Right now, I'm about halfway through Deathly Hallows, so I'll probably be done with the whole thing soon enough. And I'm still picking myself up off the floor every so often because I'm just ridiculously impressed with her plotting and the characterization of Harry himself. It's just amazing ... 4,000 pages, and it's all so tight.
But last night I noticed something that surprised me a great deal. The first time I read them, a particular image stuck in my head. [SPOILER ALERT!]
After Voldemort takes over the Ministry of Magic, he installs a new statue in the atrium. It depicts a witch and wizard sitting on a throne made of naked human bodies and reads "Magic is Might." I can't tell you how that image stuck with me. I mean, it really cleaved to my head, and every so often I thought about its sheer horror. It struck me as a deliberately symbolic image ... the piled naked bodies, the simple declaration. It brought to mind the horrors of Auschwitz and the old photographs I had seen of Nazi concentration camps. (My theories on Nazi imagery in Harry Potter are another post ...)
Anyway, imagine my surprise last night when I came across this passage for the second time and I realized it's literally TWO SENTENCES.
That's it. Two sentences.
Boy. I stopped reading and I thought for a few minutes. This is how you give good setting, I thought. In a few resonant sentences, a setting is established forevermore. Just one symbolic piece that represents everything we need to know about the place and its inhabitants.
So when I was writing this morning, I caught myself thinking: Am I picking the right detail? Because it turns out, you can cut almost everything else and just leave those few telling details, and if you're lucky, your reader will still be thinking about it years later.