Wednesday 17 August 2022


I describe description - the most important rule in writing!

OK. So this is clickbait. There are no rules in writing. Even grammar can be messed with, from punctuation to tenses and back again.

Writing rules are more of a pirates' code, for rather lackadaisical pirates. Writers should consider themselves the pirates of the Word Seas.

The important thing to note, if you've found this article on my blog, is that it's largely a visual aid for a Youtube video that I will link here --------> HERE

The supporting text here won't fully explain my point.

The first thing to note is that we're used to the idea of description as a CHUNK. And this is how most new writers endeavor to employ it.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, description very certainly can be delivered in chunks to good effect - though I would argue that the majority of description isn't, and nor should it be.

The second reason follows from the first. Given that there are effective chunks of description, it's clear that when it comes to talking about, remembering, and (most importantly) pointing at description, it's the chunks that will serve.

This creates the illusion that great/effective description is all chunks. 

Let's look at a couple of examples of chunks. I've great respect for Alan Garner and read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen as a teen. The description below is from book 2 in that series (book 3 took 50 years to appear. Eat your hearts out Rothfuss/GRRM!). 

Moon of Gomrath, Alan Garner, 1963

“We ride! We ride!” Round heads of black hair they had, the same length at neck and brow, and their eyes gleamed darkness. They wore long-hooded, black cowls, and carried black, wide-grooved swords, well balanced for the stroke. The horses were black, even to the tongues. Wood and valley and stream swept by, field and hedge and lane, by Capesthorne and Whisterfield. three miles and more, Windyharbour, Withington, Welltrough, and there stood Broad hill, the Tunsted of old, and its pines flared red under the spear. “Wakeful are the Sons of Ormar! Wakeful Maedoc, Midhir, Mathramil! Ride, Einheriar of the Herlathing!” “We ride! We ride!” Their cloaks were blue as rain-washed sky, their yellow manes spread wide upon their shoulders five-barbed javelins in their hands, and their silver shields with fifty knobs of burnt gold on each, and the bosses of precious stones. They shone in the night as if they were the sun’s rays. The horses hoofs were polished brass and their hides like cloth of gold. Now the Einheriar were complete.

This was the last part of a larger block describing the long-awaited arrival of the Wild Hunt.

It's in a mythic style to suit the subject, which is a piece of high magic that's as old as the hills. It's in the style of a grand epic poem, like Beowulf maybe. The sort of thing Tolkien was channelling in The Silmarillion, "and lo, he smote his ruin seven times upon the mountainside" (I made that up). 

It's a chunk of description that I remember after many decades. And it's a temptation to cite it when people ask me how to do description well. I don't though.

Let's look at a piece published 35 years later:

A Clash of Kings, George RR Martin, 1998

Gods do not forget, and still the gales came raging up the narrow sea. Yet Storm's End endured, through centuries and tens of centuries, a castle like no other. Its great curtain wall was a hundred feet high, unbroken by arrow slit or postern, everywhere rounded, curving, smooth, its stones fit so cunningly together that nowhere was crevice nor angle nor gap by which the wind might enter. That wall was said to be forty feet thick at its narrowest, and near eighty on the seaward face, a double course of stones with an inner core of sand and rubble. Within that mighty bulwark, the kitchens and stables and yards sheltered safe from wind and wave. Of towers, there was but one, a colossal drum tower, windowless where it faced the sea, so large that it was granary and barracks and feast hall and lord's dwelling all in one, crowned by massive battlements that made it look from afar like a spiked fist atop an upthrust arm.

This is a section of description of a castle and follows a longer chunk of setting the castle's existence in terms of the book-world's mythology and history.

This is all good. GRRM's a world builder, he needs to do a lot of heavy lifting, and this is an evocative engaging description, setting the place historically, and then giving us physical descriptions, along with a visual description at the end from a known character.

HOWEVER ... many writers see this as something to aim at all the time, not realising the reason they're invested in the story is the description they were hardly aware. The reason they'll sit and read about made up castles and made up history is that they've been hooked by the story, the characters, the world already. The description that's responsible for that has largely slipped into their minds unremarked upon. It's been fed to them in easily digestible slivers, scattered across page after page, it's been constructing the characters and the world quietly in their minds the whole time they were reading up to this part deep within a book.

