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.

Keeping Track of What’s in the Novel

This topic’s prompted by a comment over at Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, where he is currently running a series on Writing into the Dark (not outlining).  In the comments, we got to discussing character questionnaires and interviewing characters.

I don’t use either technique. I’ve looked at questionnaires and not been impressed, and character interviewing just seems to odd to me.

Or actually, it all seems like outlining to me. In this case, outlining the character.

Just like the story, I wouldn’t know anything about the character until I wrote the story. A character worksheet would force me to make decisions that I don’t know about yet.

Then there was the question, which was “But you keep track after you write, right?’ Like write down who the POV character is for a scene, what they were wearing, what happened in the scene.  A story bible of sorts to refer to.

Nope. Not at all. I don’t keep track of anything as I’m writing.

I have a very good memory, which is a function of being visual spatial. I might write a scene, and as I write it, I’m mentally connecting it to another scene already in the story. It’s like I can see the direct connections, and all the connecting parts get into the new scene. I don’t have to refer back to summary of the scene to know what’s in it. I can generally even hop back and land within a couple of scenes of it because I can see where it is in my head.

I can have trouble remembering how to spell things.  Usually I’ll hop back and look, but sometimes I just do a botched spelling and move on, for fixing later.

As for the character pieces, It’s the same thing. I remember reading about a writer who had to physically write down that her character had tea at exactly 8:00 in the morning every day or she’d get it wrong. I found that quite strange because once I connect to that character, it’s part of the landscape in my memory and comes into the story when it needs to.

When I’ve tried story bibles or variations of one, I end up stalling out on it. I think, “What should I write down?” and it seems stupid to write down the character’s name when I know what it is, and it seems stupid to write down that character’s favorite color is when I already know what it is. The result is that I spend a lot of time wondering what I should write down in a story bible and don’t write anything at all.

Going through my messed up electronic files, I found at least five instances of character name lists. I started them all, thinking I needed it to remember a character name, and then never used them at all and forgot they were there.

Telling someone they’re not a writer

A question popped up on one of the Facebook groups that I’m on: “When did someone tell you to be a writer?”

No one told me to be a writer.

But it choose me.

I was 8 when I started writing.  My best friend was writing a class play.  I thought that was a cool idea, so I wanted to write one, too.  And I wrote and wrote and wrote.  If I got to class early, I pulled out a sheet of notebook paper and added to whatever story I was working on.  And sometimes, if the class got boring, I did the same thing.  Got caught a few times, too.

It was fun.  Some of my friends got in on it and illustrated my stories, so that was really cool.  I’ve always liked it when stories came with illustrations, like the Nancy Drews. I’d flip through those first to see the pictures — sort of like a preview, because there was always something exciting.

So I wrote and wrote and wrote.  When I was in 7th grade, a class popped up for creative writing.  My BF got into it, and I tried signing up for it, too.

Then I was summoned to the counselor’s office.  She was a Chinese woman with shoulder-length black hair and bangs, and a stern, unfriendly face.  She informed me that I couldn’t take the class because she didn’t “think I was capable of it.”

In hindsight, I probably wasn’t a good student.  I’m visual spatial, and teaching of the time ignored that learning style.  As part of that I’m not a great speller.  I had to memorize a lot, and sometimes by sounding out the word, I learned it wrong.  The problem is that once I learned it wrong, it was imprinted wrong (spell checker is a god!).  I also read words in a gulp, rather than one letter at a time, and I skip words when I read.

A lot of test questions can change meaning entirely if one word is omitted, so I could get something really wrong. I’m sure the teachers thought I wasn’t trying hard enough or didn’t care.

But here’s the thing I don’t get in all this:  To become a writer, you have to practice.  Writing is a hard skill to learn to do well, and certainly, writing fiction, even harder.  I was writing at every opportunity and was practicing continually — and on my own.  Yet, I was deemed “not capable of it.”

I’m sure the counselor thought she was saving me from disappointment, but honestly, it was not her place to do so.  Especially since I was writing on my own.  I had a relative who said she wanted to be a writer.   I was reasonably certain that she probably wouldn’t follow through, since that’s her personality type.  But what I did was go out and buy her a book on writing because it wasn’t right to tell her she couldn’t do it.

Sometimes people think they know best and they don’t know anything at all.  I came from that counselor and just cried because I felt like such a failure.  I so wanted to go to the class.  It was more writing!  And I wanted to learn!

And a counselor was telling me I couldn’t learn.

Then I got mad.  I continued writing, and two years later placed honorable mention in the school essay contest.  Not capable — hrumph!

My BF, who got into the class, stopped writing in high school.  I’m the one still writing.

The Woman in Turquoise

Today’s The Daily Post poses the following question:

Sherlock Holmes had his pipe. Dorothy had her red shoes. Batman had his Batmobile. If we asked your friends what object they most immediately associate with you, what would they answer?

For me, it’s not an object.  It’s a color.  I’m visual spatial, and I’m immediately drawn to color. In fact, specifically to turquoise.  So much so that particular color keeps materializing in my wardrobe.  I’ll sort through my closet and realize that I have a whole lot of turquoise.


Me with the cowbell
Moo!  This was at a writer’s conference last year.

Turquoise is a uniquely summer color.  It’s the color of swimming pools opening for the season, clear blue and cool, ready to jump into.  It’s the color of exotic beaches where you can just sit and absorb the beauty.  Wouldn’t you love to go this beach and stare at this water?

I used to go to science fiction cons and wear a con-type t-shirt, especially after I got stopped at one because I didn’t look like an attendee (guess what color I was wearing!).  But those t-shirts are really for men and don’t fit well, and besides, they’re  — well, black.  Black’s kind of boring, and everyone else is wearing it.  I thought I might as well be me.

