Michaeline: Developing Descriptive Tools

1001 Details of Takeshita Street

1001 Details of Takeshita Street

Yesterday, Kat talked about travelling to the setting of her contemporary romance and doing research on the spot. I have to agree, there’s nothing like going there, soaking up the atmosphere, and turning that into words – maybe in one’s diary or blog for practice before the words make it onto the page.

I mostly write urban fantasy and science fiction, so it’s not possible for me to physically travel to the Angel Caldera on Paradise 7, or visit the Goblin King’s throne room in the depths of the Cave of Wonders. I have to use my imagination, but I can also find parallels in the real world and explore them through YouTube, Google Images or other tools.

We’re so lucky as writers today to have these internet tools to help us visualize a scene more fully.

If you have trouble with description like me, it’s a useful exercise to write a story or a scene in an environment that you can research fully. My NaNo 2013 project, Little Affair in Greater Tokyo, was a contemporary romance set in modern Tokyo. I’ve been to Tokyo several times, so I could move my characters through the imaginary Tokyo in my head easily. And when I got stuck, I knew enough to find the right YouTube videos (like this one in front of Meiji Shrine) to get me unstuck.

My “oh, wow” moment was when I was looking up the online menu of a grilled chicken restaurant. Not only did I find menu items, but the restaurant showed me what plates they used, the garnishes, even the grain of the tables in the booths. These details had never entered into my imagination, and I realized that when I imagine a scene set on another planet, I need to remember to imagine little details like this. They may not make it into the book, but they anchor the character to a mundane reality, and make the character act in a more real way. Readers of speculative fiction want to see the differences, but they need to relate it to our human experience in the 21st century on earth, as well.

Now that I know my basic story, I want to follow the steps of my characters next time I go to Tokyo, and really immerse myself in the details.

What’s your favorite detail, either in your own work, or someone else’s? The one that springs to my mind is in Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign, when Ekaterin opens the letter of apology from Miles. Such rich detailing of the weight of the paper, the roughness, the seal used to close the letter, and the fact that he had touched it with his own hands, sealed it with his own blood in the very traditional Vor way.

Or there’s that moment in Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me when Min surrenders to a bratwurst sandwich. The rush of recognition when she bites into that sausage was dizzying.

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Developing Descriptive Tools

  1. I think Jenny Crusie has a wonderful way with details. The snow globes in Bet Me are brilliant, and the shoes, of course. I’d buy the Scarlett paintings from Faking It in a heartbeat, and I love everything about Agnes and the Hitman – the smell of frying Italian sausage reminding Shane he’s home, the flamingoes, the hideous pink frilly wedding dress, and the boxes of thick, cheap white china that Agnes throws plate by plate at her loser fiancé.

    • She does. (-: You just know she’s gone without carbs for awhile at some point, then surrendered to a Krispy Kreme. I didn’t even know what a Krispy Kreme was, but I could totally identify with that feeling.

      Some of her most vivid descriptions come when she’s talking about color and design. The checkerboards in Faking It, and the wild bedroom remodel in Dogs and Goddesses. That’s really walking the walk and sticking it into her books.

  2. It is the small touches that stand out the most at times. I read ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ by Trudi Canavan, and in that the main female lead had to sleep on the floor instead of the plush bed as she’d always grown up on hard beds. It was just a small thing that always stuck with me, not sure why :D

    • I love it when a small detail makes me think about what the heroine really is going through! Also, when they make me notice the details in my own world. I like growing herbs, for example, and I love scented plants. But there’s this section where Ekaterin (the heroine of Bujold’s A Civil Campaign) is designing a garden, and she pays attention to what the plants will smell like together. I’d never even thought of that before. And later, “love is a garden” is a major motif of the book, so it’s important detail — what is going to clash? What is going to go well together?

  3. I head a story on the radio today where the author had gone to a Game of Thrones (I think it was) event, and they had a virtual experience set up. You enter the elevator to Somewhere (sorry—I’m not familiar with the story) and go to Wherever. The reporter said it was exactly as if she were in an elevator; she felt the movement, heard the rushing; when she got to the top, she felt the wind (they had fans set up); the visuals were perfect in 360 degrees. I’m not sure if a virtual experience would limit or unleash a writer’s imagination, but I thought it was interesting that the writer felt fully convinced she had been to this mythical, imaginary place.

    • That is so cool! And what’s even cooler is that someone thought of all the tiny details that made the participant feel like s/he was going through a magic door or time warp or whatever. Isn’t it amazing that we can share that experience, enough that a builder/maker can replicate it? All from a few words of prompt.

      I think those reality people have it easier in a way, and a lot harder in another. They can provide triggers to smell, feels, hearing in a way that novelists can’t, and I think those prompts can go right to our animal brains and give an amazing experience. OTOH, they can goof up with any of the five senses, and break the suspension of disbelief. More things to get right, more things to get wrong is what I’m basically trying to say.

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