Monday, April 23, 2012

Mystery Monday #29: Writing the Too-Familiar

The theme around here lately has been settings, so I thought today I'd talk about describing settings, specifically those that are uber familiar to the writer.
We've all heard the saying "write what you know" . That can mean write what you've experienced, where you've been, what you've done -- or it can mean simply tap into familiar people, places, experiences, and emotions when you are writing. One of the most common ways authors do this is in creating their settings and scenes. Why recreate a whole new place when you can use a city you've lived in or visited? Why recreate a whole house floorplan when your own house floorplan works great?

The drawback to this, as I recently discovered, is that sometimes when you use something you are so familiar with, you may skip crucial details. In the novel I am writing right now, much of the story takes place in a campground. The campground I am using as my 'model' is one I have visted many, many times. When I am writing my scenes, I can see the place vividly in my mind -- so I figured my descriptions were just as vivid. But, my editor told me she was having a hard time picturing the layout of the campground; that there weren't enough specific, directional details to really get a feel for where the character's cabin was in relation to the inlet and the forest and the camp store.
Photo by Micah Burke
So I drew a map of the campground, and then showed the map and my scenes to my critique group. Sure enough, they pointed out many spots where my words were either too vague or misleading in relation to the map, or simply not enough to paint the proper picture. I am now in the process of writing a description of the grounds as if I just arrived there for the first time. I am being extremely detailed -- to some degree too detailed  -- but it is important to get every detail in there fisrt, and then I can trim and tighten :)

For today's prompt, do the same thing. Choose a place that is very familiar to you: your school campus, your house, your bedroom, and write a detailed description of the area. Try to look at things with a fresh set of eyes, with a new perspective, as if you are there for the very first time. When you are finished with your description, have someone else read it and see if they can draw a map or picture of the place based on your paragraph. Be sure to use directional descriptions like east, west, where the sun is, where the road is, the front door -- things that can be used as landmarks so your reader can clearly lay it out in his/her mind.

Good luck!
From Detective Laura Ellen

1 comment:

  1. I just went to a NESCBWI workshop this weekend, where author Kate Messner talked about creating a map of your setting after a first draft. She says it helps with clarity/directions, but also getting a more vivid sense of the layout and activating the setting more, maximizing its potential. One thing she does is note, on the map itself, where key events or actions in the story take place. I'm going to try that in my current work-in-progress.


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