I recently received this question on Goodreads: Do you have any tips that help you when it comes to writing character and setting descriptions?
Writing description is my least favorite part of the process! I’m not a big fan of reading description either, and I often skim it. Consequently, I leave out a lot of description in the first draft and weave it in later. I also feel like I have to work harder at making it work and study and practice the craft. In other words, I devote more attention to this aspect of writing.
I almost always have an idea of what the main characters look like before I begin a book. I search the internet for photos (usually of celebrities since they’re easy to find) of people who I think resemble my characters. This is more for the cover art folks than it is for me, but I’ve been known to refer to these photos from time to time if I find my descriptions becoming stale. I put these photos in files and on my Pinterest boards, https://www.pinterest.com/sakingauthor/, and will print out one or two for each character.
Need to freshen a facial expression or body part? Google it, look at artwork and photos. There are artists’ books specifically for facial expressions. And online shopping has made researching clothes easy peasy. I’ve even photographed the progression of a bruise on my arm for a character in the new series. Want to know what a bullet does to a person’s head? Yep, online.
I enjoy learning about different locations: visiting and researching. Last year, I traveled to Red River, New Mexico during the off-season to get a feel for the town when it wasn’t packed with tourists. I took lots of photos and videos, and journaled about my impressions. On the internet, I research weather, flora and fauna, and sunrise and sunset times as well as other celestial events. I bookmark websites, pull photos and even check out YouTube videos. I’ve also been known to solicit input on my Facebook page. One follower sent me a terrific video of elk meandering down the main drag of a mountain tourist town in Colorado. For businesses and homes, I search online for photos, and again, file them away. I hate interior design, but fortunately not everyone feels that way, and I can find photos online and in magazines of rooms that give me the ambience I’m looking for. Although, if it’s the room of someone on a budget, I’ve lived it, so no research necessary.
In the book I’m working on now, I have a very brief scene at the Austin Executive Airport. I’ve never been there, and the scene was too short to warrant a visit, so I found photos and videos online. Even though I was born and raised in Houston, I don’t know much about the Museum District where Landon lives in Waiting for Ty. Google Earth and real estate websites helped with that. In Tempting Meredith, there’s an important scene at the edge of a lake where the characters are watching a deer and her fawn. I found an online video of a mama and her baby for inspiration. For Sharing Hailey, I found the Hawaiian vacation home that her brother rents on VRBO (great resource!). I expanded on that house–added a second floor and a pool, and moved the ohana from above the garage to a separate building.
Writing, aka Making It Work
I do a ton of research that never makes it into descriptions but still adds flavor. (Or maybe not. Maybe that’s just an excuse to do research!) One important aspect of writing description is to use words that reflect the mood of the scene. For instance, if the scene is light, snow will be fluffy and sparkly. If the scene is heavier, snowfall will close in on the character and feel oppressive. It could be a nuisance if the character is trying to drive somewhere and the roads are snow-packed. Or it could be just what she needs if she’s relaxing in front of a floor-to-ceiling window and drinking hot chocolate. Same applies to characters. If you’re in the head of a character who distrusts the person she’s interacting with, her description of that character is going to be different than if she trusts him. A gang member’s thoughts about a beautiful woman will probably be cruder than a librarian’s.
The best way to get a feel for writing descriptions is by reading and then studying the works of authors who do it well, authors you love. Because if you love them, they’re doing it right!
Speaking of love, I’d love for you to share your tips, because I’m always learning!