Thursday, July 2, 2009

Feel the story...Be the story

Dear Diary,

I'm on vacation this week...

Our family had plans to go to Montana for a week of boating and fishing, but with all the rain Colorado has experienced these last few weeks, the promise of hot, dry air made my painting contractor husband itch to catch up on jobs and my farmer daughter needs to cut hay.

Oh, dear Diary, what's a girl to do with a week's vacation, no family in the house, and a gob of housework waiting for attention??


I'm in the final throws of this manuscript and can't seem to get beyond flat writing. Oh, I still love the story, but something is missing. The missing link is lack of definitive placement of the five senses. You can smell baking bread anywhere, just like you can taste chocolate (yumbola!), feel satin, listen to music, and see a gorgeous hero : ) Make these sense come alive to your specific setting. That's what I'm talking about!

With Colorado being my choice of setting, how could I make my story distinctive and exclusive to the mountain setting? Why should I even be asking this question? I've lived here almost all my life! Why does my fictious mountain town and ranch sound like Anyplace, USA?

Time for research. I took a field trip.

About 15 minutes from my house is a lovely canyon leading into Rocky Mountain National Park. Camera in hand, I drove to one of the many trailheads, parked and took a hike.

In one scene, my characters are fishing in a stream. The sound of the rushing water of the river in high runoff filled the air. White water dominated places while quiet pockets of still water gave kids picnicking with their folks a chance to dip their feet into the icy water. The sight of rocks jutting out into the fast current; fallen logs lodged and embedded in the river bottom; green, lush willows, aspens, cottonwoods co-existing with pines. The smell of cold, fresh, clean water coupled with the feel of the spray of water misting my face made me want to pull up a rock and stay awhile.

How about character? Why would I want to place a fence of chainlink or whitewash slats when rough hewn pine will fill the bill nicely? Simple, sturdy, specific. I wish I had one of these models encasing my yard : )

Don't forget the background color! Delicate flora and fauna can enhance smell, not only for the fragrance, but don't forget allergy sufferers (our characters are real, aren't they?). The touch of velvety petals, prickly cactus, sticky milkweed. Have you ever tasted dandelion leaves or sap on a bark?

Think about deer and antelope playing...Well here, I have deer and cattle grazing.

Whether writing about the city or country, remember to include the supporting cast! Name them! Invite them on stage!

And this wonderful image is not catalogued in my Sunday afternoon photo library, but the image is emblazoned on my heart...

...gotta love those cowboys!!

A sight I never get tired of : )

I've written Historical Romance, Romantic Suspense, and Contemporaries. But my heart belongs to cowboys. Glad all this wonderful research is all around me rather than just at my fingertips.

What's your chosen genre? How do you research your setting?

We can always use tips!!


  1. Cowboy pancakes for breakfast.

    Who doesn't love a cowboy? No really. If you don't love a cowboy I want to know why not?

    There is nothing more mysterious than what is under that Stetson.

  2. cool photos and a good look at your area.
    now this may sound really silly but when I was in Washington state last year on the bus from Vancouver to visit my friend near Seattle I saw a barn just like we see on tv shows and (now remember im an aussie) I was wow they really have barns like that in america. I know when you see the barns on the shows that they would be realistic but they are so different from aussie sheds (we dont really call them barns more woolsheds or sheds and stables and hay stacks) So I can understand what you are saying about the different areas and the senses.

  3. Audra, lovely, lovely, lovely. I felt the setting, heard the water and smelled the fresh grass, the wildflowers, the scent of fresh water rushing over moss-covered stones.

    Love it.

    And about the cowboy?

    Oh my stars, I'm SO BUYING Dave a cowboy hat. Just because.

    And maybe a horse.


    Jenny, you're so right. When I watch some beloved Aussie faves, (Man from Snowy River, A Town Like Alice) the 'sheds' are long, worn Morton buildings that a lot of newer farmers are building around here because they're more cost effective. And the new ones are in bold colors, bright red, deep green, gold, brown, and trimmed in a complementary color, but there's something intrinsically rugged about those Aussie sheds.

