Thursday Writing Prompt No. 17

architectural decoration

This lion gargoyle sits atop a window in Baltimore. The picture was taken with a Nikon Coolpix S210 and converted to black-and-white using Topaz filters.

This week’s Thursday Writing Prompt asks you to write a descriptive paragraph or two that focus on setting. I think if you aim for 350 words that will give you enough room to do some development, but it isn’t so short that you get lazy and write lame sentences such as “the building was made from stone.” Tell your reader what kind of stone by describing its physical properties, like size, shape, and color. What you want to do is make your description so vivid that the reader will see your setting and feel like it’s real.

Writing about things you see every day is actually pretty hard. What I’ve found is that I tend to go past things without really looking at them, because I’m usually on the way to work and busy thinking about something other than the buildings that I’m walking or driving past. And I’ve got to say that people who spend a lot of time on their cell phones are almost never aware of their surroundings. Not a rant; just an observation. But the larger point is that people get distracted with daily life and don’t notice the details. I only just noticed last week that the building I park my car in has a second-story balcony on the front, and I’ve been walking into the lobby of that building for, oh, almost a year.

Being a tourist or visiting someplace nearby where you don’t often go is a better way to start writing description because you’re already primed to be looking around you for directions. The novelty of non-routine is enough sometimes to break through the fog of boredom and chores that accompanies daily life. If you can, go someplace that’s new to you and write about something. It doesn’t have to be a road trip. You can go to a coffee shop that you’ve never been to and sit and write about the building across the street or the trees planted outside. If you’re stuck, just write notes.

Here are some things to consider about description. When you’re writing about buildings, look at their shape. Yes, most buildings look like squares or rectangles when you look at them from the side, but don’t assume that’s a given. Tell your reader the general shape, then add details like how many windows or whether the windows are large or small, single panes or multiple panes. Are there shutters? Does the building have venetian blinds or shades? Sketch them with words. Don’t forget to include architectural elements, like the lion’s head in the photo. Modern buildings may lack gargoyles, but they still have decoration. If you are writing about a natural setting don’t just write “There are six trees on the far side of the stream.” Are they pine trees? I love pine trees. Is one of them dead? Is the stream moving quickly or jammed up with a beaver dam? What shape does the stream take across the landscape?

One thing I’ve been doing is carrying my small camera with me and taking pictures of ordinary stuff, like street scenes, my desk at home, and all sorts of non-photogenic things you can think of. It’s a bit strange, but when you look at a picture you tend to notice things that you ignore otherwise. And I’ve found that converting some of my images to black-and-white gives me yet another perspective. Alternatively, sketching a scene (no matter your art skills) can be helpful to draw your attention to things like shapes and lighting. I think it’s good fodder for your writing practice to add a little art in your life.

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