Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Ground Me

I’ve critiqued novel manuscripts and found myself asking again and again, “Where are the characters?” Often writers have good dialogue and interesting problems, but I can’t place myself with the characters. There’s no sense of place or setting.

By contrast, I think back to the first novelist I fell in love with—Mary Stewart. She made me see the flowers glow under the streetlights, hear the swish of the tires on pavement, taste what her character was eating. The locations were all very real. I’ve had similar experiences with fantasy authors whose writing made a place so tangible I wanted to visit places that didn’t even exist! Hogwarts anyone? We want our writing to feel that true.

One fellow writer explained it this way, “Don’t have your characters standing in front of a white board.” Specific details of what’s around the characters help ground the reader. But it’s not simply telling.

So, how do we add these details of setting in in a meaningful way?

Start the scene in a place. It can be simple or complex, familiar or strange.

“Before you agree to have Joseph come live with you,” Mrs. Stroud said, “there are one or two things you ought to understand.” She took out a state of Maine Department of Health and Human Services folder and laid it on the kitchen table.” – from Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter:

“I pushed the world’s oldest vacuum around the shaggy speckled carpet from the Stone Ages, taking care to make straight, even lines. The first time I vacuumed Larry’s trailer…” – Coyote Queen by Jessica Vitalis.

“In my fifteen years, I have stuck my arm in a vat of slithering eels, climbed all the major hills of San Francisco, and tiptoed over the graves of a hundred souls.” – Outrun the Moon, Stacey Lee.

“Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea.” – Etiquette & Espionage, by Gail Carriger.

Introduce when the scene is taking place. It may be stated out right or be more subtle. It may be prosaic or fantastic.

“Earth year 2041
“Lunar day 188
“Smack in the middle of the night
“Let’s get something straight, right off the bat: Everything the movies have ever taught you about space travel is garbage.” – Space Case, Stuart Gibbs

“It was 5:42 a.m. on May Day, 1983 in the West of England, and a sliver of the sun had edged above the ridge.” – The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, Garth Nix.

“When I left my office that beautiful spring day, I had no idea what was in store for me.” – Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls.

Mix setting in with conversation, and a reader won’t have to guess at where characters are. It doesn’t have to be complex.

            Straightening his basketball jersey, Aaron slipped into the gym behind his teammates.
            “Where were you?” Michael whispered.
            “Had to stay after in math class.” He rolled his eyes. “I thought I was going to miss practice.”

Think about how your character(s) react to the setting. That’s much more interesting than simply stating a fact. For example, a flat statement: It was a windy day. Including the character in a distancing way with saw, heard, watched, etc. isn’t an improvement: Lila looked out and saw it was a windy day. How does the wind affect Lila?

            Lila stepped out the front door of the apartment building. The wind tossed her long black hair around her face and she shivered.

See how there’s a bit more setting now? Plus, we have one small action. We’ve also learned two new things. It’s cold enough for her to shiver and we have a description of her hair. Combine such details with her dialogue and she’ll feel more real.

Whenever your character is outside or even checking the temperature on her phone, she’ll probably react to the weather in some way. A bright sunny day makes me feel cheerful, but a character might prefer cloudy days that remind him of home. A gardener might be grateful for the rain falling on the freshly planted garden—even if it means he gets wet dashing to the mailbox. A skier might be glad for predicted snow, while someone preparing for a long trip could be disappointed, and go dig out the tire chains. A house might be unappealing in a rainstorm but look like a picture for a postcard when surrounded by bright sunshine.

Details of weather and temperature can help with the overall mood of the story as well. I remember a writer talking about how her character’s story was set during a drought. The dry empty landscape helped emphasize the lack in the character’s personal life.

Don’t forget the indoors. Where does he live? Where does she sleep? Is it a messy bedroom that smells of unwashed clothing scattered on the floor, a shared bedroom with tape on the floor to separate the two sides, the musty basement bedroom with concrete walls and a window well that only allows a glimpse of the sky? Does her home feel welcoming or is it a place he escapes as quickly as possible? Does it smell like dogs or cats or good cooking or burnt food? Is it loud or quiet? The reader doesn’t need to know all this—especially all at once—but working bits in will make the setting more real.

Andy Maslen says, “Sense of place is the feeling your readers get as they read your novel that they have left their place behind and entered yours. It’s a transporting feeling that makes the world of the book they hold in their hands as real, if not more so, than their own.”

I hope you’ll dig in and ground your characters in their setting. I think you’ll find it helps your story bloom.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Dialogue Heavy

Have you ever been told your writing is “dialogue heavy?” What does that mean? Is it just that the characters are talking too much? Maybe. But often it means there’s very little sense of setting, sensory details, and action. The dialogue is in a vacuum and the reader can’t tell where the characters are or what they are doing. They may not even know when there are.

