Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Pinch of Reality Goes A Long Way

Good morning everyone!!

Last month I gabbed about flat writing – you know, a story that can be plopped into any kind of setting. Nothing in the descriptive setting identifies the world you created as unique to your story. Nothing to make the reader feel like they are in another world.

How about if we take that a step further and make the reader feel the scene you’ve created?

Our county fair is running this week and I have a camera in my hand the entire time. Since my current WIP has a carnival scene, I thought how perfect is this! We can analyze all the little details that make this event come alive to the reader. With the advent of digital cameras, I no longer hold back for fear of high printing costs. I snap photos of everything. I never know what I might find and use in a scene.

Have you ever walked through an Exhibit Building? Vendors in booths designed to showcase their products. Jams, jellies, baked goods; clothing, costumes, jewelry; sculptures, woodworking, photography? All those items are part and parcel with the territory, you are not telling the vast majority of people something they don’t already know. How are you going to take ownership of this scene?

Let’s look at his young man for instance. Isn’t this typical behavior for any child independent enough to go after what he wants? If you’ve ever taken a child to any type of amusement area, you know picking mom’s pocket to get a token or money is as commonplace as cotton candy and popcorn.

How about the animal barns? I love wandering through the pens of sheep, goats and pigs. It’s so tempting to stroke fuzzy heads or help scratch the furry places rubbing against fence panels just can’t satisfy. All the pens have clean, fresh bedding. Tubs of clean water are tethered to metal rails either newly painted for the event, or dented and scraped from wear. But wait! How about this angle? One or two sentences about the showkids and their parents sitting in the aftermath of unloading and bedding down the exhibits crowds come to ooh and ahh over. Do we ever hear about the families who max out their fun meters before the show starts? Nothing more that a sentence or two – visual white noise.

This is the little stuff that makes your scenes come alive!

I just couldn’t resist this last picture. Young man, maybe 10 or 11, watching his sheep go through the scale at the weigh in to make sure it is within the prescribed boundaries for weight. Look at this young man – our cowboy of tomorrow. His hat is dirty, jeans worn and boots (complete with spurs) scuffed up enough to show he knows his way around livestock. Can’t you just imagine the interaction between your hero or heroine and this cowboy-in-training? Can't you just imagine this young man in another 15 or 20 years?

Hmmm, I can : )

Look at your scenes. Think beyond point A and include the area all around. Take pictures, cut up magazines, download travel brochures. Visuals converted into words can give the reader moments even Calgon can’t take away.

Okay, now your turn. Pick a scene in your WIP and pan out beyond the focal point. What do you see? What one slice of life will ground the reader in your world? You’ll be amazed where your imagination takes you!

Blessing to all!


  1. Wow! I'm up late in California and have the honor of being the first to leave a comment in Seekerville today. Awesome.

    Great post, Audra. I love bringing a scene to life. When I first began writing, I got the visuals nailed. OK, sometimes I went overboard with description, but my readers were sure to get the picture. :)

    Then I entered my first contest and had several judges suggest I add sensory detail. What? Did they mean smells, sounds and stuff like that? I picked up romances by some great inspirational authors and started reading. Sure enough, these talented women brought the scenes to life using all the senses. What a great lesson.

    Candace Calvert, author of Critical Care, left a comment on my blog post about this subject, which is one of the best I've heard: "Writing without sensory detail is like visiting someplace wonderful while wearing earplugs, a blindfold, gloves . . . while having a cold that plugs up your nose."

    It's been quite hot in California these days, so I'll share my big pitcher of sun tea with anyone who wants a glass.

  2. Susan May Warren created a scene in Wiser Than Serpents that was set in Thailand. It was so vivid, so real. I'll never forget it.

    Our country fair is next week. I always have my camera with me, but I'll be sure to look for those hidden treasures that can be used in a book. I have a harvest festival in my current WIP, but it has some of the same sensory experiences.

    Thanks for the great suggestions!

  3. Good morning, Keli! You are still up? Wow, not since college days : ) I'm pretty worthless after 10:00 pm LOL

    Sensory detail will make or break a scene. Excellent advice from Candace Calvert! Thanks for sharing!

    Breakfast burritoes are freshly stuffed and pitchers of fresh squeezed orange juice are sitting right next to Keli's sun tea. Help yourselves : )

  4. Mornin' Lisa : )

    I love Susan's style and voice. It didn't matter where her plot unfolded, you tasted the countryside around you. She's such a talented writer.

    You go, girl! Grab that camera and go to the fair! I love festivals, too. Around here there are plenty of harvest festivals.

    Love 'em.

    We went to MN a few years ago and my friend to me to their local festival -- The Carp Festival!!


    I never knew you could make so many things out of a carp. Including carp jerky. My kids thought the entire experience was a hoot!

    My, my, my. The things we celebrate : )

  5. Good morning, Audra. Excellent thoughts on enriching our descriptions using details we can capture with our cameras. Works far better than my memory!

