One Writer’s Journey

April 16, 2019

Word Building and Setting Details

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:26 am
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It seems like I’ve been seeing a lot of blog posts and articles on world building and setting.  Maybe it is just because, writing fiction, I am paying attention.  Which is possible.  It is definitely something that I am thinking about.

There are so many things that you need to consider just in regard to your character’s home.  Is it a free-standing structure or a connected dwelling like an apartment or a duplex?  How many rooms are there?  How large are they?  Are there windows? How many? How are they shaped?

You need to know these things to make your setting feel real.  It’s a lot of work.  And the temptation is to share all that you know with the reader.  But you can’t.  It would be overwhelming.  Besides, you are writing from the point of view of a particular character.  Done right, that will help limit you.

What I mean is this – you can only discuss the things that your point of view character would notice.  And you need to describe things in terms this character would use.  As an example, let’s say that my husband and I walk into the bedroom.

I’m going to notice the painting at the head of the bed.  It has been the same painting for 17 years now and I want to change it.  I will also notice the drapes that are too short for the sheers and that there is a small stack of mail in the sewing chair by one window.  I’m really happy to have a chair in that corner so I notice it often. Somewhere to sit and tie my shoes.  Yay!

My husband?  He’s looking for the jeans that he left hanging on the hook on the bathroom door.  Hmm. He’s pretty sure he left them there but they aren’t there now.  He’ll poke around on the dresser.  Nope, no bills to pay.  But there’s clean laundry on his side of the bed.  Sigh. Now he has to put it away.

Note – there is no notice of how high the ceilings are.  If you ask, my husband will be specific. I think they’re probably 10 feet.  Right?  Is that it?  Each character will notice slightly different things about a room. What they notice may depend on how their day has gone or what they need to get done.

You need to know it all so that you know what each will notice.  Your reader, on the other hand, will be just as glad if you keep some of it to yourself.


July 2, 2018

Setting: Be Specific

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:39 am
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This past week, my family and I were in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.  I love mountains.  Love them.  My father was born in the Davis Mountains in West Texas.  That’s them below with historic Ft. Davis in the foreground.  The Davis Mountains are my default setting for mountains.  Big.  Rocky.  Not overly cluttered with trees.  Yeah.  I remember calling trees clutter at least once. In my defense, they really limit your view.

But this time around I was in the Smoky Mountains.  The “smoke” is actually water vapor from the trees which says all you need to know about the number of trees.  Where the Davis Mountains are dry, the Smoky Mntn’s may be as humid as St. Louis in the summer but it is much cooler.  We were there for a week and it rained every day.

The Smoky Mntns and Me with plenty of mist.

Smoky Mntns w/o mist.







This really made me think about the importance of a detailed description.  Mountains clearly have to be more than tall or vast.  They have to do more than make other things look small or inconsequential.  If you have mountains in your story, you should be able to hand a reader photographs of three groupings of mountains (the Davis Mountains, the Smoky Mountains, and any other group), and your reader should be able to choose just the right grouping.

You may not provide a lot of detail in your story but you need to have the setting in your mind’s eye as you write.  This means that generic mountains will not do.  Do your mountains have a scattering of trees, specifically cottonwood, or is there cactus like in the Davis Mountains?  Or maybe your mountains are covered in Mountain Laurel, hickory, mimosa and hemlock like the Smoky Mountains.  If your setting is a mountain group, remember that elevation also impacts what grows there.

But this level of knowledge doesn’t apply simply in the mountains.  A rainforest can be full of kapok (the Amazon) or even cinnamon (Southeast Asia).  Cities, bogs, suburbs and grasslands, each one will be unique.  Not only do they look different but they will have a different impact on your characters – our topic for tomorrow.

For more on setting, check out this post on using maps to keep track of your setting and this one on setting as character.


June 27, 2016

Researching Setting: Walk It When You Can

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:38 am
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trees around feed plotMy middle grade science fiction novel is set on an Earth-like world.  The area where the main character lives is very like an area I frequented as a child and still visit as an adult.  That said, my mom and grandmother never encouraged off-road strolling.  There were too many snakes and ticks and chiggers.