    And Aussie cowboys. Brian Brown. Are ya' kiddin' me??? Tom Burlinson?

    Be still my heart!!!

    So cowboy pancakes it is. With twin berry syrup from wild strawberries and blueberries picked in Audra's valley and syruped on the cowboy's old but serviceable stove.

    By the heroine, of course!


    And how about some oranges, fresh from California. And gallons of coffee.

    Dig in. It's breakfast time in Seekerville. All are welcome.


  4. Good morning, Audra, what a fun post to see pics from a walk outside your very door!! I could see, feel, smell and hear everything around you, and I'm jealous!!

    Especially about the cowboys!! You live, move and breathe with them out there while I have to tune in to AMC or Wild Country dancing to get my fill. Sigh.

    But you are SOOO right about "feeling the story, being the story." I do this a lot with emotions I'm trying to evoke in a character which at times, will have me crawling on the floor to emulate a certain character action, scowling into a mirror I keep by my desk or asking my husband to stand up so I can see if a 5'2" girl can kiss a 6'2" man with ease. When it comes to emotions, I think we definitely need to "see it, feel it" ... or at least I do!

    My chosen genre is historical family-saga romance, and I do most of my research on the Internet, but I do have a ton of great websites and tips that help me. I can't list them all here, but you can find them in an article I wrote about historical research for the May issue of the Christian Fiction Online Magazine. I don't have the link because it hasn't been put into the archives yet, but I will give the link in a blog interview/book giveaway I'm doing on Myra Johnson's blog July 9-11, so if you are interested, check out my website calendar at, which will take you directly to the interview/giveaway on Myra's blog during the appropriate dates.

    Thanks for the fun post, Audra-kins!


  5. Oh my! My post seems to have technical difficulties! And it looked so good the way I had it laid out in *preview*

    Preview lied.

    Good morning everyone! Tina, thanks for making the cowboy pancakes and Ruthy for the great berry syrups! Fresh oranges, too.
    Love it!

    Hi Jenny! Even in the US we have different styles of barns. If you go to New York State and visit Ruthy, you'll find barns and outbuildings different from me here in Colorado or Pam in Mississippi,or even Glynna and Sandra in Arizona.

    We have a farm up in Montana. It came with a great old barn, but they didn't really do anything in it. All the work took place in this loooooong shed compartmentalized in pens, stalls, rooms, open areas. I'd never seen anything like it. When I asked a neighbor, he said the weather was so unpredicatable and extreme, if they wanted to get work done, they needed to move most of it indoors.

    How cool is that? As long as I didn't have to clean up after the critters, I'm all for climate control : )

    Getting hungry! Just pulled some lovely pecan rolls out of the oven. Is the coffee on?

  6. Great post, Audra! Setting details and descriptions are things I forget about while I'm writing the story and have to add in later. In my current WIP, all I have to do is look outside to see what's blooming and growing, since it's set right here.

    Which reminds me. Gotta go revise and add some setting details.

  7. Okay... Hugh Jackman on kind of cowboy!An accent & wicked sense of humor ;-)

    Wait, got a bit distracted by that mental image. I like to write historical and contemporary, but most of my books are set in the Blue Ridge mountains, where I live and have grown up. I like to take a walk like Audra and 'feel' the scene. I also have a lot of fun being around people from the area and listening to their accents, phrases, and wording. Lots of the lingo around here has been the same for a VERY long time.

    Since visiting the Peak District in England, some of my novels are set there...and I guess since I can't travel there whenever I want, taking about 600 pictures will have to do :-)

    Do cowboy pancakes make one talk like John Wayne? Just curious. That's what my dad says ;-)

  8. Mornin' Melanie and Pepper!

    I love living what I write. When I wrote Historicals, they were set in England. My mom used to tell me stories of her adventures in England during the war. SHE lived my novels : ) I just got to go to the library and check out books.

    Pepper, if I'd the chance to visit England, I'm certain I could have added sensory elements not found in books or the Internet.

