Surface detail in imaginary places

Since starting Doctor Zhivago again, Russia has been crackling in my mind. I remembered encountering some amazing color photographs of the more rural parts of the country, taken circa 191o. After a little digging around I found them again.

Take a look.

What’s amazing to me about these images is how much the presence of color seems to add to the reality of the place. I didn’t even know the world came in color a hundred years ago.

Some of these pictures look like they could have been taken yesterday. You can feel the coolness of the air. You can smell the approach of rain.

These photos are taken just a few years before the main events of Pasternak’s novel. Looking at them made me realize how dreamlike setting tends to be in my own head when I read novels; I see the image the author describes, but unless I’ve been there myself the detail depends largely upon the specificity of the author’s description. I also don’t always see much beyond that image. It’s a kind of tunnel vision of the imagination, I suppose: the scene in question stands out in clarity against a more impressionist background provided by my own imagination.

I’ve seen pictures of this era in Russia’s history before though. But not in color. And the color was what reinvigorated them for me. They took that time out of the realm of the imaginary — and black and white, because it is different from the way I physically apprehend the world, always retains a hint of the dream to me — and deposited it directly in the realm of the real. I could feel the weight of that young Khan’s coat. I could feel it’s ill fit, the prickliness of it in the heat. The despondent look on his face, the profound boredom and discomfort — I understand it more viscerally.

All of which made me think about how I imagine my own world when I write. Most of my stories are set in the present, in places I know intimately, like New Orleans or Asheville or parts of Florida. But I’m writing about Mars right now — what’s more, Mars circa 1930. It’s easy to succumb to the desire to paint a dreamlike atmosphere, or a romanticized one, like the cover of an old pulp magazine. To a certain degree, that’s even appropriate. But it’s important to remember — whether you’re writing about Mars or 14th Century France or Middle Earth — the small details that ground a fantastical setting with enough mundane detail to give it real weight, real life. A soldier whose helmet is ill-fitting or whose armor bakes him in the sun; sand and grit in the clothing; the faint stink of a sewage recycling unit that always leaks into one particular corridor of a spaceship. You can probably think of better ones.

These photographs reminded me that however distant or foreign a place seems, whether you’re reading about it or creating it whole cloth in your mind, the people who lived there often found it as ordinary and as mundane and as unromantic as we find ours. Realizing those details goes a long way toward making the fantastic seem believable.

Now, back to Mars, so I can put sand in all my characters’ shoes.


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