The following extract is from the beginning of an Historical Romance I wrote that is set in Ancient Rome. My job was to create the scene as clearly and vividly as I could in as few words as possible. Long-winded descriptions like Dickens used to write are no longer popular with readers, and even if they were, I wouldn’t have the patience to write them. But a writer does have an obligation to set the scene so her reader can clearly imagine what is happening. See if I did that:
‘Decaneus staggered slowly to his feet. The guards who had dumped him on the hot, hard-packed sand of the arena were already making their hasty exit. They’d removed his chains just after dragging him from his dark cell. Now his arms felt oddly light after having worn the manacles for so long. The skin where the iron had rubbed was raw and already putrefying. He knew that unless his wounds were treated soon they’d kill him.
But maybe he wouldn’t live long enough for them to kill him. He became aware of the sounds around him now. People. Crowds of people. He looked up from studying his wrists to see in the stark midday sun thousands of people arranged in tiered rows around him. Few seemed to be looking his way. Most were chatting, oblivious to the predicament of a lone barbarian prisoner-of-war standing in the centre of the bloodstained oval.
He wasn’t stupid, nor was he ignorant. He may come from the Dacian hills in the wilds north of Illyria, but even there they’d heard of the Roman arenas where brutal spectacles were staged to amuse the masses. He knew where he stood.
But it was the size that overwhelmed him in that moment. This amphitheatre was monstrous. It stood three stories high and happily contained tens of thousands. More people than Decaneus had ever seen in his life.
He heard a short trumpet blast. His eyes were drawn to the northern gate above which stood an ostentatiously decorated box, complete with canopy to protect its occupants from the sun. It had to be the Imperial box, he decided, and there were richly dressed people in it who were only now beginning to rise to leave. Were they not staying for the fun?
A few less jaded members of the audience suddenly gasped. Decaneus registered their excitement and followed their gazes. They weren’t looking at him. Instead, they stared, open-mouthed at a lone lion that was loping into the arena to join him. The creature looked as stunned by his situation as Decaneus was.’
In this opening scene from Lionslayer’s Woman I needed to take my reader out of her modern world and put her slap bang into the head of an ancient warrior getting his first sight of the Colosseum. I had to give some indication of who he was and why he was there, but without ‘backstory’. I had to hook my reader, get her wanting to know what was going to happen next.
To do this it is important to engage as many of the senses as possible. So it’s not just about describing the visuals, it’s about capturing the feel of the heat and the sounds of the people and trumpets. And of course, my hero’s emotional and physical reaction to what he’s experiencing has to be included.
The reader has to empathise with this barbarian, even if they’ve never heard of Dacia or what it is to be a barbarian warrior. And when you’re writing for women, as I am, this empathy is particularly important. Women are as interested in how someone is feeling as they are in the actual events. If she can’t put herself in the protagonist’s shoes (or sandals in the case of a Roman historical) then she’s not going to want to keep walking the journey in those shoes.
I consider I use description like a water-colourist paints a landscape – in broad brushstrokes and sketched outlines. That way it doesn’t slow down the action but it does give an impression of place. I’m told I’m good at it… I leave it to you to be the judge of that.
Nhys Glover is a UK Best Selling author of Romance Fiction. You can find out more about her and her books at http://www.nhysglover.com