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Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens-(a lesson on how to write setting)

March 29, 2019

Setting can be tough for an author.  If you write too much, you can make the reader bored.  If you don’t write enough, the story can feel incomplete.

Getting the setting wrong can ruin a book for a reader.  My teenage daughter complains that too many pages in classic literature are devoted to descriptions of place.  She already knows what all that stuff looks like, she says.  I remind her that the internet didn’t exist when classic literature was written, so stuff had to be described.  Back then, literature was relatively new.  There were places, people, and ideas that had never been put into words before.  A lot was new.

When it comes to words and ideas, not so much is new today.  Almost everything has been described.  It’s difficult to come up with new was to say the same thing.  But it’s lazy to not try.  I respect any current author who tries.

For example, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens starts off with a description of a marsh:

Marsh is not swamp.  Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water floats into the sky.  Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lift with unexpected grace- as though not built to fly- against the roar of a thousand snow geese.

Then within the marsh, here and there, true swamp crawls into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests.  Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat.  Even night crawlers are diurnal in this lair.  There are sounds, of course, but compared to the marsh, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work.  Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff; a poignant wallow of death begetting life.

Of course, the reader knows that once decomposition is mentioned, something bad is going to happen.  Something bad has to happen.  It’s a marsh in fiction.  Nothing good can happen in a marsh in fiction.  If something good happens in a marsh in fiction, the novel won’t get published.  It doesn’t matter who the author is or who the author knows, the novel won’t get published.  Something bad has to happen in the marsh in fiction.

I had to look up the word diurnal.  It means (of course, you probably know already) “active in the daytime,” demonstrating how dark the swamp is during the day if the nightcrawlers are moving around.  I appreciate a novel that expands my vocabulary a little bit.  I don’t appreciate it when an author shows off, and I have to rely on a dictionary page-by-page, but I appreciate Delia Owens.

Maybe I’m overstating how good this writing is.  Last month I began reading a James Patterson book The Chef and was so disgusted by the poor writing that I stopped reading fiction for a while.  Maybe this description of the marsh in Where the Crawdads Sing is mediocre writing (I doubt it), but compared to James Patterson, it’s awesome.

Here’s James Patterson’s description of New Orleans in the first few pages of The Chef.  Yes, New Orleans is a city and not a swamp so the comparison of writing might be unfair, but New Orleans is a city built on a swamp:

A collision of food, music, history, passion, and chaos… yep, that pretty much sums up New Orleans for you.  “Nawlins,” as us locals say it.  NOLA.  The Crescent City.  The Big Easy.  Different names for the same magical, one-of-a-kind place.  My hometown of three-and-a-half decades.  The capital of the world, as far as I’m concerned.  A city where anything can happen, and nothing is ever as it seems.

Ugh, I can’t believe I forced myself to read that again. Yeah, I know.  It’s my fault for reading a James Patterson book.  I should know better.  I do it because he writes so many books that I can’t ignore them because the public doesn’t ignore them.  I feel like it’s my duty to occasionally point out what a scam his books are, even if nobody listens to me.

I’ll go one step further. Imagine a world where all novels are written in James Patterson style.  Here’s how James Patterson might describe a marsh:

A collision of light, grass, and water… yes, that very much sums up the marsh for you.  “Mahsh” as us locals say it.  Marshland.  The Marsh.  The Big Swamp.  Different names for the same, magical, one-of-a-kind place.  My home for three-and-a-half decades.  The center of the world, as far as I’m concerned.  A place where anything can happen, and nobody ever knows it happened.

I’m glad James Patterson didn’t write Where the Crawdads Sing with Delia Owens.

I’ll keep reading Where the Crawdads Sing just because of the description of the marsh.  I rarely find good description in novels anymore.

A lot could still go wrong with this book.  The plot could be predictable (I don’t know, I haven’t read that far).  The characters could all be two dimensional stereotypes (I don’t know, I haven’t read that far).  The dialogue could be really bad (I don’t know).  But I know that this novel at least has a great description of the marsh.  And I know that something bad happens in it.  Right now, that’s good enough for me.

2 Comments
  1. So I might have to agree with your daughter a bit, at least as far as Owens’ marsh description goes. When I read stuff like that I get tense and impatient and think, “It’s a fucking marsh! I get it! Let’s move on already!” But that’s me. I’m someone who hates flowery writing (and thus most poetry), so my reaction to the marsh description seems about right for me.

    On another note, I did know what diurnal meant, but that’s because I have a pet rabbit, who is crepuscular. If you know what crepuscular means, you certainly know what nocturnal and diurnal mean. (To save you having to look it up, it means active at dawn and dusk.)

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