Lucky for me, I now live in male dominated household I lovingly call “Man Land.”  Paths and roads are mere suggestions.  Before you go down, you spray your clothes with Sawyers (tick repellant) and you use the video feature on your cell phone to self check for ticks in hard to see areas.

This weekend, I took the time to stroll through several feed plots and up a rarely used road or two.  I discovered that walking an overgrown gravel road is actually much easier than walking a well-maintained gravel road because the gravel is anchored in place with weeds.  When you walk past a stand of short leaf pine (at least I think that’s what it was).  The bark looks a lot like shag bark hickory and you can smell that glorious piney smell when you stroll past.  I was surprised how closely together the trees were growing.  Not even a tween could easily pass between the trunks.  Certainly not a teen in a hurry.

Not far from that was a stand of cedar.  Pines have long needles.  Cedar have scaly needles/leaves.

There were clusters of multiflora rosas growing amid clusters of blackberries.  I had forgotten how small wild blackberries could be, not finger-tip sized like the ones in my yard.

The sweet smell of honey-suckle stood out but I didn’t notice any scent what-so-ever from the trumpet vines.  The flowers were beautiful and easy to see but scent?  Nothing I could detect no matter how much the humming birds love them — and I actually saw a humming-bird alight on a branch and rest there for a time.

I had already roughed out the scenes in which my character moved through this landscape at about this time of year.  I’ll definitely be reworking them now that I’ve done it on a humidity drenched evening as the sun was pushing the horizon.  I know it isn’t always possible but this experience helped me see that your character’s sensory perceptions will be much sharper if, before you pen that scene, you take the time to walk the path.



June 1, 2016

Writing the Senses: Sense of Smell

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:18 am
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girl-1417553_960_720A number of years ago, I took a workshop with Darcy Pattison on rewriting your novel.  One of the things that she taught us was to include three sensory perceptions per page.  No worries.  It’s easy enough to say how big something is, what color it is and describe its texture.  But wait!  There’s more!  Darcy explained that we needed to have details from three different senses.

This is usually doable for me as long as a stick with sight, sound and touch.  But as long as I’m adding variety, I feel like I should add smell and taste as well.

That’s when things get tricky.  Unless my character is eating, has just been smacked in the mouth or nose, or is smelling something really strong, working in taste is tough.  People don’t just walk around tasting things.

Smells are easier in that if you have a good sense of smell it can be hard to ignore smells.  Right now, sitting in my office, I can smell the garlic from the green beans and the hot peppers from the chicken that we had for dinner.  I can smell the cup of coffee on my desk.  And I can smell my son’s shampoo — he’s taking a shower in the bathroom across the hall.

The tricky bit is describing these smells.  I can go easy and simply say that the shampoo is strawberry because most of my readers know what strawberry smells like.  But what if I was describing something less common like prickly pear fruit?  Or durian?

I did a search on describing smells and managed to compile this list of descriptive words: acidy, acrid, antiseptic,  aromatic, balmy, biting, bitter, briny, burnt, citrusy, clean, comforting, corky, crisp, damp, dank, dirty, distinctive, doggy, earthy, faint, feminine, fetid, fishy, flowery, fragrant, fresh, fruity, gamy, gaseous, heavy, lemony, lilac, lime, medicinal, metallic, mildewed, minty, moldy, musky, musty, odorless, peppery, perfumed, piney, plastic, pungent, putrid, rancid, reek, rose, rotten, sandlewood, savoury, scented, sharp, sickly, skunky, smoky, sour, spicy, spoiled, stagnant, stench, stinking, sulphur, sweaty, sweet, tart, tempting, vinegary, woody, yeasty.

Scents are powerful because they help us call on our memories and emotions.  A scent can serve as a character trait if your female character always smells of lavender or your male character of lime.  Scents can also be indicative of culture such as England’s roses vs Ireland’s peat fires.

I’m still learning my way around this particular sense, at least in terms of including it in my writing, but when I pull it off my settings feel more real than simple words on the page.



