Friday, January 20, 2012

Describing Your Surroundings

When you step out your door, what exactly do you look at? I mean really look at - direct your eyes at long enough to see color, shape or position? I'm willing to bet very few of you do more than step out your door, scrutinizing your keys in order to get the right one for the car door, or maybe you're looking for the little button on your keychain that turns off the car alarm. Would you notice a different car parked across the street? How out of place would that different car have to be in order for you to notice it? How about if it was a bright red Ferrari, when every other car on the street was some Subaru or Volkswagen, or some other average car of debatable heritage. Or in contrast, how about if the street was some very rich neighborhood and the strange vehicle on the street was a scruffy pickup? It's possible you would notice these misfits eventually, but if you are anything like me, I'm not a car person. I might notice a pickup amongst cars, or a fancy car among mediocre cars, but wondering whether it belonged or not, would never occur to me, and I wouldn't be able to tell you the color later, unless it was maybe red. For some reason, I notice red.

What I'm getting at is in writing, your characters would be no different. Going into detail has to be handled with care; you don't want to bore your reader with the scenery especially if your character doesn't notice. Point out details such as the gravel driveway by having your character drop their keys and then break a nail on the gravel when they pick them up. A thought about the gardener getting the pleasure of hauling all the gravel away and paving the driveway will give your reader all they need to know about what class your character belongs in. As far as the strange car across the street, let's put it in the way somehow. Maybe not in the way of a good and conscientious driver, but maybe your character is in a hurry and nearly rearranges the car's fender by taking the corner too fast and skidding on gravel tracked out onto the street.

I'm not a car person, nor do I write much about high society. As I've heard in many places, 'write what you know' and I was born and raised in the country on a cattle ranch and now live way out in the wilderness. If you live in the country, you learn to look to the horizon at least some. With animals to tend, it's important to be aware of things much further away than the keys in your hand. I remember listening for coyotes. If the coyotes were singing a lot we were frequently driving through the pastures, though at the time I couldn't have put the two together. Now, especially in the summer, there's the very real threat that a bear might be on the trail as I walk to and from work every day. I don't see one very often, but believe me, I look. This time of year, with feet of snow on the trails, bears are long since sleeping, but that doesn't mean danger is totally gone. If the snow gets deep, moose might decide to argue trail rights. I've only had that argument once. Something I will never forget. Mostly what I look for in the winter when I'm out walking is tracks. Ooh have I got a story on that, but I digress.

Wherever your character is in your world, he or she needs to fit. They will notice whatever they notice and for whatever reason they notice it, but they do need a reason. No one steps out their door and looks around thinking to themselves 'hmmm the grass is green and the apples aren't ripe yet and if it rains tomorrow the wheat fields won't be harvested.'

Did you see what I did there? Too much irrelevant information. Is there an apple tree in the yard? If so your character might think on waiting a few days before baking that fresh apple pie. If the grass is green they might grumble to themselves about having to mow the lawn again and they only did it a few days ago. That little piece of information might hint at rainy days, or the thought might cause your character to look up and see if they can get the task done before it starts to rain again, but unless they are a wheat farmer, concern of fields somewhere out of town would never occur to them.

If it's winter, how much snow is there? Does it need to be shoveled? Is it icy? These are all scenery problems that clue your reader into the surroundings without inundating them with a panoramic description.

Another restriction is to keep your description confined to what can be seen, heard, touched or smelled, and remember that some people might have sharper senses than others. The other day, while splitting wood, my husband looked around puzzled, he smelled something he couldn't quite identify. He said it smelled musky. When I later went to burn the trash I discovered ermine tracks just off the edge of our packed yard. On another chore I found martin tracks. Though I did not see a connection between these two trails, it is entirely possible the martin caught, or tried to catch, the ermine and both have quite a musk gland. Or, as my husband suspects, maybe the ermine tried to scent one of our dog's pee marks. Who knows. What I'm getting at is, I didn't smell a thing except the exhaust from the generator.

Do you have troubles describing some types of scenery? Sometimes two heads are better than one. Never be afraid to ask for help.


Unknown said...

I have a "less is more" philosophy about story description. Set the setting, things that stand out, then move on. It doesn't have to be complicated...

Anna L. Walls said...

That's a good way of putting it. You do need some sort of anchor to let your reader know when and where they are.