This month’s theme is one of my favorites. I love to write settings.
Sometimes I go overboard and have to dial back my descriptions, but atmosphere is as important as plot for me.
Summer is a great time to think about the world around us. Vacations, day trips, even spending more time in your backyard can catapult your writing to new levels. Unfamiliar places make us more attuned to the nuances of setting.
Before I get into the contest prompts and rules, I’d like to attempt to inspire you. My setting descriptions have been mentioned by editors and reviewers, most of the time in a positive way. So I thought I’d reach into my bag of writing tips and pull out a few things that help me.
#1 Use metaphors that evoke the mood you want to convey.
Here’s an example from A Margin of Lust.
The old fig tree I remembered from that time was bigger now and mantled the courtyard like a vulture, obliterating the light and warmth from the late afternoon sun.
#2 Go to the place you’re writing about, or someplace similar, put away your phone and your laptop and pay attention.
The main character in The Sanctity of Sloth has been locked in a cell at the Mission in San Juan Capistrano for weeks when the book opens. She notes how her powers of observation are no longer like the average person’s.
They noticed the obvious things: day, night, cold and heat, but they didn’t notice the difference between eight-o-clock’s shadows and nine-o-clock’s. They couldn’t feel the slight change in barometric pressure on the night before a storm. They didn’t look for danger when birds stopped singing.
#3 Use all your senses.
When I was writing The Scent of Wrath, which takes place in the Los Rios district of San Juan Capistrano, I frequently wrote at a coffee shop on Los Rios Street. We often describe what we see and hear, but while I was there I paid attention to what I felt, smelled and tasted as well.
A breath of wind caught Olivia’s hair and whisked it into her face. It carried the unique combination of scents she associated with the district, sage and creosote laced with the bitter tang of horse manure. It was a warm, smoky smell that made her hungry for hot chili and corn bread.
Now for the prompts:
Write a few (3 at most) sentences on each.
#1 – Describe light and color. The angle and proximity of the sun changes at different latitudes. Visual clarity is impacted by altitude and humidity. Take your journal somewhere new and paint us a picture of what you see.
#2 – What do you hear? Whether you’re in a hotel lobby or cruising the Seven Seas, there are unusual sounds all around you. Close your eyes and listen for a long moment. Write the music.
#3 – On the nose. Visit someplace with exotic scents even if you’re not travelling. How about a candle shop, coffee shop, or the San Clemente Pier? Make us smell it.
#4 – How does it feel? Is the wind tickling the hairs on your arms? Do your feet feel bruised from walking city streets? Inquiring minds want to know.
#5 – What’s in your mouth? Everyone loves an imaginary meal. Make us hungry, or disgust us, but give us something to chew on.
Extra Credit: Turn the above into a single paragraph of description that covers all five senses.
Send your masterpieces to firstname.lastname@example.org by August 25th with the subject line “What I did this Summer.”
If you’re shy and don’t want to submit, I hope you’ll join us in this project anyway. It’s a great exercise.