Reading Circles – Description & Setting {Part 3}

Are we all still awash in a post-Fourth glow? Mid-week holidays are tricky. It’s getting back to business for those two days afterward that always ends up a haze.

Thankfully, we’re still only just getting warmed up here. Last week, we talked and read about sensory descriptions and revealing character (Show, not tell, people! This is where it’s at!) . I love these chapters because, when I read them, they broaden my horizon that much further in all the different ways we can use language to paint a scene. Don’t always go for the straight-forward. Bend language a bit. It’s flexible – probably even more so than we are.

What did you think? Did something new catch your attention? And we had a little exercise to try it out for ourselves:

– deliver mood through setting (and preferably without anything that starts “It was a dark and stormy night…”)

For mine, I’m sharing an excerpt from the first chapter of my manuscript, The Yellow Suitcase. Here goes:

          It was still early when Ae Lin arrived to open the coffee shop the next day. She loved early mornings, the onset of day always full of innocence and promise. Dusty orange brimmed the sky, and the city slowly stirred to life. Gas stations and 7-Eleven lights twinkled and faded into daybreak. Smells of breakfast–noodle soup and garlic and fry oil–would soon permeate the stained streets. As she lifted the roll-up security gate, peddlers rolled out their carts, preparing sweet cuts of mango, pineapple, guava, and watermelon to sell for ten baht a bag. Grills heated up. There was the kshksh of vendors scrubbing racks from the day before, and the smells of fatty pork cuts, meatballs, and barbequed squid on skewers wafted up in light plumes of smoke. Ancient rickshaws ambled past, the strong legs of their equally aged drivers beating a steady, relentless rhythm oddly at ease with the Starbucks and Pizza Hut shops that dominated street corners. Talk was slow. Instead, the rhythmic thunkthunk and scrape-scrape of mortars and pestles clattered, and squatting women in flip-flops busied themselves preparing spicy sauces of garlic, shallots, salt, sugar, or lime. Shuffling in modest, silk-woven sarongs, or wide, calf-length trousers and dark blouses dotted with tiny flowers, women swept the floors with splayed bamboo brooms. Younger ones wore their hair in long, sleek sweeps of shiny black while the elderly preferred short perms. Everyone moved with lethargy that emanated from the sultry, languid land itself, communicating only in the soft smiles and careless shrugs that were deep-rooted in a culture that advocates a cool heart as refuge against the sun’s heat.

Ae Lin flipped open the light switches, which slowly flickered on, as she got the coffee grinder going. She wiped down the counters and swept the floors, enjoying the swishing sound of the broom and the soft tap of her flat shoes on cool tiles. Soon the smell of coffee wakened the air and she started rolling out dough for the day’s pastries. Having an actual baker on staff would help increase the shop’s offerings. Those dreams, though, belonged to some future date. For now she would make do with banana crepes and coconut pumpkin puddings that she could prep the night before and have steamed by the time the morning rush hit. The fancy espresso machine had been the real splurge, which she was already making up for by fighting with the unreliable grinder. It was worth it, though. She manipulated her machines with a delicate precision, drawing the spirit of the beans into the fullest expression of their personality, like blossoming a child into woman, knowing just how far to push her into awakening without going too far, extracting too much, and turning her bitter. The customers could taste the decadent coffee. They couldn’t see the extra hour a day she spent grinding the beans. 

Link up your examples in the linky below! Remember, you can feel free to write up a couple of sentences in the comments or link up a blog post, whether one written expressly for this or one written for something else – so long as we get some sense of mood in the setting!

*     *     *

Notice how I incorporated onomatopoeia in that excerpt too? Onomato-what? Onomatopoeia: words made from the sounds they refer to. (Like the”buzz” of bees, the “zip” in zipper, whizz, fizz, and bang!) We’re going to do a little more of that this week! But first, let’s take another look at our read, shall we? Let’s read Chapters 7-9: Time and Place, Description and Setting in Specialized Fiction, and Using Description and Setting to Drive the Story.

In this section, we’re learning more about how to ground the reader in the story and make the world around the characters seem to come alive. Remember, truth is in the details. It can be a zeroing in on a particular aspect of the scene, or a wide-sweeping panorama, but vary it up and use the multiple tools at your disposal. And do your research: it’s the unexpected details that make a place come alive. I was recently asked about how much research goes into my work. Here’s a telling example: part of my story takes place in a red light district in Bangkok. I went there in person to gather details. Some of it I could have imagined (the girls calling out to sleazy businessmen, the flash of lights and bare skin). Some of it, I could never have dreamed up (the kindly grandfathers walking the streets, the tourist families coming with the kids up on their father’s shoulders like it was Disneyland, and the little Thai kids playing with toys in the streets). Those are the details that add grit and make the scene real. It’s the irony of true life, not the imagined dirt, that make that scene as appalling as it should be.

So this week, let’s broaden our arsenal and practice using onomatopoeia and synesthesia in our writing. (FYI: synesthesia is the combination of senses, e.g. using colors to describe a sound, or flavors to describe a feeling.)

Make us see and feel a place through the use of onomatopoeia and synesthesia.

Link up any example in which you do this, and share it with us next week! In the meantime, let’s see your moody settings!

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