Describe description

Joe’s Post #165

potterWell, it’s time for me to do a series. Every book I write I envision as a trilogy so I’m all about coming up with one idea and making a ton of books from it. Like JK Rowling. Only she’s super successful.

Anyway, for the next few weeks, I want to look at the basics. Plot. Theme. Characters. Dialogue. Pacing. And the toughest nut for me to crack – Emotion. Not that I’ll give you any great advice (I’ll leave that for others), but I want to explore those topics a bit. As a writer.

First up (you guessed it) – Description.

For some people, description comes easy. Like Joe Montana throwing a football. Or Donald Trump insulting people. Or the Canucks losing.

For me, it’s a struggle. I want to move on with plot and character and if the reader can’t see what’s in my head, then that’s their problem, not mine, right?

One day, Apple or Google or that Elon Musk robot will invent a virtual book that downloads what’s in the writer’s mind. Until that day (and God help me if they don’t put some sort of adult content filter in there), I have to come up with decent descriptions of my characters and the places they inhabit.

Drawings might work, sure, or fancy-schmancy photos but (sadly), not many best sellers come with pictures. At least until I write one…

So that leaves me having to come up with settings that ring true.

If you want to check out a few authors who have recommendations on this, check out the links below, but let me tell you about how I get the job done.

My 4 rules on it are…

  • Setting MUST be seen through the eyes of your character. I mean, look at how an undercover cop would walk into a restaurant. He’d look for exits, people not donutssupposed to be there, and donuts. An interior decorator might notice how the the blood pooling on floor clashes with the green and yellow checkered floor. An erotic novelist might notice the hunky guy working in the kitchen, shirtless from the heat, his six pack glistening with sweat while he washes his giant cucumber. (Like in life, we all see things differently.)
  • I must have a photo or painting of the place, or have visited it myself. A picture is good, and even with google maps, I can haul out all sorts of interesting details. But nothing beats being there. Why? Because I can get an idea of the other things that matter in good description. Smells. Sounds. The feel of a dusty brick. The taste of penis shaped peppers. Whatever. If I am there and using my writing brain, then I can create something that’s real, because it is real.
  • dorothyIf there aren’t pictures or I can’t be there (like going back to ancient Egypt), then I will read what other novelists have written. Want to know what the roofs of Florence were like in 1724, then read Dorothy Dunnett. But be careful, you have to trust the source. I’m not convinced everyone’s done their homework, I mean, movie-wise, look at Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood. It’s frigging painful.
  • chekovIt’s all about bringing a world to life, so I do my best to add small details. Like my man Chekov said…

So that’s how I get it done. Or at least try to.

I can rely on my imagination, but unlike a friend of mine who can picture a whole scene in her novel like a movie in her head, my mind is a disorganized jumble of images and thoughts. Do I have to pick up the kids? What are my key plot points? What’s that song I keep hearing in my head? Where did I leave my iphone? What characters will be on stage in this scene? What themes will I forget about? Who was that half-naked woman that I looked up because of, ah, research?

No room for organized description, you see. Reality is my only hope.

So… How do you do description?

Links

11 Secrets to Writing Effective Description (cuz 10 isn’t good enough)

3 Must Know Ways for Creating Meaningful Settings. (K.M. Weiland includes my most difficult of writing challenges  Emotion!)

Stephen King (though he pretty much says ignore everything I just said and write, dammit!)

Novel Writing Help  (with some good examples)

Word Painting (more cool ideas)

Travel Writing for Novels

And maybe acting isn't even important

And maybe acting isn’t even important

Ok, I had one of those rare clarity moments the other day.

You know the type. You suddenly realize that eating a box of cookies doesn’t help your diet at all. You realize that Hollywood will never celebrate good writers as much as they do handsome actors or beautiful actresses (even though no matter how great an actor is, a bad script makes the movie suck). Or you realize you’ll never be really able to keep up with the derpy sus that has become the new kidspeak.

But in this case, it was making location matter more in my book and tying that into my own travel experiences. Oh, I know, duh, right? It’s almost like I have to learn a lesson a good dozen times before it sinks in. Like just because I have a good camera doesn’t mean I can take good pictures.

So, yeah, there I was, lost in my novel, working on driving the plot forward, staying true to my character, blah, blah, blah, when it suddenly occurred to me that my settings were bland. Vanilla. Boring. Oh, I think my details were ok, you know, kind of all detailie, but the settings themselves, boy could they be kicked up a notch.

What do you see in this picture?

What do you see in this picture?

It’s should be part of the fun of writing a story set in another city. Or country. Or universe. Now, while I’ve not been to Outpost Omega-Epsilon-Wanker, I have been to Holland. And Amsterdam.

So why not use those memories, those pictures, those settings? My fellow writer Helga did this brilliantly in the story she wrote set in Europe during the coldest part of the cold war. My other Fivers have used their life experiences, their travels and adventures to enrich their novels. So why had I forgotten about this?

Truth is, I am a bear with very little brain and too much stuff bothers me. For me to write, I can only keep a few things in mind. If I have to think, oh yeah, add brilliant sensory detail from my travels to this scene and don’t forget to have conflict and, wait, is there movement in the scene and is my character acting in character and… well, it all bungs up like me trying to go the bathroom after I’d eaten three plates of cheese.

Mmmm. Cheese.

