I love writing, and by that I mean, I love creating characters and crafting their interaction with one another. When it comes to description — setting a scene, or (to use that threadbare cliche) “painting a picture for the reader” — I loathe writing.
Describing a landscape, a building, or a even room is hard for me. I haven’t improved much from my thirteen-year-old self, who once described a house as “a cedar house with colums [sic] in front” and a room as having a wall and a chair. The words I need aren’t easily accessible for me. It’s… a house. It’s wood-colored. It’s got windows and a roof. Look, here’s an idea — how about if I just list the elements of the setting in brackets, like this: [a house, some trees, and and red front door]. Now readers can arrange it however they like!
As I’m working on a new story idea, I realized that I would be moving my character to a new location for each story. This meant I’d have to set some scenes and paint some word pictures. Since brackets aren’t an option, I could either labor through descriptions and hate every minute of it, or I could take some time to practice the art and get better at it.
The other day, as spring is settling in around here, I walked a couple of blocks in the old section of our city and took pictures of buildings that caught my eye. Back home, I practiced describing them. After all, if I found them interesting enough for a photo, surely I could communicate why in a paragraph.
I’ll be posting the photos and my descriptions here, because It’s turned out to be an entertaining little exercise, and I do think it’s helpful. Besides, this way I get to show pictures of some of the interesting old buildings around here.
Here are the first three.
124 Robinson Street been built as a stylish little duplex many years ago. Two bay windows faced the street, each flanked by a real wooden door. A small square window was set above each door. Everything was painted light yellow and framed with ornamental white trim, giving it an understated charm. Yet time had taken its toll. The brick steps were darkened with weather and grime from the street. Rusting metal awnings shaded the windows and doors; one awning was bent in the middle, and another missing completely. Ground-floor windows, originally allowing light into the basement level, were painted shut with sloppy white strokes. All these years later, the building was just too tired to keep up appearances anymore.
The hulking building had been built for dreary governmental business. About forty years ago, some enterprising developer renovated the interior into apartments. It was a smart use of existing space, although it never quite shed the feeling that one’s neighbors might stop by at any time with a question about the Hodson file. The exterior of the building remained unchanged; the only disruption of its utilitarian symmetry was a twelve-foot wall that jutted out from the side of the building in a warped semi-circle. Usually the gate was closed, but today it stood partially ajar. The opening gave a glimpse into a grassy courtyard, a startling oasis of nature within a desert of brick and concrete.
A row of three brick townhouses stood along the sidewalk. Matching sets of five concrete steps led up to three small square porches, each framed by brick and wooden posts. The single ground-floor window suggested a bay window without quite committing to it. Across the upper story, three windows across the flat façade mimicked eighteenth-century colonial manors. Each window featured a pair of shutters, painted dark green to contrast with the cream-colored window trim, and—to their credit—each with a real mechanism to shut them. The roof was steeply pitched, with a squat dormer window in the center. At the back of the last unit, a brick chimney rose above the sharp peak of the roof. It was hard to tell if it had been a real chimney, or was just added for effect. In all honesty, the townhouses looked a lot like modern buildings dressed up in historical costume.
More will follow as I work through my photos. I’ll probably never paint pictures for my readers; but maybe I can learn to dash off a quick sketch for them.