October 28, 2015

Mind the details

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:21 am
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light-arm-love-flowersOne of the blogs that I like to read is about selling your work to Woman’s World magazine. Recently I read a post about how the details in a specific story convinced her that the writer knew what she was talking about in terms of running a flower shop that supplies bouquets and the like for weddings.   The author used florist jargon, knew about the flowers and also about operating a small business.  These are definitely the types of details that you need to get right to convince your reader that you’ve done your research.

If you get something like this wrong, the story or book as a whole will lose credibility.  I’ve read pieces that call apes (gorillas, orangutan, chimpanzees or gibbon) monkeys.  Ugh.  Although they are closely related, they aren’t monkey and this is the kind of thing that drives me nuts.

The hardest details to get right seem to relate to food.  I remember reading a young adult book in which the author described the character drinking a concrete through a straw.  What?  A concrete?  Through a straw?  Here in St. Louis concretes are a huge deal.  They are like milkshakes but much thicker, made from custard not ice cream.  One brand advertises that their’s are so thick that you can hold it upside down without it running out of the cup.  You don’t drink a concrete through a straw or any other way.  You eat it with a spoon.  The author had her characters in the right part of the country for a concrete.  She had probably seen a photo and the cup that is the exact same cup you would get a soda or milk shake in.  But she had clearly never had one.

That’s part of the reason that I try to eat food from a region before I describe it.  I listen to music and view art instead of describing them sight or sound unseen.

These are the kinds of details that can convince your reader that you know what you’re doing, or that you don’t.  I know where I’d rather be on that spectrum.


October 21, 2014

Horror: More Than Blood, Guts and Goo

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:43 am
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HorrorRecently, a friend of mine wrote a horror short story.  Did I want to read it?

My son is on a serious zombie kick.  In the name of mother and son bonding, I have suffered through an entire season of the Walking Dead.  Never mind that I love Zombieland.  Horror freaks me out.  I may agree to watch it with you but someone will have to hold my hand and it will not be a pain free experience.  Did I want to read her story at home by myself on a perfectly sunny day?  Wait?  Isn’t that when the walkers come?

I hemmed and hawed my way into an embarrassing pause.

“Really, it isn’t Stephen King horror.  It’s more like what I used to write.”

This friend doesn’t particularly enjoy tormenting so I recovered enough to agree and soon found myself immersed in a non-gross horror story.  It was amazing.  Afterwards, we discussed the difference between old-style atmospheric horror and new-style gooey, pustulent horror.

In the old type of horror it is all about atmosphere.  How can you set your story up so that the reader is more than a little uncomfortable and expecting something that goes bump, glop or yuck in the night?  They expect it, but the details you provide aren’t necessarily graphic.  This is the gross and disgusting viewed through slightly parted fingers. Think Poe.  His stories are wharped and weird and offputting, but they aren’t particularly repulsive.

You build the horror by choosing creepy details ranging from the fall of light to the creak of a floor board or the closing of the door.  You include details that can be described in a creepy way.  Lace might be web-like, wind groans, and a cellar smells like the freshly turned earth of the grave.  Okay, that’s most likely heavy handed but I hope you get the point.  You can write horror without the ick.

Who is your favorite writer of bump in the night, creepy horror?


March 13, 2013

How Well Do You Know Your Characters

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:50 am
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Which stroke would your character swim?  You have to KNOW before you can decide.

Which stroke would your character swim? You have to KNOW before you can decide.

I’ve been reworking my middle grade novel, a contemporary fantasy about a young swimmer.  Wanting to see if I was on the right track, or in the right lane, I took it took my critique group.   Not surprisingly, they pointed out areas I needed to tighten as well as some typos.  But I got another comment as well.

“There is no event where you go from butterfly to freestyle.”

“Then I wonder why I did that?  Write it down because I’m going to have to noodle it over.”

In addition to writing me a note, the young critiquer pointed it out another time or three.  Clearly, this was a very important point for her.  He had to swim the various stroked in the same order as an individual medley (IM) or it was wrong.

I got it.

Back at home, I noodled it over.  Why had I put the strokes in that order?  I’m pretty sure it was the order suggested to me by a certain swimmer I just happen to live with but I couldn’t actually remember.  Since the character was simply enjoying the glory of water after a day at school, I wasn’t sure it mattered.

