Today’s post isn’t by yours truly, instead I’ve enlisted a few members of my writer’s group to help out over the next few weeks. The first victim, um, I mean, willing participant is Cyndi Pauwels. She hosts her own blog over at CPatLarge and her posts are usually more reflective than mine. Cyndi has an almost poetic rhythm to her blogs.
Thanks, Lori, for asking me to guest post. The experience we shared with Tami last week filming videos for her ECOT students was nerve-wracking, but fun. I hope the students learn as much from our presentations as I did by participating.
Here’s a summary of my questions and answers. I was assigned setting and description, with a follow-up on why our writers group is so valuable:
In your novels, how did you make decisions about setting?
Following the old adage “write what you know,” I initially set my novels in and around Toledo, Ohio, where I grew up. I have two complete manuscripts and one partial for that area. The setting for my work in progress has moved to Dayton and Yellow Springs, our new home. A fantastic author who spoke at the 2008 Antioch Writers’ Workshop, Zakes Mda, told us to write what we don’t know in order to learn new things, but because I’m such a detail oriented person, I’m not sure I could write about a place I don’t know well. I do have a story set on the Appalachian Trail that I started as an exercise during my master’s program. It may end up a short story, or a novel, or nothing more than practice.
Of course, if you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, you get to create your own world. Just make it believable, and consistent. Don’t change the rules you lay down in the early chapters because your heroine finds herself in trouble in chapter ten.
How does a writer avoid, long, boring descriptions?
The days of John Steinbeck spending multiple pages describing the dust on the prairie in The Grapes of Wrath are long over, at least when it comes to writing modern fiction. I try to intersperse description of places, and people, with dialogue, narrative that includes action, that sort of thing. It’s better to feed the reader details in small bites spread out through the book rather than in huge information dumps.
Since you’re writing about a place you used to live, how do you keep your information current?
We still have family and friends in Toledo, so we’re back there often, and the Internet is a big help. I can pull up Google Maps, check to see if a restaurant is on the corner where I thought it was or find out which park is closest to my main character’s house, stuff like that. I had my daughter save last year’s phone book for me to use for name choices and other reference. That helps a lot.
What about the other scenes in your novels, such as the courtroom and the police stations? How do you know about those?
Back to “write what you know.” I worked as a police and fire dispatcher for nearly eight years at two different departments, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Northwood, Ohio, and I was a deputy clerk for federal court in Toledo for six years. Lots of great experiences for story fodder! I’m fortunate, too, that former co-workers are still available for reference. For the book I’m shopping now, I contacted a police sergeant I worked with to make sure I had the inner department details correct for Toledo Police, since I never actually worked in their offices. I also have an assistant U.S. Attorney from federal court on tap to answer questions about the charges my bad guys will face.
When is too much description, well, too much? How do you know how much to give the reader?
It’s a balancing act. You want to make a setting real, but you don’t want to drown the reader in minutia. Matthew Goodman, an author who spoke at this year at Antioch, writes narrative history, and he said something like dozens of pages of research notes may come down to only one or two sentences in a story, just enough to give readers a flavor of the times. I try to help the reader see the scene in broad strokes, then let them fill in the blanks with their own imagination. That way they’re active participants in the story.
My characters aren’t described in exact detail, either. No “5’9”, 175 pounds, shoulder-length brown hair with grey streaks, brown eyes.” But something like, “taller than most, towering over the crowd, easy to spot across the crowded room,” that kind of thing. Hair color, maybe, if it fits the story. Size, again not specific pounds, but “scrawny build,” or “button-popping belly,” “hands the size of a catcher’s mitt.” And not for every character, and not all the time.
Can you say something about being in a writing group and how it helps?
Because we spend so much time alone writing, or at least we do if we’re serious about our work, one thing every writer needs is a support group. I meet with a fantastic bunch of writers every Tuesday, four to eight people depending on our schedules, for sharing, peer critique, and plain old conversation. Who else but other writers understand what you mean when you talk about characters’ voices in your head? Or can relate to your search for ways to kill someone and not get caught without calling the police?
We read our work aloud, take gentle criticism home to improve the writing, and learn from each other. It’s amazing what you overlook in a story until you read it out loud. And too often, things a writer takes for granted the reader will understand are missed entirely. A good writers group can point those out. We also share tips on the submission process, blogs and articles that offer good advice, and celebrate each other’s publication successes. Those are always nice.
Thanks again for inviting me to be Lost in the Writing! I hope your readers will visit me at CPatLarge.