In travel writing, I’ve often found that it’s better to capture the soul a neighborhood of a city than try to describe an entire metropolis. A city, after all, is just a collection of neighborhoods, and the best ones are distinctive.
An example: A few scenes of my novel-in-progress take place on Lisbon. Rather than try to convey the vibe of an entire city, I instead enrich the sense of atmosphere by putting the action in a specific location. In this case, I chose to set the action of these scenes in the Alfama quarter, a salty tangle of old-world cobbles that somehow survived till now.
The city itself was devastated by an earthquake two hundred years ago, which explains some of the nice boulevards and squares; they were built on the rubble. Fortunately the Alfama quarter wasn’t too damaged. It’s a ramshackle place pretty much as the old sailors left it. No carved monuments, just creaky, smelly authenticity. That’s why I love it. Every time I think of it I smile, as if thinking of an old friend.
I try to take readers on an amble down the hill from more upscale Belem district, where we reach the briny smell of fresh seafood that wafts up from the cobbled quarter below, as does a dingy racket from the rowdy bars.
I take them into a bar off a side street. The place is crowded and hot, its dark walls lined with old drawings of ships. We sit back and enjoy Portugal’s folk music, fado. People think it’s mostly sad songs about sailors, and it is, but really they’re ballads that can be about anything. The singer launches into a mournful ballad about generations of women awaiting their seafaring men at the Alfama harbor. The patrons sing along well into the early morning, before the sun rises over the well-worn cobbles of the old fishermen’s quarter.
Before long, a picture starts to form. It takes off from there, and soon the scene—and the reader—are on their way.