Have you ever read a scene in a story and been transported to the location you’re reading about? Not actually transported but so involved in the story you could almost close your eyes and picture yourself there. Fred refers to the opening scene of George Orwell’s 1984 in which the reader finds himself in what Fred describes as, “a dystopia where military time is kept, where propaganda reigns, and where springtime feels more like midwinter.” For me, an exceptional example of setting up atmosphere is in the opening scene of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. She describes the trees with, “brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason.” We see in her African jungle, “A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen.” This girl can set a scene!
Rich description involves the senses, all of them. To really transport the reader, the writer has to put himself there first. Today Fred challenges us to set up some atmosphere for our characters so I’m going back to my neighbor’s barn. Since I’ve never been inside I get to imagine what it might be like. Here goes:
Bent over in the hot sun, I hear the crunch of tires on gravel as the little black truck passes by. I straighten my back and offer a neighborly wave. He’s gone. Mr. Orville is headed to town so it’s now or never.
I drop my trowel and handful of weeds onto the dirt and turn slowly to confront the barn. The boards are worn and faded, weathered by eons of sun and rain and frost. A ghost of the red beauty it once was, cracks in the gray slats show slices of sky near the hay loft door. I take a step into the pasture. The tall brown grass crackles underneath my boots. Orville cuts the grass in the pasture a few times every summer, but he was sick last fall and winter hit before he got in the final mowing. As I move closer, the shiny tin roof looms overhead. It’s strange. Orville keeps the roof of the barn in immaculate condition, but the walls seem to be rotting away. “What is he keeping in there?”
I approach the corner of the barn furthest from the view from Orville’s house. He’s gone but maybe his wife is on watch today. The earth around the barn’s foundation is mounded up. I have to climb to put my face against the wall. The boards are rough with age. Leaning in pressing my hands against the wall to steady myself on the raised earth, I peer through a crack in the board. I squint and close one eye trying to see into the darkness.
Well, that’s a start. Duty calls and my writing time is up for today. I think I’ll come back to this later to see where it goes. It’s true that scheduling time to write every day and sticking to it is inspiring. Now, it’s stopping to go to work that is hard.