One Writer’s Journey

July 13, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Sensory Detail

Bringing your setting alive is often a matter of including true-to-life details. But they have to be more than realistic.  They have to be real.

What are the things that you would notice if you were there vs if you simply researched your setting?  I contemplated this last weekend as I took part in my first Pickle Making Party.  Simply put, three days of rain led to rapidly growing, monster cucumbers.  No one wants to eat one cucumber that big let alone 35 pounds of huge cukes.  So we pickled.  This was my first time making pickles and I drank in the details.

The good thing is that there details don’t have to go into your first draft.  Or your second draft.  There are the kinds of details that you can add into draft three or five.  When you have a few minutes, take a look at one page of your story.  If you don’t have three sensory details on that page, add one or two or even three.  And mix things up. These should all be sights.  Go for the more difficult touch and motion.

To show you how, I will brain storm sensory details for five minutes.

Sight:  Dark green peels.  Feathery dill.  Ivory garlic.  White cucumber flesh.  Shiny pepper flakes.  Billowing steam.

Smell: The tang of vinegar.  Pungent garlic.  The freshness of orange (someone had a snack).

Sound:  The swish of  water going into a pot.  Bubbling.  The purr of the dishwasher.  The hum of the exhaust fan.  The clang of the pot lid.  Hissing pressure cooker.

Taste: The tang of the brine.  Mellow cucumber.  The bite of garlic.  The green taste of dill.  Yes, to me dill tastes green!

Touch:  Rubbery cucumber flesh.  Prickly cucumbers straight off the vine.  Papery garlic skin.  Lava hot jars.  Cool tap water.

Motion: The whirlpool motion as you stir the brine. The subtle motion as the lid is sucked down and seals.  Billows and swirling of steam.

Not great but I got this many in five minutes.  What could you come up with if you only had to think of three?



July 3, 2018

Setting and Its Impact

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:44 am
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This past week, I spent five days in the Smoky Mountains.  It took us an hour to drive from Gatlinburg, TN to Cherokee, NC in spite of the fact that it was only 20 miles away.  On one side of the mountain we drove through sun although we could see mist in the distance.

Come around the side of the mountain and we would find ourself in mist and fog.  That was when the 35 mph speed limit seemed excessive.  We wondered how often people hiking through the woods walked right up on one of the many black bear or spooked one of the elk herds.

As we explored the area, I found myself thinking about how the setting would impact the people who live there. We saw a magic shop.  This wasn’t a fantasy shop but one that sold the various bits and pieces necessary to cast spells.  We saw fortune tellers and palm readers.  As a writer I could imagine the impact that the setting had on the people’s beliefs.  This misty, mystic atmosphere would lend itself to a mysterious, magical belief system.

But not every group of mountains would have this impact.  My Dad grew up in the Davis Mountains in the west Texas desert. Magic, mystical beliefs?  No.  Not even close.  There were rules and you followed them.  In the Davis Mountains, when tourists got lost you didn’t wait for them to wonder back into camp.  You sent out a team complete with climbers and a stretcher.  Injured or dead, that piece of equipment would come in useful.  Dad’s sense of humor is sharp and more than a little cutting, an awful lot like the landscape.

Think about the setting for your story.  How would life in temperate rain forest effect a character’s beliefs and ways of doing things?  What about a swamp or the taiga?  What impact would these ecosystems have?  I plan to do some reading on this and I’ll let you know what I find.

Click here for a post on researching your setting first hand.


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.


May 30, 2018

Setting: Keeping Track of What’s What

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:21 am
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Whether you are writing fiction of nonfiction, keeping track of who is where and how one location related to another can be tough.  In scene one, your character goes upstairs and down the hall to fetch the jacket she left in her bedroom.  In scene 10, her bedroom is the first room off the stairs.

