When I write a scene, I’m writing down what I’ve already imagined. In fact, I live my novels! I’ve thought through the scene as though I were there as one of the participants. I see it, feel it, smell it, taste it, and hear it. Then my job is to get enough of that down on paper so the reader can follow my train of thought.
Many scenes in my novels are set locally. Locally means Ouray County in the Colorado Rockies. And, yes, I take a bunch of photographs. In fact, I’ll stand on the spot and take enough pictures that I have an entire 360-degree view! With digital cameras, there’s no limit. In fact, a scene in the second Flying Broomstick book is set in Mesa Verde National Park, not terribly far from here. So, I hopped on my motorcycle and made the trip. On the way I made note of the terrain over which my characters would fly, picking up such details as numerous trees killed by beetle infestation, the recovery of some land from a fire, the tunnel, etc. I took dozens of photos. But remember: use these photos as reminders, not as a complete record of your visit.
Now here’s the rub. Photos only record what you can see. No one has (yet) invented a photo that can convey a smell. You could take some video so you get the sounds, but a microphone picks up everything whereas when you are in situ, your ears can tune out irrelevant sounds.
So, as you’re taking your reminder pictures, take some time to record the things a camera cannot. Record your reaction to the scene—you can put this reaction into one of your characters.
What about scenes that you can’t visit? Hopefully, you can substitute. Keep a scene journal. The next time you’re in a busy airport waiting area, write down your impressions, using all five senses.
Sometimes you can’t substitute. You just have to imagine it. I have a hyperactive imagination, which probably comes from being bipolar. But I can follow a scene in my mind’s eye. For example, in the first Flying Broomstick book, I get stuck above some clouds at night. Now I’ve seen what cloud tops look like in moonlight from the safety of an airline seat, but in this case I was at 15,000 feet on a broomstick. Key items in the scene:
- Moonlight. Bright but colorless.
- Cold. Stinking, freezing, cold. Ice forming on my broomstick. Fingers going numb. Goggles fogging up.
- Altitude. 15,000 feet. Well, I’ve been above 14,000 feet and one does not move quickly with that little air around. So I have to add in some mental confusion.
- The quiet. I’m floating with the wind, so no wind noise. But the storm makes noise—distant thunder which lights the insides of some of the clouds
- The loneliness. Absolutely no one is around to help. There’s a strong fear factor here, too.
- Dislocation. The GPS has failed. I have no clue where I am and if I don’t get to the ground quickly, I’ll freeze to death. But where is the ground? If I drop altitude, I might just ram a mountain.
- Oh, yeah, I’m upside down when I come out of the clouds. With no horizon reference until I get up through the cloud and into the moonlight, I can’t stay upright.
Do you get the idea? Have a pen and paper (or your computer) handy as you carefully imagine the scene. Feel it! Shiver with the cold. Pant in the heat. Hunger for relief. Thirst in the desert. And write it all down!
Now how much of this do you convey to your reader? The answer is, well, just enough. You’re not writing a travelogue, so careful description is not what you’re after. You use enough of the scene to round out your character or show a flaw, or to create tension or a mood, or whatever you need at the moment.
Also, and this is important, if you’re writing in the first person, the scene is filtered through your narrator. Use this: Instead of “she handed me a lovely, hand-wrapped piece of premium chocolate,” you can say “I saw my diet going out the window. I’m not really a chocolate person, but I didn’t want to offend her, so I pretended to be grateful. I took a small bite, wrapped up the rest, and put it in my pocket, to be dumped at the earliest convenience.” You see what I mean.
So, even if you only convey the essence of a scene, you need to have lived it with all five senses. Then you can write your scene with confidence.