Description: What and How Much

Snapshot Hazel Hart, for blog copyIn the first two books of the Pierce Family Saga series, my characters were on the go. Descriptions of surroundings could be brief. In this third book, much of the action in the early chapters takes place in Hidden Springs. Suddenly, the town and the people in it need more than passing thoughts. While mulling over how many and what kind of descriptive details to use, I came across an excellent Glimmer Train article  on the subject by Abby Geni.

As I read through the list of qualities for a good description, I compared the following paragraph from the rough draft of my novel-in-progress  and found it lacking in sensory details. In particular, I might add details that signal the general feel of the store (neat and well-kept or disorganized, bright or gloomy) that indicate the character of the proprietors.

General store description from Ambrose Pierce’s point of view:

Fletcher’s Emporium was straight across the street. As I crossed, I saw their door was open to catch what little breeze there was on this blazing hot August day. I stepped inside and stood for a moment to let my eyes adjust to the dimmer natural light within. Blinking, I looked around to find no one at the front of the store. There were some thumps and voices from the back, though, so I figured they were unloading freight and headed on back through the long center aisle. I was perhaps five feet from the door to the back loading dock when I heard Mr. Fletcher’s raised voice. “We’ve got a good life here. I hope Ava’s not going to mess it up for us like she did back in New York.”

Character description

One of Geni’s most interesting rules is to stay away from what she calls “police blotter” descriptions of characters. In my partial description of Hiram Pierce below, I manage to do that. However, I do make use of the “mirror reflection” which is an overdone technique. Hopefully, it works here.

Hiram Pierce considers his appearance:

I checked my clean-shaven reflection in the mirror, rubbing my hand across my smooth chin, and once again considered whether to grow a beard. I’d want a full one if I did it. No sense going halfway. But a full beard around a blacksmith forge could be a fire danger. Almost unconsciously, my hand went to my chest and the almost square four-inch area where the border ruffians had branded me with a blazing hot horseshoe. I shuddered at the thought of sparks catching a beard on fire, at the pain of the burn and the scar it would leave. The puckered flesh on my chest was ugly enough.

Change in point of view and overall progress on Hiram’s Boy

I recently changed Hiram’s point of view from third to first person. What sounded acceptable in third person doesn’t work as well in first. However, that is what revision is all about, something I’ll get to when I have a complete rough draft. I have sixty-five pages so far.

If you are a writer, I hope you find Abby Geni’s article on description helpful.

 

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19th Century Fashion Facts

  • In the 1850s, skirts measured as much as ten to twelve yards around the hem.
  • Small pieces of lead were sewn into the hem to keep the wind from lifting full skirts.
  • A woman might wear six to nine ruffled petticoats underneath her full skirts.
  • The entire weight of one dress with petticoats might be as much as forty pounds.
  • Whether a woman wore a cage crinoline (hoop skirt) or layers of petticoats, wide skirts were a fire hazard.

Kindle Scout question: What did you learn while writing this book? Answer in 300 characters or less.

I have to admit to being fashion blind. I do not notice what other people are wearing unless their clothes are truly outrageous for the circumstances. If someone were feeding the pigs in a ball gown to rival Cinderella’s or someone attended a ball in a gunnysack, that would get my attention. Otherwise, I assume people wear whatever clothes are normal for the circumstances and don’t pay much notice. The result of my fashion blindness was brought to my attention by a critique partner who noted that my characters had no clothes. Given I’m writing historical fiction, I should probably include a few details.  After some Google searches, I learned a few fashion details and pinned some pictures on Pinterest. The question is how to include the descriptions without slowing down the story.

Below are my original and revised paragraphs.

Original: The next afternoon, I stood outside a small room at the back of the church where the women’s bible study group met, waiting for the meeting to break up so I could speak to my aunts. Aunt Hilda was the minister’s wife, so she led the study, and Aunt May attended because she was the banker’s wife and supporting the church was expected of someone with her position in society.

Revised: The next afternoon, clutching my borrowed copy of Godey’s Lady’s Book, I stood outside a small room at the back of the church where the women’s Bible study group met, waiting for the meeting to break up so I could return the magazine and tell my aunts that Pa had sent for me. Aunt Hilda was the minister’s wife, so she led the study, and Aunt May attended because she was the banker’s wife and supporting the church was expected of someone with her position in society.

My aunts were obviously sisters. May, Hilda, and Hannah were all tall and blonde with blue eyes. It was their petticoats that set them apart. Aunt Hannah swore that too many petticoats interfered with her work managing the hotel and never wore more than four and her skirts hung embarrassingly straight. Aunt Hilda usually had six for an acceptable fullness. It was Aunt May with nine petticoats that rustled and held out her skirts in almost a bell who was truly fashionable.

It was finally four o’clock, and Aunt Hilda led a prayer to close the meeting. After the “amen,” women began drifting toward the door, chatting on their way, and I got my first clear view of Aunt May’s new gown as she stood to leave. The dress had no collar, leaving Aunt May’s entire neck exposed, and her skirt was a perfect bell, indicating that she had received the cage crinoline that was advertised in the issue of Godey’s I held in my hand.  Aunt Hilda’s face had a sour look, and I wondered if it was Aunt May’s choice of neckline for church wear that caused it.

Have I gone overboard with description or do the details add to the story? Let me know.

If you enjoyed this excerpt from For Want of a Father, please nominate it for publication before April 30.

for want of a father final copy