It’s imperative that you keep all of this straight.  When it comes to buildings, I look for floor plans.  For my upcoming novel project, so far I have three.  Two are homes – one mid-century modern and the other craftsman.  With the floor plans I don’t have to remember how many bedrooms there are, where the entrance to the basement is or how many steps it would be from the front door to the kitchen.  It’s all there for me.

But what about larger areas?  Again, you can borrow from reality, using the street map of an actual town even if you are creating a fictitious town.  I may be doing that for my project but you can also draw a map.

A friend recently showed me a map she drew. Her story takes place on an island and it was critical for her to keep track of what path led where.  Her map includes the boundaries of the island, the paths and forest. It’s a simple pencil sketch but it gets the job done.

If you really love creating maps and want to try something fancy, you can draw a map with Photoshop.  I have to admit that I have not tried to do this myself.  At least not yet.  But I found Fantastic Maps, a blog by Jonathan Roberts with tutorials on how to create fantasy maps.  He does use a graphics tablet which I admittedly do not have.  If I’m going to be doing much of this, and it may come in handy for several jobs, I’ll be looking into one. Roberts tutorials include towns, canyons and more.  His instructions are incredibly detailed.

Whether you chose to use an existing building/floor plan or map or create your own, take the time to do one or the other.  You need to keep your setting right in your mind so that your reader can follow in the footsteps of your characters.




May 24, 2018

Setting as Character

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:15 am
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Make your setting vital to your story.

We’ve all heard that bit of advice but I’m never sure if I’ve pulled it off or not.  At least I wasn’t sure until this weekend when one of my critique partners pointed out that I had succeeded in making the cave a character. Now picture me doing the Happy Dance.

The dance party only lasted for a moment until I realized something.  I wasn’t sure how to repeat this success.  Obviously I needed to do a little research. Here are the tips I found about making your setting a character in your story.

  1.  As you carefully choose the details that you use to portray your setting, look for details that can be linked to emotion.  Perhaps your setting is a happy place or it might be pensive or suspicious.  Whichever emotion you choose to portray, select details that support this emotion.  Think about the Wicked Witch’s castle in the Wizard of Oz.  What was it that made it feel evil and foreboding?
  2. Your setting can interact with the characters.  It responds to their actions.  They respond to it.  You see this when a story is set on a space ship of some kind.
  3. We are used to characters changing in the course of the story.  Show how the setting changes. It could be the change of seasons or it could be a place that is modernizing, being gentrified, or even going into decline.
  4. Make the setting personal as one character experiences it.  In part this means seeing the setting through that characters eyes such as when readers see Huck Finn’s take on the river.  This isn’t just any river and it isn’t just any person experiencing it.  It is a singular location and experience.

Obviously, you probably would not use all four techniques in any given story.  I used change and the passage of time.  It’s important that I understand what worked because I’m launching a massive rewrite.  There are a lot of things in the manuscript that need to change. My living setting is not one of them.  Fortunately now I think I can hang onto it as I make other essential changes.



March 9, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Setting

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:14 am
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When we discuss writing strong fiction, we spend a lot of time discussing characters.  After all, we want them to feel real enough to walk off the page.  But the setting through which they roam has to feel real as well.  The more complete your setting, the more real your world will feel for the reader.

Think about Hogwarts and The Hub.  After reading Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, those places feel real.  The authors developed them down to the last fantastic staircase or junk covered table.

But what can you do to develop your setting in only five minutes?  More than you think.

  • Spend 5 minutes brainstorming place names for your town, city or street.  This is a tough one for me because my setting is loosely based on the city in which I live.  Change the name of our city and you change our identity.  That’s how a setting should be, but I don’t want actually use the name of my city. I’ve played with a few names but I just need to sit down and brainstorm a huge list.
  • Floor plans.  Be sure you know the layout of important rooms in the buildings in which your story takes place.  You can draw your own floor plan or find one online.  I did this with two character’s homes in my WIP.  I just typed “Craftsman floor plan” and “mid-century modern floor plan” into Google images.  I had to pick through a bit to find what I wanted but each took about five minutes.
  • Decor.  Your setting what feel real if you don’t know what’s in it.  Spend a few minutes determining what style the appropriate character likes. I pinned living room, dining room and bedroom furniture for my main character and her sidekicks.
  • Paint Colors.  This is a separate item because you have two sets of decisions to make – colors for private spaces and colors for personal spaces. Why break it down like this?  Because for some people they aren’t one in the same.

