Jane here, pondering an age-old problem. On
the radio today there was a reference to the fact that no two people witnessing
an event ever see it in quite the same way. Obvious, yes, and meat and drink
to mystery writers, but its effects go a lot further than just the plots we
This radio report was in the context of a police enquiry, but you don’t have to be involved in any sort of criminal procedures to observe the phenomenon in everyday life. Richard and I lived for years in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, where there are no trains and virtually no buses, and I – being a non-driver – received much kindness from people who gave me lifts in their cars. I was always fascinated to hear how differently my various friends commented on the countryside and villages we passed through. Anne, for example, interested in clothes, observed the people: “Look, there’s Mrs. Smith. That’s a new coat she’s wearing. Dead fashionable, I wonder where she got it?” Liz, a brilliant flower arranger, noticed gardens: “Aren’t those yellow roses beautiful? I wonder if I could cadge a few when I do the Church decorations next weekend.”
Or if they were telling you about their latest journey into town; they could both travel the same route, and Anne would report seeing Mr. Brown doing his garden in his new boots, while Liz would describe the lovely chrysanthemums in the same garden, and never mention Mr. Brown himself. Ask Anne what flowers she’d seen, or question Liz about people she’d passed, and they would have been far less informative.
Witness statements are crucial to modern mystery plots. In historicals
too, though procedures were less formalised, the variations in what people observed
or missed are well-tried ingredients. But I’m wondering whether the principle
affects not just our plots, but the way we write. When we describe a scene, are
we in danger of concentrating too much on what we are interested
in, and not bothering to mention other important elements that don’t interest us?
Some writers produce wonderfully evocative descriptions, of a mountain or a kitchen, often in just a few words. Others don’t spend much time on describing the look of the countryside or the decor of a room. You could say it doesn’t matter, as long as such things aren’t relevant to the plot, but I think that powerful description adds enormously to a novel’s sense of place – and of time, it it’s set in the past.
If writers are imprecise about scenery and settings, does that mean they’re not interested in them, or don’t think they are important, or don’t want to hold up the story? And if I analysed details from good descriptions, would I be able to deduce the author’s interests, and imagine what it would be like if I drove with them through the countryside as they shared their thoughts on the passing landscape?