    When I wrote Romantic Suspense, my story was set in the Baltic region and Russia - again b/c of the stories my folks told me since they were born in Lithuania. Folklore and memories make for good tales, but inserting the five sense became a bit of a challenge.

    Hmmm, eat cowboy pancakes and talk like John Wayne? Sounds like fun! I'll throw some jerky in and see where our conversation goes : )

  9. Audra,
    How wonderful that you could grow your novels through the stories of your fantastic. I do that with my grandma, especially since in Appalachia oral storytelling is a BIG deal...maybe because illiteracy is still really high people could only pass along stories by mouth, but it also adds a dimension to the stories you can get in black-and-white print, right? "Folklore & memories" are wonderful story starters.

    I know traveling helps with the senses, but there are plenty of novels where the authors never traveled to the site and it's fantastically your post :-)

  10. I'll mozy on over to Christian Fiction Online Magazine and take a peek, Julie!

    Wild Country dancing, huh? Gotta check this out : ) Funny, I can SEE you working out the mechanics of 5'2" kissing 6'2". LOL!

    Julie, whatever you're doing for research, it's working. Are you sure you're not a throwback from ol' time Boston?

  11. What a great reminder to step out my back door and smell the roses, although I think my next project should be in an exotic location so I have to do some "research." :-)

    As for the cowboy debate, I must admit I'm a city girl and prefer a man in a polo shirt or business suit. But - if my husband decided to put a cowboy hat on his handsome head, I certainly wouldn't kick him out of the house! :-)

  12. Audra, I'd love to read a book set in the Baltics! I love reading about different locations.

    Love your pics and the reminder to use our senses to the maximum.

    I write about Newport, Rhode Island during the Gilded Age--turn-of-the-century. My husband and I are hoping to vacation there in October. I haven't been back in years and I need a big gulp of salt air.

    Great post.

  13. Good morning, Audra! Thanks for the delightful trip to the Rocky Mountains. Loved all the imagery. And can't wait to go back. We're camping with my brother's family in September, after the ACFW conference. It's during elk mating season. Should be interesting LOL.

    I write and love historicals. So far I've set mine in the Midwest--easy for me to access. So no cowboys for me. Yet. But I love them!

    Tina, thanks for the pancakes. I brought blueberries to put on top.

    Jenny, I love round barns. Not the cowboy show type, but interesting.

    Julie, I want to read your article! Sounds great!


  14. Hey, lay-out wise, it looks good on this end.

    Setting-wise, it has helped to go on road trips and take walks through the area I'm writing about, but it seems like it's never enough.

    I did look at Google Earth before we took a recent trip ... but no one told me that it "flattens" the features. When we had boots on the ground it was tougher than it looked!

    I wonder if we under use scent and touch in describing things.

  15. Good morning, Audra!

    Thanks for the wonderful reminder to get out there and really FEEL the story! I predominately write YA Fantasy so it's kind of hard for me to visit my settings in a physical sense. However, being from the South, my books always start out in a familiar setting with pine trees and bearded oaks (I lived in Savannah for a while...o to go back home...)

    I love this blog! Everyone is so funny and it feels like a real conversation and not just another online reading room! Thanks guys, and have a great weekend!


  16. Mornin' Sarah!

    One of my crit parteners is a city girl, max! She actually makes me laugh with some of her comments on my hero in current WIP. He's the executive in the ranch operation, having an office in Denver. She thinks he needs a business suit to work with the Cattlemen's Association. LOL!--with her right over coffee, nontheless. Makes me stop and think though. How many others make this assumption? So I had to add a couple of words to make his jeans and leather belt and simple shirt plausible.

    I hate it when people make me think!!

    Nothing wrong with polos, dockers and business suits!! Muscles are muscles no matter how you dress 'em!!

  17. Cara, anywhere back East in the fall is for me!! Make me feel Rhode Island and I'm a sucker for the story!

    Take and extra gulp of that salt air for me : )

    You go, girl!!

    Janet, thanks for bringing the blueberries. My favorite berry but here in the Front Range area, very short season. Have to eat them when they're at their peak!

