Pictures in My Mind*

Visual ImagesOne of the challenges authors face is how to convey the visual. It’s easy enough if one’s writing a graphic novel or children’s picture book but in other kinds of novels it can be difficult to give the reader mental images. For one thing, readers are often more engaged if they use their own imaginations to ‘colour in the drawing.’ What’s more, too much description tends to burden a novel and can pull the reader out of the story. But if the reader has no sense of the visual it can be harder to be drawn into the story. So authors have to strike a delicate balance when it comes to depicting the visual. Just a quick look at crime fiction should show you what I mean about striking that balance.

There’s interesting use of imagery in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air).  That’s the story of the murder of Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who does business under the name of Madame Giselle. She’s poisoned while en route by air from Paris to London, and the only viable suspects are her fellow passengers. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, so he works with Chief Inspector Japp to solve the crime. Two of the other passengers are London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey and dentist Norman Gale. At one point, the two have a cup of tea together and discuss the case:


‘They found a tea shop, and a disdainful waitress with a gloomy manner took their order with an air of doubt as of one who might say: ‘Don’t blame me if you’re disappointed. They say we serve teas here, but I never heard of it.’’


Can’t you just visualise the waitress and her facial expression? And Christie does this without overburdening the reader with a lot of description. There’s room for the imagination, but she leaves the reader in no doubt about the setting for the conversation these two characters have.

One of James Lee Burke’s many strengths as a writer is the way he conveys the Southern Louisiana setting for most of his Dave Robicheaux novels. Burke takes a different approach to Christie’s but that’s of course part of the pleasure of crime fiction – the variety. In The Tin Roof Blowdown, for instance, one of the plot threads is Robicheaux’s search for his old friend Jude Le Blanc, who has become a Roman Catholic priest. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Le Blanc disappears and is presumably shot while trying to save some of his parishioners. The boat Le Blanc was using turns up later, this time in the possession of a group of looters. So Robiceaux suspects a connection between the looters and his friend’s disappearance. And so it turns out to be although of course, it’s not the obvious connection you might make. Here is a bit of the description of the onset of Katrina:


‘A hard gust of wind blows down the long corridor of trees that line Bayou Teche, wrinkling the water like old skin, filling the air with the smell of old fish roe and leaves that have turned yellow and black in the shade. Katrina will make landfall somewhere around Lake Pontchartrain in the next seven hours.’ 


This visual imagery places the reader unmistakeably in the setting, and raises the tension as it’s clear there is about to be a devastating storm.

In Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper investigate when two sets of remains are found on Pity Wood Farm near the village of Rakesdale in the Peak District of Derbyshire. The farm was the property of brothers Raymond and Derek Sutton, but Derek Sutton has died and his brother has had to move to a nursing care facility. Now the farm is the property of Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin, but he has spent nearly no time there as of yet. So one thing Fry and Cooper have to do is find out who actually owned the property at the time the bodies were buried there, and how likely the owner would have been to know about the bodies. The remains belong to Orla Doyle and Nadezda Halak, very different young women from very different backgrounds. So another task the police face is finding out what these women were doing near the farm and why anyone would want to kill them. Here is Fry’s first impression of Pity Wood Farm:


‘She was confronted by a collection of ancient outbuildings leaning at various angles, their roofs sagging, doors hanging loosely on their hinges. By some curious law of physics, the doors all seemed to tilt at the opposite angle to the walls, as if they were leaning to compensate for a bend. Some doorways had been blocked up, windows were filled in, steps had been left going nowhere.’


This description gives the reader a real sense of how poverty-stricken and untended the farm is. It’s not a very pleasant place, but it’s in the history of the farm that Fry and Cooper find the clues to what happened to Orla Doyle and Nadezda Halak.

Håkan Nesser isn’t known for flowery descriptions, but he’s quite skilled at conveying visual images. For instance, in Woman With Birthmark, Inspector Van Veeteren and his team are called in when Ryszard Malik is murdered in his own home. The team is starting its investigation when there’s another murder. And then another. The deaths are all tied together by a past event, and Van Veeteren and his team will have to find out what the victims had in common if they’re to prevent a fourth murder. Here is the way Nesser describes a press conference in which Van Veeteren participates:


‘The conference room on the first floor was full to overflowing with journalists and reporters sitting, taking photographs, and trying to outdo one another in the art of asking biased and insinuating questions.
He had been press-ganged to accompany Hiller and sit behind a cheap, rectangular table overloaded with microphones, cords, and the obligatory bottles of soda water that for some unfathomable reason were present whenever high-ranking police officers made statements in front of cameras…’


The reader doesn’t need a lot of verbiage to build a strong visual image of what this press conference is like.

In Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure, Sydney police detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate when Suzanne Crawford is murdered and her husband Connor goes missing. At first, it seems like a case of domestic violence that ended in death, but before long, it’s clear that the case is more complicated than that. For one thing, background checks on Connor Crawford show nothing, as though he never existed. And it comes out that he was keeping a secret from his wife that she was desperate to discover. Things get even more complex when Emil Page, a teenage volunteer at the nursery the Crawfords owned, also disappears. These events are all related and tied to the Crawfords’ past, and in the end, Marconi and her team find out what it is about the Crawfords that made them targets. Here’s a description of the murder weapon used to kill Suzanne Crawford:


‘It looked like a standard carving knife, about twenty centimetres long, with a stainless-steel blade and black plastic handle. Ella saw prints in the dry blood on the handle.
‘Beautiful,’ she said.’


Just from this short description one can get a strong visual image of the weapon without the need for Howell to use gory detail.

And that’s the thing about effective visual imagery. It conveys a lot to the reader without the need for a lot of verbiage or gratuitousness. Which authors do you think do a particularly effective job at conveying the visual? I know I’ve only mentioned a few here. If you’re a writer, how do you convey the visual?



*NOTE:  The title of this post is the title of a song by Joy Division.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, James Lee Burke, Katherine Howell, Stephen Booth

24 responses to “Pictures in My Mind*

  1. Margot, I think Arthur W. Upfield, in his descriptions of the Australian outback, created imagery that really sticks in my mind. For example, in Death of a Swagman, he describes one of the really amazing natural landmarks this way:

    “No Emperor Ch’in Shi Huang Ti directed over a million men to raise this extraordinary barrier lying athwart the bushlands in the southwest corner of the state of New South Wales, Australia. The colour of the country is reddish-brown, and upon this reddish-brown land the soft fingers of the wind built a wall of snow-white sand some twelve miles long, three quarters of a mile wide, and several hundred feet high. No one knows when the wind laboured so mightily to build the barrier, and no one knows who named it the Walls of China.”

    I think it’s a pretty amazing description, don’t you?

    • Les – I do, indeed! Upfield was certainly very talented at evoking imagery. Not only did he do a fantastic job of depicting the scenery, but I think he was also skilled at creating images of people and their interactions. Thanks for filling in that gap I left.

  2. My “go to” author for brilliant imagery is Adrian Hyland who brings alive rural Australia and its people in a way that makes me shiver – even his non-fiction book about the horrendous bush fires that caused so much death and destruction here several years ago read like poetry.

    Peter Temple’s pretty good at it too,,,here’s the opening 2 sentences of his first Jack Irish novel

    I found Edward Dollary age 47, defrocked accountant, big spender and dishonest person living in a house rented in the name of Carol Pick. It was in a new brick veneer suburb built on cow pasture east of the city, one of those strangely silent developments where the average age is 12 and you can feel the pressure of the mortgages on your skin.

    I love the way only a few words can convey so much when the right person is choosing the words 🙂

    • Bernadette – Oh, I do, too! And you’ve mentioned two authors I want to be like when I grow up when it comes to imagery. Both Hyland and Temple are masters of using words deftly to create mental images. I’m very grateful you’ve mentioned them as there is only so much room in any post. I think what I like best about both authors’ use of imagery is that they do so without being melodramatic or wasting one single word. And folks, Bernadette is right; Kinglake 350 (Adrian Hyland) is a gut-level masterpiece story of the horrible ‘Black Saturday’ bush fires of February 2009 (was it really four years ago?!). Do read it. You won’t regret it. Oh, and read his Emily Tempest novels and Peter Temple’s Jack Irish and Steve Villani stories too. Seriously.

  3. I think that Camilleri, by describing the food that Montalbano eats conjures up the wider image of the med – heat, sun, sea and so forth. All by describing a simple dish. I’m drooling now thinking if it.

    • Sarah – *Excuse me, please, while I wipe my mouth* ;-). I know just what you mean. Camilleri’s descriptions of delicious food are enough to make me hungry even if I’ve just eaten.

  4. I love movies Margot, as you know, but I agree that an over-emphasis on descriptions of places can slow the pace too much. Having said that, there are some writers, and I’m thinking especially of the likes of Gregory McDonald with his FLETCH series, where almost everything is conveyed through dialogue but it’s done so skillfully and humorously that you almost don’t notice. On the other hand two of my favourite authors, Raymond Chandler and John Dickson Carr, while clearly very different, could paint brilliantly evocative place through their prose and I would hate to do without them. And speaking of food, Robert B. Parker in the Spenser books described some truly mouthwatering dishes!

    • Sergio – I know just what you mean about slowing the pace of a story too much. I think that’s true in film, too, so even a film buff like yourself notices when the story is dragging for that reason. It’s certainly possible to convey a lot, as McDonald does, with dialogue. I know people who consider books like that more like scripts than stories but when it’s done well you’re absolutely right; dialogue can do a great job of conveying things. And yes, both Carr and Chandler could convey the visual atmosphere of a place brilliantly. Thanks for filling in that gap. And as to the Spenser series? Yes, some delicious food in that too.

