Is it hot or cold, muddy or clear, salty or fresh?
Is it slick (with oil, sadly) or still pure, slimy or silty?
And when you begin reading a story, are you aware of the feel–the texture– of the story?
What do I mean by texture?
It’s like the physical sensation that you’d get from rubbing your hand over a woven blanket. You’d be able to feel the difference between a blanket made of wool or cotton, one coarser than the other, with yarn thicker than thread.
The same would be true of a rug, one made from synthetic fibers, for instance, and one made from natural fibers, a braided rug or a woven rug or a rug created with needle and thread finely sewn rather than casually woven.
The way an author lays words on a page creates the texture that a reader feels when reading that page.
Texture is a combination of the author’s voice, the narrator's point-of-view, the setting (both in time and place), the inner spirit driving the narrative voice, and the authority of that voice to tell the story.
Texture is what creates trust (or distrust) between the narrator and the reader. It’s what allows a reader to settle comfortably (and irresistibly) into a story or sit on edge, unsure if the narrator is reliable.
I raise the question of texture because after weeks of immersing myself in westerns (Louis L’Amour) and detective mysteries (Robert B. Parker), I began reading Karen Cushman’s new book, Alchemy and Meggy Swan, last night, and I could feel a texture in her story that felt different than the textures that I had come to expect to feel in westerns and detective mysteries.
Here’s an example of the texture that Cushman creates in the opening pages of Alchemy and Meggy Swan:
“Ye toads and vipers,” the girl said, as her granny often had, “ye toads and vipers,” and she snuffled a great snuffle that echoed in the empty room. She was alone in the strange, dark, cold, skinny house. The carter who had trundled her to London between baskets of cabbages and sacks of flour had gone home to his porridge and his beer.And here’s another example, a few pages later:
Meggy and the carter had arrived in London earlier that day while the summer evening was yet light. Even so, the streets were gloomy, with tall houses looming on either side, rank with the smell of fish and the sewage in the gutter, slippery with horse droppings, clamorous with church bells and the clatter of cart wheels rumbling on cobbles. London was a gallimaufry of people and carts, horses and coaches, dogs and pigs, and such noise that made Meggy’s head, accustomed to the gentle stillness of a country village, ache.What texture!
How does Cushman create such a rich texture–a tapestry of textures–on the page?
Look at the word selection in the first paragraph: toads and vipers, snuffled, strange, dark, cold, skinny, trundled, London, cabbages, porridge and beer.
And, again, look at the words Cushman has used in the second paragraph: gloomy, looming, rank, smell of fish, sewage, gutter, slippery, horse droppings, clamorous, church bells, clatter, cart wheels, rumbling, cobbles, London, gallimaufry (!)... and on and on.
These paragraphs show texture at its finest, and it’s the reason why a reader trusts Cushman and her narrator implicitly. She has done her research. She knows the world of which she writes. And this knowledge is transmitted to the reader in such a way as to establish the trust that lets a reader simply give himself up to the storyteller.
Texture is what lets a storyteller capture a reader’s heart and mind. You can feel the texture of any story the moment you open a book and begin to read. Try it the next time you begin reading.
Or take a book off your shelf right now and open it and see if you can feel the texture... and try to describe it to yourself. Then open another book by another author and see if you can compare the textures.
How does texture differ from story to story? From storyteller to storyteller?
What’s the texture that you’re trying to create in your own story? How would you describe it? Can you feel it? And have you conveyed that feeling effectively to your reader? Or do you need to keep weaving, stitching together words to create your own tapestry of a story?