Writing Place in Fiction: CWC Session II

Author Highlight: Christine Sneed


Creating an authentic feeling of place in a story is not as easy as it sounds. In this session, author Christine Sneed took us through some of her favorite descriptions of setting by some seriously pro authors, like Mavis Gallant and Andre Debus III. Here are my personal takeaways:

DETAILS DETAILS DETAILS. The truest sense of setting comes from the combination of small observations. Take this, for example:

A black balcony stood over the entrance to the mansion.

Does that feel like any other entrance you’ve ever seen or imagined? Hardly. So think about the details. What sort of black is it – is it shiny like a Chinese box, or dull and gritty like igneous rock? Is the balcony spindly or does it have bars as thick as a prison cell’s? Does it jut, leer, or loom? Is it sloped with age or newly built? I could go on and on.

Now, for a few ways to get the most out of your details:

  1. Be Precise. Do not waste anything – every verb, adjective, and chosen noun image should add to the setting’s emotional or physical feel. Pare your sentences down to only necessary and evocative words.
  2. Evoke Emotion or Aura. Settings aren’t just images – they’re indications of feeling. A home housing two about-to-be-divorced people isn’t going to have green walls – it’s going to have walls “green as the one plant he managed to keep alive all these years, using a steady supply of poured-out beer.” Or, if they are newly married and happy, the green could be described as verdant or lush.
  3. Add a Sense of Movement. As you lay out a description, consider the transitions you are using between your images. Try going according to size (e.g. desk > room > house > town); try nesting images within one another (e.g. the color of late-to-bud roses, like those left behind the neighbors’ old house when they left for the winter); and when you are making a list, consider how one item leads to the next (e.g. a list of color associations moving from light colors to dark). Your description of setting should have a sense of progression or conversation; it shouldn’t feel like an awkward dinner party where everyone sits together but no one is talking.
  4. Actions Performed. To further that feeling of action and movement, consider what your setting does. Verbs can keep a setting from going stale. A balcony oversees; a wall forbids; a hearth welcomes. These are just general; see how creative you can get!
  5. Paragraph Size. When your paragraphs become heavily laden with description, consider using paragraph breaks to speed up the feel of the text. This can prevent the reader from getting bored, and give a stronger sense that the setting is causing action.

The next two posts will go over my favorite session – Branding Yourself – The Role of the Author in the Marketplace by Laurie Scheer.

Session I Missed: To see that session, I had to miss the Meet the Publishers session. If you went to that session, consider doing a simultaneous or guest blog to correspond with my CWC Recap!

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