So here I am, sitting in a wicker chair, on a balcony overlooking the BC rainforest. There’s a bird chirping in a high pitch, as if calling for a lost friend. A breeze rustles the maple leaves, and brings with it the salty air from the ocean.
This is Sooke. A small town I have been vacationing in for the past two weeks with my family. We have had a summer home, so to speak, for the past four years. My mom and dad are finally moving in, and next week I’m flying back to Calgary.
While on the Trans Canada highway, heading towards Vancouver Island where Sooke’s nestled within the rainforest, I decided that this vacation would be the perfect opportunity to write, write, and write. I thought of it as my own writer’s retreat. During my stay in Sooke, I think I’ve learned more about the craft of writing than any of the creative writing classes I’ve taken have taught me.
The knowledge I’ve gained has less to do with how words should be put together, but what is needed to bring life to the work. I’ll admit that I’ve read over my work, discovering my prose is dry. I got this problem where I rely on the same sentence structures. It’s like I form these little bad habits, which suck the life from my work like vampires. But it’s ok; I’m getting better (I hope).
When describing a forest, what sights, sounds, and smells do you use? This was the first question I asked myself upon stepping out onto the balcony two weeks ago. And I asked similar questions wherever I went. I could describe a forest as a place with shrubs, tall trees, deer, bears, moss, and sticks and leaves that crackle beneath foot steps. This description is what first comes to mind when I think of the word forest, and if I were writing a short story with the setting as a forest, I’d use those images to situate my readers. Yet these images aren’t memorable, they aren’t poetic, and they aren’t interesting.
I absorbed my surroundings during my vacation. I noted (mentally) the sights and sounds that made Sooke unique, that made the rainforest unique. One thing I noticed is how big the leaves of the maple trees are. They’re bigger than my two hands put side by side, something I mentioned in my piece ‘Welcome To Sooke‘. Full grown maple trees are as thick as the pillars that support the next floor up in mega-mall parking lots.
Cutting through Sooke is a river that runs into the ocean. It’s a major attraction for tourists and residents. Along side the river are hiking trails, cedar forests, and granite cliffs. What I discovered to be the most interesting feature of the river is the rock formations. There were holes all the way up the river where the water turned into rapids. On the river bank was a fallen cedar, bark striped by the river and moss, and wood bleached by years of exposure to the sun. About half way up the river, two holes in an exposed river bed and a rock formed the face of what looked like to be ancient giant.
I’m not limiting myself to naturey images. I recently went to one of Sooke’s local bars. It was a grungy bar, packed with fisherman, and youths with tattoos on their forearms and backs. I ordered a cheesecake, which was served still frozen. What I found most interesting about the small bar was the atmosphere. There was a fifty-fifty draw for meat. Bacon, ribs, chickens, and beef. And the patrons went wild when a young man won the entire grey tub of a butcher’s bounty. I wrote a short piece of fiction called ‘Buffy’s Pub‘, based on some of my experiences.
One of my favorite pictures (I took lots of pictures) came from Victoria, the big city on Vancouver island, and only a forty minute drive from Sooke. Victoria’s architecture is very European, specifically very Victorian. On one side of the harbor is the parliament building, and on the other side is The Empress hotel, a stone building with ivy vines climbing its sides. The ivy is so thick, it’s covering the letters of the building’s name.
Walking through the harbor I could smell the salty ocean, and I was lucky enough to witness a seal pop his head above the green water to say hello. More intriguing about the harbor was the native american vendors along the walk way, selling wood and jade carvings of black bears, geese, and deer. There was also the odd local artists in between, trying to sell portraits of Justin Bieber.
Descriptions can’t rely on basic sensory information, or plain images. I’ve learned you gotta use concrete images to put readers into your work, to impress memorable images onto their brains. Plus, it makes the writing experience more fun because you’re discovering more about the world you’re writing about, whether it’s a fictional world or non-fictional.