There are a variety of techniques that writers can use to add more precision and depth to their descriptions. Writers of all genres, including fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, can benefit from reading, observing, and understanding the techniques with which Thornton Wilder creates his full, detailed, and believable descriptions, but reading Wilder’sThe Bridge of San Luis Rey will be particularly beneficial to writers of historical fiction. Referring to events, situations, and actions that took place in a historical context, and having characters interact with their environment, in specific ways, are the techniques by which Wilder creates a believable setting as well as masterful descriptions.
In Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the author is able to effectively recreate the historical period in which the novel is situated, the early sixteenth century. The reader becomes fully immersed in the novel’s reality because the customs, culture, and characters’ interaction with their environment are expounded upon in exact detail.
Consider the following paragraph taken from the book:
“At last the time came to satisfy the supreme rite of Peruvian households looking forward to this event: she made the pilgrimage to the shrine of Santa Maria de Cluxambuqua. If there resided any efficacy in devotion at all, surely it lay in a visit to this great shrine. The ground had been holy through three religions; even before the Incan civilization distraught human beings had hugged the rocks and lashed themselves with whips to wring their will from the skies. Thither the Marquesa was carried in her chair, crossing the bridge of San Luis Rey and ascending up into the hills toward the city of large-girdled women, a tranquil town, slow-moving and slow-smiling; a city of cyrstal air, cold as the springs that fed its many fountains; a city of bells, soft and musical, and turned to carry on with one another the happiest quarrels. If anything turned out for disappointment in the town of Cluxambuqua the grief was somehow assimilated by the overwhelming immanence of the Andes and by the weather of quiet joy that flowed in and about the side-streets. No sooner did the Marquesa see from a distance the white walls of this town perched on the knees of the highest peaks than her fingers ceased turning the beads and the busy prayers of her fright were cut short on her lips,” (Wilder, 32).
A scene of striking detail is painted, and the reader finds that this world is one which is squarely situated in the past. It is a time in which people make pilgrimages to shrines, and place religious ritual at the center of their lives. Specific details show us a world that is simple, “slow-moving and slow smiling…a city of bells.”
Writers can create similarly detailed descriptions by knowing the time period about which they are writing. For those writing historical fiction, it is especially important to research and be well acquainted with the subject matter at hand. Not knowing much about the history of Argentina, I wouldn’t try to write historical fiction situated there; however, if I were to spend adequate time researching the area, and understanding the customs, practices, and history of Argentina, then I could consider writing about it.
In the following examples, notice how Wilder places us in the setting. For example, he uses a small detail, in the passage, by mentioning that it is a city of “large-girdled women.” Girdles are something from the past, and this detail is helpful in situating the reader in that past.
Wilder also moves his characters to interact with their environment, and each other, in specific ways. One of the novel’s central characters, the Marquesa de Montemayor, is carried on a chair across a bridge, an action that isn’t commonplace in the modern world. Historically, however; a greater distinction between classes existed. Society was broken up into an aristocracy and a slave class. In such a time, an aristocrat being carried around, on a chair, would have been more commonplace.
Wilder understands another important aspect of early sixteenth-century Peru, the time period in question, and uses this knowledge to enhance his writing. Although the scientific revolution had already started taking place in the early sixteenth century, most people did not have an understanding of science or the reasons behind everyday events or disasters, and this lack of information led to fear. Therefore, religion took a central importance in daily life because it was used to combat fear of the unknown. Understanding this, Wilder captures the essence of the interaction between religion and fear by showing the Marquesa’s stance towards events in her life. During the course of her pilgrimage, “no sooner did the Marquesa see from a distance the white walls of this town perched on the knees of the highest peaks than her fingers ceased turning the beads and the busy prayers of her fright were cut short on her lips.
However, the ways in which Wilder crafts his descriptions are not limited to use in historical fiction. These techniques are important, in one way or another, in other types of fiction as well as creative nonfiction. Although I don’t write fiction, the idea of using a specific context and well-thought-out details are still important to my writing. Keeping these methods in mind, Thornton Wilder created a unique, believable, and detailed world in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It is a world so real that the reader will certainly be lost in their visit to it, and may choose to return time and again.
Wilder, Thornton. The Bridge of San Luis Rey. New York: Harper Collins. 2003.