Write What You Know Doesn’t Always Work For Me

I have description envy. Basically, I envy writers who have no problems writing out description of their character’s surroundings. It is the hardest part of novel writing for me. I work extremely hard at the process. I read novels with wonderful sentences that light up my world with vision, and colour. I flick back to my work and see an outline in grey. Dialogue is not a problem, I can get my characters to chat along quite happily, but when it comes to their surroundings, I lack the words. I can see the rooms, fields and clothing, but when it is time to describe them, I often draw a blank. I have been told by readers they enjoy my descriptive passages, and their kind words make me smile. The hard work is worth the hours I spend editing and finding inspiration. 

So how have I overcome my weakness – my fear?

I tend to scour books or the Internet for the correct image, and semi-meditate after staring at them for a few minutes. After the moments of quiet concentration, I jot down words as they come to mind, anything at all. I then make myself write a few paragraphs using all those words, but they must be dialogue free, and descriptive. It does not need to relate to the wip I am working on at the time. It is surprising how it releases the mind and whether it is a subconscious thing or not, but often I find the perfect description among the paragraphs I have scribble down. So do not consider my time wasted.

The Haywain by John Constable

Elle Buchanan, my latest character from, The Man in Room Eighteen,  is visiting the site of the Haywain by John Constable, and I have table-mats with the picture imprinted. This was the area I used to live in, and have walked to many times. I took the children picnicking, we walked the dogs through field upon field, and mile upon mile. We rowed up the river and back again. We fished near the mill. All of this was carried out every year, several times a year, but do you think I can describe the old scene in the picture, or draw from my memories?

I kept wondering why, when all those memories were still fresh in my mind, could I not put pen to paper and write about the scenes Elle could see before her. Then it dawned on me. I simply cannot do it justice. Such an widely known place did not deserve to be let down by my scribblings. How was I going to overcome the problem?

After several attempts I gave up. I wrote a different chapter and worked on something completely different. Then it came to me…describe a completely different scene. Find something I am not so close to and not so well known, and see if the inner fear of being criticised for not getting it right, would disappear.
I found a selection of various English countryside pictures and used the one that stood out for me the most. The project worked. Slowly I was able to lose the pressure I had put on myself to write the perfect scene and just write. So the saying, ‘write what you know’, does not always work for me. Sometimes I can block the knowledge through fear.
Has this ever happened to you? How did you overcome the fear?

About Glynis Peters Author

I write Historical saga style novels featuring mystery and romantic twists. HarperCollins/HarperImpulse publishers of my novel, The Secret Orphan. I live in the UK, in a coastal town in Essex. When I am not writing, I enjoy making greetings cards, Cross Stitch, fishing and the company of my little granddaughters. I also write Victorian novels under my own name, Glynis Smy,
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12 Responses to Write What You Know Doesn’t Always Work For Me

  1. Description is not my strongest suit either, so i keep it short and sweet. It seems to work, so far. 🙂

  2. Paula Martin says:

    Interesting post, Glynis. I find description of places difficult too. There just aren’t the words to describe places like the English Lake District or, as in my current WIP, the stunning scenery of Connemara.

    • Glynis Smy says:

      Thanks, Paula. I know what you mean! As soon as I hear someone say something descriptive, I jot it down. I tend to stalk tourists, LOL! Thanks for visiting me today.

  3. lfarrelly says:

    I very much enjoyed reading your post, Glynis, and I surely do empathize. I love to write character, dialogue, and action, but settings, clothing, etc. – well, not so much. I do try very hard to please readers who want a strong sense of place, clothing styles, and atmosphere, as well as those who want a fast-paced story with lots of character development. (Since I admit I’m in the latter group myself, I have to really work at not neglecting descriptions. Never easy!) 🙂

    • Glynis Smy says:

      Lorrie, in Ripper, My Love, I found describing Kitty’s clothing, and ability to sew, quite easy. The fact I don’t sew, and am not into fabrics, didn’t faze me at all. Yet, I love the countryside, and live in a rural vineyard village, and could not describe a blade of grass, really surprised me. Thanks for visiting today.

  4. I do understand this. The place I write about, I know and I find it difficult. I’m not sure it’s fear for me, but putting reality into words. Putting make-believe into words is ok but actual truth, more difficult.

    • Glynis Smy says:

      Rebecca, reality, yes! I think you are right. I am frightened of getting reality wrong, and upsetting the reader. Thanks for taking time out for me today.

  5. Hilary says:

    Hi Glynis .. I can hear what you’re saying – though I’ve never written a story. On the occasions I’ve written something requiring description I seem to find the right words -I suppose I’m living them at that time ..

    I did enjoy the Cornish Artists (latest post) exhibition and accompanying booklet – which was exceptionally informative .. and from that I now can see where description could come from .. so your find a painting or view .. makes absolute sense ..

    Fascinating and so pleased you were able to solve your descriptive thoughts .. cheers Hilary

  6. It depends on the place, I suppose. I found books, internet photos, things like that, to be very useful.

    I did write a sequence taking place in the Israel Museum, within what’s called the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are displayed, and I used the museum’s virtual tour to guide me along as I wrote it.

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