  5. This is another interesting topic. I never have been much for descriptive sections, I think I read too fast… or used to. I am now trying to slow down and savor what I am reading and I do pay more attention now. Sometimes an author just grabs me with his/her descriptions though (in a good way). I bet it is hard to get a good balance between description and action/dialogue in writing.

    • Tracy – It really is. And it’s interesting you would mention the kind of reader you are, because I think that makes a difference. Some readers do like reading at a slower pace and drinking in the descriptions. Others want to ‘cut to the chase.’ I really do think that affects the way one sees the visual imagery the author provides.

  6. I just love Stephen Booth’s descriptions. I’ve never been to that part of the world but when I read the descriptions, I feel like I’m there. I just finished The Devil’s Edge and I feel like I’ve stood on that very ledge.

    I think Agatha Christie adds the perfect amount of description. We all have the same mental picture of our egg-shape headed detective. And who couldn’t imagine Miss Marple near the fireplace knitting?

    • Clarissa – I agree completely on both counts. Booth is so skilled at placing the reader isn’t he? You’re making me want to go back and re-read some of his novels! And yes, Christie does such a good job of portraying both Poirot and Miss Marple. I’m quite certain I would recognise them if I saw them in person. And she does that with her other characters too.

      • Skywatcher

        I love it when an author manages to evoke a tremendous amount in a very short description. I think that Douglas Adams, in one of his very bizarre Dirk Gently detective stories, describes a very grim looking room as being ‘painted in the same shade of green that they use in Mental Hospitals to help subdue the patients’. It’s funny and very evocative, and tells you everything that you need to know.

        • Skywatcher – I always liked Douglas Adams’ descriptions too. They are short but they leave the reader in no doubt. And the wit is unforgettable. We lost Adams far too soon.

  7. Elly Griffiths and the Ruth Galloway mysteries – the picture she paints of Ruth’s home on the Norfolk coast is amazing, and makes me want to go there.

    • Moira – Oh, yes, indeed! Griffiths does a fantastic job doesn’t she of depicting Norfolk. One really does feel one’s there when one’s reading one of her Ruth Galloway novels.

  8. Les Blatt’s mention of Australian writer Upfield’s description of the Australian outback reminds me of the vivid descriptions of the same by British novelist Nevil Shute who brought the desert outbacks alive through his prose. I also enjoy reading Frank G. Slaughter and Lloyd C. Douglas’ historical (biblical) novels for their descriptions of places in the Holy Land. There can be such vast descriptions in these novels, yet the authors get it out of the way so effortlessly.

    • Prashant – You’re quite right about Nevil Shute, whom I haven’t read in years (so thank you for the reminder). I’m not familiar with Slaughter’s work, but Douglas has indeed written some good work. As you say, authors such as Shute and Douglas can place the reader visually without wasting words and without making the reader struggle.

  9. I prefer a lot of description of landscapes and interiors but very little physical description of people. You can tell me what they’re like but not what they look like unless it is important to know someone’s eyes are gray. IMHO, of course.

    • Patti – Oh, I know what you mean. I like to use my imagination to decide what a person looks like unless as you say it’s important for the plot. Interesting point about the difference between imagery of places and imagery of people.

  10. Is it about flavor, style? About evoking a sense of things? Is it about the pacing, about creating or relieving tension? To paraphrase Scorsese, it’s about what’s on the page and what’s not on the page. To create the essential–that’s a job and a half for any writer.

    • Ben – It is indeed. And you make a well-taken point that it’s really about the effect one wants to create. What does the writer want the reader to experience? And evoking a sense of place and of the characters is definitely a big part of that.

  11. kathy d.

    I agree with these examples of writers who put powerful imagery in their books, giving a great sense of place, including Camilleri, Griffiths, Hyland, Temple, Howell. It’s one reason why so many of us read global crime fiction: It gives such a strong sense of place. We’re freezing while reading many Nordic mysteries, including in Arnaldur Indridason’s or Anthony Bidulka’s set in Saskatchewan, and hot while reading the Precious Ramotswe books, set in Botswana.
    We’re hungry after reading of Montalbano’s meals or reminiscing about his prior dinner or anticipating his next one.
    We can virtually travel to all corners of the globe, thanks to terrific descriptions of locations, climates, cultures, histories and more.

    • Kathy – You’re quite right that one of the real pleasures of reading crime fiction that takes place in different settings is the opportunity to ‘travel’ to those places. Authors who are skilled at conveying a sense of the visual when it comes to place give the reader an even more realistic ‘travel experience.’

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