This isn’t everything that you need to know about setting but these four exercises will get you started.  Let me know how they work for you!


January 17, 2018

Setting: Getting Specific

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:05 am
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The story that I’m working on is set in the Himalayas.  One of the problems that I’m dealing with is that there are only so many ways to say stone without sounding like you are raiding the thesaurus.  I’m also having to look for a variety of ways to say climb, slope and steep.

I want to bring the setting alive but I’ve never been to the Himalayas.  Fortunately, I’ve been in the Davis Mountains around Alpine, Texas.  Part of the Rockies, they are . . . rocky.  They are also high altitude and desert so that works to my advantage.  But what about the cold?  The Himalayas, at least the altitude where my characters are, are not as cold as I had assumed.  In fact, the temperature in Kathmandu, Nepal at this very moment is 45.  Our high today was 22.

But I’ve also watched wildlife videos filmed in the appropriate area. And I’ve watched hiking videos and hiking how-tos.

Another possible resource is The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Places by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This book has several pages that focus on mountains with suggestions for sights, sounds and smells as well as possible conflicts.  There are notes about the people who often living in mountainous areas and more.

This research will all go into choosing the right words to help my setting come alive.  Is it worth it?  You be the judge.  When I asked my critique group to read the first two chapters, Pat had yet to reach the point where my character calls the surrounding mountains the Himalayas but .  “This is the Himalayas, isn’t it?” Pat asked.

Choosing the right details, expressed with the right word, can help your reader know your story is set in the Himalayas vs the Rockies.  Given the fact that the two are half a world apart, specifics can make a world of difference.


August 11, 2017

Set Your Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:33 am
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Parade. Alpine, Texas. 1924

Recently, Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency posted a summary of her ongoing series “9 Story Openings to Avoid.”  I started to skim the list but was stopped on item #2.  “White Room Syndrome.”  What is that?

White Room Syndrome is what Nelson calls it when a writer forgets to set the story.  They have a character or two. They have action?  But what they don’t have is any kind of setting.

It really isn’t a secret that opening scenes are tough.  Too much dialogue?  Boring.  Heart thumping action?  Who cares! We don’t know the character yet.  From the opening page, you need to strike a balance between starting the story and getting it up.  It’s no surprise that this balance includes that all important part of “setting it up,” the setting.

You have to let the reader know where and when the story takes place.  This doesn’t mean that you have to start with a header – Alpine, Texas. 1924.  Instead, as your character goes about buying supplies and hurrying to school, you give a few setting details.

These need to include the geography.  For this particular setting, you might mention the mountains.  And the desert.  The town name?  That’s a little more difficult but maybe you could work it into the name of a business or school – the Alpine Feed Store or Alpine Elementary.

Don’t forget the time period – that means time of the year as well as the year itself.  Winter?  Sunny but cold.  Maybe a dusting of snow.  Summer?  Heat, but it’s a dry heat.  A mid-summer night might include glow behind the mountains from a grass fire.  For the year itself, you probably aren’t going to get the exact year unless you have your character peruse a newspaper (please, don’t). But you can use details to give a feel for the time period.  A horse tied to a hitching post reacts to a passing car.

Essential though these details may be, you have to work them into the story.  Start with page after page of detailed narrative and you are going to bog things down and lose readers before anything happens.  As with all things in writing, your opening scene must be well-balanced.  Just be sure that balance includes your setting.

