I had a great time this past week talking to middle school students about the writing process. They asked some great questions about where I got my inspiration and how I developed the characters. They were particularly interested in the descriptive process.
I explained that good writers are first of all good observers. They pay attention to the smallest details that help to evoke a feeling or memory. It is important for writers to connect to readers on an emotional level and the best way to do that is through a shared experience or memory. Vivid images that take the reader to a place they may never have been, but can imagine in their minds, helps them to connect to the story.
In Windborne, I wanted the reader to understand the importance of the wind in the story. In Kansas, the wind is a constant, but it sounds and feels different at different times of the year. It can also illicit different feelings and moods. A gentle spring breeze blowing through the tall grasses makes a swishing noise that is calming and even uplifting. It cools and caresses as it touches you and smells like newly turned earth. A summer wind rustling the leaves high in the trees is lazy and unpredictable. It comes in gusts and teases you with its coolness. A winter wind pierces you with its icy fingers and threatens to take your breath away, but an autumn wind is crisp and crackly, bringing the scent of wood and harvest.
All these observations are important to give the reader a sense of time and place. Since I write historical fiction, it is also important to place the reader in the appropriate time frame by using historically accurate descriptions. In The Stone House Legacy, it was important for the reader to feel the tension of the times even though the characters were geographically removed from much of the action.
This was accomplished by having the characters react to situations and describing those reactions in great detail. For example, the assassination of President Kennedy was an event that affected the entire nation regardless of political, ethnic, or religious beliefs. Taping into those feelings that everyone experienced in some way, helps the reader to connect and identify with the characters.
Novice writers often focus so much attention on the action of the plot that they forget to engage their readers. This, I believe, is the dividing line between a good read and a great read. It is what makes the story continue in the reader's thoughts long after the last page is turned.
Thank you to the students at Americus Middle School for reminding me of this important lesson.