There are ways to describe a setting, and the mood and atmosphere of that setting. Mortal writers, like myself, might describe a poor neighborhood in a small town with words like “derelict”, “broken windows”, “dimly lit” and so forth, probably describing only the way things looked.
But we have to go deeper than that, and here is an example from one of America’s better contemporary writers:
Daniel Woodrell’s description of the Frogtown district of the town of St. Bruno in his novel The Ones You Do (one of three books in The Bayou Trilogy) is so good it almost makes me want to give up writing. Almost. It describes the town, the characters in it and their state of mind.
It was by now a neighborhood of row-houses of brick or wood, shotgun apartments, small, weary stores, robust vice franchises, and abundant dirt alleys that made for excellent escapes from the scene of the crime. Small backyards were strung with clotheslines from which flapped the work clothes of the occasionally employed, a work force that generally punched the clock on various nearby stools where they drank at the bar, toked in the alley, and gambled upstairs with their cut of the take or this month’s disability check, and when that was lost, the last smoke ashes, and the bottles only glass, they posted themselves to the street with their empty pockets held open wide, faces turned to the sky, on a red-eyed alert for that much bally-hooed trickledown of wealth.
I will now take a moment to point out a few things. First off, the passage above is two sentences. Daniel Woodrell crams a whole chapter’s worth of description into just two sentences. Also note the amount of references to crimes in the passage; “shotgun”, “vice”, “escapes from the scene of the crime”, “gambled” “their cut of the take” and references to drinking and smoking; “drank at the bar”, “toked in the alley”, “the last smoke ashes”, “the bottles only glass”.
Read it again now, and tell me that is not the work of a genius.