When I read book, I see what’s happening in my imagination. Over the years, I seem to have developed a stock of stages that serve as the default placeholder for many common settings that I come across. I call these stages the backlots of the mind.
I was recently re-reading Stephen King’s novella “1922” which takes place on a Nebraska farm in the early 1920s. I’ve never been to Nebraska, but when I was a kid, I visited a relative’s farm in Utah on several occasions. My memories of that Utah farm served as the backlot to the farm in Nebraska. King then added the stage dressing required to make that backlot unique to his story. Indeed, any time I read about a farm–the farm into which Ray Kinsella carves a baseball field in Shoeless Joe for instance–I begin with my backlot Utah farm.
When I read of a completely fictional place, like the University in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, my backlot comes from my memories of walking around the Oxford campus on a visit to England many years ago.
This is as true for nonfiction as it is for fiction. When reading John Adams by David McCullough, and picturing John Adams’ farm, Peacefield–a place which I’ve never visited–I use as my mental backlot the New England farms I’ve seen in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. When reading Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener, I used as my backlot memories of my visit to Princeville, Hawaii on the north shore of Kauai.
When a writer describes someone living in a small house, I imagine the house I rented while living in Maryland. If a scene takes place in vast forested land, I often default to memories of walking through Huntley Meadows Oark. Even in a science fiction story that describes something that doesn’t exist today–Asimov’s Foundation for instance–I find myself resorting to familiar backlots for reference points.
Other times, I don’t have backlots adequate to serve my purposes. In these cases, I have to rely more heavily on the author’s descriptions and draw on other related memories. Reading Endurance by Alfred Lansing, I had no experience Antarctica. Instead, I relied on memories of videos and shows I’ve seen of Antarctica to help fill in the blanks. Reading Shogun by James Clavell, I was almost entirely at the mercy of the author’s descriptions. Fortunately, he did a good job and I really enjoyed the book.
I was thinking about these backlots recently because they provide an important insight into the relationship between a writer and a reader. As a writer, no matter how much detail I provide on a scene, the picture I have in my head will never match that of the reader’s. Every reader brings their own backlots to a story and that is what makes the story unique. I’ve recently started to write again, and I am trying to take this lesson to heart. As a writer my job is to provide just enough detail to let the reader fill in the rest from their own backlots. If there’s an important detail, I’ll add it, but otherwise, it seems better to allow the reader’s imagination to do the work. It makes the story more their own. Still, I sometimes think about books like Endurance and Shogun where I had no backlots to help me out. Surely there are people reading some of my stories who have no backlots for what I am writing about. This is one of those things that makes writing a particular challenge. How much or how little do you assume about a reader?
Some of these backlots change over time, but the most basic ones seems to stay the same. I kind of like that. It brings a familiarity to unfamiliar places between pages. Familiarity helps ease me into a book, and I imagine the same is true for readers of my own stories.