Monday, November 08, 2010

How Light is it?

What I'm reading: Husband for Hire, by Susan Wiggs

The clocks fell back Saturday night. Since we've moved a bit farther north and a lot higher up, I've noticed much greater variations in sunrise and sunset hours. Although it's nothing like our trip to Alaska, where it didn't seem to get dark at all in Fairbanks, there are more differences here. In Orlando, it was barely noticeable. But here, when we moved into our house in mid-Spring, we noticed the sunlight waking us up hours earlier than it ever did in Florida. One of my first purchase requirements was window treatments that would block out the pre-five a.m. wake up call. And since I don't drive at night, daylight until after 9 pm made life easier. Of course, the flip side is that winter days will be much shorter. But we're not so far north that we'll be living in darkness for the better part of the day.

Light is important when we're writing—and I'm not talking about having enough light to work by. I'm talking about how much we can describe in our scenes. One of my critique partners questioned a scene I'd written:

She stepped inside and closed the door behind them. Placing her forefinger over her lips, she shook her head before he could speak. She unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. Then walked her fingers to the second, sliding the disc through the slit in the fabric. Then to the third, then the next, until she'd laid the plaid flannel open, revealing the tight-fitting black tee she'd seen at the pond this morning when he'd given her the shirt off his back.

His comment: It's night. Do you need to show one of them turning on a light?

I don't know ... more about that later.

In a book I read some years back, the author had made a point of a total power failure on a moonless night. There was no source of light, and the pitch-blackness of the scene was a way for the hero and heroine to have to get "closer" since they couldn't see. As I recall, there was broken glass on the floor, and the heroine was barefoot. Because they couldn't see, the hero had to carry her to avoid stepping on more glass.

It didn't take long for them to end up in bed, but somehow, he was able to see the color of her eyes as they made love. I don't know whether the author had forgotten she'd set up the scene to have no light, or if she didn't do her own verifying of what you can and can't see in total darkness. Yes, our eyes will adapt to dim light, but there has to be some source of light. If you've ever taken a cave tour, you'll know there's no adapting to the darkness.

We want to describe our scenes, we want our readers to 'see' everything, but we have to remember to keep it real. This might mean doing some personal testing—when you wake up before it's fully light, or when you turn off the light to go to sleep, check to see how much you can actually 'see'. Wait for your eyes to adapt, and check again. The ability to see color drops off quickly. So even if you see your hands, or the chair across the room, or the picture on the wall, how much light do you need before you can leave the realm of black and white?

In the paragraph I used as an example, I didn't think I needed to stop to turn on a light. In most settings, there's always some light. We noticed when we moved up here, where there are no street lights, that there's very little night light pollution, which gives us amazing stars, but in this time of electronics, almost everything that plugs in has some sort of light on.

The only color mentioned in my example paragraph was the black t-shirt, which would look black at night even if it was red, or blue, or green. It's also likely the hero's shirt wasn't buttoned totally to his neck, so she might also have seen it peeking out. I did mention his plaid shirt, but the heroine had seen that before they went upstairs. However, too much dwelling on that kind of explanation would have totally slowed the pace. I'm thinking I don't need more light in that scene. What about you?

Tomorrow, my guest, author J.E. Seymour is sharing her take on rejection. Please come back.


Stacey Joy Netzel said...

Terry, a simple sentence a bit futher down, or even beforehand if possible, about the more intimate feeling in the dark would work. Tacked on to the end of a sentence, maybe? Or how the darkness made her braver. Whatever fits for your character/s. That's if you even want the reader to remember it's dark.

I've found myself having to remember things like this in scenes, too. Not really pertaining to the light discussion, but in a book I'm reading the heroine gets up from a bench and out from under the hero's arm, and then a page later, he removes his arm from her shoulders w/o having stood up to put it around her again.

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Stacy - And when reading last night's output, I realized hero put his hands on the heroine's shoulders--but he was carrying a picnic cooler at the time. On my morning fix list!

Wynter said...

I don't think you need more light. Black is easy, especially if she knew the shirt was black and not navy or brown. Lucky you that your days are longer there. I hate the short days, hate the time change.

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Wynter - the days are only longer in the spring and summer, when it's still light at 9:30 at night. But now, with winter approaching, our days will be shorter than their Florida counterparts.

Elena said...

What concerns me is that he saw her finger to her lips telling him to stay silent. How far apart are they? Actually, from what I read I would not have been stopped as a reader. Because there is usually a source of light from somewhere, as you said, I would have assumed it. After all it was light enough for them to find each other.

Terry Odell said...

Elena - since the scene was in her POV, it doesn't matter if he saw the finger or not--but I didn't point that out when I snipped the paragraph. :-)

There are a lot of things we leave out as writers, either hoping they're going to be clear to the reader, or because we forgot!

Carol Kilgore said...

I say if she doesn't want him to talk, just wants to get to work on unbuttoning his shirt, she's not even thinking about a light. But if she were, she wouldn't take the time to flip the switch. Nor would he.

As to ability to see in partial darkness, this differs a little between people, I think. So if you ever need it, do it yourself, then ask one or two others to do the same thing. I think teens and twenties, and maybe some thirties, can see more than people forties or older.

Terry Odell said...

Carol - definitely, night vision varies from person to person. I'd never have thought of needing to describe the lighting conditions in this paragraph had my crit partner not asked.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Interesting post, Terry! I don't think I've thought that much about light--your post gives me something to think about. Thanks!

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth, if I made you think about something, I'm pleased! Glad it might come in handy

Patricia Stoltey said...

Or you could mention that "in the glow from the night light, she..."

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Pat (although I doubt my macho covert ops pilot sleeps with a night light. I usually go for moonlight or street lights between curtain gaps when I want to make light levels clear.)

Sheila Deeth said...

I think the lighting's perfect.