When I was in fifth grade I read a book with a vivid salt-sprayed setting on the coast of Maine, a mysterious place a few hours drive from where we lived in inland Massachusetts.
The author’s words described it in great detail and I entered her world vicariously.
The marsh grass swept the tips of my fingers as I crossed from the field to the edge of the beach. I could smell the dampness of the spray. The grains of sand were warm on the bottom of my feet as I walked the shore, and I shivered when the icy water reached my toes.
In this story, the child protagonist lived in an idyllic summer setting near the sea. The house had weather-beaten shingles, the windows were always open and the sheer white curtains fluttered in the ocean breezes.
When the child looked down from her bedroom window, she saw her mother weeding a flower bed of zinnias and petunias.
You’re wondering how I would remember such a simple scene in a book so long ago.
Here’s the thing. I had never seen the ocean. I wanted to see that ocean. I wanted to walk on that beach, and I definitely wanted to grow a flower garden.
For most readers, “zinnias and petunias” would be enough. I, however, had no idea what those flowers looked like.
I sorely wanted to see these flowers in my mind’s eye, so I asked my mother.
“Mummy, what are ‘zinnias’? What are ‘petunias’?”
My mother said, “I don’t know.”
My mother always said “I don’t know.” It was always too much trouble for her to devote a minute to explaining something to me.
You might find this sad or disconcerting. Don’t.
Yes, the coldness, that was inherent in that negativity, did hurt me. It caused me to turn within myself. Why wasn’t I worth an answer? Why couldn’t I get a response to that which puzzled or bothered me? Why was I always left hanging in uncertainty?
On the up side of this was the fact that her attitude fostered creativity and resourcefulness in me. I had to find my own answers. I had to find my own way to do things. I had to keep plugging away.
Look what just happened. You just witnessed a flashback.
A description of Setting sidetracked into a scene from my memoir—the reason being that I’m deep in the editing process right now and I never know what is going to trigger a momentary shift in time.
I began this post with the intention of describing the importance of detailed settings, and lapsed into recalling a frustrating childhood moment.
Books should totally do that too.
The book set in Maine did a perfect job with the setting for most people, so I doubt that anyone—except me—would object to not having enough description to visualize zinnias and petunias. However, my puzzlement over the zinnias and petunias is the kind of opportunity for description that we writers need to identify in our pages.
The zinnias had layers of tiny petals, that began at the center of each bloom and expanded outward like the explosion of a fireworks display.
The petunias, trumpet shaped, and ruffled like the collar of my favorite blouse, were white with throats of purple and lavender.
Look for your petunias and zinnias. Paint them vividly with words and feelings.