So, finally - let's look at two examples of description by great writers. This time it's not in a single memorable chunk that we can point others at and marvel at. 

The thing about description is that, discounting these show-piece chunks, it should always be doing two things at once. Description is not a disembodied process. Even in these chunks, someone has chosen what features to remark upon and how to frame them in words.

Within the body of a book, each piece of description is generally delivered to us through the lens of a point-of-view character. The things that the character notices, the words / similes / metaphors that they use to deliver them to us ... all these things can illuminate the character just as effectively as they illuminate the object or scene being described. And that's a good thing. Something every writer should strive to make the most use of.

The details the character notices can speak to the fundamentals of that character, and to the specific interests they have at the moment of the encounter. One character might see a man and notice the broadness of his chest, the tightness of his buttocks. Another might notice whether he was armed or not, whether he seemed alert, nervous etc. Another might be reminded of someone similar - a relative, a lover, a prison guard. And so on and so forth - the description says plenty about them whilst delivering some elements of the subject under scrutiny.

Moreover - this kind of description is often spliced throughout a text, delivered in a line here, a line there, short observations that slowly add resolution to a building picture. Description of this sort is often delivered as it becomes important. In our initial description of a new person we might not say whether they're armed or not. But later, when the situation becomes tense, then the PoV's gaze might wander the person, hunting for a weapon.

NOTE: In both these extracts I've concentrated on showing how the description of the setting is laced through the text, returned to here and there, built upon, reinforced. But don't be misled into thinking that this is all that's going on here. The authors are doing this ALL THE TIME to EVERYTHING. The whole text is a great interwoven bundle of this sort of description, interspersed with the occasional flashy island of what we generally think of as description.

Because this sort of description is not located in one easily identifiable chunk, people don't tend to carry examples of it around in their heads. To locate the text below I thought of a great writer (Bancroft) of a situation in one of their books where we enter a new location (a party at a grand house) and then went to look at it.

It was my first choice - there are probably many better examples.

Consider the chunk description above as the showy elements of a car, the chrome grill, the spirit of ecstasy that tops it off. The description I'm talking about here is the engine. Without it you have a pretty object that's going nowhere.

In the text below I've looked only at description of the location. I've highlighted in yellow any description of the house that's 'general'. In orange, any description that directly involves the PoV character (the eponymous Senlin in this case). So, the first orange section is Senlin noting the butlers, and it seems he did so because their livery makes him uneasy. Immediately, we're given description that's specific to the PoV and their concerns. If Senlin were an interior design specialist, hoping for a commission, he might be noticing the colour schemes, curtains, plaster mouldings on the ceiling etc. He isn't, and he doesn't.

Highlighted in cyan is a piece where I can't directly tie a simile to the PoV. That's not a error/problem/fault. It tells me that Senlin has experienced a gorge, just as the first line tells me he's been in a forest and knows about oak trees. But it's not description that relates to or enlarges upon things I already know about him. I know he's a school teacher, so if he were to describe things here in terms of chalk boards and classrooms then that would get coloured orange.

But the main thing to note here is that, yes, we have an initial burst of description, as we should. But moving on, we get repeated small additions, that are delivered when they are relevant and of importance to the PoV. 

We don't slap down a large chunk description and say "job done", then move on and talk just about what happens in the great hall. We are constantly reminded about the setting and the elements of it as we go. Building and elaborating on a sense of place, that feels living and grounded.

Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft, 2013, Chapter 7, 

They joined the line of guests flowing through the doors, which were tall as oak trunks and stationed with butlers in white bibs and black tails. Senlin found their livery all too familiar. 

The vestibule seemed to stretch up about them like the walls of a gorge. Guests flung cloaks and overcoats at butlers, who were disappearing under the heaps. Brilliant electric chandeliers painted everyone with a halo, the light both beautiful and unnerving. He had read a little about electricity, had even seen a few crude models of generators which spat out sparks, short as an eyelash, but he’d never seen and hardly imagined electricity used in such abundance. 

