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When trying to strengthen my writing on how to correctly describe a location I try to write a small text on each location I am. (These are then saved in Evernote so that I can search for them) I found a tip in a book (can't remember name, will look it up) which said a good way to practice is to write a small article with the following headings in it. SEE, HEAR, SMELL & FEEL.

Example of the format I use today:

SEE From the window of my apartement I see the ocean. Baots tied at the shoreline slowly moves by the gentle rock of waves...

HEAR Birds looking for food are loudly competing with the fishing-boats for the catch of the day.

SMELL The sea water release its salty touch in all and everyone.

FEEL There is a feeling of hard labour in the air and it is almost as one can feel the sad hugs as fishermen leave land to go hunt on the ocean.

What other ways are there to document and keep locations for later use in stories?

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Try to be as specific as you can. If you know the birds, name them (seagulls is my guess here). –  John Smithers Apr 2 '11 at 12:56
    
That is a very good thought which I must admin I have never thought of. I always write very non specific (i.e. bird instead of seagull) but by specifying what you see/hear/feel you do really provide a better image of the location. Great tip! –  Xenovoyance Apr 10 '11 at 15:20
    
Xeno, this looks like a fantastic way to know the different experiences that your character could "write" about. What does he see, hear, smell and feel, and which combination of his experience should I then convey to the user. Thanks! –  Nick Bedford Apr 12 '11 at 2:42

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Sensual observations are all well and good, but there is also the landscape of the mind to consider. What associations do you make when you see/hear/feel/taste a scene? What makes that scene come alive in your mind? And above all, what does the scene mean and to whom? Remember that landscapes are like stages: they are inert until an actor strides out upon the boards.

Here is the opening paragraph from Joyce's "Two Gallants":

THE grey warm evening of August had descended upon the city and a mild warm air, a memory of summer, circulated in the streets. The streets, shuttered for the repose of Sunday, swarmed with a gaily coloured crowd. Like illumined pearls the lamps shone from the summits of their tall poles upon the living texture below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly, sent up into the warm grey evening air an unchanging unceasing murmur.

The whole evening has a persona; it is at once the stage and the actor upon that stage. The impression is both literal and figurative, the weather and the type of day have a personality, which interacts with the personality of the crowd. Joyce repeats the adjectives "warm" and "grey" and reverses their order, giving the impression of undulation, and this is reinforced with the alliteration of m (mild, memory, illumined, summits, murmur) and numerous sibilances (descended upon the city, streets ... shuttered ... Sunday, swarmed, etc.). This is not just a scene but an impression of a scene.

Here is another landscape, this one from a poem, "The Snow Man" by Wallace Stevens. Observe how evocative this scene is, how it draws a response from the reader simply by citing objects and connecting them to emotions.

One must have a mind of winter 
To regard the frost and the boughs 
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time 
To behold the junipers shagged with ice, 
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think 
Of any misery in the sound of the wind, 
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land 
Full of the same wind 
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow, 
And, nothing himself, beholds 
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Note the scant use of adjectives: a handful serve for the entire poem, yet the picture of isolation and desolation is complete and poignant. Who is the actor here? The listener, the observer, who becomes, finally, the reader.

Let's narrow the focus to a single room, with a scene from Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas (translated by Sonia Soto):

She was asleep. He stretched out an arm, carefully so as not to wake her, and searched for a cigarette inside his coat. When it was lit, he propped himself up on an elbow and stared at her. She was on her back, naked, her head tilted back on the pillow spotted with dry blood, breathing gently through her half-open mouth. She still smelled of fever and warm flesh. In the glow from the bathroom, which traced her outline in light and shadow, Corso admired her perfect body ... He saw the pulse at her neck, the almost imperceptible beat of her heart, the gentle curve from her back to her waist, widening at the hips.

There are two actors here, one male and one female. There are scant few details about the room (a pillow spotted with blood, glow from the bathroom) but these are enough to paint a picture. The focus is confined to the actors, as if they were illuminated by a pencil spotlight, bringing them into sharp detail. The sleeping woman's body becomes the real landscape, and its texture is revealed through the impressions it makes on Corso's imagination.

The point I want to leave you with is that writing is about people, what they do and feel. Your example starts to get interesting when you bring on the actors and their conflicts: birds fighting fishermen for the catch of the day, the feeling of "hard labour" and "sad hugs" of those going to work upon the sea. I sense that you feel those things innately, but I want to make clear that those are the things that speak to the reader more than any bright aperçu you may make about boats and waves.

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Many good points in your answer. You are absolutely correct in what you write and how the connections between a place and the feelings an individual have can be played with by using a choice of words to create a setting in the mind as much as describing it in dead objects. I will most definitely take this into account for my next locations and try to get a better feeling for the place. Many thanks! –  Xenovoyance Apr 11 '11 at 19:33

This is excellent advice, and is definitely the right way to go about observing your environment and locations.

Some other good advice to expand on this.

  • Don't forget "taste". This is just as powerful as the other four senses e.g. "You could just taste the fresh saltiness of the fish being hauled onto the boats."
  • Before you start writing, spend some time observing your immediate surroundings, then move outwards in scale and look at the "bigger picture". Sometimes, we get caught up or fixated on particular things, so a good idea is, once you've jotted down some observations, look again and cover some other topics/details you've missed.
  • Once you've spent some time observing, you could try writing stream of consciousness rather than formal "see/smell/hear/feel/taste" categories. This can be useful in not imposing restrictions to your train of thought.
  • When you start writing, look at describing things as accurately as possible, without paying too much attention to making the sentence "correct". Try catch the scene as immediately as possible without hindering yourself to the correctness of your writing, but rather concentrate on capturing the essence of what you see.
  • Don't just take note of what you see, also think of comparisons (but don't force them). If something reminds you of something else, make a note of the comparison. Similes and metaphors are extremely valuable.
  • If you don't have time to write down what you see, take a photo, and try write using that as soon as possible.
  • Another tip is to pick out one particular thing you've described, and then try and describe it according to other senses. So, in your example, you could pick out, say, the boats on the shoreline, and repeat the process by trying to cover the same topic in a different way.
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Thank you Craig, some very good tips indeed. I will pick up the tip about taking photos for sure since I also am an amateur photographer so that comes quite natural for me. Thank you! –  Xenovoyance Apr 11 '11 at 19:06

Robusto, you are right.

Description of settings depend on the perceptions and mental states of the point of view character or/and narrator.

James Garner.

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Thank you for your kind words. But since you are addressing me in particular, you might want to put this into a comment at the end of my response instead of making it a full-fledged answer of your own. Otherwise you are offering this to the OP as a complete response. –  Robusto Apr 3 '11 at 14:55

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