Tag Archives: observation

Playing with Setting

Writing setting is all about creating a location and making it as real to the reader as possible. Some authors spend a great deal of their exposition on setting, while still others choose to infuse it more gradually throughout their work. No matter what the method, the act of building setting is essential, since it helps to create the very atmosphere and tone that will embrace the readers approaching your work.

This week I flew to visit some of my family. Most of us have been on an airplane at least once in our lives, making it easy to identify several common features: cramped seats, narrow aisles, tiny bathrooms, packaged peanuts or pretzels, miniature drinks, grouchy people, rickety tray tables, and colorful emergency pamphlets. As I sit on the plane, I always try to find some enjoyment in elaborating on these features. I think of it as playing with my setting.

I’ll start with a simple statement: It is 8:40, and I am on an airplane. Then I’ll begin to add some key details.

I am on an 8:40 p.m. flight, wedged uncomfortably into my uneven seat due to the broken spring beneath my left thigh. The plane reeks of stale pretzels and a potential sanitary issue in the nose-end bathroom.

As the flight attendants begin their speech about the procedure should we experience a sudden change in cabin pressure, I add in a few more details.

The air that spews from the vents above is doing nothing but suffocating me with a steady stream of hot air, making it more difficult to breathe against the surrounding stench.

The man next to me sneezes without covering his mouth, and after stealing a quick glance in his direction, I add more to my mental image.

The hum of the jet steadily increases, but not as rapidly as the sound of breathing that pours from the stuffy nose of the man to my right. He squirms in his seat, sneezing repeatedly until I’m forced to peer away. At the same moment, the little girl to my left tugs off her sweater, her sleeve nearly smacking me in the jaw.

Suddenly I realize that the dismal light above is not going to provide much to read by, leaving me little to do but continue my imagined ride. I do, after all, write fiction. Why not make this airplane scene go in a slightly more fantastical direction?

The girl looks up to me, her eyes glowing a light shade of green. She grins, her teeth sharp against her rose-red tongue and her lips pursing together when the man to my right sneezes again. She peers past my shoulder, her eyes slitting narrowly at him as the plane hits some turbulence. It bounces us violently in our seats in a manner that somehow does not seem to affect her.

The man sneezes. The girl licks her lips. Across the aisle, another man stands from his seat, so I add this in too.

Despite the captain’s direction for us to remain in our seats, a lanky man across the aisle stands from his chair, beginning to chat up the flight attendant before he heads toward the nose-end bathroom in a near run.

Then:

A thud sounds from the left of the airplane, as if something hit the plane and bounced repeatedly along its side. A shadow passes over us, the darkness outside creeping in, mimicking the growing smile from the girl in seat 7A. The chill looming over our row makes the sneezer in seat C and me in seat B start to shiver convulsively….

The joy of setting is that it can effectively set the tone for the work to-be. I have  no idea what to do with my airplane vision so far, but when I make a few tweaks and tie all the setting details together (as well as a little characterization and some information to build a scene), here’s what I have:

I buckle my seat belt on the 8:40 p.m. flight, my body pitched at an uncomfortable angle thanks to the broken spring beneath my left thigh. The plane reeks of stale pretzels and a potential sanitary issue in the nose-end bathroom, and the steady stream of hot air from the vent above makes it even more difficult to breathe against the stench. While the hum of the jet steadily increases, so does the ragged breathing that pours from the stuffy-nosed man next to me. He squirms, rocking our seats as he sneezes repeatedly, forcing me to peer away. As I turn, the little girl to my left tugs off her sweater and nearly smacks me in the jaw with her sleeve. She mutters, “Sorry,” before looking up at me, her light green eyes glowing. When she grins, her teeth press sharply against her rose-red tongue. The man to my right sneezes again and the little girl purses her lips together. She peers past my shoulder at him as the plane hits some turbulence and bounces us violently in our seats. She is not affected, her eyes slitting narrowly when the captain directs us to remain in our seats and a lanky man across the aisle stands from his chair. He chats up the flight attendant before running toward the nose-end bathroom at full speed.

A repeated thud sounds from the left of the airplane, as if something hit the plane and bounced along its length until it flew off into the nothingness behind us. Immediately a shadow passes over, the darkness outside creeping in, mimicking the growing smile from the girl in seat 7A. The sneezer in seat C and I start to shiver convulsively…

Though it is most certainly not a finalized scene, the setting aspects already have me thinking of where I could go from here. Playing with setting like this is a good practice to hone in useful details for writing, even if this particular piece never comes to life in a real story. The feel of the plane, and the random acts of the people around me on the plane, are all items that could be stashed in a mental rolodex of story components.

As I’m thinking about this, the lights above the walkway randomly start flickering, causing a gasp from some of the other passengers. I smile, then close my eyes to take a nap before we land…the sound of 7C’s stuffy breathing in my ear.

