More About Inspiration: The Descriptive Writing of Charles Dickens

A recent project sent me digging deep into the works of Charles Dickens. There, I rediscovered his obvious talent for descriptive writing. In 1833, it was Dickens’ descriptions that caught the attention of the editor at London’s Morning Chronicle and set Dickens on the path to becoming one of the most beloved authors of all time.

Here are a few examples of his descriptive text:

“I came into the valley, as the evening sun was shining on the remote heights of snow, that closed it in, like eternal clouds. The bases of the mountains forming the gorge in which the little village lay, were richly green; and high above this gentler vegetation, grew forests of dark fir, cleaving the wintry snow-drift, wedge-like, and stemming the avalanche. Above these, were range upon range of craggy steeps, grey rock, bright ice, and smooth verdure-specks of pasture, all gradually blending with the crowning snow. Dotted here and there on the mountain’s-side, each tiny dot a home, were lonely wooden cottages, so dwarfed by the towering heights that they appeared too small for toys. So did even the clustered village in the valley, with its wooden bridge across the stream, where the stream tumbled over broken rocks, and roared away among the trees. In the quiet air, there was a sound of distant singing—shepherd voices; but, as one bright evening cloud floated midway along the mountain’s-side, I could almost have believed it came from there, and was not earthly music. All at once, in this serenity, great Nature spoke to me; and soothed me to lay down my weary head upon the grass …”— David Copperfield

It was a chill, damp, windy night, when … [he]… emerged from his den. He … slunk down the street as quickly as he could … The mud lay thick upon the stones, and a black mist hung over the streets; the rain fell sluggishly down, and everything felt cold and clammy to the touch. … As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal. He kept on his course, through many winding and narrow ways, until he reached Bethnal Green; then, turning suddenly off to the left, he soon became involved in a maze of the mean and dirty streets which abound in that close and densely-populated quarter.[He] was evidently too familiar with the ground he traversed to be at all bewildered, either by the darkness of the night, or the intricacies of the way. He hurried through several alleys and streets, and at length turned into one, lighted only by a single lamp …. — Oliver Twist

The town was glad with morning light; places that had shown ugly and distrustful all night long, now wore a smile; and sparkling sunbeams dancing on chamber windows, and twinkling through blind and curtain before sleepers’ eyes, shed light even into dreams, and chased away the shadows of the night. Birds in hot rooms, covered up close and dark, felt it was morning, and chafed and grew restless in their little cells; bright-eyed mice crept back to their tiny homes and nestled timidly together; the sleek house-cat, forgetful of her prey, sat winking at the rays of sun starting through keyhole and cranny in the door, and longed for her stealthy run and warm sleek bask outside. The nobler beasts confined in dens, stood motionless behind their bars and gazed on fluttering boughs, and sunshine peeping through some little window, with eyes in which old forests gleamed—then trod impatiently the track their prisoned feet had worn—and stopped and gazed again. Men in their dungeons stretched their cramp cold limbs and cursed the stone that no bright sky could warm. The flowers that sleep by night, opened their gentle eyes and turned them to the day. The light, creation’s mind, was everywhere, and all things owned its power. — The Old Curiosity Shop

Contemporary writers sometimes use the classics as a source of inspiration. I enjoy collecting short samples of great writing. Then when I get stuck and need a model to create well-written descriptions, dialogue, or narrative, I pull out my samples for motivation.

Have you studied classic authors? How have they inspired your writing?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “More About Inspiration: The Descriptive Writing of Charles Dickens

  1. I love Dickens on Audio especially. What a treat to drive along and listen to his lush descriptions!

    We have to be so careful not to overdo it now. As a writer, I find his work inspiring but wouldn't dare duplicate its depth in a market concerned with pacing!

  2. I agree with you, Debra. As contemporary authors, we should consider the essence of classic authors' writing skills. I can only imagine my editor's comments if I submitted a descriptive passage like the Dickens' examples that by today's standards are over-written.

    Thanks for stopping by the blog.

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