Friday, June 11, 2010

Spectacular Settings: Avoiding bare walls and 3-sided houses

It never fails.

Except for the occasional low marks for "is this appropriate for the CBA market" (I don't call my books edgy, but they are more so than some) my lowest contest scores are for setting and/or sensory details.

I've tried to analyze why I evidently struggle with this and have come to a few conclusions.
  • I dislike books with too much details. I really don't care what hue the grass is, and need a paragraph describing the details of the room the character just stepped into, because well, *yawn*. So, in my own books, I tend to overcompensate and use too little detail sometimes, which can be just as bad!
  • I am an action kinda girl. I focus a lot of what is going on. I love dialogue, so the descriptions are something I have to work a lot harder at.
  • I'm naturally an "overlooker." Funny story. My husband gets irritated that I *ahem* sometimes forget to close a cabinet door in the kitchen. A few years ago, we all sat down for dinner one night, and I had to get up, walk through the kitchen, and get something out of the garage (can't remember what, go figure!) Anyway, I walked back in, walked through the kitchen, and sat at the table again. My husband sat there dumbfounded. I asked him what his problem was, and his mouth quirked to the side, and he said, "You really just don't notice it, do you?" Then he simply got up, went into the kitchen, and proceeded to close every kitchen cabinet and drawer. He had gotten up while I was in the garage and opened EVERY SINGLE ONE of them, wide as can be, just to see if I would notice. I failed his test, as it didn't even phase me. Some may call this scatterbrained, I choose to call it focused on my task:-)
So, what is a girl to do who tends to breeze over sensory details? Who LOVES a good dialogue and rolls her eyes at flowery descriptions of settings?

First, I realize that it's okay ... to a point. My books will never be lyrical ones that make someone intake their breath at the awe of the setting. They will appeal to those who like faster paced romance novels.

Second, I admit I have a problem. Knowing this is an area I'll always struggle with is important, as I can put extra attention on it during the editing process.

Third, and what I'm going to focus on today, is I equip myself with tools. At my heart, I'm a visually learner. I can describe something much better when I'm looking at it. Once I see it, I can then close my eyes and picture it. But if I haven't seen it, it's fuzzy at best.

Oh, wait, before I give you my tools, another funny note (I love funny stories, SORRY!) The other day, I was writing a scene in my WIP and trying to visualize the room, with not a lot of luck. I tried to draw it out on paper, and I realized quickly what was missing.

A wall.

That's right, my heroine's house had only 3 walls. Kinda like a TV sitcom set. I'd set it up so I could see it in my head, but if I turned around... all I saw was ... the reader (aka audience.) It was also then that I realized the house I was picturing in my head was really the one from Everybody Loves Raymond... Remember that show? Hilarious! Anyway, I digress ... I'd never realized I'd fashioned my heroine's home that way!

Okay, back to my point.

Here are a few tools that might help you fill those walls and have a complete, 4-sided house.
  1. Real-Estate. I've started to go online, usually in the area of where my setting is, and search for houses for sale. Not that I'm going to buy my character a house (wouldn't that be hilarious?) but using a real house as a mock-up is SO helpful. Not only can you see what "normal" houses are like for that area, but you can also find one with a decor that would fit your character and save the pictures you find online for use later when you are trying to visualize and add descriptions for your setting. *Note* Don't do what I did the first time and bookmark the page. Houses do sell occasionally ya know! Instead, right click and save the pics into a folder for your WIP. Some good websites are: or your local real-estate agent's website. Here in TN we have which I use a lot.
  2. Maps. Not just any ol' map, though. We live in a techno age where we can get satellite maps that go right down to a curb-side view sometimes. Scary, I can see my van parked in front of my house on google maps! This works great for helping you visualize your town, especially if you don't live near it and need to figure out what exactly is between the pizza parlor and the gas station. Even if you are using a fictional town, sometimes using a real town as a guideline is helpful too and can save some time and effort:-) Google Earth is also a good resource for this.
  3. Zillow. Similar to above, but I love Zillow because it will give you a TON of information on houses including a map and some information about the communities. Depending on the area, you can even find out what houses have sold for to give you an idea of if your character could really afford that 4 bedroom in the suburbs.
  4. SHOPPING. I don't do a lot of shopping online for my family, however I DO shop online for my characters. If I need a fun outfit that I'm having trouble visualizing, I might go to, or any other department store online and pick something out. Having a picture of the outfit my character is wearing sometimes helps me be able to describe him/her better. Or, I might need some cool home decor, so furniture stores online are great places to scope it out ( or ... just to name a few.)
  5. Take a Drive. Sometimes, when all else fails, get in the car and drive around. Be intentional about taking in the scenery, looking at landscape designs, picking out what your character's tastes would be. For me, I have to have this be my focus in order to take it in, as I rarely do if I'm driving around to "do" something else.
So what about you? Are you one that takes note of every detail, or are you an "overlooker" like myself? Regardless, what do you do to ground yourself in a setting and relay that to your reader without making them yawn?