    I enjoyed your photo tour of the fair. Our family attended our State Fair a few years ago. In the rabbit house they noticed the awards sounded like ways to cook the bunnies. They were horrified. Obviously we're city folks.

    Thanks for sharing Candace Culvert's excellent comment on sensory detail, Keli. From now on when I'm writing, I'll think about peeling off the gloves, blindfold, earplugs and using my Netie pot.

    Yummy burritoes, Audra!


  6. It was one am and I was working on a scene and stopped by to read your post, Audra. And you made me realize how I could make the scene more intimate by giving the reader a real inside picture of the setting.

    Thank you.

  7. Oooo, Audra, "visual white noise"!!! Love that analogy, and it is SO true!!

    I just wrote a wedding scene where I had the heroine talking to her best friend in a foyer full of people, but I kept feeling that I needed "white noise" to fill in the audio, the touch, the taste, the sight of such a scene. I didn't have a camera to capture these scenes from a past wedding, but I do have the lens of my memory and boy, when it comes to writing, a picture is definitely worth a thousand words ... even if it is just a memory!


  8. Hi Janet!

    LOL! 101 things to do with a rabbit -- besides eating it! The poultry just left our fair and the rabbits have moved in. I can't spend much time in the rabbit barn or I'll come home with *friends* : )

    I agree, I love how Candace Calvert summed up the sensory perception. I think at times we forget those little details because they are so common place to us.

    Lots of little details to catch in the final draft, right?

    Since zucchini is alive and well in the Harders' garden, I've baked a quick loaf of bread. Enjoy!

  9. Morning Tina, Julie!

    One in the morning! Another night owl. Tina, your schedule is amazing! Glad you spent a moment taking a peek at the post : )

    Julie, why doesn't it surprise me that you can conjure up romantic, wedding scenes at the drop of bouquet?? Love you for you creativity and a whole lot more!!

  10. Audra, what a great phrase, "visual white noise". The things we see without seeing.

    Oh my stars, that's a perfect way of looking at attacking all senses.

    And Kelli, been there, done that. Never even thought about it initially because when it's seamlessly done, sensory writing wafts through the manuscript unseen. Un-noted.

    So, breakfast burritos? Are you kidding me? I have to fit into clothes for Denver, Audra-kins. Oh my stars, how will I ever zip those jeans?????

    Thank God for elastic.


    Deepening threads through sensory perception and hints of conflict is a huge part of strong writing and I don't think it's learned easily. Or maybe I'm denser than others.

    Audra, your young cowboy??? Remind you of any young cowboy (or potential cowboy) in any books you've read/written lately? Cute as a button, a hint of swagger in the stance and tilt of the hat.

    Some cowboys are simply born.


  11. I was at our county fair last week and these pictures and thoughts brought all the images right back.

    The smell of cotton candy, sawdust, barns and sunshine. The sight of so many 4-H kids strolling the midway in cowboy boots and hats, and for one week a year being way cooler than the 'city kids' because they are part of the fair brotherhood...ah, those were the days.

  12. Thanks, Audra! This is a great reminder for me, since I'm usually so anxious to get on with the story that I tend to leave out the sensory details.

  13. Ruthy, have a burrito or two. You still have a few weeks before Denver. Besides, our air is much thinner than WNY. Why, you'll practically float away!!!

    Okay, I have a confession. That young man is actually in my 4-H club. Yes, he's BORN cowboy. Zane (don't you just love that name??) has been riding horses since before he could walk. He's won beltbuckles he'll eventually grow into and he has the cowboy swagger down pat!

    Yep, when I finish writing cows, Zane is going to show up in a horse book : )

  14. Erica! Yes! The Fair Brotherhood!

    Ha, I can see you are no stranger to the barns : ) Love the off the top of you head details, especially the kids strolling down the midway.

    My kids spent Tuesday shopping for Fair Wear. Gotta get those Cinch jeans and shirts!


    They're showing sheep today. I'll let you know how that goes... : )

  15. LOL, Melanie!

    Your post on Jane Austen yesterday is so full, so firm, so fully packed with details! The little critters must ooze out of you without you even knowing it : )

    Wish I had that problem : )

    Grab a burrito and let's chat...

  16. Such great advice, Audra!! I loved the photos and all you made me think of.

    Gotta put this in my brain to remember while writing!!

  17. Audra--I bet Zane's parents were fans of western writer Zane Grey. Maybe? I sure was! Love the name.

    And great idea--taking snapshots to scrutinize later. I love digital!

  18. Oh my goodness, seeker gals, I am so excited.

    I get to come to the conference!!!!

    God's provided the funds AND we got to change our tickets back to China so I can fly to Denver! I am ABSOLUTELY thrilled to be able to meet many of you there.

    Now I've got to dig into the archives for all the wonderful info Tina's been sending about Denver, plus the great tips about agents, editors and the dos and don'ts. I'm sure to mess up somewhere! :) But I'm coming!!!

  19. Audra, for the record, I LOVE your setting and sensory descriptions. They are some of the strongest that I've read and I can't wait for the rest of the world to get to read them too!

    Great post!


  20. AA, we're so glad you're going to get to come to conference!

    Audra, the Z bread is sublime!!!



  21. Audra,
    Great post and needed reminder to me that we use more than our 'eyes' to create a scene.

    Anybody up for some chocolate cookie cake? Maybe after you guys eat lunch?

    A.A. Oh wow, I'm so happy for you. (and fighting envy). What a thrill and blessing!

  22. Hi Missy!

    I wish I could bring your sweet southern accent to light for readers. Now THAT'S audible sensation!!

  23. AA, glad you'll be here for conference! I'm so looking forward to meeting all the wonderful folks behind the posts : )

    PS, don't worry about messing up. We're all here to keep an eye on you!!

  24. Cheryl, I just pulled another loaf out of the oven. Sit down and have a slice smothered in I Can't Believe It's Not Butter -- gotta save those calories where we can : )

    I love having fellow Seekers give their .02 on my work. Hey, I've got the best in the biz right here in my backyard of cyberspace!! I'm certainly going to take advantage of the advice!!

  25. Pepper, sweetheart, chocolate is consumed any time of day or night! A chocolate cookie cake? I'm running for a plate : )

  26. Hi Audra, Loved the scenes of the fair. We were at a local Farmer's Market last weekend and it is fun to see all that old fashioned farm produce and animals.

    I'm betting that zucchini bread is delicious, but I'm stuffed from the burro. I'll save a piece of bread for this afternoon.

    I do love the sensory details in writing. They bring the story alive and heighten the emotion. Thanks for reminding us.

  27. Hi Sandra : )

    Burrito now, bread later. Works for me : )

    Isn't it funny how you can remember every detail of an event that happened years earlier simply by catching a whiff of a familiar smell? Touch and texture?

    Our minds are awesome creations!!

    Coat your work in sensory elements. Make it memorable!!

  28. First drafts tend to be a little flat, so one thing I do when I revise is find out whether I've incorporated all five senses. What would the MC smell, is there a taste or a sound? I love the fair! So many smells mingled together: elephant ears, caramel apples, animals.

  29. I hope I'm not too late to snag one of those breakfast burritos. Since my characters were chatting away and kept me up until 2 am CA time this morning, I slept in.

    Tara, this is second time in a week I've seen elephant ears mentioned in a blog post. I'd never heard of them before, nor have I seen, smelled or tasted them. Please describe them for me, and be sure to use all the sensory detail so I get the complete picture. :) Thx.

  30. LOL! Tara, Keli, elephant ears are the best! I like mine rolled in powder sugar, not cinnamon sugar : )

    Funnel cakes! Now that's what I'm talking about!! Powdered sugar on that, too.

    Here's a scoop hot off the sheep pen wire! Zane, the young man in my post, placed LAST in showmanship cuz his lamb went bronc wild in the ring. Ah, Zane handled it well. Tipped his black hat back, flashed a pair of dimples and said *yep, he's got spunk.*

    In the market class, he placed third. He was happy -- not because of his placing, but because his showing was over and he wanted to eat.

    What a hoot!! Life at the fair!!

    Okay, now I promise to get back to the business of writing : )

  31. Audra--Thanks so much for that 'looking out'! I'm going to need it! I appreciate all of the support Seeker friends show one another. It's awesome!

    Just out of curiosity, will you all be staying at the same hotel as the conference? Is that typical? Just trying to get everything squared away here. Thanks so much for your help!

    Pepper--Here's a hug 'cause I wish you were going to be there too! :)

  32. Great post, Audra! I think one thing that's often hard to keep in mind when writing is that what seems "commonplace" in our own little world may very well seem "exotic" and interesting to a reader who's not familiar with the setting. So we need to look at our 'common' world--especially if it's the world we're writing about--with fresh eyes and make it come alive for them. For others, who ARE familiar with the setting, we can strive to make it feel like a 'homecoming' through the details that will resonate with them.

  33. Good, good point, Glynna.

    How often do we take our everyday for granted while others sit and daydream over it? There's nothing special about my career, locale or appearance other than it's mine and I'd like to share.

    I'd like others to share their experiences, too. Isn't that one of the reasons folks read books?

  34. Hey Audra, my kids and I were a big part of the fair scene for many years. We won many awards for everything from our crafts, photography and baking. At one annual fair we even exhibited our rare breed chickens, ducks, etc and goats. 2005 was the last time the 4 of us exhibited. It was also our best year. When we put our winnings together, we ended up with $1030 cash and 1 plaque for that summer alone. We really enjoyed it. I think the most valuable lesson my kids learned (other than how to bake) was that they would win the best if they made the best.

    Thanks Audra, for for letting me brag about my kids. :)

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  36. Anita Mae!! You just brag all you want about those kids! Parents should celebrate their children's success!

    Heaven knows I do enough of it.

    I also don't hesitate to tell them they've messed up.

    I guess I'm a well-rounded parent, LOL!

    Glad you make the most of your local fair. Lots of lessons to be learned there!