The high walls of the great lobby were shingled with artwork; the gilded frames began at the wainscot and climbed to the ceiling. This salon arrangement was crowded, but showed the hand of a curator. Indeed, the hall seemed more like the wing of an overstuffed museum than the entrance of a residence. As museums went, it outshone the most fabulous he’d ever seen. 

Stationed intermittently along the wall, customs agents stood like lead soldiers, expressionless and severe, each holding the leash of a small, hairless dog. The crowd thinned here, as guests were careful to give the watchful dogs a wider berth. The breed most resembled a terrier in size and shape, though their naked pink skin piled and hung grotesquely at their jowls and haunches. The dogs, Ogier had explained the night before, were used to screen guests before they were allowed to enter the Commissioner’s atmosphere. 

The Commissioner’s allergies were legendary. He was so sensitive, a single boutonniere in a shared room was enough to send him into a fit of sneezing and wheezing. If the dogs detected any trace of perfume, or tonic, or pollen, or any other pollutant, they would growl and nip at the offender, who would be unceremoniously frog-marched out the door and not invited to return. Such had been Ogier’s fate. His skin and clothes were permanently suffused with scent from living over a perfumery. He wasn’t allowed within a hundred feet of the Commissioner. 

Senlin and Tarrou had carefully scrubbed themselves and their clothes in preparation for the evening. Though, Ogier had assured him, being scentless did not guarantee safe passage. The Commissioner had been known to feign an allergic attack when annoyed by someone in his company. He would say that some whiff, imperceptible to even the dogs, tickled his nose. The Commissioner was quite proud of his sensitivity. It was this that first inspired Senlin’s plot. 

The slow pace of the procession, and the constant elbowing and shouldering that resulted, drove Senlin to seek the refuge of observational study. He scanned the works of art they shuffled past, all of which were sealed under glass to keep the paint from off-gassing into the Commissioner’s atmosphere. All styles and subjects were represented in the collection. Senlin recognized several of the artists from the rudimentary art lectures he gave his students. 

Beyond the hall, a wide stair curled up to an immense ballroom. The glare from teardrop chandeliers made the pink marble columns and floors gleam like a carrousel. Black silk banners, emblazoned with a gold astrolabe, hung on the walls. Senlin had never seen the flag before, and he didn’t know what country it belonged to. 

A string quintet played an exuberant waltz while couples bowed, spun and fairly smashed together on a dance floor that was overrun on all sides by spectators. He’d never seen anything like it. This was not like the crowds that piled around the dozy shore in the morning. There was no chance of blending in here. Everywhere he looked glances were being thrown, stares were being leveled, winks delivered; it was a great ogling madness. Through it all, butlers ferried silver trays of champagne flutes and hors d'oeuvres with the imperviousness of sleepwalkers. 

Bouts of high laughter challenged the music’s dominance in the room. A yellow-haired woman climbed onto a grand piano, sitting unplayed under a white sheet near Senlin’s corner of the room. She hiked up the thick membranes of her petticoats, showing her white bloomers in a display of such vulgar gaiety, it made Senlin wince. His out of place expression made him stand out, and she locked her gaze on him, and with an expression between coy and aggressive, cupped her bust and pressed until her cleavage overflowed like a loaf in a bread pan. He tried to conceal his revulsion with a tight smile. The woman bit her thumb at him. Tarrou hissed at him to stop grimacing at everyone like a ghoul. He would’ve fled had it not been for Tarrou gripping his arm and forging a path onward, inward, deeper into the convulsing heart of the gala. 

Tarrou moved through the party as if it were his own. He slapped men on the back, rallied pouting couples with bawdy jokes, and pestered every passing servant for a drink. He was, it seemed to Senlin, born for bedlam. Senlin worried that Tarrou would forget the plan and fall entirely into the arms of his old society. But amidst his flirtations, Tarrou continued to tug the Headmaster through collapsing gaps in the crowd, moving them ever nearer their goal. 

As agreed, Tarrou escorted Senlin to the spot where Ogier’s masterpiece hung, lonely, between the balcony doors. The enormous balcony seemed to attract young dandies and adventurous women. They flew in and out like swallows from a barn. But there was a small gap in the migration where the painting hung, and it was here that Tarrou finally deposited Senlin. 

