In editor Cindy Rogers’s excellent 2004 book “Word Magic for Writers,” one chapter focuses on authors making “Dazzling word choices.” Her aim is to teach writers how to create vivid images by using vibrant words. Rogers quoted Mark Twain on the choice between the “almost right word and the right word—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.” Rogers echoes Twain when she writes, “Dull pronouns, overused verbs, and nonspecific nouns say nothing.” The old rule about show versus tells is the backbone for her advice. How much more interesting it is to read a sentence or character description with fire and color in it—I thought of her words while reading Hilary Mantel’s captivating collection of short stories: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. I’ve plucked a few of her delicious descriptions. Here’s Mantel describing the prime minister of her book’s title without using her name.
“I thought, there’s not a tear in her. Not for the mother in the rain at the bus stop, or the sailor burning in the sea. She sleeps four hours a night. She lives on the fumes of whiskey and the iron in the blood of her prey.”
Her description of a London neighborhood of vintage homes. “Glancing up, you notice a fragile Georgian fanlight, or a warm scoop of terra-cotta tiling, or a glint of colored glass. In spring, cherry trees toss extravagant flounces of blossom. When the wind strips the petals, they flurry in pink drifts and carpet the pavements, as if giants have held a wedding in the street. In summer, music floats from open windows: Vivaldi, Mozart, Bach.”
Mantel conjures up words like that are “lightning, not lightning bugs.” Sometimes her prose is spare like a piece of Shaker furniture, at other times a gilded Rococo side table. Whatever she puts her hand to is perfectly fitted to the passage. A delight to read—a feast for eye and mind.