Descriptions in WIP Wednesday

The-Egyptian-room-drawingI’ve spent a large part of my adult working life in commercial writing, creating and editing legal, government, financial, and business documents. When I decided to commit to writing fiction again, I was concerned that the pared back, plain language style I had cultivated so assiduously would bleed over. Could I write a description? Could I transport my readers into another place; cause them to build pictures in their mind of rooms and landscapes and people? I worried.

I find that if I strongly visualise something myself, then simply describe it as clearly as possible, it seems to work. And so I go looking for visual inspiration, much of which finds a home on my Pinterest pages.

Below is a description from Embracing Prudence. David is calling on a client. As always, I invite you to post excerpts from your work in the comments, and to share through twitter, facebook, or wherever else you like.

David was shown through a lofty hall by an equally lofty butler, and into a parlour decorated in the Egyptian style. Last month, he had met Rede at the solicitor’s office and then had tea with him at his club, so missing the glory of the former Earl of Chirbury’s decorating style.

The room had been painted black to above head height, with gold detailing. Above that was a frieze easily two feet high; Egyptian pharaohs, slaves, mummies, soldiers, and gods painted in garish colours marching endlessly around the room, with a sublime disregard for any kind of sense or story.

The furniture carried on the theme, with blocky claw-footed pieces upholstered or painted in reds, greens and golds. Every surface, including a couple of ornately painted plinths, carried more Egyptian-inspired decoration: sphinxes, pharaohs’ heads, vases, mirrors in frames; even the candle sconces were sphinxes with holders embedded in their heads.

The door opened behind him; heavier steps than the butler’s.

“It’s ghastly, isn’t it?”


5 thoughts on “Descriptions in WIP Wednesday

  1. I today fished a poem for the iowa workshop at vic, which started on Tuesday. Our train was late and I decided wait a half hour for the next bus but walk along the waterfront and rethink the poem I yesterday wanted to chuck. I used my voice recorder and then my tablet. And am chuffed Small price to pay that I did not get to work till 930am. .

  2. Are there exercises we can practice to become more observant? I don’t think I’m very observant anymore. I can’t describe something if I don’t observe……details and the overall “gestalt”. Help ! And thanks.

  3. Ooh, David’s client sounds highly fashionable. 😀 (More fashion than taste, though!)

    I agree with you about visual inspiration — as you may know, I try to visit the locations I am describing if it’s possible to do so. If I may, I’m leaving two pieces below in the comments, one from my fiction not-quite-WIP (The Long Shadow) and one from my ACTUAL WIP, the non-fiction “The Late Lord: the life of the 2nd Earl of Chatham”.

    “The Long Shadow” piece comes from a (gasp!) battle scene — rather out of my element with it, but I sooooo enjoyed writing it, and I really enjoyed going to Holland and tramping the actual ground described below. 😀 Hope it helps flesh things out a little more.

    “The Late Lord” bit is a rather different style (obviously, as it’s nonfiction) but comes from my chapter on Gibraltar, which I also got to visit last year. (And I’ve wanted to go back ever since!)


    From “The Long Shadow”, describing a battle during the 1799 Helder campaign:

    The brigade was suddenly all activity. Cries of ‘Form up!’ and ‘Shoulder arms!’ and ‘Dress!’ cut through the air. Drumbeats overlay each other in a chaotic jumble and fifes whistled a jaunty rendition of “The Girl I left Behind Me”. The ensigns lifted the colours higher. The huge silk squares—dark blue for the Fourth, buff-coloured for the Thirty-First— unfurled and danced against the cloudless sky.

    The men moved into columns. Even though the paths up the sandhills were well-trodden by cattle and held together by clumps of heather, the sand was soft enough to give way underfoot. Thankfully the heights were clear of enemy troops, for the climb was steep and progress was slow. John’s horse was struggling, its hooves sinking into the sand with every step. The men’s faces glistened with the effort of keeping rank, and some companies gave the order to support arms.

    At last they reached the top. From here John had a clear view across the flatlands of the peninsula, thinly veined with dark canals and interrupted by bulbous church towers and small settlements. On the horizon he could just see the thin blue line of the Zuyder Zee. There was no time, however, to enjoy the view. John led his men into the dense birchland. Sunlight dappled the white sand with shadows through the leaves of the gnarled, bent trees, the undulating sand now also criss-crossed with naked tree roots.

    All of a sudden John came out onto an open ridge, and for the first time got a full view of the battlefield. He gave a low whistle. ‘Good God.’


    And from “The Late Lord”, on Gibraltar:

    The town, narrow and overcrowded as it was perceived to be, nevertheless struck visitors with its fascinating mixture of familiarity, exoticness and rugged natural beauty – surroundings which, in the words of one visitor, “set our minds vibrating in a most singular manner between Europe, Asia, Africa, and America”. Another visitor waxed lyrical: “The rock of Gibraltar towers stupendously in the back-ground of the scene, with its impregnable fortifications, its Moorish castle, its romantic town, its dizzy paths, and airy watch-towers.” Clusters of coloured houses of all shapes and sizes were hugged in an embrace between the towering Rock and the elegant fortifications looking across the bay towards the Spanish hills behind Algeciras. From the southernmost point of the peninsula, the large towns of northern Africa, and the Atlas mountains, pierced through the heat-haze of the Straits. The Bay itself was constantly filled with ships of all sizes, from majestic warships, merchant vessels, and speedy packets down to smacks and fishing-boats from Spain and North Africa. Nobody could, however, be in doubt of Gibraltar’s military importance:

    “Every thing in Gibraltar is calculated to keep you constantly in mind of the fact that you are in a Garrison … Whichsoever way you turn your eye, it is met by companies of soldiers marching, or by guards going the rounds. You can scarcely walk ten rods without seeing soldiers doing obeisance to their officers, who are strolling around with all the pomp and parade of military life.”

    The town was completely enclosed by grey stone ramparts, lined with cannon and piled with ammunition at regular intervals. Every day opened with the resident regiments beating the reveille, and closed with two gun salutes, one announcing the Beating of the Retreat, and another the locking of all gates and raising of the drawbridge. Military men in the town had to wear uniform at all times, and regimental inspections and parades, with ceremonial march-pasts and bands playing British (and Spanish) patriotic songs, were a regular occurrence.

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