Monday, September 15, 2014

A Depiction Tool

Today is my birthday.  I am officially 50.  I know I've mentioned a few times that I am already, but I acquired a habit a long time ago of rounding up my age to the nearest year - which I have probably done more this year than any.

Being my birthday, I'd like to talk about writing.  I began writing seriously on my birthday when I was 12 - that is, I made the decision on Sep 15, 1976.  Most of you, I know, do not remotely remember 1976.  It was momentous for me.  I decided I would not be a mapmaker, an astronomer or a statistician, all subjects I had seriously investigated by that time.  No, I would be a writer - and so began a long, long campaign on the part of every authority I knew, parents included, explaining how terrible a decision it was.  Well, that is how authorities are

I've been considering still what I would do as another role-playing book.  I believe I have an idea that would be player-supportive, thoroughly positive and a good read regardless.  My only concern is that on several levels the book would run into problems associated with specific editions or rule sets.  I would like to write the book without being specific.  I can see already, with some starting research that I've done, how tricky that's going to be.  Which only means the project needs more research.

In the meantime, I'm putting on a shelf another idea that presented itself - simply because I have no idea at this time where I would start to research.  The subject of that book would be chorography - the art of using words rather than a map to present and give life to a geographical location, depending not upon a diagram but rather pure description.  For example, this from Washington Irving's Rural Life in England:

"The residence of people of fortune and refinement in the country has diffused a degree of taste and elegance in rural economy that descents to the lowest class. The very labourer, with his thatched cottage and narrow slip of ground, attends to their embellishment.  The trim hedge, the grass-plot before the door, the little flower-bed bordered with snug box, the woodbine trained up against the wall, and hanging it's blossoms about the lattice; the pot of flowers in the window; the holly, providently planted about the house, to cheat winter of its dreariness, and to throw a semblance of green summer to cheer the fireside: - all these bespeak the influence of taste, flowing down from high sources, and pervading the lowest levels of the public mind.  If ever Love, as poets sing, delights to visit a cottage, it must be the cottage of the English peasant."

We would ordinarily consider such a passage to be 'purple prose,' certainly heavy with adjectives, and a bit obvious about the specific elements addressed.  As Irving writes, however, it is 1820.  There are no cameras, no simple means of reproducing images except by painting, which required skill and was largely impractical for a traveller who had a day or two to express sentiments about a place.  Moreover, Irving does not particularly overwrite any part of the description:  he gives one short phrase to the flower-bed, the blossoms of the woodbine, the grass plot and so on.  In all, he describes a wide variety of things in a short space, only 147 words.  Truly purple prose would demand all 147 just to describe the colour of the pot upon the window sill.

Separating ourselves from the jaundiced eye of people hopelessly dependent upon the reproduced image, consider the reader in America who has never seen England in any shape or form, not even pictures of England, since there might never be any reason for a recently painted picture to find its way across the Atlantic.  Consider the reader on a barge of the Mississippi in 1820 (Mark Twain has not been born yet), three years after the state of Mississippi has entered the Union, who has never been to a large city where a British painting might hang.  To that reader, Irving's passage is certainly not trite or obvious.  In fact, it is alive with images, enough to compel an ordinary soul to venture across the world just to see the quaint little English huts, so different from their American cousins (where do you suppose later Americans would steal their aesthetic from?)

Look at the principles behind Irving's passage.  He speaks not of the shape of the cottage, but of the life that surrounds it.  He reaches for the logic behind each element.  He describes the cottage in reference to the seasons; to the care in which the hedge is trimmed, to the attention the cottage receives.  The stress is not on dimension - there is that one word there, 'narrow,' to describe the slip; the flower pot is 'little,' but the domicile is left uncommented upon.  The emphasis is upon the action taking place.  What is happening?  From the answer to that, we can guess as to the behaviour of the residents, the attention they pay to themselves, the manner in which they address each other and manner in which they feel pride about their domain.

There are rules about this sort of description.  Rules that I imagine someone, somewhere, may have written down.  I cannot tell for sure.  Perhaps the rules were unwritten.  Perhaps one has to read enough of this material to get a sense.  Writers produced this sort of thing for centuries, going back to Herodotus, Strabo, Pliny and other classicists.  The high point was just prior to the introduction of maps, that followed surveying, in the 18th century.  Irving was a late-comer.

I'd like to get a sense of those rules - then use them to empower DMs to produce descriptions of places as vibrant and meaningful as photographs.  To prove that 147 words is worth a picture.  We can't take pictures of our worlds, we can't produce paintings.  On the other hand, we are forced to speak about them, at length, for role-playing is a speaking art.  It would seem to me that tools for how to speak, present and depict a world would be useful for a DM.

Perhaps someday I'll figure out how to write such a book.


Tim said...

I know I'd want a copy. One struggle I face while DMing is delivering information quickly to the party. I pause and forget details or lose my place in what is going on. I tend to avoid using maps or photos which further complicates the issue of description. I found getting up helped (as per How to Run) but I still need to get more comfortable delivering information succinctly and quickly to my players.

Oddbit said...

I wonder if there are not so much rules that determine how the descriptions were written, or if we just saved and are able to retrieve only the best works?

Alexis Smolensk said...

There seems a suggestion that some sort of standard existed. It is referred to as a 'practice' or a 'discipline.' It is mentioned alongside other practices that are defined, such as hydrography, topography, cosmology and so on. Whether or not we would feel that there's a legitimacy to it now, there's reason to believe someone taught courses or gave lectures upon the principles of the discipline, nyet?

JB said...

@ Alexis:

It would certainly have legitimacy with regard to the role-playing art. I, too, would be most interested in a copy of such a book.