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Do I Have to Describe the Tree?

Settings is often the one piece in a story that is forgotten about, I mean, afterall, if it’s a murder story, does the tree in the park really matter? The answer is yes.

When I first began reading Mary Higgins Clark (way back in high school), I would skip the ‘scenic route’ and get to the good stuff only to circle back to the ‘scenic route’ because it was there for a reason. One of my ‘go to’ books is Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, if you are interested in writing mysteries, this is a MUST HAVE. Anyway, this book dedicates a chapter about settings, background and location. One short sentence ‘put weather in.’ (55) made me chuckle because Snoopy got it right with his ‘it was a dark and stormy night’. I had to go back when I was writing Eliza Jane and put weather in because I just didn’t think about it.

When written correctly, settings add a richness to the story. Pick up any Victorian mystery and feel the dense fog, hear the footsteps behind you, smell the decay on Fleet Street, and so on. Mystery author, Julie Smith, says, “Use ordinary description, but go beyond it as well-give us feelings, sounds, tastes, smells, metaphor, impressions, opinions. As in all writing, show don’t tell.” (pp54-55). Here is an example:

  1. I stood at the rail as the ship headed out to sea. It was windy and cold.

  2. I stood at the rail watching the town and the life I have known vanish in the fog as the ship headed out to sea. I feel tears streaming down my cheek and wonder who they are for. I did not wipe the tears, I did not replace the shawl, the wind blew from my head and is now half resting on my shoulders. I did not brush aside the hair that waved in my eyes from the wind. I stood at that railing like a statue. I stood and I hoped.

Notice the first one simply tells us that someone is on a ship and it’s windy and cold. The second one expands on how the person is feeling, how the weather is affecting her and we (the readers) can see the town vanishing with her.

The second example is the opening from my forthcoming book Eliza’s Revenge and it sets the tone for the reader.

Settings must be realistic as well. You can’t have your character sitting in a ‘quiet corner’ on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, unless you are using it as an oxymoron to further the plot.

And again, research is key. If it is a place (or, in my case an era) that you have not been to, find out more about it. What were the seasons like? How cold or warm does it get? What flowers or trees grow there? What kind of wildlife exists? What are the sounds and smells of the area?

  • Do a little exercise. Write down what you usually hear, feel, see and smell outside around your house, then sit outside for 15 minutes afterwards write down what you heard, felt, saw and smelled and compare lists.

Feel free to send me your lists if you wish. I always look forward to hearing from you.

Next week’s blog will be on my experience of the Prince Immersive Experience on June 17th.

Until next time…


Block, Lawrence, Connelly, Michael, et al, Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2001

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As an avid reader of historical fiction, I agree 100% Joyce! For me, world building is incredibly important to truly make the time period and setting come alive. In my opinion, the best historical fiction has such wonderful world building that the atmosphere is almost a character itself. Sights, sounds, smells, etc all play a big role in immersing me in a different time and place.

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