Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her authorwebsite.
For some writers, the setting, or the story world, is the reason they write. This is a common refrain among fantasy writers that I talk to, that they started writing fantasy because they love the worldbuilding.
Sometimes during our first draft, the setting feels vibrant and alive in our imaginations. That was true for me as I wrote The Lost Girl of Astor Street, my young adult historical mystery, But when I re-read my first draft, I was surprised to find very few descriptive details. The setting had been very real in my imagination, but I hadn't done a good job of getting the details on the page.
If you can relate, here are some ideas for how to enhance your setting during your edits.
Slow yourself down.
Often the reason my setting details are sparse is that I'm so eager to get the story down that I skim over all those details. In a first draft when the only reader is you, that's fine. But when you move into your second draft, and you're preparing your book to be read by others, you need to make sure that what you're seeing in your head is showing up in the text.
For me, I must take physical steps to slow myself down. I'll close my eyes, imagine myself wherever my characters are, draw up sensory details (more on that next), and after a few minutes I'll begin revising the scene to include what I experienced.
Engage your senses.
Because of my tendency to rush through this step, I've disciplined myself to write down several ideas for each sense my character experiences in the scene. Not all of the ideas make it into my revisions, but I've still found it to be beneficial to have a big pool of ideas to draw from.
Push yourself to go beyond the obvious.
But you know what's amazing about being a novelist versus someone who makes visual stories? We're not limited by any kind of budget we have or what we can find at the store.
You want your character to have a green pinstripe couch? No problem. Want half your book to take place in Bermuda and the other half in Prince Edward Island? Sure. In first drafts, I often default to my habits. My characters are always meeting at ordinary restaurants, walking through ordinary parks, or attending ordinary schools.
If you write realistic fiction like I do, you of course need to be real with your settings, but don't limit yourself to obvious choices. Same goes for what you pick to describe in a room. Try to go beyond the details like the wall color or furniture arrangement and give us details that show creativity and thought went into crafting this place.
Checkout this brief description of a store from The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater:
Fathom & Sons is a narrow, dark corridor of a shop, stuffed like a Cornish hen, with odds and ends labeled with little price tags that glow like white teeth in the dim light. It always smells a little like butter browning in a pan—so, like heaven.
This is a place we only visit a few times during the story, but still she takes great care in few words to craft an image of the setting. Go forth and do likewise.
Pick items that convey emotion.
Then when you're crafting the description of your setting, you can think about if there are elements you can draw out that will highlight the mood. For example, if your character is in a fragile place, or something is about to break open in the plot, you might share details like the cracked lamp on the end table or the glass figurines on the mantle.
You can get a bit too on the nose with this one, so sometimes it can be better to draw out opposites. Like your aggressive, fierce character journeying through a meadow full of flowers, or a happy occasion being shrouded in fog.
There's no right or wrong way to do this, it's just something to have fun with.
Tell me about your setting! Pick a few unique details about it to share in the comments.