A Sense of Place: The Power of Observation

I don’t know exactly how it began, whether it was training for my goal to become an author or not, or due to journalism classes in which we focused on the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, why), but I notice details everywhere. The pattern of tile in grocery store. The flap of wall covering coming down in the corner of a room. The cut design of crown molding or the texture of plastered walls. The color of front doors, or a burst of color in flowering shrubs in landscape.crown-molding

These are important to writing because one such detail can provide a clue about a character or situation. When I was a new writer, I carried around a notebook and recorded names of people and streets and towns. I recorded brief scenarios and and bits of dialogue because I was told to. As a writer it was important, but I didn’t really “get” how this was going to help. Then the little things I noticed of someone’s home (such as those listed above) just appeared in a draft. They were brief and,like using an analogy, helped paint an image in the reader’s mind.

big-shoes-to-fillSoon I began noticing the things people did that hinted at their emotions or personality. The nervous clicking of a ballpoint pen, or the jiggling of a leg. As I began to teach, it was fun to notice how people controlled personal space—clutching a backpack on their laps, spreading books across the table into the next seat’s space, parking rolling bags in the aisle so no other student can easily pass to the seats behind. While I’m sure some of these students did these things unconsciously, I found them curious and intriguing and they provided insight into the anxiety these students must have felt (I taught remedial English and pre-comp writing and after the first class at least one student nervously approached to inform me he or she was “mistakenly placed” at this level. Sadly, they were not.)

Such details for both a setting and a character SHOW a lot. All can be provided in few words. They enrich the story. Now I cannot seem to turn off this observation. I often look around at the people, decor, and objects in a restaurant even as I carry on a conversation with those I’m with. It’s filed in my mind, even if I don’t pull out my writer’s notebook to jot them down.

blackbird-amcr7Sometimes a detail I notice triggers the next scene for one of my WIPs or an entirely new story idea. For instance, as I sit at a café a cacophony of crows (or some such bird) is out of my line of sight but not my hearing. They sound as if they are having a discussion, an argument, with a back and forth volley of calls that sound like a gruff “haha-ha” punctuated with a single “awk-awk.” This might trigger a fanciful children’s story or suggest the cadence for dialogue in a current story. Since it’s beginning to get on my nerves, it’s gone on long enough, it reminds me that the back-and-forth of dialogue shouldn’t drag on the reader. It’s a reminder to limit and ensure the dialogue adds to the story.

What details do you notice that can slip into a story to make it feel more authentic? For some writers it’s easier to practice with people we know well. What mannerisms offer insight into their personalities? For other writers, the unknown is an easier place to begin noting details that help show both place and personality. Whichever type of writer you are, take this challenge: For 3-4 hours, note at least one detail about every person or place you encounter. Once you begin, it becomes easier. Expand the length of time and the number of details (2, 3, 5?), or at the end of the day make a list of each new place and person and include as many details about each as you can recall.

Soon, these observations will become second nature and filter into whatever you are writing. Feel free to leave comments about how this challenge has improved your writing.

Notes of Spring in the Air

IMG_0184This morning I woke from a restless dream but once I inhaled the fresh and dewy air and heard the birdsong, I felt renewed. Memories of the dream evaporated on the wind. It’s no wonder I push my writing students to incorporate sensory detail into their stories and memoir—it is something I notice in my everyday life. Scent and sound are especially important to me and these are two of the little used senses in prose. Too often writing focuses on the visual. Sure, it paints a picture, but to give a sense of a situation, the reader needs more—and sound, scent, or taste can provide it.

I especially love spring mornings. This is the time of year in Florida when the greens are varied shades and vibrant from morning dew. The air is fresh and clean, and the winds are gentle, warm, and dry. A nest of squirrels live in the pine tree near my lanai screen and as they scurry from the branches to the trunk, the bark crackles.

IMG_0183This morning, though, the scent is less pleasant than usual. We had heavy rain showers most of the day yesterday and so my first few breaths smelled like worms. This is not entirely bad; it reminds me of where I grew up in Michigan. The wormy scent soon subsided but a lingering fishy odor wafted up from the huge pond along the golf course. Thankfully, after only a short time, the wind replaced this with the scent of rich loam, wet earth, which again reminds me of home.

Somewhere nearby, a spring-break visitor is either playing music or has his or her cellphone on speaker. The sound is faint, like murmuring, but I know it’s not a neighbor’s TV because it wavers as if this person is walking (likely around the pond).

IMG_0277I’ve lived here long enough to tell when the clink of a golf club from the 3rd tee is a solid stroke. If not, I’ll hear a clunk, thwup, or ping. If the palms and pine trees didn’t hide the tee, I might be able to connect those sounds with where the club struck the ball.

But these observations, noted as I drink a cup of dark French roast, do not merely help me wake. They prime the creative pumps. Whether I record these sounds and scents in my journal or not, they WILL make their way into my stories and personal experience pieces. Because they provide more than just the visual, they will enrich the scene. Sound and scent and taste (when that can be woven in) add depth to a scene and sometimes clues and hints about a character’s personality.

So listen to the world around you and note the details. Inhale deeply and note the scents and odors. Now draw on these details when you’re writing. Your readers will thank you.

Writing is Like an Iceberg

icebergOnly the writer knows all that lies beneath the surface.

As northern weather begins to cool, the mention of icebergs may feel like hitting below the belt; however, it really is the best analogy for crafting a solid story or informational article.

For nonfiction, a great deal of research goes into every article, and more so for a book. The writer cannot possibly share every fact and thought about the topic, though. The goal is to share information and insight, not overwhelm the reader. When I research for a nonfiction book, perhaps 75 percent of the research ends up in the finished product, sometimes less. Yet the percent “unused” is not wasted; it is essential to my understanding of the topic and so it is “present” beneath the surface.

The same is true for fiction. Though the author may not need to conduct research (unless writing historical fiction or centering around a real event) there is still a great deal of information, planning, and thought that goes into a novel or even a short story. Everything the writer knows about the characters’ personalities, back stories, relationships (past and present), events that shaped the “person,” how the characters act and react (and why), and even their futures is important to the story. Yet only a small percentage of that information is provided to the reader. (In comparison to my nonfiction, when I write fiction, perhaps 25 percent of research and background goes into the story.) The majority of all the writer knows is below the waterline, providing a foundation for what appears above the water. The reader must become engaged with the small portion visible.

King-good-booksjpgThis is one of the hardest concepts for new writers to understand, especially when writing fiction. This is also where the “show; don’t tell” rule-of-thumb arises. Inexperienced writers want to provide every detail about a character, want to ensure the reader “gets” what they have created, and want to be recognized for being clever. As they gain more experience, they realize that writers can reveal a lot and hint at plenty of background without sharing every detail and nuance of a character’s history or personality.

Truly, holding something back and providing hints at a character’s past makes the story more engaging. If the foundation is there, the story will stay afloat. Keep icebergs in mind as you write–and trust your ability to reveal details as needed for the reader to understand each moment in the story (scene by scene).