“I might be gone a little while. I have a lot of hands to wrench and bygones to rehearse. I haven’t shown my face at one of these comedies in months. Be patient. Take a drink. Take three.” And with that, Tarrou disappeared into the mass of skirts and coat tails. 

He felt as if he’d found the party’s fireplace, and the thought reminded him unexpectedly of Edith. He flinched at the memory. Behind him, dancers careened with unsteady elegance. He turned his attention to Ogier’s painting. He stared into it as if it were a fire. 

The painting was, as he’d been told it would be, small: fourteen inches tall and eight inches wide. The thick gilded frame, which doubled the painting’s size, almost enveloped it. The style was immediately recognizable as Ogier’s. A young girl in braids and a white swimming dress faced the blue reservoir. The water stood just at her ankles. Other bathers stood further out, but she seemed removed and alone. The girl was the subject and the center of it all. Her back was turned at the viewer. Even without seeing her face, Senlin could sense her hesitation. She seemed to be deciding whether to go further out or stay near the shore. A bright, white paper boat dangled loosely from one hand. Though the mirrored light was dazzling, the girl’s dark shadow spread under her like a hole. She seemed to hover over deep water. It was odd and beautiful... 

He was startled from his reverie by Tarrou’s broad hand on his shoulder. He turned to face a small, slight man in a closely tailored gray suit. The cuffs of his pants were set so high that his socks showed. A lock of sterling hair, delicate and stiff as a fishing hook, curled on his formidable forehead. His eyes were the color of wet mortar, and his pale, wax-white skin made him look like a black and white print of a man. “Mr. Senlin,” the man began in a high, sing-song voice, “I hear I have you to thank for Tarrou’s reappearance. You’ve done what a dozen invitations could not.” He stamped his boot and gave Senlin a little ironic bow. 

“May I present his imminence, the Commissioner Emmanuel Pound,” Tarrou said with a grander, more swelling bow, though it seemed to Senlin every bit as ironic as the Commissioner’s. Senlin had been warned against trying to shake the hypersensitive Commissioner’s hand and so he bowed too, but as sincerely as he could. Coming up again, he said, “You have a most fantastic collection, Commissioner. I congratulate you.” 

“Yes. This Ogier is a favorite.” He pronounced, Ogier’s name differently than the artist, hardening the “g” and making the whole sound like it was being gagged upon. “Appraised at three hundred mina.” The amount was staggering. Senlin could’ve built a second and third schoolhouse for the amount. “A bargain, I know. It’ll double in value, I promise you, before I’m done with it.” The Commissioner tapped his lower lip as if it was a secret and he was taking Senlin into his confidence. Senlin doubted that the Commissioner wanted any estimate of his fortune kept secret, but he tapped his own lip just the same. He wanted to win the man’s confidence, so he would play the parrot. “Tarrou tells me you are an art scholar?” the Commissioner said, leaning backward as if to study Senlin from a new angle.

“I have penned a few essays.” Senlin then went on to expound, peppering his speech with little proofs of his expertise. He knew enough to affect an accomplished art scholar, though really most of what hung on the walls was new to him. When the Commissioner mentioned a particular artistic movement Senlin wasn’t familiar with, he vehemently dismissed the entire thing as hack-work. It was a tactic his poorer students used; they mocked the subjects they’d failed to study. 

The Commissioner quickly agreed. “I don’t trust critics who like everything. If everything is good, nothing has any value. Without garbage, there is no gold, is it not so?” “Absolutely true,” Senlin lied. “But this piece,” he turned again toward Ogier’s painting, “‘Girl with a Paper Boat,’ this is something remarkable. The character of your local light seems to have inspired a novel style. It’s primitive, perhaps, but evocative and precise in its way.” 

“I agree. I have impeccable taste.” the Commissioner said and signaled Senlin to continue with a slight roll of his wrist. 

“I would love to write an essay on its novel palette. Here, for example...” Senlin leaned nearer the thick pane that sealed Ogier’s painting, and as the Commissioner leaned in to follow his point, Senlin affected a series of abrupt, spasmodic sneezes. 

