Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Back to the Past?

Whenever groups of romance authors in the UK get together and the conversation turns to favourite writers from the past, a name that almost invariably comes up is that of Mary Stewart – particularly if the writers concerned are penning romantic suspense. Her books – contemporary in the immediate post war period - are still loved and enjoyed today. Her first lines are legendary and are still quoted in seminars and workshops for aspiring writers. Her titles, many lifted from myths, or Shakespeare, including The Moonspinners, Airs Above the Ground, Wildfire at Midnight, This Rough Magic and Touch Not the Cat, are evocative of the magic world she managed to create. Often there is a supernatural tinge to the story that puts them alongside the paranormal romance of the present day.

Frequently set in what would then have been exotic locations in mainland Europe and particularly in Greece and her islands, they must have provided a window onto a very different world in the grey days of the late 1940s and 50s. Her heroines were modern and independent and possibly rather daring in the standards of the time.

But – when you read the novels now they are definitely period pieces. Often they contain lengthy and elegiac descriptions of places and scenery that these days would end on the cutting room floor, but which contribute vastly to the atmosphere of the story.

Contemporary novels are expected to move at a much faster pace. I presume this is dictated by the pace of the ‘real world’. But have we lost something along the way? How often have you opened a book that starts with a frantic action scene that leaves you confused? And possibly, quite cold towards the protagonists? You’ve had no time to make an emotional connection to these people, so why should you care about them?

Where do we go from here? Can the pace of novels get faster? Is flash fiction the way forward - literature, sound-bite size? Or could a more leisurely style of writing ever make a comeback?


Savanna Kougar said...

Evonne what a wonderful and thoughtful blog.
Recently at the Happily Ever After blog we a mini discussion about the lack of description and the fast pacing of today's reads.
The pendulum may be ready to swing back where description is more valued by readers, especially since there are so many world-building romance novels now, as opposed to suspense.
The editor on Murder by Hair Spray wanted me to turn it into straight suspense and take out the character of Gardenia, New Atlantis, plus scenes where the heroine and hero bond... I didn't do it. For what that's worth to anyone.
As for Flash Fiction, yes, it can be seen as writing in sound bites. However, I've found in writing my serial Flash Fiction stories, it allows for more description and for more snapshots of life, rather like photo images.
My current serial flash, done two hundred words at a time and each day, so far, is at 14,400 words... who knows, for some people, maybe they only have a limited amount of time for reading, given the sheer business of our culture.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Hi Evonne. I agree about Mary Stewart- I like her novels very much. I think perhaps with the credit crunch beginning to bite, armchair travel romances with highly descriptive, highly atmospheric settings will again be sought out by romance readers.

I'm so relieved you didn't take out the scenes you mention, Savanna! To me they are a vital part of the story. Such descriptions give a book 'soul'.

Evonne Wareham said...

Savanna - I love the idea, which I had not thought about - that flash fiction give scope for more description. It seems strange, yet I can see that when you're putting up 200 words a day, a reader can accept a segment that is purely descriptive, which might be felt to hold up the action in a longer piece.
Lindsay - as someone whose work reminds me of Mary Stewart, I hope you're right about the return to arm chair travel.

Savanna Kougar said...

Evonne, Serial Flash Fiction is different. What would be cut in a novel is actually needed, I think, because it is a slice. Perhaps one difference... in the age of photography a picture had to say and evoke more. Whereas in a film that kind of rich image would be too much for every frame.

Lindsay, excellent point about armchair travel. And, yeah, why bother to world build a future time and place, if its just cut out as not being important to the story.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Thanks, Evonne, for liking me to M Stewart!
Savanna, you know I'm a huge fan of your flash fiction. It's so rich and detailed. Until I read your flash fiction, I thought ff was meant to be skimpy and all plot, no atmosphere, whereas the opposite is true.
Fantasy and science fiction remain full of description: rightly so because of the world-building. I find sometimes modern contemp set novels rather 'bare': perhaps the assumption is that we as readers already know. But the insider info is always fascinating and really brings a scene to life.

Lexie O'Neill said...

Even on Spring Break, I get so busy I haven't checked the blog for several days! So, I'm probably late--but the good news is, I've been writing!
Will blog later today,