Sunday, July 11, 2010

Think Like a Writer - Observing Settings by Robert Hays

Good writers always take seriously the challenge of creating interesting, authentic settings. Previous contributors have offered good suggestions on this front, and my hope merely is to add yet another idea or two. In essence, I’d like to emphasize the value of plain, old-fashioned observation and thinking like a writer.

My friend Walt Harrington, who received multiple Pulitzer Prize nominations for his stunning in-depth personality profiles in the Washington Post, always carried a small, unobtrusive camera on assignment. Before and after his interviews he snapped general setting photos for later reference. His detailed descriptions of the setting were a trademark of his work. (I say were because, like many of us, Walt gave up life as a working journalist to become an academic.) His settings were real and specific to each subject, so accurate detail was important in portraying the people he wrote about.

In fiction writing, we have the freedom to create settings of our choice. But readers will pick up on phony settings pretty quickly. The more realistic and more interesting your setting, the more likely the characters who inhabit it will be believable and interesting to the reader. I’m not suggesting that you need to carry a camera and take setting photographs—although obviously it’s a good way to assure accuracy and pick up on small things you otherwise may miss. I am suggesting that you constantly think like a writer and take careful notes when you observe a setting of interest and, perhaps most important, remember settings you may want to use some day. When you are struck by a terrific setting, store it away in the back of your head. It will pop out sometime when you need it.

I’m using setting here to mean everything from the broad sweep to minor elements that add color and interest. Here is an example:

Probably the most commented on scene in my book, The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris, is that in which Bradley, finally having accepted the inevitability of Lizzie’s death, seeks solitude and takes refuge in the men’s room at a deserted park. Here, he notes but ignores ugly graffiti that normally would make him angry but reacts to a large cockroach trying to escape from a flowing urinal. He rescues the insect, sensing that he holds the power of life and death over it, all the while lamenting the fact that God holds that power over Lizzie and will not give her life.

That scene only works because of the fine detail of the setting. The fine detail of the setting comes straight from my own observations. I actually witnessed a large cockroach trying to escape from a flowing urinal decades ago, when I was in the eighth grade! I was so fascinated by the life and death struggle that I knew I’d one day use it in my writing. (Sorry to say, unlike Bradley, I did not rescue the cockroach.)

The graffiti—some of it quite ugly—also adds to the realism of the setting. Every scribble described is something I’ve seen over the years on the walls of men’s rooms, library carrels, and elsewhere on campus at the University of Illinois. (I know, that’s a sad commentary on our society.) When I saw something particularly expressive I would make a note of it later to add to a file of such things that I kept for use in my writing.

There are plenty of other good examples. Malcolm R. Campbell’s novel, The Sun Singer, grew out of a visit to Allerton Park near Monticello, Illinois, as a youth. That’s when he first saw the striking “Sun Singer” sculpture. I suspect that, even back then, Malcolm thought like a writer!

Robert Hays, Author of Circles in the Water, The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris, and The Baby River Angel Robert Hays' Website


  1. Excellent, Robert. The power of observation, I might add, extends from not only the visual, but the auditory, olfactory, and tactile clues we can gather at a setting. Scenes are so much stronger when writers remember to include multiple sensory observations.

  2. Taking setting pictures is a good idea, even if they are done without a camera. When you noted examples of ugly graffiti, those were--to my mind--snapshots.

    In addition to noticing all the the available detail, it's helpful, I think, to decide what details best fit the needs of your story. Every time a person walks into a room or looks out on a scenic vista or heads into a men's room, the author doesn't have the time to mention every detail every time.

    Which detail serves the story best--in terms of the action, the protagonist's attitudes, the symbolism behind the action? Using such details over and over reinforces your description while serving as a constant metaphor of larger themes.

    One of the details I noticed when I first saw the Sun Singer statue at Allerton Park was that it stood alone. The hero often stands alone, so this physical detail served well the myth of the hero's journey.


  3. Hallöchen,
    ich wollte nur mal liebe Grüße hinterlassen und wünsche dir viel Erfolg mit deiner Seite.


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