The Intriguing Observations series was created to gather some of the greatest supporters and bloggers to provide their own insight on all things creative both in their ventures and their techniques. This week on the guest series is another all-star supporter, fellow AP author and an outstanding wordsmith Meg Mims.
Writing is never easy, no matter what the genre. It’s an art—and crafting scenes to draw the reader in from the first line and keep them hooked until the last page takes hard work. One writer’s “trick” is relying on specifics. Word choice, in other words.
Take “dog.” What kind of dog? A white dog. What size is it and what does it sound like? A yappy white poodle. Adding color, sound, even texture makes that vague word come alive. I used to teach elementary kids about using specifics when writing. Writers finagle words in fresh ways. “Digging up a cloud of dust, the dirty white poodle’s shrill yaps echoed in my brain.”
Shallow writing skips the surface of the author’s “world” and presents characters acting out scenes on an empty stage. I’m not advocating the use of info dumps. But the best writers will spin out a story on a slow line, fishing for depth. Oral storytellers do the same, using pauses and extra information to keep the listener’s interest. Take Harper Lee’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. Being literary, she took free rein to build her world. And what a world it is, enough to shower a reader in specifics and place them smack dab in its midst.
“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town before I knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the Square. Somehow, it was hotter then: black dog suffered on a hot summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
Readers (even ones who don’t like historical novels) enjoy specifics of a “story world” right along with the characters. My own trick is infusing several of the five senses within a character’s Point of View. You have to balance a razor’s edge between too subtle and overload. In Double Crossing, I used first person POV—primarily because I wanted that immediate close bonding between the heroine Lily Granville and the reader.
Writers tend to visualize their story world. Go beyond the “eyes” of a character, though, to hear, smell, feel and even taste within the scene’s action. In the following excerpt, I tried to use two or three senses at various times as Lily walks along a street in Nebraska, 1869:
I clamped a handkerchief over my mouth but Omaha’s black dirt still choked me. My hard sneeze left a ringing in my ears. There had to be a general store somewhere with needles and thread. Stray sparks from the Chicago and Western’s smokestack had burned tiny holes in my split skirt and jacket, and I was desperate to repair them both.
At last I found a shop. A bell jangled above my head when I entered. The bulky proprietor laughed and joked with several customers while he filled orders at the polished walnut counter. I meandered down each crowded aisle. Scents of dill, chives and cinnamon tickled my nose. Potatoes with earthy skins and papery onions filled open barrels. Small jars of pickled beets and corn relish, tins of fruit and baked beans lined the shelves. Huge burlap sacks of flour, sugar, salt, coffee and beans lay near the door, and wheels of cheese had been stacked above crates of smoked fish and salt pork.
Seeing the flatirons, hoes, plows and other tools all around brought a sense of normalcy back to my life. I realized I’d been wandering in a haze since Father’s funeral.
I could have had Lily touching the earthy skins of potatoes, but that would have dirtied her gloves! So keep in mind your character’s personality when writing. Vivid details come from specific adjectives and nouns—silver folding scissors, sturdy butter churns, oilcloth cape, shiny snaps. Readers can quickly identify the items with the visual cues. Dropping a few other sensory cues—bell jangled, scents tickling the nose—helps also. Adding a brief dialogue exchange with minor characters will also balance out the scene.
Your readers will appreciate that the characters are not acting on an empty stage.
Meg Mims is an award-winning author and artist. She writes “blended genre” fiction, and her western historical suspense won the 2012 Western Writers of America Spur Award for Best First Novel. Meg earned an M.A. from Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction program and is a staff writer for Lake Effect Living, a West Coast of Michigan tourist on-line magazine. Double Crossing is available both in e-book and print.