Don’t Forget to Look Up!

Pink Elephant
I’m feeling all writerly today, possibly due to a few day stretch where I was unable to get any writing or editing done. (As a related aside, drivers, pay attention when you’re on the road. A car is just a slow-moving half-ton bullet. Corollary: my daughter is doing fine after getting flipped up onto the hood of a moving vehicle and thrown, limply into an intersection. They build ’em tough in Colorado!)

So in the interest of talking writing, let’s dredge out the old chestnut of scene descriptions. Specifically, let’s talk about something that’s real easy to overlook because we’re so used to seeing it, but that can be used to really sell the realism of a scene. Take a look at that picture, the glowing pink neon of the Elephant Car Wash. That sign is a landmark in Seattle. Most cities have something like that–several, in fact–roadside beacons designed to get butts in the door or sell product. Sure, anyone can toss in the Space Needle to show their story takes place in Seattle. But that doesn’t necessarily make it feel more real. Throw in the slowly-spinning Pink Elephant sign and you achieve two things–you’ve sold locals with your insider savvy, and for those who don’t know the sign, you’ve added a concrete detail that makes the place feel more real.

This works for Sci-fi and fantasy (though to a lesser degree, or at least different degree in primarily illiterate cultures). My story “Odd Jobs” in the Space Tramps anthology took place entirely upon a space station. Even so, there were commercial districts, and at one point, our protagonist books a hotel room. The name had changed since the last time he had been there, the old name painted over in color that was a close–but not exact–match to the surrounding walls, with the new hotel name in neon above it. Was any of this important to the story? Not really. But it was important in setting the sense of place.

Signs say a lot–not just their design, but their condition. Old brick buildings used to have signs painted on the sides, and many of these are now long out of date. A mention gives a place a sense of history–the faded name of a hotel that’s no longer there, the space now turned over to offices or apartments, a 24-hr coffee shop that’s been gone for decades and is now a small bar or boutique shop.

Different communities have exhaustive rules for what kind of signage is allowed, so give that a thought because it says a lot about the place. Are the signs lit from behind or carved or painted on? Are the list signs brightly colored or more muted? Huge and gaudy or small and tasteful. To you have the Bavarian-themed signs of Leavenworth, or Seattle neon?

Placement is important, too. Seattle has this huge Pepsi sign that’s somewhat of a landmark on Aurora. Thing is, it was built back when Aurora was known primarily as U.S. Route 99, the chief means of travel up the coast until the 60’s. Filled with neon tubing, it was a sight to behold. Though it’s still there, I don’t recall the last time the sign was lit up. It’s a poignant reminder of how people move on and patterns shift when big interstates connected the country.

For homework, I want you to look up next time you’re out and about. Pick out three distinctive signs/landmarks in your town. And for extra credit, what is one thing that the sign implies other than the name of the business or product?

Class dismissed.

9 thoughts on “Don’t Forget to Look Up!

    1. I know exactly what sign you’re talking about. That’s a beauty! One of these days I’m going to have to actually go INTO that place and check them out. I hear it’s tasty.

  1. Reminds me of our conversation last night about details selling the lie and how he was able to get his caskets on board for so long before anyone suspected that they weren’t just simply cheaper than crates.

    1. There are some who argue that writing is much the same as lying. I’ll agree in that some of the same rules apply–telling a whopper and selling it with convincing, small details makes all the difference.

  2. Can’t help but think of my time living in Las Vegas and how much that town changes at such a fast pace. And wonder if that elephant is still peeking over the big cinderblock wall along I-15…hmmm

    1. If you’ve never read Last Call by Tim Powers, you should check it out. On top of being a fantastic urban fantasy novel (and an award winner and one of my all-time favorite novels), it’s largely set in Vegas, and shows a bit of how fast that town changes.

  3. That’s exactly the kind of setting I prefer as a reader: the tiny, not-usually-mentioned detail that paints the entire scene with flavor. Come to think of it, you’re especially good at it for places which have gone to seed – like the junkyard in Deacon Carter’s last stand, or the carnival, or the bar that Mr Gray plays.

    Nice post, mister.

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