Smashing Pumpkins: Sensing your Surroundings

It’s October and we all know what that means. Pumpkins! Pumpkins are everywhere…pies, scented candles, lattes, elaborate house decorations, soups, and every baked good we can imagine! Smells, tastes, and sights of pumpkins (and autumn) abound! So what do pumpkins have to do with sensing your surroundings? Let me carve out an example:

Pumpkin seeds lay scattered across my front porch. The trail of seeds meanders across the front yard to the crime scene where a small orange pumpkin met its match with another pumpkin. A squirrel scurries up and snatches two seeds before I open the front door and shoo it away. I tiptoe around the stringy mess on my porch. More yellow innards hang from a browned phlox in my front flowerbed. I pick up the now smashed pumpkin, its exposed flesh smelling of squash. Stringy slime falls to the ground in a heap. Two giggles emerge from behind the house and I mumble under my breath. As I look for the culprits with a mounting ire, dark red maple leaves blow past me. At least these pumpkins made it two days this time.

Okay, so that scene didn’t send your nostrils tingling with the sweet aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg (the kind of smells I prefer to associate with pumpkins!), but it did set the scene, right? I got to talk about pumpkins and used my children as the antagonists, so that made me happy (as I sip my pumpkin chai latte and my children snore away in their beds). Imagery and scenery do more than just “paint a pretty picture” though, right? They set the mood and advance the plot, connect you with a character, and evoke images and arouse all the senses to bring the reader into the book’s world.

Have you ever read a book that pulled you into a new world, a book whose imagery captivated you? There are many reasons we get lost in the pages (or in the poetic voice of a narrator of an audio book, which is my preference lately with a busy driving schedule). We love the protagonists, regardless of their flaws, and cheer for their happiness. I know I do (it’s why I like romance so much)! We despise the antagonists and hope for their demise (or redemption). Unique dialogue, themes, and plot lines pull us in. But the setting really sketches the book before us. I am a nature girl, so I love books with vivid settings, ones you can smell, feel, hear, taste, and see. Fiction or non-fiction, it does not matter. Even if your book takes place in a bubble or black void, surroundings set the scene. Readers want to get lost in a different place, as fleeting as it may be. I just recently finished reading The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, a story rich with glowing scenery. The scenery was charismatic…and at points luring me in more than the plot line. She hits the mark with imagery and sense of place and she does it in a way that is not just “painting a pretty picture of landscapes”.  

As I approach each scene, in addition to my checklist of what and how something needs to happen (and my GMC chart of goals, motivation, conflict – more of that to come in another blog post), I make sure that setting the scene is a key part. Whether it takes place on a ship traveling across the ocean, in a 900 square-foot office in a tall skyscraper, on a mystical red planet, in a 6 x 6 damp dark prison cell, or on a camping trip in the backwoods of West Virginia, setting is important.

It is not always the physical description that captures us.  It’s how you show it. Setting affects characters differently and their unique point of view is one way to set the scene. In my pumpkin scene above, the point of the view is the mother, who is probably exhausted by her creative, energetic, messy children. But what if that scene was written from the viewpoint of the children? Or from the viewpoint of the reclusive, crabby old neighbor? Or from Grandma’s view, who just pulled into the driveway from a long drive to come visit with her favorite grandchildren? Same scene, different viewpoints.

Not all imagery is about pretty flower meadows or vast prairie landscapes. Feeling stuck on writing imagery and scenery? Below are my suggestions.

1.      Try simple, but specific descriptions. Be as detailed as you want, but fewer words can get the point across just fine.

2.      Invoke the senses: sight, smell, taste, feel, sound.

3.      Change up the POV – which character do you want to experience it?

4.      No need for up front information dumps; thread the imagery throughout the story. Scenery crops up everywhere in your story – from stretches of narrative to dialogue to intense action scenes.

5.      Remember that imagery sets the mood.

6.      Scenery is part of the plot, not just a backdrop; it actually works to enhance the plot.

7.      Use that metaphor if you find it fits; just don’t overdo it. Personification is also great!

8.      Have fun with it. It’s your creation! If you love the word resplendent (yes, that’s my favorite word), then go ahead and use it to describe that resplendent meadow of lilac and pink lupine as the morning sun reflects off the dew.

So there you have it. Go ahead…set a scene! And if you do feel the need to actually smash a pumpkin to appreciate the full experience, please just don’t do it in my front yard!