Tag Archive | details

Setting the Mood

An open iron gate leads to an enchanting secret garden surrounded by ivy covered trees.

Something what sets a good story apart from a great one is the use of setting as a character. A setting is not just description of a place—it gives the reader more emotion on the page. It uses mood and vivid details to put the reader into the story. Setting is also as much about theme and motifs as anything else.

Let’s take a look at one setting, but given two very different moods and themes. Let’s put the main character into a summer garden—or, actually, two different summer gardens:

She pushed open the gate. It groaned on rusted hinges, barely yielding to her shoves. Ivy dangled low from the wall, browned and gnarled, and a willow tree in the corner sagged against the bricks as if braced for her. A wind whispered, dry and cool, brushing through the leaves as if warning the garden against her presence. Sweat trickled down her back and gathered on her brow, and the bees swarmed to her right, the buzz an angry sting of noise to break the quiet.

That’s garden one—now, same time of year, but a very different mood for this garden:

She pushed open a gate that squeaked on rusted hinges, yielding to her shoves as if grateful for someone to come at last. Ivy curled down from the wall in splashes of green against the red bricks. The willow tree in the corner stirred, the long fronds of leaves beckoning with a luxurious shade away from the heat that pressed down on her. The breeze brushed her cheeks, dusting away her sweat, bringing a sweet tease of wild roses and lavender and honeysuckle. Bees hummed through the dazzling colors at her feet, their legs heavy-bright with pollen, wobbling like drunk sailors in a welcoming port.

This summer garden has gone from a touch ominous to a lush romantic spot through word choices—this lets the reader into the world through the character’s senses. Obviously, in the first garden description, the mood is one of danger and tension. We’re going to have a theme of danger and suspense. The second garden offers a lighter mood—this is going to be a fun story, possibly with some hints in the theme of magic or romance.

That’s what description can do for a story—that’s what setting can do. Setting can anchor the reader into the world. It draws the reader into a place and time and into sensations that make the world come to life. It becomes a vivid character if the writer takes the time to develop all the characters.

All this starts with asking a simple question—what is the mood here? You can follow this up with—what would my character notice? You can overwrite—that’s always possible. But by remember mood and what is important to the story, that will tell you what you need in your setting.

Theme will also help you in that it will tell you what motifs you want to use over and over to better weave theme into your story. Perhaps your theme is about the masks we all wear to protect our inner selves, and so masks and their collection or use, or things hidden with shadows and shading will be part of the settings to bring this theme to the reader without hitting the reader over the head. Or perhaps the theme is about rebirth of self, and you want setting to move from winter to spring several times over to bring that them into the story in subtle ways. All this means the writer must pay attention to the real world and the fictional world.

When thinking about setting, bring in something more than sight. We all lean too much on the physical description of things we see, but very often it’s the aroma floating in the air or the notes of music lingering that really capture our imaginations. A touch of jasmine incense could bring in the exotic, or the sour note from an out-of-tune piano clattering adds a jarring feeling to the reader’s mood. Maybe it’s the taste of something—a spice that goes from nose to tongue. Or maybe it’s the shiver of fog on the skin. Go for the very specific detail.

When you’re editing, look at the writing to remove clichés and look for fresh modifiers—and watch those weak verbs.

Notice that in the garden above, I never write: “The garden was overgrown.” That is flat telling and robs the description of the vivid touches the reader needs to be inside that garden. “Was” becomes a weak verb in such a case. Notice the fresh modifiers—a breeze that dusts away sweat, a sting of noise. You may not come up with these in the first draft, so as you edit, look for fresh ways to convey the mood you want the reader to get from that scene.

By vivid, I mean VERY specific. If you don’t have the specific in mind, go hunting in your experiences or in your imagination.

Never been to the Redwoods, but need them in the story? It’s time to get a really good travel guide, or watch a very detailed documentary. Do the same for any profession you might give a character, or for that character’s background. This is the truth in the phrase “write what you know.”

Whenever you can, pull from where you have been and use your own experiences to give you that perfect smell, that right feeling on your skin, the sounds you heard, and the taste in your mouth. A vivid imagination can help, but so can stepping outside—close your eyes and put your other senses to work. What birds do you hear? What about traffic, or the lack of it. If you’re near the ocean, that tang of salt in your mouth will be noticeable—and perhaps that sand itching under your swimsuit as it dries. Think about what details will best realize your setting as a character and a mood, and reveal something to the reader without “telling” the reader that information.