So what should I wear?  The turquoise shirt, the turquoise shirt, or the turquoise shirt?

Decisions, decisions.


The way things are supposed to be and the way they are

If you’re even a little bit different, if you don’t quite fit in with what’s normal, you end up in this weird sort of between. You have to find a way for things to work as they are and the way they’re supposed to be, and yet, people will still insist you’re doing it wrong.

I’m a visual spatial and kinesthetic learner.

Visual Spatial means I see in pictures. Where other people might read a word by sounding it out, I have to get a picture.

Kinesthetic means that I learn hands on.

A teacher in a business class I attended said this was a tough combination. They’re constantly at war with each other. Truthfully, that doesn’t even include the conflicts with the rest of the world.


I’m a writer and I’m not a great speller. It’s because I have trouble connecting to the picture of the words. When other people read, they sound out the word. I get a picture. The whole process happens so fast that I hop over words as i read, absorbing them in an instant and then moving on.

It creates havoc on the spelling side. There are some words I can’t associate with a picture because they’re too abstract. Other words have abstract spelling. So I’ll be working on a story and stall at a word while I search for a picture to get the spelling of the word. Sometimes all I can do is type in something that’s a close approximation to get close enough for the spell checker to pick up the right word.

But try getting words wrong in any environment. You’re labeled sloppy, careless, or not trying hard enough.


The world has gone to the land of online classes. You don’t have to show up at a specific time; you can just tune into your computer and listen to a lecture. Most of the ones I end up having to take as work requirements have a module where there are lots of flashy pictures while a narrator drones on.

The Visual Spatial me hates the pictures. They’re often those generic pictures with people sitting at desks, smiling at the camera. They look nice, but they don’t mean anything in learning the material.

The Kinesthetic me hates the narrator droning. I’m just supposed to sit there and listen? There’s nothing actually to do? It’s not even letting me simply read it. Unfortunately, this is the fault of the people who want to “check the box.” It’s to prevent them from clicking through the material without actually looking at it.

The result is that I’m not getting much out of the training because no one’s really thinking about my learning type. It’s not that hard. If you’re going to spend the time on the pictures, pick ones that contribute to the learning, not just look pretty.


Then there’s writing. I’m guessing the way I write is a result of the blend of visual spatial and kinesthetic. I don’t use an outline, and moreover, I can’t. It destroys something in the creative process for me that only the actual writing gives me.

The people who need outlines don’t get this. At all.

I wouldn’t have a problem with this because I don’t get how someone can outline a story out without having the story. But I understand from both being a visual spatial learner and a kinesthetic learner that everyone processes things differently. That’s reasonable.

A common saying is “Whatever works.”

Yet, the minute outliners find out a writer doesn’t outline, there’s a recurring theme:

  • Organic writers are broken.
  • Their stories are always a mess.
  • It’s wrong to go off on tangents or rabbit trails.
  • It’s wrong to need revision.
  • Organic writers need to learn how to outline and write the correct way.


What happened to “Whatever works”?

It’s a challenge for those are of us who don’t fit in the standard. The world wants to push us to the standard, and yet, the between is where the true creativity is born.

This is from a prompt over at The Daily Post on “Between.”  I’m a writer, so I wanted to paint a picture with words rather than a photograph.

Photos: Inspiration in Color in Washington DC

I’ve discovered I’m a visual spatial learner

It means I need pictures to understand information.  So when Rabia Gale posted this writing prompt:

A favorite or inspiring piece of art (could be a statue, a painting, a musical composition, even performance art)

The first thing I thought was color

And during spring and summer in Washington, DC, color is everywhere!

The Jefferson Monument against a blue sky
Jefferson Monument

Jefferson Monument

The sharp white lines of the Jefferson Monument against the bright blue sky was magnificent.

A duck sails across a pond that is surrounded by trees.
Ahoy! Ducks away!

Mason District Park

I liked this picture because of the brilliant blue of the water mixed with the reflections of the green trees.  Then there’s that lone duck sailing across the middle of the pond.


Green, green everywhere

After sitting through the dull browns of winter, I still look at the green our trees and go “Wow!”


Flowers Galore

And, of course, the flowers that are everywhere.  I love the striking purple of these.

Other blogs writing about art and inspiration:

  1. Large Blue Horses – Rabia Gale
  2. Christ and St. Michael – Liv Rancourt
  3. The Music that I Love – Siri Paulson
  4. Botticelli’s Venus – Ellen Gregory
  5. Through the Lens – Tami Clayton
  6. How do you decide a favourite – Margaret Miller

Tulip sightings around Washington, DC

Flowers in Washington, DC

One of the things I like about spring in Washington, DC, is the explosion of color.  Winter makes the city brown and barren, and then first signs of buds appear as spring approaches.  The cherry blossoms make their entrance, and then, within two weeks, the whole place turns colorful.  Tulips bloom right on the heels of the cherry blossoms and are just as spectacular with their vibrant colors.  Some photos for your viewing pleasure!

Red and yellow tulips
These were in full sunlight and blowing in the wind. It was amazing how the camera instantly stopped their movement.
Overhead shot of yellow tulips
Checking out the overhead shot of the yellow tulips. I call this color “Irwin Allen Yellow.” Can you guess why?
Overhead shot of the inside of a red tulip.
I have a new camera, so I was playing with getting a shot straight down of the inside of this red tulip.
Puple and yellow tulips
Purple and yellow! Oh, my!
Overhead shot of purple tulips
Another overhead shot of the purple tulips

More stuff to see: