Part of this is because I've read books that (I felt) had waaaaay too many details about the draperies and the wallpaper and such. I knew I didn't want to be that kind of writer.
But I know the main reason I don't talk about settings much in early drafts is because it's hard work to pause, imagine the setting, and seamlessly weave in those details. Taking a paragraph to pause the story and describe a room? No biggie. But that "seamless" business....
When I think about seams, the thought that pops into my head is the nylons women used to wear with seams down the back.
(For those who follow me on Twitter and Facebook, yes - that's why the internet search for nylons with seams!)
My grandmother once told me that during the war when women had to do without nylons, her and her friends would draw seams on their legs to make it look like they still wore them. (As a modern girl this makes no sense to me, but I'm sure it seemed natural at the time.)
This is not the effect you want in your novels. You don't want any blocks or "seams" of description about the setting. You want it to be woven in so fluidly the reader doesn't even realize you're describing the setting to them.
I'm puling an example from a historical novel, Love Finds You in Annapolis, Maryland by Roseanna M. White, because not-overdoing-details seems trickiest for historical and sci fi/fantasy writers.
This comes from chapter one, the opening of the second scene:
Emerson scraped the tavern chair across the wooden floor, fell into its hard seat, and, for the first time in his memory wished Wiley Benton would hold his tongue for five blasted minutes. He barely saw the familiar whitewashed walls, the wainscoting, the multitude of friendly faces. His mind still reeled, wrestling with images of those blinding diamonds - and the equally blinding tears in Lark's eyes.
Ms. White does a couple of great things here. First, she establishes the setting within the first couple lines, but she doesn't linger there. She keeps the action moving ("Emerson scraped" or "his mind still reeled") yet still she manages to slip in details about their location.
Another great thing is Ms. White picks specific nouns and verbs. We talked about this in regards to description in general, and it applies to your setting details as well. We don't need to see every crack in the wall and every speck of dust. Be intentional with what you pick. Ms. White starts us off here with some general details about where her characters are, but those words work hard. It's not just a chair, it's a tavern chair. And the combination of Emerson "scraping" it and his frustration with Wiley's chatter tells us this is a noisy place.
Also, make sure you're describing the setting through your character's eyes. This is extra tricky when your character is somewhere familiar to them, like their home, or in this situation, the coffeehouse Emerson frequents. The most natural way to achieve this, I've found, is to tie an emotion to whatever they are describing. The lace curtains they've never liked. The scratched up table your heroine bought ages ago with her good-for-nothing college boyfriend.
In the example we've been looking at, Ms. White does this with, "He barely saw the familiar whitewashed walls, the wainscoting, the multitude of friendly faces." Emerson's mind is whirling from the encounter he just had with his betrothed, so he's not paying attention to specifics, just the blur of his surroundings.
And don't overlook dialogue's role in establishing your setting, particularly for you historical writers. Observe this exchange between Emerson and Wiley, which happens a few paragraphs down from the first example:
As the proprietor stalked off, Wiley lifted his brows in that particular way that bespoke both humor and confusion. "What plagues you, man? You have been playing the dunderhead ever since we left Endover."
"I played it while there too." Indulging in a mild oath, he swept his tricorn off his head and plopped it onto the table between them. "I upset your sister."
What plagues you? Dunderhead? Even before we get to the tricorn part, this dialogue roots us well in the time period (Williamsburg 1783) and in the man cave of R. Charlton's Coffeehouse.
I know something I need to work on is being more mindful of where my characters are. Especially in the first draft, I tend to focus on dialogue and action, and I don't take the time to think about where I've plopped my characters and how to make that place come alive for readers.
What about you? What part of your writing comes naturally, and what part do you have to be intentional about?
(By the way, Roseanna M. White is one of our judges for this round's contest. Don't forget to enter!)