Maybe your protagonist is an artists and the world is vivid colors—teal, azure, verdant green. Or what if your antagonist has perfect pitch and the least dissonate voice is a screech to her? Be picky about word choices, particularly when editing. In a second or third draft, that is a great time to read your work aloud and write in the margin the emotion you want, and then decide if the words pile into the correct cadence and mood.

Look for overused words. Do you repeat the same phrase too often? Is there a “pet” word you fell in love with that starts to hammer on the reader?

Remember that each new scene needs to be “set” for the reader—the reader won’t be happy if left floating in a void. It doesn’t take much—look at the paragraphs above for the garden. Four or five sentence can do the job. If you have a character in that description and that character’s viewpoint to layer in tension, the reader is going to be caught up in the moment.

Above all, take the time—don’t feel that you have to worry about “oh, it’s a slow pace with too much description.” That description allows the reader to settle into the story and the scene. If your setting is a character, that character can bring forward so many more layers to your story that it can move from just okay to a book a reader can’t put down.

The Story’s in the Details

Every now and then I’ll help judge in a writing contest, and one of the things I often see is that details are wrong or missing. I’ll admit I am a little OCD—I like jigsaw puzzles, and I need the right details to even write a scene. Details matter—a lot in fiction. Why are they so important?

A woman who drives a restored 1963 VW bug is different from a woman driving this year’s BMW, and her attitude about each vehicle says something about her. Does she love her car, name it, curse it, treat it like a moving trash can? A man who owns and uses his grandfather’s pocket watch is different from one wearing a ten-dollar Timex. The details reveal the character to the reader, and specific details matter. If you just have a woman who drives a car, that doesn’t say much about her, other than that she lives in an era when most folks drive. Same goes for a man who has a watch—the lack of details means there’s a lack of characterization on the page.

Details need to show the reader how your characters are different from any others. Too often in romance the hero is tall, muscular with startling (or piercing or arresting) blue eyes. The heroine has strawberry-blonde or auburn or reddish hair with emerald green eyes. In other words, we’ve all read these descriptions so often the characters blur together into sameness. What details make your characters different. Details that could fit into a list (height, muscles or curves, hair color and eye color) are what I call a ‘laundry list’ that don’t help a reader to really see your character. Next time you’re watching a TV show or you’re out people watching, start really watching—you’ll find that what you  notice first are the details that are different. It’s the limp that old lady has that she’s working hard not to show. It’s the large, dark mole on the woman’s left arm, visible because of her sleeveless dress. It’s the chipped front tooth when the man next to you smiles, and you wonder if he got it from a bar fight or playing some kind of sport because he’s got both the attitude and the tan to go either way. The details give the reader a vivid, specific picture in mind.

The wrong details can also derail a reader. Too often I see things like a tall man who rides an Arabian stallion (why it’s always a stallion, I have no idea). But Arabian horses are typically not all that big—put a large guy on one and you might as well have him riding a pony. It’s a funny image, not at all sexy. Then there’s the use of reigns instead of reins—and spellchecker won’t help you with that one. Or the heroine who does a Cinderella and goes from wearing ugly dresses to beautiful ones, but we’re never really clear if it is a Victorian dress with hoops and bustles or a Regency empire gown.

Historical fiction brings its own issues with a need for research, and a tough time deciding what’s enough and what is too much—you can overwhelm the reader with too many details. But I think it’s easier to pull back on this and much harder to weave in enough. (The same actually holds true for emotion on the page—it’s easier to pull back on this with a little editing.)

The trick in all of this is to find the right detail, and that means you need to know what it is that the reader should understand about this character without explicitly telling the reader. An example of this is if you want the reader to understand that a character is understated on the surface, but a dangerous man underneath. This means you might put your character into a faded Yale sweatshirt and baggy Levi 501s that leave room to hide the .35 and holster on his hip—notice these are specific, too (it’s not just sweats and jeans and a gun). Or maybe you want the character to come across as high class and respectable, meaning instead of telling this to the reader, you show the character tugging on her gloves, tying the ribbon to her bonnet at the precise forty-five degree angle that both remains out of her way and yet is flattering, and she chooses a parasol to match her kid slippers in a fashionable shade of Pomona green, and which compliments the stripped gown delivered yesterday from her dressmaker. The reader has both images in mind and is also picking up the clues you are dropping that this woman has money to spend on fashion and is particular about how she wears things. This is not someone throwing on the nearest shawl to dash outside.

