If you’ve just stumbled across this, be aware that there’s a part one. Given the post’s title, I’d be inclined to think this is obvious to all, but then I recall leaving the theater after seeing Kill Bill vol. 1 and overhearing two fellow audience members complaining about what a letdown it was. As I am both a huge Tarantino fan and a huge fan of chop-socky flicks, my ears pricked. “Who knew you were going to have to wait for the sequel?” I heard the one guy say. “Yeah,” said his pal, “like Lord of the Rings.”


Anyway, so there’s a part one. Read it or this post is just one long non sequitur.

Lesson two: If you want to make your settings real, develop a poet’s ear for detail.

First, what is “a poet’s ear for detail”?  It’s a bit like pornography: hard to define, but you know it when I see it.  A critic said of another one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth McCracken, that “Only poets have the same obsessive concern with language that philosophers do, and McCracken is clearly a poet.”* Being a philosopher by profession, I thought this was quite a nice thing of him to say. Then I realized that my only “short story” published at that point came in at an elephantine 15,000 words, which is something like 25% of a McCracken novel. That’s when I realized I have to work on this obsessive concern thing.

Miéville’s got it down pat.  I can’t offer you a representative selection of examples from Perdido Street Station because they appear two or three times on every stinkin’ page. New Crobuzon, the city where his Miéville’s story is set, is described so vividly that I want to wash my hands after reading. I’ll share one example of what I mean:

“Rain began to fall, quite suddenly. It was sluggish, huge drops falling indolently and breaking open, as thick and warm as pus.”

New Crobuzon ain’t Honolulu. Rain doesn’t fall like pus in Honolulu. The first time it rained on me in Honolulu, the sun was shining and the sky was nearly cloudless. I thought, If I open my mouth, I’ll only be the tiniest bit surprised to find Hawaiian rain tastes like pineapple juice.

This sentence alone tells me so much about Miéville’s fictional city—and the jerk has the audacity to have a sentence like this on every single page. Or two sentences. Or ten. It depends on how much he wants to show off.

So instead of getting jealous, and instead of wondering where is the justice in a universe where so many people get to have so much talent while the rest of us have to work so damned hard for every scrap we can come by, go read Perdido Street Station and see if Miéville can help you learn how to distill just the right details.

*Props to Geoffrey Stokes, who wrote that for The Boston Globe.