Friday, June 24, 2011

Creating Vivid Settings in Fiction, by Jess Lourey

This past weekend, I attended the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books, a two-day (free!) event featuring authors, cooks, readers, critical thinkers, and general lovers of the arts. Besides learning how to make a great Thai curry, I also heard William Kent Krueger deliver one of the most inspiring and humbling keynote speeches I've ever heard.

I also had the great honor to teach the "After the Idea" class for MWA-U. MWA-U is a low-cost, all-day, college-level, fiction-writing seminar sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America. It consists of six classes, each taught by a different instructor and each building on the course before it. My presentation explained in seven manageable steps how to turn your idea into a full manuscript, Hallie Ephron then brilliantly outlined the secrets of suspenseful plotting within that manuscript, and so on.

John Galligan, a Wisconsin creative writing professor, was a new instructor in the line-up. He taught the "Setting and Description" class, and it's his method for crafting vivid details that I'd like to share with you now. According to John, effective detail explains time, place, character, and theme. This isn't always possible, of course, but it's what writers should aim for.

Here's an example. When describing where she grew up using as few words as possible, Hallie said, "before it was 90210." Does that evoke time? Absolutely. Place? Of course. Character? Yes--you have a sense that the speaker has a sense of ownership with the pre-zip code Beverly Hills, which tells you a lot about the person, which can lead naturally into the theme or mood of the book, depending on the context.

Contrast that neat, sweet package with the "cataloguing" that can be found in a lot of fiction nowadays (and I've been guilty of this myself):

I grew up in southern California, a hot, windswept land of palm trees, ocean, and blonde hair. You have to know somebody to be somebody here, and I remember when I first arrived, I tried to look the part. I dyed my hair platinum, wore blue contact lenses, and affected a Valley Girl accent. If you're still reading, you've got a lot more patience than I do. It was here that I made my fortune and left, well before Yankees knew where Beverly Hills was.

Not terrible, but not memorable, either.

So that's my lesson for today: when you write, use detail mindfully, and never information dump. Be concrete, and try to hit all four goals (time, place, character, mood/theme) with a single detail at least once a chapter.

Your assignment: either leave a writing tip in trade for this one, or describe where you grew up in ten words or less, using only concrete detail. Cheers!


Beth Groundwater said...

Where I grew up:
On the move, from one Air Force base to another.

Darrell James said...

Thanks for the lesson, Jess. Here's my homework assignment:

"In those days it was called a string town, a whistle-stop, mail-drop along the southern railroad out of Cincinnati."

Unknown said...

Blue water, a splintering dock, glass-bottled Pepsi Cola and Ivory soap. Add the melancholy chords of Hotel California and I'm ten all over again.

Great post, Jessie 1!

Alan Orloff said...

Our basement had a sump pump; pet gerbils can't swim.

Jessica Lourey said...

LOL Alan! You win the mood/theme award, though Beth is tied for a close second. Darrell, you convey place hauntingly. But Jessie, the power of time AND mood in yours is gonna stick with me. I think it's because we both grew up in the same time period. Here's mine: big hair, turkey barns, and a Dairy Queen.

Ann Summerville said...

Great post.