Horrified, the Commissioner flew backward into Tarrou with his arms thrown over his face. Gray eyes bulging from his smooth doll’s head, he shrieked for his guard. The barks of his dogs rang over the noise of the room

Gasps and stifled cries rippled through the waltzers. The band stumbled, faltered and sawed to a halt. Blue-breasted agents appeared from several directions. Very quickly, Senlin found that he was surrounded. One of the agents presented the Commissioner with a pewter tray that carried a black rubber gas mask. Two gold foil filters protruded from the cheeks of the mask like blunt tusks. With the deftness of a reflex, the Commissioner Pound fitted the mask over his head and cinched it tightly against his face. Dark lenses, large as the lids of jam jars, hid his eyes. The Commissioner had gone from obvious to impenetrable in the span of a few seconds. How could Senlin pander to a man who had no visible expression? There was no time to fret over it. 

Senlin hurried to explain: “I’m not ill, Commissioner, I assure you. I’m only sensitive to scent.” He produced a handkerchief and blew his nose delicately, almost noiselessly. “This may sound absurd, but I think someone has gotten perfume on your painting.” Senlin dabbed at his eyes, sneaking a glance at the Commissioner as he performed. He saw nothing behind the blackened lenses. The mask distorted the Commissioner's breathing, even as he threatened to hyperventilate. The room seemed to be listening and leaning in. 

The Commissioner’s breathing gradually returned to an even swell and whoosh. After a moment more, he uncurled and raised a single finger, signaling the ensemble to resume their play. The music broke the tension in the room: a laugh escaped, the woman atop the piano gave a tentative kick, and the party recommenced. Everyone, it seemed to Senlin, was quite accustomed to the Commissioner’s fits and had learned to handle them efficiently. 

Still in his gas mask, the Commissioner exited onto the large balcony, the agents sweeping Tarrou and Senlin along behind him. Since his fate wasn’t clear, Senlin tried to appear as if this were all part of a tour. The young men and women canoodling along the parapet saw the agents and the masked Commissioner and quickly drained back into the ballroom. 

When the Commissioner finally removed his mask, Senlin found that the diminutive and allergic tyrant was scrutinizing him. He held the expression of a man squinting into a heavy wind. “It seems we share more in common than just our appreciation of the Arts,” the Commissioner said at last. Senlin fought to remain straight-faced, though a chill ran up from his stomach to the top of his scalp. Of course he hadn’t smelled even a trace of perfume on the painting, but he gambled that the Commissioner would go along with the charade rather than risk his standing as the Bath’s most sensitive nose. Hoping the man’s vanity extended even to his failings, he had made a contest of a flaw. 

“As ingenious as Ogier’s work is, it has all been tainted by perfume. His studio lies above a lady’s boutique. All his work is soaked to the atom in scent. I’d hoped the glass would contain it. A pity. I will have to sell it before it’s had time to mature.” Pound straightened his collar and waved the agents away with another roll of his wrist. 

“Commissioner Pound,” Senlin hurriedly interjected. “The work may be salvageable.” 

“I’m sorry, Professor Senlin, but I don’t take risks when it comes to my sinuses.”  

“Then allow me. Let me suggest a simple deodorizing process. A technique I’ve necessarily had to learn.” Senlin dabbed his handkerchief at the corner of one eye. “If it doesn’t work, then auction the work. But it would be a pity to lose it unnecessarily.” 

The Commissioner returned the stiff silver lock on his forehead to its former glory, the rubber gasket of his terrible gas mask having upset its shape. “I am suspicious of good samaritans, Mr. Senlin.” 

“I have ulterior motives, of course. While the painting is being defumed, I’d like to study it and, with your endorsement, write an essay on it.” Senlin tried to sound as if he were making a minor confession. 

“I don’t feel comfortable releasing my property to strangers.” 

“I would not ask to, Commissioner. In fact, the process I have in mind requires only sunlight. Direct exposure to sun, I’ve learned, neutralizes almost any pollutant, though with paintings the exposure must be managed to avoid bleaching and craquelure.” Craquelure was one of the more obscure painting terms he had gleaned from his studies. He used it now to establish his credentials, and it seemed to have the desired effect: the Commissioner smiled. “Perhaps, you could rope off a little corner at one of your skyports...” 

