Visualizing the Setting

A couple of writers and I were talking on a list serve about describing setting — in this case, having trouble getting it into the story. Right up my alley. One of the writers said she didn’t get a visual image of the setting, so she had a hard time even remembering to get it on the page.

Then there’s me. I’m visual spatial, which means I think in pictures. You’d think that would translate easily into describing setting …

Not so much.

My default, in fact, is to simply leave it all out. It’s in my head, and it doesn’t get on the page unless I make the effort to do it — sometimes a lot of effort.

It’s hard taking a picture and translating it into words.

Add to that I don’t do well with the details, or the telling details as it’s been described for writers. I see more of the big picture, and the details tend to fold themselves up into that. So the woods are the woods. I can see them, and I get the picture, but I lose the specifics. So putting down that the character walked through the woods or that everything was brown makes perfect sense to me because I’m getting the picture, but then everyone says I didn’t describe anything.

But I can see the picture — why wouldn’t it be simple describing the setting?

I have to stop and think “Details.” Then it’s “What details are important to this character?”

I don’t think in details, so I’m having to do two things, both of which are very hard:

  1. Translate the details, which is sort of like translating French when I don’t speak the language.
  2. Sort through the big picture and try to figure out what details are important.

And none of this is like a description exercise where the goal is to treat the setting as if we were looking at a picture. Just about as dull as no description. It’s not about simply writing down what I see, but trying to figure out what the character would notice.

But also, it’s not just describing the setting once and getting it out of the way. If the character stays in that setting, there is constantly new setting information being introduced (about every 500 words) because he is still interacting with that setting. So I’m constantly having to revisit and translate that picture into words, at least two to three times in every scene, and it has to shift because it obviously can’t be about the same thing.

Take this picture of the tulips blooming:

Yellow and red tulips blooming

My default: Tulips were blooming at the side of the building.

Translation: Yellow and red tulips had started to bloom next to the building, soaking up a patch of warm sunshine. I wanted to lay down there with them and get some of that sunshine, against the warm, damp earth, and let the cool breeze carry everything else away.  I also knew I wasn’t going to get that.

This is not something I can let go for later and do a placeholder that says DESCRIBE TULIPS.  When I pulled the character into the description, it becomes a major piece of the scene that needs be in there.  So it’s constant state of trying to translate the pictures for each scene.

Details a Matter of Character

I wrote this post on having trouble with details over a year ago.  It was really hard for me for quite a long time getting even basic details into my stories.  In fact, I had to keep hitting at it with a battering ram.  Sometimes I have to hear something that seems obvious to everyone else before it starts to make sense (though, in this case, I think that a lot of people don’t get that obvious piece).

I’ve found that a lot of the writing advice approaches description from the outside looking in, and often portrays it as frippery, something that is always excessive and should be deleted.  I’ve heard this from the writers on message boards:

“I hate description.”

“All description is boring.”

“I’d rather leave it to the reader’s imagination.”

And from a recent blog:

“Editors hate description.”

That one was from a published writer with three or four books out.

The message seems to be that description isn’t important to the story.

What’s missing from pretty much all of the advice is that the description is done through the character’s eyes and is a function of the characterization itself.  It shows who the character is and where they are at that point in the story.  How could that get left out of everything about description?

Maybe it’s because description is often treated as an exercise, rather than a functioning part of the story.  I’m not sure how much of that steeped into my brain over the years and influenced the dysfunction.  But understanding this at least helped give me a better foundation for getting the specific details into the story.

To find the details, I do some research — not extensive.  If I know there’s going to be outdoor scenes, I try to get names of some of the local plants and trees that most people would know.  That’s actually harder than it sounds, because most sites and books focus on the scientific side and list everything.  Tour books can sometimes be helpful, and sometimes be terribly unhelpful, so it’s like a gold mine when I find something.  A visit to local Fort C.F. Smith mentioned White Pines and Magnolia trees, so I grabbed that for a future story set in Virginia.  If I can get three names, I’m happy, though I may search for additional ones as I write.

