By Lauren Faulkenberry
My favorite writers are those who transport me to new places. Their prose makes it seem effortless, but for us writers, it takes some serious attention to detail. I’m thinking of Ron Rash, Janet Fitch, Barbara Kingsolver. We’re told all the time as writers to devote time to sensory details when setting each scene, but with the fast pace of our technology-driven lives, how often do we pay attention to what we hear, smell, or feel against our skin?
Your setting is another character: it needs those details. So how do you work them in when you’re writing about a place unfamiliar to you?
1. Plan a visit. Obviously this won’t be an option all the time, but if it’s possible, do it! Who doesn’t like a weekend getaway? It’s research, and you can write it off your taxes. When I wrote Bayou My Love, I drew on my weeklong trip to Louisiana. I’d been mostly in New Orleans, but spent a couple of days out on an old plantation and along the southernmost parts of the bayou. I was totally enamored with the natural beauty, smitten with the way the cypress trees swayed on the breeze, the way the egrets called to each other across the lagoons, the way the humidity felt as I breathed. Some simple notes I made proved invaluable down the road as I wrote my novel.
2. Use the Internet for photo reference, then to find particular details you can weave into your story. I sometimes use photos for a general sense of place, but more often I’m using photos to remind me of what kinds of details I need to pull into my scene. I used photos of river houses to describe structural details of the home I wanted my protagonist to remodel, and they helped me to use specific language to describe elements like hand carved newel posts, shutters that prop open at 45 degrees. Photos reminded me of which species of birds and trees were native, and how the water looked in the shade of the cypress.
Katie Rose Guest Pryal, author of the Hollywood Lights series, created a Pinterest board for her books where she saves photographs that inspire her setting. It’s all things L.A., and serves as the perfect compliment to her books.
3. Go outside. This one’s easy. You can do it anywhere. Get yourself into nature, away from all the technology, and sit. Pay attention. Record. This is your exercise: sit in solitude and write down the sensory details that you absorb. Notice what scent is on the air. Wood smoke from your neighbor’s house? Approaching rain? Honeysuckle? Notice the sounds you hear. Are there birds calling in the trees? (Which birds? Be specific.) Feel the breeze on your skin, the way it tickles your hair. Notice the thrumming of cicadas in the maple trees.
If you want to transport your reader to a different place, you have to seduce them. You have to do the hard work that makes their transition effortless, like falling into a dream. Sensory details achieve this: they are the fastest way to move your reader into new vivid world. Pay attention to what it feels like to be in a place, whether that’s in a garden maze, on a riverboat, or in the New Mexico desert. Take note of the elements that make that place unique, and use your specifics: don’t talk about birds and trees. Talk about magpies, chickadees, scrub jays, magnolias, hyacinths, and acacias. If you pay attention to the details you notice when you’re outdoors, and combine that with knowledge of the local flora, fauna, and urban components, you’ll paint a picture for your reader that not only draws them into your scene, but also draws on their own personal memories associated with that imagery. Then you’ve hooked your reader, and then you’ve shown you’ve got chops.
Lauren Faulkenberry divides her time between writing, teaching, and making artist books. Originally from South Carolina, she has worked as an archaeologist, an English teacher, and a ranger for the National Park Service. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Georgia College & State University, where she attended on fellowship, and earned her MFA in Book Arts from the University of Alabama. She was a finalist for the Novello Festival Press First Novel Award, won the Family Circle short fiction contest for her story "Beneath Our Skin," and was nominated for an AWP Intro Award. She is author of the novel Bayou My Love, the novella Back to Bayou Sabine, and the children's book What Do Animals Do on the Weekend? She currently lives in Whittier, NC, where she is at work on her next novel. Her social media links are: twitter: @firebrandpress www.laurenfaulkenberry.com and Find Me On Facebook
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