All this means you have to spend time thinking about the right details to use, and also some time researching those details. You can also use details you already know a lot about. I’ve written horses since I was a horse-craze kid, so writing about anyone who rides—or about those lovely animals—is easy for me. The details are familiar to me, but I do have to stop and think about making sure I don’t dip into jargon that will leave a non-horsey person scratching their head. Some terms like ‘a sweet-goer’ are self-explanator, but others such as a ‘bog spavin’ could throw a reader out of a story, so again it’s about thinking of the right details and being careful to choose the right ones.

I often think this is similar to constructing a painting. If you work in oils, you have to think about shapes, colors, and contrasts. You have to look at light and shadow, and what to put on the canvas to convey the images you see either in font of you or in your mind’s eye. You have to choose details to put in or leave out with the brush strokes you put onto the canvas. Too much and the painting can become a muddy mess. Too little and the canvas ends with blank spaces, leaving the image unfinished to anyone who views it.

This is where layering can help. It’s difficult to get all the details you want into one pass, or one revision or edit. You may have to do one that is just about putting in the right touches for the setting, and another that is about putting in the right details for just one main character. And yet another edit to put in the right touches for the mood of the scene with weather, scents, the feel of the air, and other details that make the world vivid to the reader. Sometimes you may need to get out in the world to get that right detail. It’s hard to know that a barn smells of leather, hay and horse—a wonderful musky mix—if you’ve never been inside a barn, with the soft nickers of horses asking for some grain as you pass by, or shifting in their stalls, straw crunching under their hooves. It’s tough to know that if you slam a poker down on a wooden box, the vibration is going to travel up your arm unless you do this (yes, I did this for a scene in A Much Compromised Lady because I needed that ‘right’ detail). You might not think about the vibrancy of wildflowers in a pasture—bright yellow, softer pinks, pale purples—breaking like a wave under a summer breeze unless you’ve seen this. Experience—writing what you know—helps a lot. So does enough immersion in research.

Immersion in your fictional world comes from thinking about it, from delving into books about the subject you need to know (there always seems to be something new for a story that you have to find out about—I needed to know the weather in 1815 Paris, and I was happy enough to have been there to know spring can be miserable and wet, with splashes of sudden sunlight between fast-scudding clouds). The right details can also come from talking to people who know an area or a subject, so you can get those specific details that will realize the world for you and for the reader.  

You want to keep looking for those right details—the vivid ones, the perfect touch. It is that one dab of titanium white against aquamarine that makes those colors into a wave. It is the specs of umber against strokes of green that reveal seeds sprouting from grass. It is the right detail that makes your character suddenly different from all other characters, and shows your character to the reader because you got the details onto the page and into your story.

It’s in the Details

SummerFlowersRecently a discussion came up about the details in a book–the writer was changing them on the fly. This made for a confusing read, but it also got me thinking. Not about the need for copy or line edits, but about the details in any story. To me, it’s all about the details.

I’m a writer who needs to see a scene in my mind. I also need to have the smells vivid, and all the senses involved. Is it cold out, hot, windy, dry, damp? What are the background noises like? These are the things that make a story come alive for me–not just as a writer, but as a reader. It’s the stuff every writer needs to think about–and to weave into the story.

Now this isn’t about dumping a ton of details onto a reader. But think about a great painting. There’s thought behind the art–there is also contrasts of light and dark, there’s attention to what takes up space and what space is left empty. The same goes for a great movie–the details that surround not just the character but the settings are layered in with great attention.

Those details all pile up to mean something. Every detail should matter. What a character chooses to wear, to eat, to drive (or ride if it’s a historical) all matter. You don’t want to stuff your character into generic clothing–the colors, the textures, the styles all mean something. We show our personalities in what we choose to wear, in the jewelry we select, the tattoos we get, the hair styles we adopt. And our settings–the furniture, and how its cared for (or not)–all mean something about who we are as people.

