Vermeer and writing

Some thoughts. I saw a thread on Vermeer and how his painting Girl With a Pearl Earring is not a painting of a particular person, but of a “tronie,” a representation of some quality, whether age or youth or pain or something else (thread here:

I wanted to cry. I realized something.

My characters feel almost “real” to me, but they aren’t based on real people – I realized that they represent something real and important to me. And that + the following tweet about the earring itself (daubs of paint that up close are blobs but far away capture exactly the way light strikes a round shiny surface): I suddenly understood how it is that I describe so little but evoke so much.

I find the essence of something and convey that. Impressions, sketched lightly, evoke an entire fictional environment/characters. I really don’t describe that much. But I describe what we see, much as photographers and painters do – what the human eye/mind perceives, versus a more objective reality. And I think distilling those things allows readers to sink into the story.

My stories are not particularly descriptive when I actually read through them, yet many people experience them almost as if they’re there. I’ve had people experience claustrophobia and heat. I’ve had people tell me they were freezing after hearing my story about a young man in the Boston winter. I’m trying to work out how and why.

I distill experience the way I assume a playwright does: setting a scene with minimal props necessary, but making it its own place. You only need the essentials to give the sense of place. But you weave them into the background so the reader “experiences” it as a cohesive thing.

In my writing class, a fellow writer describe me as having “economy of prose” – his favorite line in my story was “He could see a long red boat pulled up on the sand.” (See story here: – this one is more imagery-heavy than I normally write, fyi.)

The point at which my book Aestus, Book 1: The City started to feel seamless was here:

“The morning light was starting to dawn. Pricey groaned and opened his eyes, looking up at the branches of a half-dead tree above him. A bird was sitting in its branches, twittering loudly.

He wiped his face. His hand came away wet with blood.

He had no idea where he was.

Then he rolled over.

There were Onlar everywhere, scattered on the ground. He vaguely recalled fighting with one of them, getting hit hard in the temple, going down. They must have left him for dead, he thought.

With the blood on his face, he’d probably looked it.

He got to his feet, groaning, reaching for his water canteen. It was gone. [….]

He staggered to his feet, the bird still chirping away in the branches. He glared up at it. At least something seemed happy this morning, he thought.

He was three hours’ walk from the nearest tunnel, probably already dehydrated. He didn’t feel like chirping.

He stumbled forward and saw Zlotnik.”

I don’t really describe a lot, but I physically feel almost as if I’m there. (It’s possible that context helps, but even without it I feel pulled in.)

I think I “paint” with language, to an extent. I capture the way human perception works and put it on the page, just as photographers and painters work with light. I notice small gestures, changes in mood, small background details that become part of a person’s experience/memories, and convey them as the character notices them.

Compare the above to the beginning of my book, which is probably the most descriptive part I have:

“The moon floated low on the horizon, a few days past full, looking faded as time carved a shadow into its yellow face.”


“She wasn’t quite sure she believed the Onlar existed, always half-wondered if those were stories made up to keep children obedient, like the monster under the bed, but if Father caught them…

But the stars.

They seemed to move, to shimmer, in the burning air above the horizon. Even at midnight it was hot, like the slow glowing of an oven that has been left open to cool. The land was punctuated by rock spires and deep canyons that Tark said the Onlar used to hide during the daytime.

Above her rose a massive arc of stardust and shining distant regions, seeming to twist its way across the July sky. She reached out her hand as if to touch it.”

That’s about as descriptive as I get.

Usually it’s small things:

“They continued on, silent dark figures moving through the near-blackness.

Wickford found himself watching the sky, the stars, as they disappeared one at a time over the bumpy rim of the canyon.”

Now that I think back, the thread talked about how Vermeer stripped away all but the essential elements of an environment. That’s what I do as well. No need to clutter the scene. I show what the character is actually noticing, what makes the scene, not what is in the scene.





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