The smile vanished, replaced by a scowl, straight as a mail slot. “The port? Out of the question. It’s impossible to secure. Beside the professional sinners, the pirates and smugglers, there is a whole host of amateur cretins: imbeciles, drunks, henchmen, lapdogs, whores, spoonsnatchers...” The Commissioner did not so much conclude his list as douse it with the tipping back of a champagne flute he snatched from a tray. This paranoid litany reminded Senlin of the charges he’d heard read before the boy was wrenched in two by the Red Hand. 

Despair welled within Senlin. His whole plan depended on this point; he had to separate the Commissioner from Ogier’s painting, had to get it out in the open and away from the agents and their cannons and vigilant dogs. Failing this, the rest of his plot was a useless ravel. 

Tarrou gave Senlin a discrete smirk, which he took to say, See how the plot collapses, Headmaster! Look at your three-legged, two-headed horse try to run! 

“Commissioner, if I may.” Tarrou swept his hat, which resembled a poisonous mushroom cap, from his head and genuflected. “There are many ways to cook an egg. As I recall, you own a little portion of the sun. Your solarium! Good for entertaining, yes, but also very secure. You once told me it was accessible only through the Bureau Building. Don’t your men have barracks there? What could be more secure? The professor can take his notes and watch the sun do its work.” Tarrou seemed very pleased with the suggestion, though Senlin hardly shared his enthusiasm. He wasn’t familiar with the Customs Bureau Building, but he didn’t like the sound of it. 

“It’s not an idiotic suggestion,” the Commissioner said, and Tarrou continued to charm him: the professor could act as their canary in the gold mine: when he no longer felt the tickle of perfume, the painting would be declared fit for the Commissioner’s air. 

The Commissioner was soon persuaded. He invited Senlin to his Solarium in the morning. “I’ll tell my men to expect you. I will desire a copy of your book, once it’s published,” the Commissioner said in parting, sliding now towards other guests inside his mansion. “I trust I’ll get a mention in the credits.” 

“I will dedicate it to your generosity,” Senlin said, smiling as he bowed.

And to finish, let's look at another setting description from another fabulous writer. This from Alix E Harrow's The Ten Thousand Doors Of January, 2019.

Here again, I'm just looking at the location (a hotel) and how it's returned to in tiny moments over the course of several pages.

Note that Harrow's opening description gives us the PoV's excellent sense of humour / voice: "hadn't ever met one in real life" + "man-shaped dog". And reflects the PoV's familiarity with this lifestyle - dropping into hotels, being an encumbrance that needs to be handed off. Nice use of senses other than sight - Bancroft had a lot of 'sound', here we have smell.

As was his custom, Mr. Locke had taken rooms for us in the nicest establishment available; in Kentucky, that translated to a sprawling pinewood hotel on the edge of the Mississippi, clearly built by someone who wanted to open a grand hotel but hadn’t ever met one in real life. There were candy-striped wall-paper and electric chandeliers, but a sour catfish smell seeped up from the floorboards.

Mr. Locke waved past the manager with a fly- swatting gesture, told him to ‘Keep an eye on the girl, that’s a good fellow,’ and swept into the lobby with Mr. Stirling trailing like a man-shaped dog at his heels. Locke greeted a bow-tied man waiting on one of the flowery couches. ‘Governor Dockery, a pleasure! I read your last missive with greatest attention, I assure you – and how is your cranium collection coming?’

Ah. So that was why we came: Mr. Locke was meeting one of his Archaeological Society pals for an evening of drinking, cigar smoking, and boasting. They had an annual Society meet-ing every summer at Locke House – a fancy party followed by a stuffy, members- only affair that neither I nor my father was permitted to attend – but some of the real enthusiasts couldn’t wait the full year and sought one another out wherever they could.

The manager smiled at me in that forced, panicky way of childless adults, and I smiled toothily back. ‘I’m going out,’ I told him confidently. He smiled a little harder, blinking with uncertainty. People are always uncertain about me: my skin is sort of coppery-red, as if it’s covered all over with cedar sawdust, but my eyes are round and light and my clothes are expensive. Was I a pampered pet or a serving girl? Should the poor manager serve me tea or toss me in the kitchens with the maids? I was what Mr. Locke called ‘an in-between sort of thing.’

