Photo: Mary King's Close
Speaking of speculative fiction - I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that my education is lacking in the area of speculative classics. I haven't read either Frankenstein or Dracula from cover to cover. But I can at least say I've finally read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde (J&H, hereafter).
Edinburgh celebrates its most famous authors with a museum dedicated to writers. I was a little disappointed that it didn't highlight more of the writings themselves, but instead concentrated on biographical information. I was, however, able to purchase a copy of Stevenson's famous novel and read it while I was in the country. It felt like something of an obligation especially given that I've already admitted to reading very little Burns.
Stevenson is perhaps best known for Treasure Island but all of his books have some aspect of adventure or the unknown in them. I was expecting J&H to be more of a standard horror story, but instead it reminded me of other, more psychological works like the Metamorphosis or Crime and Punishment - books that examine good and evil in the human condition. It paints a detailed picture of the relationship between the main characters, and the shock they experience at finding out that (spoiler here, if you happen to be living in a speculative-fiction-free-cave) J&H are one in the same person.
I've posted a bit recently about how a location or experience might inspire a writer. Certainly a visit to this location inspired me as a reader. Let me explain a bit more. Earlier in the day, I had visited an Edinburgh attraction called "The Real Mary King's Close." This attraction is a relatively new, 2002-ish, tour under the city of Edinburgh where there are still buried streets and dwellings from centuries past. The researchers have done a good job of presenting both the factual and more sensational aspects of life in those times to maximize the entertainment value. Given my own occasionally squeamish nature, I found the whole thing horrific, alarming, creepy, and thus good fodder for stories.
There are rooms in the Close where they know the names of specific people, and how they died of the plague. There are other rooms where they point to the 17th century plaster and tell you it is made of horse hair and human ash (True or not, it's still creepy. Do not lean on walls.) How about the apartment they don't let visitors into anymore since they found the walls were treated with arsenic? Let's keep going. Apparently all human excrement, including the blood from animal slaughter, was tossed into the narrow streets to run down to the river. This was a popular shopping avenue, too, so patrons apparently would stand around inches deep in ... well ... nasty stuff ... whilst buying their daily provisions. OK, it is not as if I have not encountered descriptions of such life before. I am a reasonably educated historian. But it never had the same visceral impact until I toured the streets themselves - the narrow, dusty, dark, foreboding underground streets. Very effective.
Fast forward about six hours, to my reading J&H in my dimly lit accommodations. What might have been a mildly creepy story became a very alarming and horrific tale of science gone wrong. The environment in which the story took place would have been far more like the old streets of the Close than the open streets of the Royal Mile where one now finds stores named "Real Scotland."
It makes me wonder, how can I as a writer bring that "I am really there" sensation to my reader, especially when the setting is a fantastical one? An author might take the Tolkien approach and dedicate whole chapters to describing the setting. But that generally makes me want to keep skipping ahead until something actually happens. There are schools of thought that suggest saying as little about the setting as possible - just sliding in a word here or there to imply the nature of the atmosphere. But that also does not work for me, since I like to feel far more grounded when I read.
What is your approach? How do you try to get the reader to really feel like they are present in the setting? Well, aside from photos. I don't think I could stomach that with this particular subject matter, literally.
Image credit: Mary King's Close, public domain, wikipedia