I also look at photographs.  I was writing a scene on a Hawaiian trailhead with a waterfall at the end of it, so naturally, I headed for waterfalls.  If I have a specific picture, I can build the details better; if it’s just a picture in my head, it’s very easy for me to go vague and fuzzy.  When I was originally doing the scene, I planted this waterfall in front of the characters and had a stream flowing out, and that was about it.  There was also a kind of a clearing because I needed a place to have a fight scene.

Once I got a picture I liked — I was focusing on terrain — then I started building the details in based on the main character’s situation.  This is an incredibly beautiful place, and he’s thinking about the danger that’s coming.  How does that play into how he describes it?

Indoor locations are a lot harder for me.  Rooms tend to go fuzzy for me.  I’m working on a scene in a living room, and I keep wanting to leave it at “sofa, some chairs, and there’s a door to another room on the left.”  It’s really forcing me to stop and think about what this character has in this room and why.  What kind of art does he like?  Does he like heavy furniture or modern furniture?  If you watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, we’d go into most of the character’s quarters, and they’d be pretty spartan.  White room, neutral colors, clean lines.  Then we’d go to Worf’s quarters, and it looked like a dungeons.  Dark, weapons on the wall, flickering candles.

I also don’t necessarily try to get all of it at once.  I move back and forth in scenes, adding to them as I do more research, or just get further into the story and realize something else is needed. (Breaking another rule here: I continue to make changes all over my story as I create.)

So the details are a matter of a bit of research, but mainly a matter of the character.

Week 2: Month of Setting

This is week 2 of my writing one setting a day for a month.  It’s nothing fancy, and in fact, the small bits are the ones I have the hardest time even remembering to get into the story.  This was a “furry” week, since I ran into a dog, a cat, a squirrel, and a mouse.  We had blistering cold weather (30s) and then warmed into the 60s (back to 30s today), so the critters came out for a visit.

1.  It was an apartment building, but the dirty yellow brick facade and iron fence with spikes made it look more like a prison.

2.  A yellow Labrador stood on his hind legs, front feet hooked over the top of the chain link fence.  He was just enjoying himself, tail wagging comfortably as he watched the cable man.

3.  Leaves crackled, and she caught a flash of black.  One of the black squirrels drawn out by the warm day, no doubt.

4.  The crackle alerted me that something lurked in the tall, dry, yellow grass.  I squinted, expecting a squirrel.  It was unbearably warm, and they were about.  But the shape, dark brown, had stilled, watching me.  A cat?

5.  Red Christmas lights followed the line of the chain link fence to the end of the sidewalk.

6. The fog made fuzzy halos around the white glow of the street lights.

7. As I rounded the corner of the dishware aisle, a blur of a black shape with a tail made a dash across to the kitchen utensils display.  I heard a curious thunk, and the shape was simply gone

Meanwhile, here’s a picture of the cat in #4.  I was surprised to get this good a picture.  This was taken at the Fredericksburg National Battlefield while I was on the Sunken Road.   The ranger in the video is actually standing pretty close to where I spotted the cat.

Cat mostly hidden by tall yellow grass

Week 1: A Month of Setting

This is my first week of just working on doing the details of descriptions by looking around the Washington, DC area.  I wanted to do real places because it’s very hard for me to get even the most ordinary of details into the story.  I’m finding as I do these, my head keeps going, “Why would anyone care about this?” and yet, it’s what I I keep getting comments on.


1. It was hard not to pull back the blinds and look outside.  Just verify that nothing was really out there.  The wind moaned, and the skeletal fingers of the tree branch scratched at the window.  It sound like some thing was trying to get in.

2. She hated this time of the year, the first day when the cold really settled in.  It didn’t look cold outside. The sky was a bright blue, clouds spilling across it like white foam.  But then the evil winds blew, trying to sever the warmth from her body.

3. The house wasn’t hard to find.  It was a Cape Cod, white gone down to dingy and suffering from three additions too many.

4. She padded down one flight of stairs to the entrance.  Leaves had wandered in through the doorway to escape the rain, yellow going brown and dry. 

5. It looked like a maniac had slaughtered the Christmas decorations.  They were those big inflatable ones that people get to show how rich they were.  There must have been a grand worth of them on the lawn, all in deflated puddles on the dried grass.