Mia said...

Finally, someone else who hates writing setting ;) I think the biggest reason I tend to skim over setting is because, like you mentioned, I dislike reading paragraph after paragraph of description in books, and I like to get caught up in the action.

Strangely enough, I get most complimented on my descriptions, which is kind of odd for me. I'm like, hey, what about my life-like characters, the fast-paced suspense, the sparkling dialogue? *sigh* LOL.

To help me with description, I find a celebrity picture for each of my characters. I may change the hair color or eye color, but they help me to 'see' my characters. I also go to a place called Polyvore where you can create outfits. That really helps me with the clothing side of it.

Unknown said...

I'm also not big on long descriptive paragraphs. I like to get to the point. I went online and chose my character's wedding dress. That was fun!

Krista Phillips said...

Mia, GREAT point. Actually, ALL of next week we are focusing on "character picking" and each of us will reveal the pictures of our characters and a little of why we chose them:-) FUN stuff!

Ohhh, I'll have to check out Polyvore!

Julie, picking out a wedding dress for a character sounds SO much fun!!!

Krista Phillips said...

Oh, other note, Mia.

When I write, I try to "hide" my descriptions, meaning I trick my readers into knowing them by putting them in dialogue or cleaverly (in my opinion) adding them in narrative about something else.

I'm also a HUGE stickler for POV. I don't describe something in narrative unless the character's POV I am in would think/take notice of it.

Example: One of my books starts with a scene in a salon,and we are in the heroine/hairdresser's POV.

I give no description of scents or music playing or pictures of people's hair on the wall. SHe wouldn't take notice of these things because they are normal for her. I put you in the setting in narrative with little bits that show movement in the narrative, but some have told me I need to describe all the senses there. I don't because, again, I think it would be out of her POV and unnatural for her. I DO however describe those scents later in the book, when after she's been fired, she comes back weeks later and the scents are then not as normal to her and she recognizes them.

Do I do it completely right? Probably not. I probably need to add a little more description, and I'm working on it, but I recognize that at least a little bit of it is style.

Casey said...

GREAT post Krista (as always!). I am trying to get better at adding settiing to my stories, even just a few lines here or there to bring the world to life. But I know when I got back through my WIP and see what I need to fix, that will be something to add. I love that story your husband did to you. Too funny!

Cindy R. Wilson said...

I like your tips about real estate. I love knowing what my character's house would look like, so that's a good idea. I like to know the details, even if I don't use them in the story. It still helps me give a feel for what my town, etc. might be like.

Pepper said...

WONDERFUL post, Krista
I think you and I have a lot in common. I'm an action kind of girl too. I skip over long descrips because I want to get to the 'meat' of the story.
Which sometimes don't include as much setting as I ought to either :-(
Your tips are soooo good. I LOVE searching the realestate links online. Got my perfect houses for my contemp- It takes place in Derbyshire UK where I've visted, and so the houses are from that area.
I LOVE it that they include the blueprints for the house when you search. GREAT info - it was the spark for a mystery in my contemp. A subterranean passageway leading from the wine cellar of the house....and it was ON the blueprints.
LOVE IT! and it worked PERFECTLY into they historical subplot of my book.
Thanks for the great tips.

Kaye Dacus said...

