Noting the Details

February 26, 2013

Observing a place with a writer’s eye is totally different than going as a tourist. In the latter capacity, you notice the bigger picture. For example, while on a movie studio tour, you might be hunting celebrities or be excited about seeing the costume department. But do you notice the trash bin labeled with a show’s name, the color of the tram that takes you around, or the signs on the soundstage walls?

As a writer, these are the sensory details that make a scene come alive. For Warrior Lord, where my heroes investigate the dire goings-on at a studio where guests go in and don’t come out, I watched an online video of an actual tour and searched my memory of studio visits I’ve made. These gave me the details I needed.

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In a similar fashion, Warrior Rogue has a scene set in Hong Kong. How did I do this when I’d been there years ago? I kept travel diaries of everywhere I went, so first I combed through my journal for descriptions of places that might remain. Then I looked on the Internet to verify they still existed, like the tram ride going to Victoria Peak. I remembered Tiger Balm Gardens, and this became an important—albeit renamed and reimagined—scene in the story as well.

The wedding in Shear Murder takes place at an orchid park, but it’s based on Harry P. Leu Gardens in Orlando. On site, I strode through while taking notes of the plants, the layout, and any unusual observations. Did you know there’s a cemetery inside this oasis? It’s exciting what you’ll discover when you search for unusual and different details to spice your tale.

Next time you are out and about, try to notice these little details and think about how you’d describe them. It will enhance your experience and solidify your memory. And remember to include your five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch.

Writers, what scenes have you used based on personal observations?

Readers, what scenes have you read that stick in your mind due to the descriptive detail?

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0 thoughts on “Noting the Details

  1. I was walking along a side street in Blowing Rock, NC and saw a baby’s small sock on the ground. Clean, probably fell off the child when it was in the stroller. Became part of a murder mystery. The sock had the baby’s DNA in it, and the kidnapper/killers’ inside. With cameras in almost all cell phones, there is nothing we should miss. I walk along, clicking away. Then when I get home, I sort out what I want to keep and use.

  2. You make a great point here, and it’s one I never really considered, although I’m fairly certain what I’m observing I’m taking in through the lens of a writer. I love taking my kids to Disney for just that purpose. They so completely saturate their parks with detail, that even though I’ve been there an innumerable amount of times, I “see” something different each time.
    As far as scenes I’ve written, I put together a chase scene on the Blue Ridge Parkway after mistakenly finding myself on the North Carolina stretch of parkway one day when it was incredibly foggy and you couldn’t see but a few feet in front of the car.

    1. That foggy chase scene must have been quite suspenseful! As for Disney, we always discover something new each time we go, too. The parks are so rich with detail.

  3. So true. My camera has become an extension of me because I don’t trust my memory. When I backpacked across the Grand Canyon, I kept a daily journal (and pictures). They were invaluable when I decided to set a mystery in the canyon. Without the journaIs I wouldn’t have remembered that the ram’s skin quivered right before he charged at me.

      1. Yes, Jeanne, what happened with the ram? I’ll bet your notes were invaluable. Nothing beats on-site personal observation for research.That must have been an exciting trip.

  4. I take lots of pictures whenever possible because I have a terrible memory for details. But you’re so right about the other senses… adding them to the visuals gives depth to the scene. I’m a ‘based on, but not exactly’ kind of writer, although for a scene in Nowhere to Hide, I used an actual restaurant in a nearby shopping mall. (After several yummy ‘research’ trips) Went out of town for a week, came back to find it was gone. But I left it in the book. Maybe a few people will remember it, although my guess is that readers will think I made it up.

    1. I used a local restaurant in Murder by Manicure, and they even put me on their dessert menu. Unfortunately, they are long gone, but their framed menu still hangs on my wall. Nowadays, publishers are so much more careful about letting writers use real places.