Time and again readers tell me how much they enjoy the descriptions in my articles and books because they make the people and places seem authentic. Being visual, I use my mind's eye to envision them, supplemented by background information I've collected to feed my imagination.
Years ago, I painstakingly researched colour in the library, a tedious undertaking. To supplement this, I began to save more souvenirs from places I'd been and created scrap books for easy reference. Whenever I travel – within 49 countries, not counting those I've visited multiple times – I produce trip logs and take photos. While the souvenirs still need to be placed in books manually, I now design my trip albums on the computer.
Today the Web is a giant resource. For example, for Greek Ghosts, I learned about helicopters and post partum depression by researching online. However, Jennifer's apartment was based on one I lived in as a child growing up in New York City. Bungalows Boulafendis is an operating hotel on the island of Leros in Greece where I spent a week. The manager gave me permission to use the name, his and those of local restaurants. Having visited Athens several times, I was able to incorporate sights and sounds from my experiences, sometimes changing names.
Another means of showing the reader real places and people is to learn to be especially observant. For example, I grew up with a mentally ill mother, so it was easy for me to describe Jennifer's feelings of having one. In another manuscript based on a true crime, I combined several people into one character. The fact that more than 100 people were indicted and 35 went to jail made it necessary. How could a reader possibly follow it all?
If I were to decide to have a character smoke like a chimney, I could describe what it was like to be married to smokers and how they, the house, and our clothes reeked. Backup information would come from the Internet or perhaps from adapting a description about the habit that I read about in a novel. Should an individual eschew smoking as I did, I could describe the one time in college that I attempted to light a boyfriend's cigarette. Thinking it would be cool, I put a non-filter cigarette between my lips and got loose, vile tasting tobacco on my tongue. I spit it out, and told the guy, "Light your own."
Living in Costa Rica I encounter people that provide traits for developing personalities. They range from unusual locals to eccentrics and extremely rude and selfish foreigners. All these as well as the amiable go into my mental character development file to use when writing.
For example, nearly every morning a little, wrinkled, hunched over, old man comes by the houses in my area selling cookies that I understand he makes at home. He yells, "Whoopee!" to get people to come out of their homes and buy his product. One day, a neighbour referred to Whoopee. I questioned what she was saying and she explained that they didn't know his name so they referred to him by his call.
If I were writing about impressions living in Costa Rica, I could use this vendor, along with others that ply their wares in the area, to add interest to an article. If I put Whoopee in a mystery, he might become a disguised person casing a neighbourhood. Or in a short story he could be someone's long lost grandfather down on his luck.
If you think you will have trouble remembering characters and places create a file, either in hard copy or on the computer. Also make notes of ideas for adapting your observations. You might never incorporate them exactly the way you think, but the end result may have readers telling you that your description is fabulous.
Helen Dunn Frame. A Syracuse University journalism school graduate, published in major newspapers, magazines and trade publications in the United States, England, and Germany. Her writing skills and love of travel led her to write her mystery novel Greek Ghosts. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web site: http://www.helendunnframe.com