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Monday, 29 November 2010

Seeing Things Differently

I braved the bad weather at the weekend to go to 'Novelties', a one-day postgraduate symposium on all things nineteenth-century. Some of the interesting subjects covered included the stained glass renaissance of the period, the use of American slang in the popular press, and how the Victorians viewed their recent past. The topic that stuck with me, however, is pertinent to both my academic interests and my writing: it was discussed how Charlotte Bronte used eyes to great effect in Villette.

The speaker highlighted several portions of the novel when her eyesight fails Lucy Snowe and when what she sees cannot be relied upon. But what caught my attention as a writer was the way in which Bronte portrays those moments when Lucy's vision is not one hundred percent. She often distinguishes the blurs and lines first, the things we're all just about aware of when we first wake. What Bronte does to great effect is examine what constitutes both opening your eyes and what you're opening your eyes upon. Very rarely does a setting come to the eye whole as soon as you see it, particularly when the sight is an unusual one.

Mainly, what I took from this particular talk was more writerly than academic. As writers, we're constantly told to think in detail but then to use detail sparingly. And, of course, it would be detrimental to your story if you minutely described every movement by a character and how they perceive the world first thing on a morning. However, tailoring details to your character and plot is absolutely plausible.

To use an example from one of my drafts, my protagonist, Danni, has a debilitating leg injury. Often, then, her awareness of a situation is defined by the position of her leg in that situation. It's not something I bring into every scene - because that would swiftly bore the reader - but it's something I pepper over the top of the piece. Details like this aren't supposed to stand out as such; just help the overall flavour of the novel.

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