Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
I was recently on vacation, going places and seeing sights I’ve never experienced. And I can highly recommend the practice as a way to remind writers and editors to look at details and description in a fresh way.
Vacations are also a marvelous way to recharge your soul’s batteries, but you already knew that.
But as for details, the right ones can add depth and emotion and color to story. They can tease the reader’s senses. They can flesh out scenes and characters and setting.
But the wrong ones can make a story ho-hum and common or laughable. And they can make a writer lose credibility.
A few quick suggestions about details and description—
Don’t overburden a scene with too many details; give readers only enough so they can picture the events and setting without being overwhelmed by information.
Don’t let description substitute for action or dialogue. Each story element has a distinct purpose.
Use new imagery. The tried and true become the boring and forgettable when used again and again.
Get the small details right. There’s nothing like putting characters in recognizable places but getting the specifics wrong; at least some readers will notice. And while they may never call you out on your incorrect facts, their buying habits may reflect their opinions.
Be specific when you can and when the scene allows for it, and be as specific as possible. Specific details are almost always stronger than generic ones.
Don’t be stingy with fact-checking. If a writer makes a factual, provable assertion, both writer and editor should be checking for truth and authenticity.
Include any and every detail you want to in your first drafts, even if you have no idea whether they’re true or not. Refine, cut, and verify when you edit.
No hard and fast rules or deep discussion today, just a few truths about details and description that I was reminded of while traveling. (I also wanted to let you know why I hadn’t been around the last couple of weeks.)
~ You can always write about what’s familiar to you, and you can always make up a new world where no one is familiar with the setting, but if you set a story in a real locale you don’t know well or one you haven’t visited in a while, research is a necessity. If this means visiting the place and a visit is possible for you, do it. If you can’t get to the locale, check out the Internet and let your fingers do the walking. Sometimes it only takes one phone call to verify a fact. And with that one phone call, you might just get more information that you can use in other parts of your story.
For example, call a chamber of commerce for details about cities or counties. Call a historical society for dates and locations of events from the past. Call or visit a military recruiter for details on military matters. Pick the brain of a reference librarian for the odd stuff you can’t find anywhere else.
On my trip, when I told a man I met that I was an editor, his first question was about checking details in a book. He asked if it was the author or the editor who was responsible for fact-checking. He went on to explain that he’d read a book in which the author had put a window on a building overlooking something (a park?) from the north, something the man said was an impossibility. He assured me the detail hadn’t lessened his enjoyment of the story but since the book was one he’d read a while ago and that detail was still on his mind, I’d guess that it had bothered him more than a little.
I’m not suggesting that writers need to go crazy with research at the expense of finishing a story, but I will suggest that both writers and editors should be alert to possible errors in the details. Buildings, cities, and countries change names. Political alliances shift. History is uncovered. Laws valid 40 years ago may not remain in effect today.
As an example, remember that until 2006, Pluto was one of the nine planets in our solar system. Now there are only eight. This fact, the number of planets in the solar system, would be written one way if a story took place before 2006 and a different way if the story setting was after 2006.
Facts may not necessarily change and history may not really be rewritten, but new information is revealed all the time. Make sure you keep up with the facts that you assert as truth in your stories.
~ New ways to describe the common can come from anywhere.
I was standing on the bow of a ship, watching an island draw near, and the women next to me were trying to decide on the color of the water. I’d been looking for a novel description myself—I’d never seen water such a deep, rich color.
One woman suggested midnight blue, but I’d discounted that earlier. The description was too common, too uninspiring. Too blah.
Another woman then suggested denim blue, new-denim blue. The rightness of her description hit me immediately; she’d pegged the color perfectly. The ocean was the bold and rich color of stiff jeans, unwashed and unworn.
I’d been unable to come up with an acceptable color and while there are probably dozens of other valid descriptions, hers resonated with me.
My suggestion is that you step outside of your own mind on occasion and listen to what others are saying as they describe their worlds. Mine not only your own memories and imagination, but the minds and emotions of others.
Yes, you’ll hear a lot of clichés. But you’ll also likely hear something fresh, especially if you’re in the company of people of different backgrounds and ages, different cultures, and dramatically different life histories.
~ Assuming facts isn’t wise.
I’d been in and on the ocean before, if only closer to shore, so I expected the sea air to have an odor. But not once while we sailed did I smell salt or any other scent; the air was strangely free of smells and odors. It wasn’t fresh and bracing and it wasn’t briny—from my vantage point, it was simply void of any fragrance.
I would have been mistaken to assume that ocean water smelled the same away from the beaches of the continental United States as it did at those beaches. It would also be a mistake to assume that ocean air smells the same during storms as it does when the water isn’t churning or that ocean water is completely odorless around the globe.
Keep in mind that facts aren’t universal–what fits one situation and location and time may not fit others. Verify what you present as fact.
~ Use the unexpected or the shocking in setting details to influence your characters.
When I returned from my trip, it was to find gray, bare trees and a heavy winter sky. There was no snow and the temperatures were fairly mild, especially in comparison to parts of the world and country experiencing the brutal violence of a stormy winter, but I’d stepped out of palm trees and lush vegetation and back into the barrenness of winter.
Winter has a beauty of its own, to be sure. But I hadn’t realized I’d grown so used to warm air, dark blue skies, and a half dozen colors of green interrupted by gorgeous flowers. When I saw the naked, colorless branches, I realized my vacation was truly over. I felt the change in my attitude and in my body.
Characters would notice the same kinds of changes. Their moods and affect would be, could be, influenced by such details in their environments. Remember to use stark changes, or even extended periods of relentless monotony in setting, to influence your characters.
To look at details and description in a new way, treat yourself to time away from your computer and go somewhere different. If this means walking into a fast food place rather than rolling through the drive-thru, do it. If it means taking a hike through the woods, try that.
Ride a bus or the subway instead of taking the car. Or try getting around and parking in a city where you usually use public transportation.
Go to a museum, a play, or a concert. Watch a little league game. Bowl a few games in a bowling alley.
Stroll a college campus when students are between classes. Listen to their speech patterns and the topics important to them. Do the same in a sports bar.
Go to a courthouse or a police station or a bail bonds office.
Try a new food in a restaurant where you can’t read the menu, ride in a hot-air balloon, climb a mountain.
Absorb new scents and tastes and sights. Open yourself to experiences new and confusing, frightening and exhilarating. Remind yourself there is more.
Tempt your senses.
Make yourself uncomfortable by stepping into the unfamiliar. See what strikes you when you’re in a place where you know no one or where you can’t communicate or where you don’t understand what’s happening. See what details stand out. Make note of the kinds of details that catch your eye and then use those in your own stories.
Make use of details to affect tone and character emotions as well as character actions.
You don’t have to go to a setting you’ll be using in your story—simply take yourself out of the familiar and expose your mind, emotions, and your senses to the different. You’re sure to find new ways of including details and description in your fiction.
Shake yourself up and give your stories fresh and powerful descriptions.