I tend to be an over-describer in my first draft, knowing I'll have to pare it down later in revisions. But I "think" on the page, and since I'm a visual person, I "think" through the entire visual scope of the scene on the page. In contemporaries, it isn't quite as important as it is in historicals. Avid readers of historicals look for the details---the settings, the costumes, the modes of transportation, etc. And while we can provide these by knowing the terminology for these items (a close stool, a pelisse or a spencer, a barouche) so that those versed in that time period can immediately picture them, there must be some clue, some hint given as to what those items are (a chamber pot in a wooden case, a long outer jacket and a short outer jacket, a folding-top carriage with a high driver's seat and two facing seats inside) so those not well-versed in the time period can pick it up from context.

I like description---to a point. I want to know what a setting looks like without the character "casing the joint" and spending a couple of paragraphs detailing every last flower in the yard or urn and rug in the room (just edited a book like that---and it was supposed to be written from a man's POV. Ugh!).

The way I was taught to do it was to have the character interact with the setting. Pick up a carved wooden elephant, sit in the corner of the sectional sofa, cross to the window or the fire place, pull the blinds against the sun streaming in through the picture windows. That way, you're getting the setting description in (even if it's bare bones like the above examples) AND you're putting your character in motion.

Krista Phillips said...

Kaye, you just explained perfectly why I don't write Historicals... that and I just wouldn't be any good at it, lol! I LOVE reading them though.

I totally agree, getting your setting through motion is a GREAT way to do it, and is what I strive to do, although again, usually it's in the editing that I go back and add some of that in:-)

Casey, the great thing about that story with my husband, is that he has rarely complained about an open cupboard since then:-)

Cindy, great point too! Just because YOU know what it looks like, doesn't mean it's an important detail you HAVE to add in the story. I think just being immersed in the setting in your brain helps the needed details to come out more naturally on paper.

Pepper, WOOHOO, glad you have your perfect houses!! I just recently found my perfect house for an already completed book, one that I realized was lacking greatly in setting, so I'm hoping by having a picture in my head, I can go back and edit and slip in more details:-)

Mia said...

I agree, Krista :) My books usually have only 1 POV (someday I'll try 2 of them, but not just yet...), so describing my main characters can be difficult. Still, I refuse to write something like "I flicked my long, brown hair behind my back" because to me that just isn't natural. If I tuck my hair behind my ears, I do notice it, but I don't think about the color or length of my hair ;)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Okay, is it a bad thing that I like writing historicals and don't like to write setting and description? Yikes. Maybe I'm supposed to write contemporary! I'm gonna do like Kaye and try both. Surely I can shine in one...not many can do both like Kaye. :)

I have never thought about using Google Maps or real estate sites to get a blueprint of a house! Oh my goodness...that seems like a lot of time. Oh wait...writing takes a lot of time, doesn't it?

Great job, Krista. I always love the way your mind thinks.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Great job Krista! Your post was stuffed with great ideas.

One time I asked a group of kids to draw a picture of the main character from my manuscript. They all gave him red hair and freckles. My sister, who lives in another state, read the manuscript to her class and had them draw a picture of the main character as well. They all gave him red hair and freckles. Unbelieveable. I never once stated his hair color or that he had freckles! So, like you say, if you entwine what the character would notice without lathering on the detailed descriptions the reader's imagination will fill in the rest (whether it matches what you had in mind or not-- I pictured the boy with dark hair LOL )

Krista Phillips said...

Sherrinda, actually, it really doesn't take too long! And OH MY GOODNESS! I forgot one resource I meant to put on there, as I just found it the other day.

For blue prints (when you can't find just the right house for sale on realtor, ha!) you can also go to ON there you can put in the square footage range (for Jenny, for example, she lives in an older house, 2 bedrooms, that is pretty small, so I searched the 800 to 1200 sqrfoot range)

YOu can also put in # of bedrooms, # of bathrooms, housetype, how many stories, how many garages, and a whole bunch of other things in advanced settings. Now, granted these are modern houses, but for me, I looked for a very simple house and found the PERFECT one for Jenny.

Now... I'm not doing yellow shutters or the green ugly roof, but the actual layout of the house is perfect!! And it took me all of 10 minutes to find:-)