Best-Selling Novelist Nancy Thayer’s an Act of Love is Richly Descriptive

by on February 28th, 2011
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Most of us who have tried to write fiction at one time or another know how important it is to include sensory details in our stories-things people can see, feel, smell and taste. I recently read An Act of Love by Nancy Thayer. The book tells an interesting, suspenseful story about a young woman who tries to kill herself, then claims that she was raped by her stepbrother. What makes this book a page-turner is that it is very difficult to figure out who is telling the truth, Emily or her stepbrother Bruce. And their conflict brings a parallel tension into the previously idyllic marriage of their parents.

As I was reading the book, I couldn’t help noticing, as I always do in Thayer’s books, the accumulation of sensory details she uses to make her scenes more real, her settings more appealing. If you are trying to write more of this kind of particular detail into your stories, look no further than Nancy Thayer. You can “go to school” on her writing, as they say, and get some ideas of how to include such details in your own writing.

Here’s Owen’s description of the house he lives in with Linda, his wife: “Old, rambling, and eccentric, with Victorian touches lacing a good solid colonial foundation, six fireplaces, wide board floors, and a wraparound porch. . . .” (p. 5)

And Linda’s take on the place: “She wanted to have the rattling, cracked windowpanes fixed; to have the two blocked fireplaces opened up; to have the faded wallpaper dimming the high expansive walls in the front and back halls steamed off and those walls freshly painted.” (p. 6)

This is how Linda thinks of her daughter, Emily: “Emily loved people. She was an extrovert and an optimist. She didn’t want solitude, she wanted the giggles of her girlfriends and the rumble of boys’ laughter, the jolt and thud of music from a boom box, the smell of sweat and shampoo and chewing gum and illicit cigarettes in the hallway. She wanted the sight of boys’ bodies, their crooked grins, their ambling figures coming toward her down the hallway.” (p. 10)

These are colorful and concrete examples that make the abstract words extrovert and optimist come alive for the reader.

Owen is skeptical about Emily’s psychologist when they first meet Dr. Travis: “. . . Owen observed that the psychologist weighed close to two hundred pounds. Her hair, an unusual color, sort of orange, flew off her head like curly ribbon. . . . How smart is this woman? Owen wondered. Certainly her manner of dress-gypsyish colors, flowing skirts, ropes of beads-seemed peculiar.” (p. 23)

Here is Emily’s bedroom, as seen by her mother: “Emily’s room could scarcely keep up with her personality changes. Her canopy bed still dripped with pink chintz, but her dolls and stuffed animals had been heartlessly shoved beneath the bed, along with a lone sock and a paperback of Shirley MacLaine’s Don’t Fall Off the Mountain. Barrettes, earrings, and tiny rubber bands from Cordelia’s braces left during her summer visit glittered on her bureau. An opened box of cassettes was stacked on the satiny linen chest Linda’s mother gave her. An incense holder full of ash slanted atop a pile of Sassy, Dance, and Cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitan! A little advanced for her. . . . Or maybe not.” (pp. 102-103)

Linda and her husband go for an evening walk: “Linda had always loved the vast mysterious silence of the night air, broken only by a limb cracking, a bird singing out, the wind feathering the leaves of the ivy that twisted and fluttered along one side of the house. The porch lights illuminated the pumpkins she had put on the steps of the front porch. They were beginning to cave in on themselves. It was time to add them to the compost heap. . . . The night air was cold, fresh, and full of the scents of crushed leaves, clawed loam, pine, and the sweet rot of apples hidden in the high grass of the old orchard, waiting in winy knots for the animals.” (p. 207)

Can you see it, feel it, smell it?

Thayer is at her very best, I think, when creating a description of cozy domesticity: a delicious family meal; a mother caring for her child; baking, cleaning, organizing school things. But, as the examples above show, she brings her colors to every scene she writes. Nancy Thayer is a good model for someone who wants to make their dry and abstract writing more appealing, more alive, and more enjoyable to read.

Source: Nancy Thayer, An Act of Love, St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1997.

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