For more posts on setting, see “Researching Setting: Walk It When You Can” or “World Building: Setting and Culture.”



March 23, 2017

Scenes: Creating a Sense of “Being There” in Nonfiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:50 am
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My most recent batch of students is busy writing away. They are deep enough into their work that they are attempting to create scenes.  A nonfiction scene is a lot like a fiction scene in that it is a great way to pull your reader into the story.  It uses dialogue and characters, setting and action.  Unlike the fiction scene, it all has to be true.

That means that if you include dialogue, you have to have dialogue to quote.  It has to be word for word.

That means that if you find “someone mentioned needing to buy new shoes” in a source, that is all you can write.  You cannot write ‘One of the students said, “I need to buy new shoes.”  Nope.  The problem is that the quotation marks imply that it is a direct quote.  To use the quotation marks, you need to have found those exact words.  “And I said to him I need to buy new shoes.”  “Marcus said to me, ‘I need to buy new shoes.'”  Something like that.

There are times that you have a bit of wiggle room.  When I wrote about a family of armadillos, I could describe the four young armadillos digging into the dirt and tearing into a fallen log when they heard insects.  Why?  Because they are typical armadillo behaviors.

But when I wrote about the protests in Ferguson in Black Lives Matter, I couldn’t say that a protestor did X or a protestor did Y unless I had that information from my source material.  Even if X and Y are both fairly innocuous actions, when I’m talking about people, I need to know that someone did it.  Otherwise I have to say, a protestor may have done X or may have done Y and that isn’t the sort of thing my editor is going to let stand.

Creating a scene can be tricky but if you have the facts to pull it together it is one of the best ways to pull a reader into your writing.



October 24, 2016

An Interesting Life Feeds Makes for Interesting Writing

cabin-and-truck“An Interesting Life Feeds Makes for Interesting Writing.”  When you saw that title, whose life did you think that I meant?

Maybe you first thought of the character’s life.  Certainly a character with an interesting life will be more fun to write (and read) about than a character who sits on the sofa, plays video games and eats chips.  Snore!

What I actually meant was that when a writer has an interesting life, it makes for interesting stories.

Lately, I’ve been doing the prep-work for NaNoWriMo.  I’ve finished half of my character interviews and I’ve scrapbooked the characters and settings.  This means that I’ve been doing a lot of research.

Google Image is my friend.  I’ve collected photos of historic iron mines, miners cabins, ghost towns, and a deserted mansion.  There are photos of Lon Sanders canyon, iron ore and old timey mercantile stores.  All of these things came into the story intentionally.

But as I was searching cabins (my main character has to live someplace!), I had an epiphany.  I needed exterior dairyimages but I needed to know the layout as well.  A number of interior artifacts would also be useful.  Where oh where could I find these things together.  Then it hit me.  My father-in-law has helped restored a log cabin.  In is now set up as a museum complete with wood burning stoves, a spinning wheel, and a kitchen.  Seriously, I can be so dense at times.  That’s a photo of the cabin and our truck, both restored by my father-in-law. Thank goodness I have such interesting people in my life!

Then something completely unexpected crept into the story.  What do they grow on this farm?  Originally, the farm where this cabin stands, included tobacco fields.  We know this because there is a tobacco barn.  My mother died of lung cancer and my father has COPD.  Yeah, I already really like this character and she is not going to grow tobacco.  Besides, I’ve moved the cabin to slightly different geography that is far too rocky for tobacco but there are cattle aplenty.

Guess where my family went this weekend? The photo to the right is my son drinking a soda in a calf barn.  We went to a local organic creamery.  Now, in my story, the Wilkersons keep dairy cattle and, by the end of the book, will be working towards having a full-fledged dairy.  I so did not see that coming and will have to go back to the real dairy (oh woe is me!), take the official tour and do some delicious research.

Spend time with interesting people.  Go interesting places.  Do interesting things.  They will find their way into your stories.



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