    Your historicals capture the essence of the area! So much research goes into getting character details correct, it's a bonus when you can live the setting.

    I love it!

  18. Hi Ann,
    In preview, I had the words corresponding with the images, especially for the wildflowers and the animals. I'm glad imaginations can sort the images and descriptions where they belong : )

    Google Earth is a hoot! That's how I did a lot of my research in Russia. I wish it worked more like sky cam. I'd love to see real life video rather than out dated photos!!

    Jennifer, glad you like Seekerville! We're kinda partial to the place : )

    My little pea brain has enough of a time assimulating real life to try and create a fantasy land. You go, girl!!! I love judging YA in contests. The creative juices that flow through those chosen authors is definitely not something I can pick up at my local market!

    My Stetson is off to you!!

  19. Audra, this is a great reminder to me. I got into a nice rhythm last fall and winter of trying to do more NON-Google research. I haunted a few area museums and tried to get my hands on the displays...I didn't SNEAK, I BEGGED.

    They let me when it was possible. It really does make a difference in your writing, I think, to touch stuff, smell it, feel if it's heavy or light, look at the real deal in three dimensions.

    A Winchester 73, the gun that won the west.

    A hair picture, very weird and interesting.

    The old dresses, the feel of that rock solid wooden furniture.

    I haven't done it in a few months but I should.

    Good for you for wandering around a little with the camera.

    I really love that log fence. Is that what that call a split rail fence? Or is a split rail fence a log split down the middle.

    I need background stuff like this.
    You've given me so ideas.

  20. And the thing it...Mary goes on... that it's not just getting out and touching things for the purpose of describing them, but touching them, researching them off the computer is a REMINDER to make your story speak to the five senses.

  21. Hi Mary,
    I love museums, too. They can't help but smell old : )

    The fence I've photographed is a snake rail fence. It's not secured to the ground and can be moved.

    A split rail does have split logs and the posts are sunk into the ground.

    Boggles my mind that trees can grow that straight and that tall. Some day I'd love to go see the giant redwoods in California.

    I'll be sure to post a photo when I do : )

    And you're right about the reason for touchy feely--if I feel absorbed in the setting, it will become as much a character as the people.

    Fresh coffee brewing and all the prior talk of blueberries made me back muffins. Help yourself!!

  22. The Man from Snowy River--oh, yeah, a super-fav!!! And we finally rented Australia a few weeks ago. What is it about that accent that just sets me all a-quiver??? I even liked Crocodile Dundee!

    Great tips on really getting into your research, Audra! I love Google Earth but dislike it for the same reasons mentioned. At least it gives you a general lay of the land. Works nicely when your character is flying into an area and seeing it from above--LOL!

  23. Cowboys...sigh.

    I love to visit the places I write about. When I can't, I love to read the newspapers from the time and place, as well as any novels written in that location from that time period.

  24. Hi Audra:

    I love your pictures. I’m a big fan of embedding author pictures in eBooks. This is being done now, on an experimental basis, by eHarlequin.

    As a writing tip, I suggest an author think like an Eskimo who has over 20 different words for snow.

    Consider the wind for example. How many different kinds of air movement can you identify? How does each sound? How does each feel on the skin? What does the wind do to leaves and grasses and the surface of water? How do wind sounds change with intensity and temperature and time of day? What are nature’s natural wind chimes? The wind can whistle, hum, roar, whisper, warn, cool, twist, freeze, breeze, gust, die, etc.

    Expand each sense to the maximum. A wide array of possible sensory choices can better set a mood for the story as well as make the writing “come alive.”

    Five-sensing copy is also very important in advertising copywriting. As a copy editor, I would routinely circle sense words in copy. Almost inevitably, writers who knew all about 5-sensing copy, would still fail to do it or if they did use sense words, they would only use their dominant sense – usually sight.

    Some romance writing is what I call ‘sensory-deprived’. A writer may think she is five-sensing adequately when in reality there may be only one or two sense words every few pages.

