Thursday Writing Prompt No. 22

Water tower for the Durango and Silverton narrow gauge railway in Colorado.

Hello again. This week’s Thursday Writing Prompt is going to focus on setting the scene. I was inspired by looking back through some of my vacation photos from last year’s cross-country trip. We drove from Maryland all the way to Wyoming, down through Utah, back up through Colorado, and back across the country. Along the way, we put more than 6,000 miles on our car, passed through two time zones, and I swear I still have some wrinkles in my clothes from sitting in the car so long.

Since writing and photography are two of my interests, it’s natural to look for ways to combine them. I don’t have plans for any photo books coming up, but I’m starting to think about how I can take pictures that will be helpful for writing my scenes. Unfortunately I’m writing about a make-believe place, so there’s no way I can actually visit it. If you write science fiction or fantasy, or anything set in the far past, you probably have the same problem. So the question for writers is how we can use our own pictures, or those we find on the Internet, for a writing prompt. Actually, it’s probably easier to find something online if you need a very specific image of a place, but I’m going to work from the photograph that I have here.

Your writing task is to write about the scene in the picture. Take at least 350 words to do this. I know that I’ve gotten artistic with the photo, and so maybe some of the details are not clear, but that’s okay. Change the name and place if you want to, but the point of writing scenery is to describe the location where your story takes place.Think about what it looks like, but also think about the other sensory impressions a place would leave on your character.

I recently took a short workshop with Danielle Ackley-McPhail at the Darkover convention held this past Thanksgiving weekend. We did a writing exercise called “Writing to the Senses,” which also appears in her book The Literary Handyman. The point is that a scene is more than just a visual description of what a place looks like, although that’s quite an important part, too.

Writing scenes from photographs or even paintings will give you experience in describing appearance and relationship. For instance, in this photo, you can see pine trees in the background and a rocky mountain behind the water tower. You can guestimate how tall the tower might be by the size of the tree that’s behind it. You can see the tower sits on a relatively flat stretch of land, and since this is mountain territory, that should tell you something — people have been at work here, building and altering the landscape. It’s all food for your writing plate, and remember, this is an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The other parts of writing scenery are things that you can’t get from pictures, and that’s the sounds, smells, and tactile feedback that make the world real. For the water tower scene, you can see the tower is made from wood, so write about its texture. If your character touched it, would he get a splinter? What does the air smell like? Can your character smell the pine sap that’s oozing from the trees? Are dry pine needles scattered underfoot? Is it hot or cold, humid or dry? Can he or she hear the wind blowing? Don’t ignore your character’s senses, and remember that smell is a very important sense for generating emotional content. Your characters should live in a world that’s more than just a visual representation of reality, so your description of scenes should include more than just the sights. Do you hear me? Good! Get writing!

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