:
I hadn’t pictured glowing eyes and lightning bolts. It was so disappointing, even though the movie was highly rated. I was mad at the makers of the film for ruining the experience for me, and since then I’ve deliberately avoided film versions of books I’ve loved. I will never go see The Time Traveler’s Wife, because I am terrified that the portrayals of Clare and Henry–what they actually look like–will not match the ones in my imagination.
What do you think? Do images of setting enhance or impinge upon your reading experience? What about a place in another country, where you have never been?