6. The whomp-whomp drew her eyes briefly to the sky.  A olive-brown and white helicopter followed the line of the freeway, then turned off toward Andrews Air Force Base.

This is the helicopter.  We see it a lot around Washington, DC.

7. I passed by the hotel sign three times before I spotted it.  Seemed almost as if the owner had hidden the hotel because he was embarrassed he’d had to build it in an industrial park.

Wouldn’t it be awesome to visit a ship graveyard?!

I was working on developing an idea for a story based on a title which included the word river.  So I needed a river and since the Potomac River runs through the area, I started searching on it to see what looked interesting.

I was greatly surprised to find a ship graveyard at Mallows Bay in Maryland!  It’s about 200 ships from World War I.  The government hired a company to build ships for the war effort, only the ships were so shoddy that they were leaving the dock leaking.  Hmm.  A hundred years and the government is still letting shoddy stuff go out.

Since the war was winding down, the ships were sold off.  That company raided the boilers and other metalwork and then sank the ships in Mallows Bay.  Now nature has taken over the wrecks:

The ships are still there, now barely more than the outlines of their hulls. Nature has taken over. Trees as high as 50 feet sprout from some ships, and animals have made themselves at home.

“There are beaver, river otter, an incredible population of bass,” Don said. “I once saw six bald eagles at one time.”

I thought about rushing over that weekend since it’s only 50 miles away, and well, shipwrecks!  But it’s not like I can walk along the shore and go “Ooh!  Ghosts!”  They can only be accessed by kayak.  Fortunately, someone was kind enough to shoot a video so I could ride over the shoulder and see what they saw.  Enjoy!

My head’s full of setting and I can’t get up

I just took a Strengths workshop from Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  I had to write exercises and submit them, and the two writers analyzed them for strengths and weakness.  That’s as much as I can say about the workshop, since it’s a unique experience for each writer and nothing can prepare you (though being in the army helped me!).  It was apparently very difficult for them to do and they may be discontinuing them.

One of my weaknesses is simply getting setting into the story.  If I let my muse take full lead on a story, it’ll leave out the setting — all of it.

Some of it is because I don’t really see details in the same way.  I’m visual spatial, a learning style where details are a weakness.  I can think one detail is a lot, and so I can put in way too little and have no idea I’ve done it.  When I get them into the story in enough quantity, they’re pretty good.  It’s just that getting in part.

The other half is that it’s a long-ingrained habit that I have to break.  I’ve been leaving it out every since I started writing, which was a long time ago.  It gets worse for me if the setting doesn’t feel that important to the story.  Even if I have research setting details, it won’t migrate into the story.

The result I’ve been wrestling with starting some short stories and working at getting the setting in.  You’d think it would be easy, and yet, it’s like trying to drive with the brakes on.  I started out grabbing stacks of books from the library on places so I could do research, but I ended up feeling like I was full of all these setting details and the story was getting lost in the setting.

So I’m going to try something a little different and do a setting a day for the next 30 days, and hopefully it will help. No pressure of story, and I’m just going to focus on drawing on details that are happening that day locally.  I’ll post them up here once a week, and you’ll get a word tour of Washington, DC during Christmas.  The lights are already going up!

The Traffic Culture of #WashingtonDC

One of the thing that never makes it in books that are set in Washington, DC, is the traffic.  Anyone who lives here knows it’s not only a way of life — there’s a culture associated with it.  Residents know that it’s best to avoid downtown during Cherry Blossoms, White House Easter Egg Hunts, and floods.  Traffic goes from bad to very, very, very bad.  Summer is also bad because the tourists get stupid and walk out in the middle of the street without looking.  Then there’s the messenger bikes — these guys do not stop for stoplights or cars.  They just weave in and out of the moving traffic.

Part of the problem is that we have a transitory population.  There’s a large military community, so they’re only here 1-2 years; ambassadors and foreign diplomats; politicians.  Then there’s the guy who immigrated from another country where it’s okay there to cut across three lanes of traffic to make a right turn.  There are also drivers who will speed up to avoid letting another driver in and ones who will cut in line because they have an inflated sense of self-importance.  All of this creates chaos because no one is following the same rules.