Finally, I managed to track down my primary swimming source and explained my problem to him.  “Would my character swim the strokes out of order?”

“Out of order for what?  I thought he was just having fun, not swimming an IM.”

“It is just for fun.  Does that matter?”

“It depends.  Who is he more like, me or Isaiah?”


“Then he wouldn’t care.  There’s not a set order for fun.  Unless your Isaiah, then you have to swim them in the same order as an IM or your head might explode.”

Eventually, I decided not to change it.  He’s just having fun and he’s the kind of kid who not only wouldn’t care but might also swim them out of order just to tweak his best friend.  That said, I didn’t know which way to do it until I thought about my character.

For more on how your character determines how you write about a given situation, read my post today on the Muffin.


August 28, 2012

Details Make or Break Your Writing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:00 am
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“Do you have any questions for me?”

I’d just sat through a paid critique of my work.  For the most part, the news had been good although there were things I needed to work on but she hadn’t addressed the one thing that I had been wondering about my own work.  “Do I include enough setting detail?”

“Yes, but not by much.  It wouldn’t hurt to add more.”

As a result, I’ve been trying weave in a bit more detail as I write.  What does this look like?  Would anyone notice a particular scent?  What sounds would work their way through all the hubbub?

But I also learned a lesson in my reading — be careful to use only accurate details.   See my Muffin blog post to find out more.


August 5, 2010

Minor details

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:21 am
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Entrance to the Field Museum's Jade exhibit.

When you research a new topic for your writing, are you a broad strokes researcher, going only for the big picture — dates and where and who?  Are do you go for the minute details?  Details that get into process and culture?

I do a little of both.  First I gather the broad strokes and use them as a frame work.  The minute details fill things in and provide a more complete story.

This weekend at Chicago’s Field Museum I learned a few facts behind some of the broad strokes of history.

Fact number one:  The robes worn by Tuareg men are not black but very dark blue — indigo to be specific.  The indigo often transfers from the robes to the men’s skin, coloring them a dark blue.

What?  I remember reading, at some point in time, about the blue men of the desert.  I always just assumed that the observer was being a dope, the same kind of dope who thinks a Cheyenne looks red and a Han yellow.  But maybe not.  Maybe they were actually talking about people dyed blue by indigo. An important detail, at least to me.

Then we were upstairs looking at the exhibit on Chinese jade.  Among the artifacts was a thumb ring worn by Chinese archers.  The drawing clearly showed the ring on the hand of the archer and the bow string across the wide band of jade.  If I had written about Chinese archers, I would check out the bow and the arrows, but I don’t know that I would have considered how to position the fingers on the string.  Pretty short sighted on my part since I know two different ways to draw the bow string — my son learned one way in Scouts and we learned the second in a Department of Conservation class which taught the method used by Olympic archers.

They seem like pretty minute details but these are the kinds of details that make a story authentic and bring it to life.  Do you have this level of authenticity in your own work?


June 5, 2009

That was Then, This is Now

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:27 pm
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donkeyHighlights editor told me that she wished that people would do research when they write contemporary fiction for Highlights.  Why?  The “modern world” writers present in their stories is often the world of their own childhoods, 20+ years ago, vs the world of today.

I realized the importance of this idea last weekend when we went fishing in southern Missouri.  Zipping along down a paved highway (wahoo!  blacktop!) we passed by one herd of cattle after another.  Then my husband slowed down.  “Is that a donkey?”

In among one of the herds stood a grey donkey.  The cattle looked at us, chewing calmly.   The donkey ignored us completely.  Donkeys are like that. 

We spotted Mr. Donkey two or three more times that weekend.  Then we saw another donkey with another herd.  And yet another as we headed home.

I’ve been in and out of this part of Missouri for forty years and I don’t remember ever seeing donkeys among the cattle before so when we got home I called Dad.  “Mountain lions don’t mess with burros, donkeys up here.” 

I only heard of one mountain lion down there my entire childhood.  Sightings still aren’t frequent but they do happen.  Since I’m setting a picture book down there, this is the kind of thing I need to know.

Writing a contemporary story?  Make sure the details from your childhood still apply.


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