I recently was at an evening high school volleyball game for a friend’s daughter. My friend and I talked, but some of what she said was drowned out by the teens or crowd cheering. And we were distracted by the game. We yelled, “good job” or “go Bulldogs,” and my friend knew all the team members, so encouraged them by name. We stopped talking to applaud when “our” team won a volley against the other team. We moaned when “our” team served into the net or missed blocking a spike.

What else did I notice at the game? The smell of homemade rolls baking. Leftover from earlier that day? I don’t know. But I wanted a homemade roll slathered in butter. The older couple in front of us had brought seat pads—I wished I had too as those wooden bleachers are hard. A member of the teen cheer team walked by carrying a sign that read, “If you’re not cheering, go sit with your mother.” That made me laugh.

Was our talk just filler? No. We actually discussed something very emotional and important. And, yes, we had everyday talk that wouldn’t be important in a novel.

Did I have any thoughts during the game and conversation? Definitely! Some were mundane but others would show my character, and/or my thoughts about other people—both useful for showing thoughts in a novel.

“Details are what helps your reader see and feel the story, as if they are the character,” says Lauryn Trimmer. Read her article “My Characters Talk Too Much.”

So, check out your dialogue and make sure you are including a sense of setting and time of day, sensory details, action, and thought. Your readers will appreciate feeling grounded.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Sensory Details

blind-men-1421406_1920.jpegYou may have heard “use all five senses in your writing,” but I disagree. Use all six senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and temperature in your fiction.

Sight is the sense that seems to come easiest. We might talk about the blue dress, or the rain, or the black and white cat. We might describe the style of the dress–its length, fit, and neckline. The rain might be sheeting down or lightly sprinkling. The cat could be short or long-haired, skinny or fat, etc.
But we may forget to think about what we hear. In the three examples above what could you possibly hear? With a dress it depends on the fabric, but the skirt might swish or crinkle. Rain can pound on the patio cover or spatter on the window. That cat may have tiny feet which can be silent pawing across the floor, but at other times can thump louder than seems possible. Or is she a loud purrer? The stray cat we’ve been feeding is half the size of our own cat, but her meow is three times as loud. And rather harsh and gravelly as if she’s been a long-time smoker.

Taste is more than eating, although it definitely includes that. Have you accidentally breathed in hair spray? It doesn’t taste good. Neither does your mouth if you don’t brush your teeth for several days. But then there are wonderful flavors–melted butter and honey on fresh homemade bread, the tang of a slice of orange, chicken tikka masala, the burst of bubbles in your carbonated drink. What is a normal taste in your character’s home may be different from something your readers have experienced? I remember reading books and wanting to try something the characters ate because it sounded so good. And some of those were fictional food items. (But they didn’t feel fictional.)

From the good to the bad, and the downright ugly, smells affect our lives and should affect character lives, too. I like subtle smells of flowers, fir trees, and clean sheets. I love the smell of spaghetti sauce simmering, or a beef roast in the oven. Sometimes my dog has bad gas that I’d willingly skip, but she doesn’t give me the choice. The smell of exhaust can make me choke. My husband tells the story of the time his mom decided to cook up some horseradish–everyone but Mom left the premises because the smell was eye-watering intense!

Touch. Right now I have a jagged fingernail that keeps catching on things, including my own skin. I’ve got a soft fuzzy crocheted afghan in my lap, which my cat usually has to knead before sitting down. Sometimes my healed broken ankle aches, and when spring hits, my eyes may itch from pollen. But let’s go back to my first three examples with sight and how to think about the tactile aspects. Does that blue dress have a satiny texture, or is it that bumpy seersucker fabric? Or maybe it’s coarse homespun. And the rain coming down–how does it feel when I go out in it? Pelting rain that stings my skin? Or a soft mist that is like a creamy moisturizer? Do I want to pet the black and white cat or is her fur mangy and dirty? Definitely no for the latter.

Temperature, a sixth sense. Are you cold and goose-bumpy, overheated and sweating, or somewhere in between? I often don’t mind being caught out in a warm rain, but will hasten in out of the weather when it is cold. Stepping barefooted on sun-heated asphalt can make one leap for the coolness of lush grass. Is that breeze warm, hot, cool, or cold? Or how about the temperature of the pool, river, or lake? And is summer the dry heat of an arid area, or the hot-steamy bathroom feel of a humid climate? Again, your characters should be affected by temperature, just as you are.

For some stories, temperature might have to move to seventh place as the traditional “sixth sense” of intuition, or some psychic or magical sense is important to the story.

Does every scene have every sense? Not usually. But scenes should have three different sensory details. And the sensory details can be about a variety of things in your character’s world. Be as specific as you can. And if those specifics are sometimes unusual that will add interest. The sensory details you include will establish setting and help bring your characters to life.