I tipped over a tall vase of flowers, gasped an insincere ‘oh dear,’ and slunk away while the manager swore and mopped at the mess with his coat. I escaped outdoors (see how that word slips into even the most mundane of stories? Sometimes I feel there are doors lurking in the creases of every sentence, with periods for knobs and verbs for hinges).

The streets were nothing but sun baked stripes crisscrossing themselves before they ended in the muddy river, but the people of Ninley, Kentucky, seemed inclined to stroll along them as if they were proper city streets. They stared and muttered as I went by.

An idle dockworker pointed and nudged his companion. ‘That’s a little Chickasaw girl, I’ll bet you.’ His workmate shook his head, citing his extensive personal experience with Indian girls, and speculated, ‘West Indian, maybe. Or a half- breed.’ I kept walking. People were always guessing like that, categorizing me as one thing or another, but Mr. Locke assured me they were all equally incorrect. ‘A perfectly unique specimen,’ he called me. Once after a comment from one of the maids I’d asked him if I was colored and he’d snorted. ‘ Odd-colored, perhaps, but hardly colored.’ I didn’t really know what made a person colored or not, but the way he said it made me glad I wasn’t.

The speculating was worse when my father was with me. His skin is darker than mine, a lustrous red- black, and his eyes are so black even the whites are threaded with brown. Once you factor in the tattoos – ink spirals twisting up both wrists – and the shabby suit and the spectacles and the muddled-up accent and – well. People stared.

I still wished he were with me.
I was so busy walking and not looking back at all those white faces that I thudded into someone. ‘Sorry, ma’am, I —’ An old woman, hunched and seamed like a pale walnut, glared down at me. It was a practiced, grandmotherly glare, especially made for children who moved too fast and knocked into her. ‘Sorry,’ I said again.

She didn’t answer, but something shifted in her eyes like a chasm cleaving open. Her mouth hung open, and her filmy eyes went wide as shutters. ‘ Who – just who the hell are you?’ she hissed at me. People don’t like in-between things, I suppose. I should have scurried back to the catfish-smelling hotel and huddled in Mr. Locke’s safe, moneyed shadow, where none of these damn people could reach me; it would have been the proper thing to do. But, as Mr. Locke so often complained, I could sometimes be quite improper, willful, and temerarious (a word I assumed was unflattering from the company it kept).

[here I miss out about 4 pages]

I wanted to fight him. To argue, to snatch my diary out of the dirt – but I couldn’t.

I ran away instead. Back across the field, back up winding dirt roads, back into the sour- smelling hotel lobby.

And so the very beginning of my story features a skinny-legged girl on the run twice in the space of a few hours. It’s not a very heroic introduction, is it? But – if you’re an in-between sort of creature with no family and no money, with nothing but your own two legs and a silver coin – sometimes running away is the only thing you can do. And anyway, if I hadn’t been the kind of girl who ran away, I wouldn’t have found the blue Door. And there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell.


The fear of God and Mr. Locke kept me quiet that evening and the following day. I was well watched by Mr. Stirling and the nervous hotel manager, who herded me the way you might handle a valuable but dangerous zoo animal. I amused myself for a while by slamming the keys on the grand piano and watching him flinch, but eventually I was shepherded back into my room and advised to go to sleep.

I was out the low window and dodging through the alley before the sun had fully set. The road was scattered with shadows like shallow black pools, and by the time I reached the field, stars were shimmering through the hot haze of smoke and tobacco that hung over Ninley. I stumbled through the grass, squinting into the gloom for that house-of-cards shape.

The blue Door wasn’t there.
Instead, I found a ragged black circle in the grass. Ash and char were all that remained of my Door. My pocket diary lay among the coals, curled and blackened. I left it there.

When I stumbled back into the sagging, not-very-grand hotel, the sky was tar-black and my knee socks were stained. Mr. Locke was sitting in an oily blue cloud of smoke in the lobby with his ledgers and papers spread before him and his favorite jade tumbler full of evening scotch.

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