Sunday, January 07, 2007

From Other Shelves: ACQUIRED TASTES, by Peter Mayle

Nothing grabs a reader's hand and drags them into a speculative world like a startling, vivid detail. And nobody does details as well as Peter Mayle. You can read any of his books to study his technique, but in ACQUIRED TASTES a speculative writer gets the added bonus of a peek inside the kind of cultural quirks that themselves are startling, vivid details of our own sort of alien world on Earth: that of the super-mega-ultra rich.

The book is a collection of essays Mayle did on behalf of Gentleman's Quarterly, a sort of wry and witty, better bred literary version of VH1's The Fabulous Life Of…. Mayle parts the waters between the have-what-we-needs and the have-it-alls, guiding us through how to purchase a cashmere sport coat and tailor-made shirts in London, how to eat caviar, choose a single malt, how not to have house guests, and never runs out of praise for luxury hotels. All very interesting (did you know that they comb the cashmere from wild goats, or that caviar must be graded and salted within the first fifteen minutes of the liberation of the eggs?), but how does it all help an aspiring speculative author?

When you create a new world for your readers to explore, you want to detail it as vividly as possible. Just as vividly as Mayle details the haunts of the privileged. Whether you are working with the rich and powerful members of a fantasy world's nobility, the down-and-dirty criminal world of a spaceport at the universe's fringe, or a contemporary secret society of vampires, details make your vision become real to the reader. And an afternoon with Mayle will give you an excellent primer on details.

On Manhattan: There is a man, usually squatting on the sidewalk at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Forty-second Street, who glares at every pretty woman who passes by and mutters at each of them, "Change your underwear, babe."

On buying truffles: But even here, in the middle of nowhere—buying direct from men with dirt under their fingernails and yesterday's garlic on their breath, with dented, wheezing cars, with old baskets or plastic bags instead of Vuitton attache cases – even here, the prices are, as they say, tres serieux.

On the historical cachet of his favorite restaurant: Ladies and gentlemen could rent rooms by the hour in the maisons de passe before tottering around the corner, still slightly flushed, to recover at Antoine's table.

Each of these examples doesn't just highlight the power of a vivid detail. Sure, sure you can get the mouth feel of Manhattan, truffle-buying and Chez Ami from these sentences. But it gets you thinking…what are the strange, vivid details of my fantasy high court, spaceport dive bar, or clandestine vampire club?

These thoughts not only makes the writing more fun, but it might be the difference that moves you from unpublished to published, or from midlist to best-seller.

1 comment:

Ursula said...

Thanks Joyce! This sounds like a kewl read. I like the exerpts.