Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
A few months ago, I came on here to extoll the virtues of bolstering your writing with Google Street View – sinking into the locales you want to write about without having to actually be present there. I also said that there are limitations to this method, as one never quite gets the feel for a place through static images. In my case, I had been using it for walkabouts of Moscow and reminding myself of places I hadn’t visited in more than twenty years, using Street View more to document changes and to jog my memories.
The plot of the same novel that required descriptions of Moscow has now moved beyond the city limits, following the route from the city to the remote village in the Russian countryside where my great grandfather spent the last years of his life. I’ve been using Google Street View to not only reconstruct the actual route there (I remembered certain population centres along the way, but would not have been actually able to wayfinding without technological assistance) but also to take snapshots of what it looked like along the way in order to provide richer descriptions.
I’m not entirely sure yet how this will shake out in a final draft – creating a detailed play-by-play of a four-hundred kilometre drive through the countryside may work in a different kind of novel, but in this book, it would just grind the pace to a halt. So what I had been doing initially is retracing the route, noting anything interesting, then combining the snapshots into single descriptions – sometimes from two or three locations at a time – and then throwing these into my first draft. The goal would then to go through it during an edit and then try to strike that balance between not overburdening the reader and providing the right kind of description and atmosphere that I want to invoke.
This is a perfect illustration of why I’m glad I ditched editing-on-the-go. It would be such a waste of time to figure this out without the context of seeing how it fits in the overall work and how it affects the overall flow. Before, I would make sure to clean up the descriptions into a neat few paragraphs before moving on – and then probably having to go through it again on subsequent edits.
Not to say that I’ve completely embraced unfiltered verbal spew. This was never the ultimate goal and in the end I think would make the editing process a bit overwhelming. So there’s still sometimes dialogue or descriptions that I polish off to a certain degree of satisfaction before including them even in the first draft. But generally throwing words down and moving on is so liberating.
The trip through the Russian countryside presented an additional challenge that I should have expected. The country retreat, if it can be described like that when there was no central heating or plumbing, as close to rustic living as one could get in 90s Russia, is the one thing I’m so nostalgic for about Russia that it almost manifests in physical pain if I think about it too much. It occupies such a dear place in my heart that I’ve had nightmares of finding it demolished, or more absurdly, replaced with a theme park. For this reason, the choice to set part of my novel in the village of Komkino is an exercise in self-torture.
Whether it’s the birch forests, the quaint villages of no more than two dozen houses made of dark grey wood, or rutted muddy country roads, each is a small piece of my childhood that now seems unreachable. I know the area has changed in the twenty years since I’ve been there. More and more homes are being converted to dachas, pushing out the year-round residents, who are likely coalescing in the towns. In a way, I’m fortunate that the village itself and its immediate surroundings aren’t actually available in Street View, otherwise I would have spent hours examining every square inch of familiar locations or else find myself awash in heartache at seeing what’s different.
Best I can hope from this exercise is to use Street View to augment my own memories and present to the reader a slice of a place that is very important to me. Whether it will seem like an unnecessary detour in the novel remains to be seen.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.