    Think of trying this experiment: Color code the first ten pages of your current book. Here’s help: Yellow for sight, Red for hearing, Blue for smell, Green for taste, Brown for touch and Orange for hot or cold. (I consider temperature awareness as a sense for writing purposes).

    How colorful are your pages? Are your pages monochromatic? You don’t have to tell anyone.

    BTW, as important as the senses are, it is
    also important to involve the emotions. The various emotions can also be color-coded but that is a topic for another day.



  25. Crocodile Dundee! Loved that movie! And the funny thing is you have an average man who becomes larger than life simply by following his moral code and not getting seeped in attitude.

    Now THAT's a hero for you!

    Good, good, example Myra!

  26. Erica, I used to get so wrapped up in research, fascinated by the times, I did very little writing, LOL!

    Much easier to research what's just out your back door : )

  27. Vince, you are so right on! I think as writers we become lazy and use filler words to indicate rather than substantiate. Way too easy to say the wind blew.

    Or we used place holders and then forget to come back and replace them with description.

    I love the idea of color coding pages. I use a color coded threads chart to keep all my story elements in play. Hadn't thought of marking up my senses on the page. Great suggestion!

  28. I recently attended a conference where DiAnn Mills spoke. She recommended the book "Word Painting" by Rebecca McClanahan. I've been reading it for a few weeks and it's a lovely reminder & teacher about descriptive writing...using the senses.

  29. Audra, thanks for the reminder to get out and smell the roses or whatever other stuff is in our novels. It's hard to remember when we're sitting in front of our computers.

    And, Vince, great idea for color coding!

    I'm also in the middle of adding more sensory details to my book so this post was perfect for today.

    As for research, I do field trips to various locations in my WIP to absorb all aspects of the setting and scribble notes like crazy. It's even added a few twists to the plot.

  30. I
    The Man from Snowy River. I havent' seen it in a while.

  31. I agree with unexpected plot twists, Candee. That snake rail fence has given me idea. But not for this book, LOL!

    You have to get out and explore! We're writers. We sit in front of computers. We will exhaust our ideas if we don't keep filling the well.

    And if the replenishment of the well feels good and smells good along the way, count it bonus : )

  32. Wow, Audra! Your post is a feast for the eyes. Talk about kicking our senses into gear. And then that last one. (Anita raises her hand as she reads Tina's question.) "I do, I do."

    So far I've written all romances:
    - contemporary western secular
    - inspy contemporary
    - inspy historical
    - and I'm working on an inspy romantic suspense

    Most of my research is on the net and using Google Earth although I've made recce's to wip locations. And for my historical which is set on the prairies, I put my 'prairie' skirt on and walked through the hills on our prairie land. I noticed how the hem caught in the plants and wondered how many insects I dislodged as I walked. Since my heroine is kidnapped and spends weeks on the prairies, I wanted to experience it before I wrote about it.

  33. *grin*

    I write contemporary romance. For research, I watch the Bachelorette and rom com movies. It's tough research but someone's got to do it!

  34. Oh gosh, Audra, I've been gone all day and now when I checked back I notice my comment from this morning was posted by "Matt." Grin ... one of the drawbacks when your son and daughter-in-law move in while looking for a house and your college-age daughter moves home for the summer. I can show up as Julie, Matt, Katie or Amy apparently ... so glad you figured it out! :)

    And, no, I am not "a throwback from ol' time Boston," other than I loved Boston Baked Beans (the candy) as a kid and everything Colonial. Never even been to Boston before (except on the Internet), but I sure hope to go someday. But thanks for the compliment, sweetie. For somebody who HATES research, I guess I managed to pull the wool over some people's eyes ... :)


  35. Hi Anita!

    I love that you get dressed up prairie and walk miles their boots : ) Oh, wait, did you where the sturdy leather boots, summer and winter? NOW THAT is an experience I'm glad Payless Shoes saves me from : )

    Careful what you pick out of your hem, LOL!

  36. Krista, what can I say? It's great when you love your job : )

  37. Hiya Matt, or Julie, or whoever you want to be today, sweetstuff : )

    Are you kidding me? You've never been to Boston? Lovely city, except for the airport. Did you know that in order to go west, they take off going east over all that water, do a slow turn and then cruise to Colorado?