So I have to shake my head when an author has a high speed chase down 17th Street.  Or anywhere else in DC.  L.A., yeah, I could believe that.  The streets are long and wide, but DC — the streets just aren’t exactly chase friendly. Maybe Pennsylvania Avenue and Independence, but it’d be pretty hard to do without hitting a tourist.

What are some unique aspects about the place where you live?

Also check out my post on Planning Washington, DC.

Temples and Worship in #Hawaii

One of the most fascinating things I discovered in researching Hawaii as a basis for my fictional country in Miasma is that there was a unique culture that developed there.  The Hawaiians loved being out of doors–no surprise, considering how beautiful the islands are.   The Hawaiians believed that gods were in everything around them, and their worship was conducted in open air temples.  There were two types:

Simple: This temple consisted of an altar, consecrated images, and a raised platform.  The “consecrated images” are the tubular images Hawaii is famous for.  There’s some great photos of them on Travelographer.

Complex: This type of temple includes all of the above, plus a refuse area, burial grounds, and oracle towers.   The tower might be 20 feet high and covered with kapa, which is a type of cloth made in Hawaii.  Since these were more elaborate, they were often built at the direction of a powerful chief who could recruit the people to do it.

After reading up on the culture, I could easily imagine the Hawaiians setting up a temple near a waterfall like my picture to worship the god that made it.  Or certainly, in my case, the people of my fictional country!

What imaginary travels have you found in your research?

Also check out my other posts on this setting for Miasma:

Magic Not Volcanoes

One of My Settings


4 Tips to Building Setting: Guest Blog for Sue Santore

Today, I’m dropping in for a guest post on Sue Santore’s blog.  A sneak peak:

In a movie or a TV show, the camera pans across the scene in an establishing shot and the viewer gets an instant impression of the setting.  The opening sequences in Hawaii Five-0‘ show beautiful beaches, surfers taking on the waves, and girls in bikinis.  But in a novel, it’s up to the writer to use words to evoke the images of the setting.  Read about the four tips on Sue Santore’s blog.

I hope you’ll also have a look at my article on writing called “Strawberry, Chocolate, and Vanilla,” published in Topstone Publishing’s Rejection Lessons, part of the Inside Writer’s Guide series.

Describing Clothes in a Novel

I attended a Civil War Fashion Show this morning, as part of research for my next book, Masks.  I know I’m going to need to come up with a second plot for the story, and since the modern day part of the story ties into the Civil War, I’m playing with the possibility of the second plot being during the Civil War.

This got me thinking about clothes in the story.  A lot of writers don’t describe characters or clothes.  Some of the reasons I agree with.  I read a few of the Chick Lit books, and they dropped designer names left and right to describe the character’s clothing and shoes.  I was bored because it felt like it was just showing off designer label knowledge.  Telling me a pair of shows is a Givenchy didn’t add anything to the story.

Yet, I always bring clothes into the story in some way.  But not like that.  And it’s for a very simple reasons:  Clothes are setting.  With my contemporary fantasy thriller Miasma, it’s set in a place like Hawaii.  So it would be typical of the characters to wear shorts, t-shirts, and sandals.  If a character wears something different, there’s often a story-related reason.  I have a running joke about shoes, because the main character and his sidekick can’t wear the standard footwear.  Kind of makes it hard to fight monsters or run from them in beach shoes. 🙂

Likewise, if a character ended up in a situation where what they were wearing was completely inappropriate the environment — no jacket, and it snows — clothes suddenly become a very important part of the plot.  With the Civil War, things like patterns might denote what social standing a character has.  Someone who is wealthy might have a dress with a large print or lots of trim.  Or an enlisted man’s pants might be stained and worn.  So describing clothes can have a big impact on not just the setting, but the story and characters as well.

By the woman the model in the photo made the dress she is wearing.  She said that a lot of the materials dresses were made of from the Civil War can no longer be found today.  No one’s making them, and where they are available, they are terribly expensive.