I know one of my writing friends, Sheila, has this incredible ability to see it all in her head like a movie. So for her, those setting details come easy. For me, it’s going to have to be enough to know I need to add them on the 2nd draft.

However, for locations, why settle on a meeting on a street when you can set it in the rijksmuseum?  Why have a fight in a bar when you could have it in the flower market? Why have a chase through the alleys, when I have a city full of canals?

One of the masters of setting IMHO

One of the masters of setting IMHO

Dorothy Dunnett was a master of this. She’d set a story in a great location, like Florence, then have that place become a character with a variety of clever details and sensory elements, BUT then she’d make use of the special aspects of the city, having a chase across the red tiled roofs. Not a chase on the streets, on the roofs.

Anyway, I think I’ll have to save the details for the 2nd draft, but the larger locations, boy those can change immediately. It’s not too taxing on my brain to ask myself, self, can I set this in a better location? Can I bring out a unique aspect of that location? Can I make that location active in some way.

Damn, I sound like Don Maass. But that’s not a bad thing. And it’s even kind of fun. Hmmmm… Amsterdam, 1940… I can’t use the Anne Frank house, she’s hasn’t been murdered by the Nazis, yet, so, yeah, what else can I use????

*****

Best show last week – Game of Thrones, best show ever? For all time? Yup.

Book that I’m reading at the moment –  Reading Sean Sommerville’s latest book. The Unforgiven. Man that guy can write.

Pages written on new book  4 weeks now and I have hit my goal of 10 pages a week. I’m finding more time and, more importantly, finding my groove, again. Can I increase this for next week?

Social media update – Derpy sus, people. Derpy sus.

Best thing last week  epic trip to Science World. Oh, I’m sure I’m going to blog about that!

timeWorst thing  I’d like to buy more time, please, Alex. Honestly, there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to get everything done. Luckily, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one that happens to.

 

 

Research thoughts

Joe’s Post #128

Research Insights … OMG, not ‘research’, again, right?

sharpeWell, I decided to take a look at some books that I loved. You know, historical books. I didn’t read through them, again, but just took a look at the first pages and a few chapters. And it gave me a few insights I’d like to share. The books I looked at were Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwall, the Brother Cadfael series by Edith Parteger (Ellis Petters), and Dorothy Dunnett’s books (Lymond, Niccolo series).

So, are you ready?

  1. Jamie Fraser from Outlander

    I read them all for the characters. Yup, that’s right, the characters. So if you’re going to get anything right, get the characters right, right?

  2. Setting is a character. I know I just said that I read them for the characters, and now I say setting is a character, but with these writers, it’s not just a place to set a scene, it’s an active part of the story (like a chase across the red-tiles roofs of Venice.)
  3. None of them bog us down with details. A few writers that I’ve read (and honestly couldn’t finish) had vast swaths of information about the period they researched, like they wanted to show us how much research they’d done.
  4. The characters live and breathe in their world. By this I mean the world for them is not a collection of facts, but a real place, with real smells, and sounds, and all of that seen THROUGH the character’s eyes.
  5. spoonDetails are (mostly) added sparingly. Like a sprinkling of salt. “Picked up the wooden spoon”, vs “picked up the wooden spoon carved from a spruce branch that was cut in the summer which was, in fact, the best time to cut such things”.
  6. windowsWhen they spend time on details, it’s because it matters to the character. Like the first time they see something or when it’s a wow moment for them. I mean, hey, the first time I saw Chartres Cathedral in all its glory, I was gobsmacked (yes, that’s a word). That we, as human beings, took hundreds of years to create perfection in stone and glass and wood, that every detail, every window, every carving had a purpose, made me stare in wonder at what we could do when we put our minds to it.
  7. food hollandFood, dammit, food. That Don Maass guy know his stuff when he talked about food being a vital part of taking someone back in time. Why? Because we are all linked to food. But all these masters of writing do way more than just sit someone down with a nice cup of tea, they add tension, smarty-pants dialogue, mood, and even suspense in that scene as well.
  8. Story is key. Outlander, for example, is a time-traveling story, perhaps more science fiction than historical fiction, but the tale she tells of Claire and Jamie is one that’s hard to put down. I honestly can’t remember if she got the kilts right, but damn, she nailed the romance.

So, that’s all for today. Just a few insights into research while I work away on my novel. Now I’m going to bug my Netherlands experts on what they would have eaten.

So what makes a good historical novel for you? Come on, I really want to know!

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Best show last week – Being sick for most of the week, I watched a bit more TV than normal. The Killing is perhaps the most depressing show I’ve seen in a long while. It’s unrelentingly grey. Brilliant, but grey.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Alan Furst’s, Mission to Paris. Nope, still not sold on this. It’s going to be a slog to finish. Not that there isn’t interesting stuff happening, but it’s happening to other people. His protagonist is not the hero of the story, or even the narrator.

Pages written on new book  40 (Could be more, I did a lot of rewriting this week.)

Social Media update – Trying to do a bit more on this blog. Have you seen the changes?

Health  Still sick. Dammit.

Best thing last week  Down 10 lbs now. Awesome. Forget that it was due to sickness.

Worst thing  The flu. Yup, still the worst thing. Yuck.

The BEST book he's written so far IMHO.

Lastly, again, my favourite author, Sean Slater, had his newest book released in Canada. I honestly believe it’s his best book he’s written, and he got virtually no support from the publisher, so if you see it anywhere, buy it. Or hit the Amazon link below.

Slater