Characterization and Setting – It’s All in the Details
When done properly, writing with rich detail and characterization is something a reader doesn’t even notice. It just pulls them into the author’s world and allows them to image the people and places that they visit. But how do writers create such vivid pictures? There are many techniques, and we asked Naomi Bellini to break some of them down for us. What she delivered is a great behind-the-scenes look at how it’s done that is interesting to both readers and authors.
Don’t you love to fall so deep into a book you lose track of real life, and stay up way past your bedtime, because you have to read just one more chapter? Or look up from the page and totally expect to see the scenery and characters you were reading about? As authors, that’s what we hope happens when you read our stories. One way we accomplish this is with compelling details and descriptions to hold your interest. How do we come up with those gripping pieces of information that make you late for work? Here are some of our favorite tools we use when writing.
The best way to gather information to describe a place or thing is to experience it first-hand. Nothing beats seeing, hearing, smelling, touching or tasting in person. Wherever I go, I tune in all my senses to capture the experience, and immerse myself as deeply as I can in the moment. I get over my shyness and talk to people and ask questions.
I was recently on an airplane and the guy next to me started to twist a Rubik’s cube. Probably his way of coping with flying jitters, and one I never would have thought about, but that little characterization detail will most likely end up in a book. Did I ask him about it? No, because in a situation like that, where we are stuck together for several hours, I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. He might have been embarrassed about his “cube therapy.” But who knows, there could have been a great story there!
Traveling to places we want to describe is ideal. Unfortunately, most of us can’t jet-set around to every location that we write about. But another excellent way to gather information is to listen to people talk. You can often tell who the authors are in a group. They’re the ones watching, listening, and observing. The writer is the person asking questions, paying attention to random conversations, and often eavesdropping. There’s nothing better than listening to a juicy conversation when the talkers don’t know they’re being stalked.
I mean observed. (Thanks to smart phones, we can take notes and it looks like we’re texting, so we don’t look really creepy.)
In fact, many people are happy to share their experiences if we tell them we’re writing a book. The best is when someone is enthusiastic about a subject, and I can get them to relax and really open up. If the storyteller allows their emotions to flow, they’ll paint a vivid picture for me with plenty of details. The trick here is often to get them to stop talking!
Getting Our Hands Dirty
Another technique is getting down and dirty with something that gives the author hands on experience. A specific example for us crime writers is to attend a law enforcement citizen’s academy. Many police departments have special programs that last several weeks and allow civilians to participate. I attended one in my area that met once a week for seven weeks, and I learned a lot. And not just that motorcycle cops look hot in their uniforms and black boots (they do!). The FBI also has a citizens’ academy program in various cities throughout the United States.
My dream is to attend the Writers’ Police Academy, held once a year in Wisconsin. That conference, geared toward writers, is full of hands-on activities, like advance fingerprinting techniques, live-fire practice on a pistol range, and extinguishing a flaming car. Talk about a first-hand experience! I talked to a few authors that went there and they assure me, it’s worth the time and money to go.
Then there’s the magic of the internet. How did we do research before the internet? I wasn’t writing heavily before the World Wide Web, but I remember going to the library for school projects and looking through card catalogs (oops, giving away my age), to find books. Holy cow, we’ve come a long way! I love the Web for all kinds of research, especially pictures.
Pinterest is fantastic for finding about everything you can think of. I put in a few descriptive words and ta-da! A whole bunch of pictures pop up. I spend a little fun time and start a board with houses, cars, clothes, and people. You name it, it’s there on Pinterest. Then, as I’m writing a description, I refer back to my board when I need to get the details just right.
When it comes to finding descriptions of houses and cabins (my heroes and heroines often end up in cabins because cabins are incredibly romantic as far as I’m concerned), I use Vacation Rentals by Owners and real estate sites. When I go to VRBO, it’s like I’m planning a vacation, which I enjoy doing anyway, and use this site often when I do. I can look at the many photos and write a description of the place where my characters will be. They usually stay at places that rent for far higher than my budget, so it’s fun to check these out. On real estate sites, descriptions are already there, and nobody beats realtors for talking up a house or property with colorful details.
YouTube videos are another awesome tool. Since I write romantic suspense, my characters get in tricky situations. I’m probably not going to experience a high-speed highway chase, or fly down the autobahn on a motorcycle with no helmet, or cruise along in a helicopter chasing the bad guy. Hopefully, I won’t be trapped inside a burning house or in a terrible car wreck, but my hero or heroine might. Watching videos gives me the experience, so I can pull out details and add them to my story.
With so many ways to gain knowledge, writing is a fun job, limited only by our travel budget or imagination. Since my budget is low, I use many of the above sources to help add details to my own imagination – giving me a way to pseudo-experience new locales or create rich characters that I can then share with my readers.
Writing books has opened my eyes and encouraged me to get over being shy, and to observe the world differently. I hope my books are the kind that readers get lost in, and if you stay up until the wee hours of the morning because of my writing, or you’re late for work, I’m sorry.
But really, I’m flattered, and thanks for reading.