InkonrocksSo, writers, pay attention to the details. Don’t go for the general–be specific. Be vivid. Don’t settle for black as a color. Is that a black really a deep brown which is visible in edges and tips? Or is it a deep black that reflects blue in the light? Or is it a flat, dull black like cheep hair dye? Does the wind have a cold bite that stings the skin or is it a soft warmth? Experience the world through a fresh set of senses and bring the reader with you by going for details that really create a strong scene. Weave in the tastes that travel in the air and linger on the tongue. Use sounds that jar or relax or add tension. Add the touch of the breath of the country-side which is different than in the city where it can press on the skin, heavy and hard. Describe the smells that evoke feelings of coming home (home-made bread) or feelings of unease (the stench of decay). And use the sights that your character drinks in–for what a character notices says a lot about that person.

Be vivid–and pay attention to your own stories. Make them better than real. That’s what we all want to read.


Make Your Scenes Real

mealVery often when I’m reading a manuscript for another writer the scenes will fall flat. The primary reason for this is that I (as a reader) am not pulled into the scene. The world feels flat because the only description is a little bit of what can be seen. When you neglect the other senses, the scene suffers. To be plausible, a scene needs to pull in the reader by using all the senses so the reader experiences the world.

So how do you weave in the five senses–sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste–without overloading the scene or the reader? Here are a few tips.

1-Start with the strongest sensation. What would your character notice first? Give that to the reader first, too.

For example, here’s a description from Burn Baby Burn where the heroine, Mackenzie, walks into a building on the edge of purgatory:

No reception desk. No chairs for waiting. Just lots of black marble, and the painful graffiti of demon-Aramaic dripping red across the ceiling and floor. Someone had also turned the air conditioning to ice-burn cold.

The chill crept along her skin as she walked, and it slipped through the soles of her boots.

Notice that the sense here is touch (the cold touching Mackenzie). There’s a little description of what can be seen (people are visual), but the strongest sensation here is of cold. So the details focus on providing that detail, and that sense is used to make the scene more real and vivid for the reader.

2-Be specific. The more specific, the better. If you say, He smelled like the woods. That’s nice. It’s poetic. But woods can smell moldy, damp, or like pine and very fresh and dry, or like a lot of things. And many readers have never been out of the city. So “woods” is not a specific description or smell. You want to layer in details that make the sense specific.

Here’s another example from Burn Baby Burn:

The half dozen other times she’d had to come down to this musty hole—and every time it had been to dig Josh out of his research—she’d thought it looked like the stacks at UCLA’s library. Miles of tall shelves with wide, leather-bound books stretched into climate controlled coolness. It smelled like library stacks, too—like dry, old paper. The place left her itchy. But any memory of college did that.

Notice the words used. Musty. Dry, old paper. A comparison is made to library stacks, so if the reader’s ever been in stacks, this will make the scene vivid. But even someone who hasn’t ever been into any library still gets the details of leather, dryness, mustiness. The more specific your details, the more the reader will “sense” the scene. Or in this case, smell the scene.

3-Go for the unexpected. If you use the usual descriptions this makes the world seem cliche. You want sensations that stand out and catch the reader.

Again, here’s an example from Burn Baby Burn:

Before she could think about it, she had him in her arms and had her tongue tangling with his. She heard his gun thud against the floor about the same time as hers, and she had her fists on his shirt to rip it off so she could get to his skin because she needed to touch him. And, oh, hell, could the man kiss—pushy and demanding, and just enough bite to make it interesting. He tasted of cherries, and if she didn’t get him on the floor in the next ten seconds, she’d die.

The guy Mackenzie is kissing tastes of cherries because he just drank a cherry Slurpee, so it’s logical that the taste would still be on his lips. This also avoids the cliche of him tasking like “man” or something else that would be too vague and not really locked into the scene and the character. Notice here, too, that we have both touch and taste being important, which shows the intimacy (you’re generally more into touch and taste and smell when you are really close to someone physically).

4-Look to contrast senses. A beautiful place that smells bad. A creepy sound along with a sensual touch along the skin. Contrast are always more interesting.

For example, in Burn Baby Burn Mackenzie walks into a beautiful house:

The rooms had a faint scent of lavender, and something else vaguely familiar. Stopping, Mackenzie took in a deep breath, and realized it was mint—with a vague hint of cloves, and something a little off. She’d know the scent of Josh’s charms anywhere, but this smell had a sour tang that made her want to open windows to air out the place.