Happy Friday the 13th, everyone!


On Writing Detail…Or, Observations of a Coffee Shop

A writer does many things, but one of the most important acts of writing is detail, whether it be the detail in setting, dialogue, characters, or the action carrying the plot. Being able to observe thus becomes a handy writer’s skill, since the most random of observations can spark an idea, a character, or a scene that we tend to excitedly and passionately write down.

My colleague friend mentioned that she thought writers in coffee shops were intriguing—seeing as how they’re observing all the people and sounds—and the idea soon landed me in the cushiest of brown chairs at one of my local Starbucks. In honor of my friend’s comment, I thought I’d practice the art of observation today. Whether I gain a clever new character to add to a future story or simply convey the mysterious clientele of an overly populated coffee chain, then the experience feels like good practice, and one I recommend to anyone to improve observation of detail in the sights, sounds, and smells around us.

On the occasion I decide to play the writer-in-the-coffee-shop game, I usually pick this Starbucks. I prefer it for many reasons: the staff is friendly, the drinks are consistent, and—since I’m like most American women with any pulse at all—I appreciate that members of the city fire department often stop by…because they make me feel safe. (I swear.) <Cough.>

Back to the task at hand. To my left is a women of about fifty, her dark skin covered in freckles and a skinny beige textbook resting in her lap. She rubs her chin as she ponders her reading, steadily erasing in her notebook as she works on what appears to be a math assignment. (Since I’m a math teacher by day, I find this detail particularly amusing.) The woman scribbles on her notebook in neat little rows, each character written with perfect penmanship despite her numerous erase marks and her repeated interruptions to stroke her chin. Soon she switches to touching her abalone shell earrings before frowning, then meticulously erases again. I’m half-tempted to offer to help her with the problems, but she breaks her studies to answer her phone, speaking in a quiet, monotone voice. I wonder why she might be taking classes at this point in her life and assume she’s probably had a lot of life experience before embarking on further education. Perhaps she has a family at home with six kids, each of them dragging their feet as they made their way to adulthood, and now that they’ve finally moved out it’s her turn to go back to school. Or, maybe she needs to improve her skill set for a job, and her employer threatened to replace her with the younger, peppier staffer he just hired last week if she didn’t.

There are a variety of ideas that spring to mind as she peeks curiously in my direction, but I coyly glance to the counter so as not to stare.

A man donning grey weathered cargo pants with several chains dangling off the sides just got in line, his bottom half oddly contrasting the white collared, button-up shirt that he’s closed clear up to his neck. He wears a black embroidered baseball cap and talks to the baristas with a random high-pitched laugh. These sorts of conflicting details often make for the most intrigue in a character, and when he turns to face the rest of the cafe, he scans over us with uncomfortably pinched blue eyes. He folds his wallet and slips it back into his left pocket, the lines in his forehead forming a multitude of zigzagging rows, and then sneaks away to the bathroom where his female companion emerges. She brushes back her black cropped hair, then plays with the zipper on her white hooded sweatshirt and speaks to him as he closes the door. Her candy-colored lips move in a lazy speech and I hear, “I don’t think so,” among a few other inaudible sentences, to which the man casually shuts the door with a roll of those startling eyes. Once he exits they scoot out of the shop as quickly as they came in, sending a grumpy scowl at one another when they pass a man at a window table.

This man wears a multi-colored beanie and a pair of earphones that he tugs at with a smile, his posture behind his laptop more relaxed than that of most anyone in here. He taps his foot to his music against his bag, its contents strewn casually on the floor. So into his music, he barely notices the sounds of the coffee grinding and brewing, the gentle whirring sound of the milk as it’s steamed, the baristas talking about the fact that someone named Kim didn’t show up for her shift on time and how Alex is going to “fire her ass,” or the fact that the woman behind him just knocked the last of her coffee onto the floor, the liquid making a slow drip, drip, drip onto the dirty gray tile just behind him…

The man bops his head, adjusting his cap once, twice; he stops typing to read what’s in front of him on the screen. His green-grey eyes scan the view, then he types again, reads, and types before glancing at me. We smile at one another, then go back to our respective computers. Perhaps he’s a professional working on a presentation, or a teacher typing his lesson plan, or a student working on a paper—or perhaps he’s a writer just like me, observing everything around him, jotting it down, committing it to memory, and playing with these details as the basis for a character for the next piece, while a little nondescript folk rock plays through the speakers overhead.

One can never tell if the characters observed are something to write from, but the process of digesting all these details is always a good practice for any writer, novelist, poet, or journalist alike.

For the moment, I might offer to help the woman next to me as I take the last few sips of my tea….

…but it looks like the fire truck just pulled into the parking lot.


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