Last week was shoe-shopping; this week my activities were more nature-oriented: a hike (in more practical shoes) at the nearby Waterman Nature Center and reading my latest research find, A Selborne Year: ‘The Naturalist’s Journal’ for 1784. It’s one annual installment of the journal kept for 26 years by Gilbert White, curate, gardener and naturalist, who lived in Selborne, a village in Hampshire not far from where I am setting my current work-in-progress. The edition I own has lovely illustrations by Nichola Armstrong.
I like incorporating glimpses of nature and seasonal details into my writing. So A Selbourne Year is a positive treasure-trove. Here are some typical entries:
Apr 3. Rain. The ever-green trees are not injured, as about London. The crocus’s are full blown, & would make a fine show, if the sun would shine warm. (On this day a nightingale was heard at Bramshott!)
July 10. Grey, & pleasant. Gale, sun. The hops damaged by the hail begin to fill their poles. Thatched my hay-rick. Cherries very fine. Grapes begin to set: vine leaves turn brown. The young cuckow gets fledge; & grows bigger than it’s nest. It is very pugnacious. Cool.
This is just the sort of detail I love!
I find it interesting that Jane Austen had so little detail about the English countryside; perhaps she expected her audience to be too familiar with the subject to find it interesting. But it goes along with the general lack of descriptions in her books (we only know Elizabeth Bennett has “fine eyes” for instance, but her hair and eye color are left to the imagination). No matter; Austen’s characterization and dialogue are brilliant enough to stand on their own.
It is possible to go to the opposite extreme, I suppose. Friends and I were discussing Tolkien over beer (I love having friends with whom I can discuss Tolkien over beer!) and one said his descriptions of various imaginary settings went on too long. Those long descriptions always worked for me, though, because I like to visualize settings as I read. Tolkien’s description of Ithilien made me yearn to go there, although I would settle for the New Zealand film locations.
In my own writing, I try to strike a balance. I know too much description wearies some readers so I use it in service of the characters and the story. In my current mess-in-progress, the hero has spent much of his life in India and war-torn Spain and Portugal; a green and fertile England holds a special meaning for him. However, he may just enjoy hearing a bird sing; my heroine, the daughter of a naturalist much like Gilbert White, will know if it’s a lark or a thrush.
How much descriptive detail do you like in stories?