So the house is described in a way that seems inviting, but the sour tang gives the reader an uneasy sensation that something is off in this place (and it really is).

5-Remember that a reader needs to be introduced to characters and to settings. This is where description is vital, and you do need to provide the right amount of description so the readers can see the characters and the world. This is very important in the first part of any story where everything is new to the reader.

Here’s a character introduction from Burn Baby Burn:

Glancing at the driver, she came up with an alpha silverback gorilla vibe; short hair going gray, and a lot of long-limbed muscle. The black dress shirt, rolled back at the cuffs and open at the throat, added to the image. And his khakis had not come off any rack. Judging by the expensive clothes and the weapon-edged angles to a face half-hidden by reflective aviator shades, she’d go for another line of work as this guy’s main vocation.

Notice that by putting the description in Mackenzie’s viewpoint it shows the reader what Mackenzie is seeing and thinking. That helps the description avoid the “laundry list” of physical assets. Also, this is where you can get a little lyrical and tell the reader a little not just about what someone looks like but what emotion does that look inspire.

Remember, all the senses help to convey an emotional reaction.

6-Use dialogue. The line from Star Wars, “What an incredible smell you’ve discovered,” delivered with sarcasm does more than say that it smells bad.

Here’s a similar line from Burn Baby Burn:

“This house smells of blood.”

The words came out a deep rumble, and Mackenzie glanced at Felix. Was this his way of saying this place creeped him out, too? Or maybe that he felt all homey because of it?

Have your characters react to the world in ways that help realize the world for your readers.

Details, Details, Details

One of the biggest challenges with any historical novel is getting the details right. In the modern world, you can often go experience something instead of pulling the research out of the book. You can talk to a doctor, or a cop, or an EMT and get a lot of great details that you need. With any historical, the details often have to come second-hand from someone’s research.  The biggest trick in all of this is what’s enough?

The first thing you will always want to do with a cool fact is to share this–too many cool facts dug up in research and you can end up with a travel guide, not a story. This is where a reader can help a lot.

Border BrideWith my Regency novella, Border Bride, I wanted the details for the elopement to Gretna Green to be as accurate as possible–and I had dug up a lot of great details from Cary’s Itinerary (a terrific travel guide of the era). Handing the story to a reader, however, turned up the issue that the story was now reading like a travel guide, too. Too many details got in the way of the story. A little editing and the story was back up front where it needed to be.

Stolen AwayFor Stolen Away, another Regency novella, again a carriage ride featured in the story–more elopements, but this one not voluntary on the bride’s part. This was where my experiences with horses helped a lot–I know what it’s like to ride in a carriage and a cart, so those details came easily. But, again, the details had to be there to support the story.

But what do details give you?

Details are what make the world come alive for a reader. And the right details make the difference between a flat one-dimensional character and a fully alive character. This is where you have to know your world and your people. It’s more than just the color of someone’s eyes–it’s about how does that person express emotion (what details give away the emotion to the reader). It’s about the tastes, smells, sounds, and other senses that bring the world alive–what’s the weather like (and does the character like cold weather or hot?)? Sounds and smells are often overlooked details, and are some of the most evocative in terms of putting the reader into a place and time.

Silver LinksIn Silver Links, another Regency novella, the coastline became an important setting–the couple in the book met in Devon, near the coast. The smells of the sea became a part of the book–the sounds, too. And the heroine’s retreat from London to Devon was a vital part of the story. It both gave the heroine time to think about her problems, but it also became a symbol of renewal in the story.

And that’s something else that details provide–they become part of the story’s theme (which is why Silver Links is named that–it’s named that for the links of necklace that is broken, and it’s symbolic of the links of trust broken in the story as well).

So next time you’re reading–or writing–think about what are the right details for the scene? What do you need to put the reader in the room with the characters? What details will work with your theme?

Look for details that are not cliche–these will tend to leap to mind, so dig past them. Go for the detail that comes to mind after you’ve discarded four or five other ideas. Maybe the first idea that comes to mind are flowers and the scent of them–but that’s been used so often (flowers for love, flowers for death). That’s a good time to think deeper–to look at your characters and what would be meaningful to those characters. In a historical novel, those details need context, too. And that’s where you go back to your research to find the right detail you need–but just that one right detail.