Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Donna Leon and the importance of texture

Donna Leon is one of my favourite writers. I was introduced to her by my wife, an inveterate reader of detective novels.

For that small number of people who do not know Donna Leon, her books star Guido Brunetti, a somewhat world-weary and cynical Venetian detective who yet manages to do his job amidst the seamy side of Venetian life.

While the plots are good, the thing that I most like about the books is their focus on the texture of life in Venice, the way they bring the city alive, as well as the life of Brunetti himself. Leon does this in part by referencing to actual scenes, more by the inclusion of small details.

This is a very urban life style, although not perhaps urban in the way Australians would think. There are no cars unless Brunetti has to travel outside the city. Transport is by foot, sometimes police boat or the ever present  Vaporetto, the ferry service that links Venice.

In some of my writing, I have tried to bring texture alive. It is remarkably difficult to do properly. Often, people try to do it through descriptive pieces. The problem here is that those pieces then stand out, sitting on the textual carpet almost as pop-ups. By contrast, in Leon's writing, life in Venice as well as Brunetti's own life are there as a constant back-story; the books can be read at several levels at once, drawing the reader beyond the main plot into the back-story. This story becomes more familiar with every book. 

I have never attempted to write fiction beyond a few desultory attempts in the 1980s when the idea of becoming a writer first attracted me in a serious way. Then, for a period, I kept a writer's diary jotting down descriptions, ideas, conversations. Sadly, these were lost in a move.

Canberra at that period, maybe it still does, actually lent itself to this type of approach in a rather special way. Like Venice, it was a self-contained world. However, it was also a world in which very different circles lapped and overlapped, joined at particular points by common geography, but otherwise distinct.

The majority of my writing now is historical in one way or another. Here I still wrestle with the same technical issues that Leon addresses so well: how best can I bring alive the story so that it's not just history, but also a well written story; how much detail should I include and what?

I don't find this easy, for history addresses two very different needs. There are the needs of the ordinary reader, and then the person directly interested in the history, for whom the evidence is critical. The balance between the two depends upon the intent: writing for a professional audience is not the same as writing for a general readership.

Regular readers of my blogs will know that I spend a fair bit of time thinking about these types of issues. Quite a bit of my writing directly deals with the problems involved. Other writing is experimental, testing approaches.

Like fiction, history involves imagination. Unlike fiction, history is always applied imagination based on and conditioned by the evidence.

Donna Leon's books cannot tell me how to do the historical research. However, they do provide clues as to how I might write once the research is done so as to best present my story.   


Anonymous said...


Just a general question for you: how old, settled, and recognised does something have to be or become before it is agreed "history"? The papers this morning are mentioning the Beloit College Mindset List, which I've browsed with increasing bafflement over the past few years at just how quickly something which was seen to be important gets consigned to the dusty archives, and maybe even thought to not exist at all..

I would think this makes your job even harder, where you try to bring some sort of "environment" to the significant events in the area of history you are pursuing. I do not envy you the task.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. I hadn't heard of the Beliot College mindset list. I browsed it with interest. Things do get quickly assigned to the archive, more so now because there is a greater focus on the immediate and current.

This does create a compensation problem. So much of the history I grew up with has in a sense been lost. In a lot of cases, you now have to assume zero knowledge, a problem I have written about before.

In compensating, if you provide too much background the history becomes over-laden and turgid. Too little, and people don't know what you mean. As you say, hard.

Part of the writing challenge, and this is why I referenced Leon, lies in the way you provide the information, the back story. I went through something I wrote the other day and just listed, a bit like the Beliot list, the things that a younger Australian was not likely to know. It was a long list.It certainly makes the writing of my type of history harder.

The wool industry is a classic case. The days when Australia rode on the sheep's back are now so distant to the modern urban Australian that wool has been dropped in the dust-bin, along with all the surrounding history.