As I write this, the Mid-Atlantic (and particularly my neck of the woods, in Southern New Jersey) is preparing for a foot of snow. When I went to the grocery store this morning to return my movie (“Captain Phillips,” which I highly recommend) to Redbox, I couldn’t find a place to park. I didn’t go into the grocery store, but if I had, I suspect I wouldn’t have been able to find milk, bread, toilet paper, or fresh fruit.
My daughter and I took our dog, Orly, for a walk earlier this afternoon because the dog may be home-bound for the next couple of days. It was already raining when we left the house. We walked in the woods near our neighborhood. The woods are my favorite place to walk Orly; it is quiet and peaceful there, and I love going when it’s raining or snowing because I love to hear the raindrops- and even the snowflakes- falling on the trees and the pine needles underfoot. And when it’s wet outside, that’s when the woods smell the best.
Days like this remind me of the importance of descriptive words in writing. When I’m writing, I sometimes forget that a story is more than plot. It’s also feeling. It’s also lots of other things, but I’m going to talk about feeling in this post. In the rush to get words down on paper (or on a computer screen) it’s easy to hurry past the words that help a reader feel what’s going on in the story. A reader’s reaction to a particular book is not just about the action in the story. It’s about the five senses, too. It’s important for writers to remember to involve at least one or more of the senses in a given scene…seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching.
What does the air feel like? Is it moist? Dry? What does the ocean look like? Is it frigid? Warm like bathwater? Is it cyan or gray, like the color of slate? Is a particular food sour and puckery? Buttery? What does the air smell like in the summer? Freshly-cut grass? Hot asphalt? And what does it sound like when snow falls in the woods? I would describe it as an almost-silent “shush.”
Ernest Hemingway was a master at using words beautifully and descriptively, even when he was describing something that wasn’t beautiful. He described a rhino as a “dangerous practical joke let loose by nature.” And this is how he began a piece for The Toronto Daily Star in 1922: “We were sitting in the cheapest of all the cheap restaurants that cheapen that very cheap and noisy street, the Rue des Petits Champs in Paris.” You probably wouldn’t read a sentence like that in a newspaper in 2014, but his description has a wonderful quality that allows the reader to imagine exactly what the Rue des Petits Champs looks like.
In my first novel, Secrets of Hallstead House, the story is set on one of the Thousand Islands in the Saint Lawrence River. That setting is rich with opportunities for description, and my hope is that people will read my book and want to visit that area of New York to see its beauty for themselves. My second novel, with a working title of Low Country Twilight, is set on a plantation outside Charleston, South Carolina. That’s another place that lends itself to lavish indoor and outdoor settings. Will it inspire people to visit and learn about the history of the area? I hope so. And my third novel, as yet unwritten and untitled, will be set in Hawaii, a place with a name that conjures up lush tropical scenes and settings. I don’t really think anyone needs a novel to inspire them to want to visit Hawaii, but the very existence of Hawaii inspired me to write a novel about it.
I’d like to hear your favorite descriptive word. Mine is “capacious.” It practically makes fun of itself.
Until next week,
P.S. The school district just called a snow day for tomorrow. Maybe I should write that novel about Hawaii right now.
Orly, the snow lover