Describing the setting of any of my works is my own private hell. I have a movie in my head and I can see where my people are and what’s going on there. The most important part is the characters so why do I need to describe where they are. After all, my readers are “watching” the same movie, aren’t they?
Yes, you’ve got it. Unless everyone woke up this morning with telepathy and no one told me, there’s a hitch in my theory. Psst, the secret is, no one else is seeing the movie and without some basic structure I’ve left people hanging in a grey void. Trust me, they don’t like it out there. I’ve tried dragging some of them out and paid the price. So many tiny bits of story that have characters shaking their heads, saying no, this doesn’t float for us.
But how do I find the happy medium? I don’t want to get so caught up in description that I lose the point, the plot, the people…hell, my readers. (Don’t worry, I’ve expanded into a painful minimalism there. I don’t run the risk of being the next Tolkien.) Not to disparage him of course. I enjoy his work immensely. It’s just not my style and I’m sure mine would not have been his…
Okay, I wandered off in a tangent as I do when writing these things. Where were my notes, otherwise known as the first draft? I still struggle with making sure that some of my vision of place comes through. When I write stories based on Earth, it’s okay to say “it took place in Grenada in 1892” because people can image search Grenada and think, oh okay, I get some of it now. Then I only need to describe the house, the people, a small world. With the Mars trilogy, it’s a big world. Not just the one that Nadine lived in but also Sven. The one where people like Anna had a place and Karl, a history, before we met them. Yeah, it got big and thinking about trying to do that again is scary as hell. So, if you have a little bit of world building fear or maybe setting paranoia, read on and I’ll do my best to give you some ideas to chew over.
Remember when I said that you needed to make sure the character was real before you started writing them? The place is the same and everyone is going to do it slightly differently. Maybe you’ve decided to skip the character building until you have a place to put them in. That’s totally fine and I’ve known others who followed that path.
An Expensive Retreat started out as a short story and then several short stories, all taking place in the same town with the same struggles. I even draw a map for myself, so far the only one I created. It was really poorly done and I don’t think anyone ever needs to see it. After all, it was only for me. I drew bad pictures of houses while I wrote the novel, imagined streets, tried to smell what they would. I tried to go to Mars in my imagination. And then in the second novel, I sent myself back to Earth. But not an Earth I recognize, another foreign place that I had to build to some extent.
Use your senses. It was hot on Mars, a dry heat that seeps through your clothes, your skin and warms your very bones. I’ve felt heat like that sometimes although I’m definitely a northern climate kind of person. I used it though. I’ve stood on the sidewalks of big cities and had to breathe in the dank air, the humidity and the smell of people, of things long abandoned and food lost to memory. I’ve taken in the worst of those and I gave them to Sven, to Nadine to experience. They made my world real. The whistle of endless wind on Mars, an echo of that from the east coast. The taste of dry bread and crisp apples, my own experiences too. The hardest one for me was touch. The feeling of fabric against her face when Nadine rests her head against Sven’s shoulder. Those sorts of things could be replicated. But I am not my characters. I’m not going to react to them in the same way.
So, figure out what it smells like in your place. Eat the food and listen to the birds or the flying cars or the carnivorous slugs. What colours are things? Does everyone share the same sensory experience or does that change? The world is yours to build, to create, even in the current world, to offer. Make sure your people fit.
I write things down because it makes it easier for me. Whether you describe something on paper, digitally or inside of a memory, just make sure it’s real.