    I'm NOT a fan of flying and then flying over the water...

    I think I'll take all future Boston jones, and quench them in my favorite Julie Lessman novels, thank you very much : )

    Thanks for revealing your true identity : )

  38. its interesting my comment about barns got onto the aussie cowboys only in australia they are called Jackaroo's or as in The Man from snowy river, (mountain men)
    My Dad was what you may call a cowboy he worked as a farm hand alot of his life working with cattle, sheep etc. But in the outback they are called Jackaroo's.
    It is interesting how things are different.
    The barn I saw was the ones with a red roof I think and it was not rounded but sort of angled then a flat roof. but similar to what I have seen on tv.

  39. Oh Audra, thank you! I'm a Colorado native and of course, following the "write what you know" rule, Colorado is my setting of choice as well. Living here it's so easy to become familiar with all the sensory stimuli around us, and easy to forget the smell of sage and rabbit brush and the fact that Colorado raindrops are COLD, regardless of the season... I'm sure it's the same for every writer, no matter where we live. Thanks for the reminder to wake up to the story setting around us!

  40. This makes me want to set a story in Colorado. I've never been there - wanna give me the tour? ;)

    I write contemporary women's fiction set in Western Michigan. I've lived here my whole life and love it! I have a hard time calling land-locked puddles "lakes" because I've always been no further than 10 miles from Lake Michigan. It's fabulous :)

    And I love the "research"...long days strolling along the beach, driving to the hilltops to see the's a rough life :)

  41. I think I may have a problem with setting in my first manuscript as most of it takes place inside of a building. They are inside a concrete research facility. I do describe it in a couple different places, and how they attempt to... escape it in reality and in... their minds? I know I'm not making that clear, but it would take too long.

    I was just wondering if since the setting doesn't vary much, and doesn't have much interest in my case, if it needs to have as much attention dedicated to it as in most works. Every time it varied, effected the plot or their actions I talked about it, but once it was established, I just didn't mention much about it. I didn't think it would be interesting to the readers.

    Any hints or thoughts?

  42. Oh, Audra, how gorgeous! Love the photos! And I with your description, I feel like I've been on vacation.

    I can't wait for you to sell so I can read one of your books! (I love those coyboys, too.) :)

  43. This is an awesome post! Gorgeous landscape.

    Can't want to see your books in print girl!


  44. Hey Niki, thanks for reminding me about the raindrops! Yes! They are cold no matter what season they fall!

    I went to school for two years in Miami, FL. Oddest thing. You'd see a rain storm coming, then realize, it's raining cats and dogs across the street, and not on you. Bizarre! Just a sheet of rain. Can't say that about Colorado, but if I ever think of a book for FL, THAT is going to be in it!

  45. LOL, Karin! Rough life, but someone has to do it : )

    I used to work for Herman Miller in Zeeland, MI. When we had to take clients on factory tours, we'd fly into Chicago and take a connecting flight to Grand Rapids.

    Flying over Lake Michigan is like flying over the ocean! I'm sure you get a chuckle out of puddles some folks call lakes : )

    Keep taking those nature hikes!

  46. Hmm, Lee, good question.

    I've always considered a well rounded book to treat the supporting cast as characters.

    If you're writing Suspense, the setting can play a very important role. Think about the sounds that rattle around the mechanical system or equipment. What if you didn't hear them? Does that mean someone is tampering?

    A research facility can have it's own set of scents - sterile clean rooms, overheating equipement, carpet, chemicals.

    Are the surfaces cold and sterile to the touch? Sharp instruments, abrasive surfaces, plastic or fabric...

    I'm just tossing out ideas to get you thinking. Make you setting specific to your story. Give it personality. You never know WHAT people remember about your book.

    Never overlook an opportunity to leave an impression.

    Good luck!

  47. Hi Cheryl! Hi Missy!

    Can't wait until the ACFW conference and maybe we can take a field trip : )