I’m thrilled that readers of my first book, Double Crossing, have raved about the page-turning chapter endings, the rich settings and realistic historical details, the suspense and in-depth characters. Writing is never easy, no matter what the genre. It’s an art—and crafting scenes to draw the reader in and keep them hooked until the last page takes hard work.
I learned that readers (even ones who don’t read historical novels) love to experience the “story world” right along with the characters. What does it take? Using the five senses and deep Point of View, taking care to balance a razor’s edge between too subtle and overload. In Double Crossing, I used First Person POV—primarily because I wanted that immediate close bonding between the heroine and the reader. The second part, using the five senses in Lily Granville’s point of view, took a bit more work.
Every writer can easily visualize their story world, even using 3rd Person POV. It takes going beyond the “eyes” of a character to hear, smell, feel and even taste within the scene’s action. In the following excerpt, I tried to use two or three senses at various times as Lily walks along a street in Nebraska, 1869:
I clamped a handkerchief over my mouth but Omaha’s black dirt still choked me. My hard sneeze left a ringing in my ears. There had to be a general store somewhere with needles and thread. Stray sparks from the Chicago and Western’s smokestack had burned tiny holes in my split skirt and jacket, and I was desperate to repair them both.
At last I found a shop. A bell jangled above my head when I entered. The bulky proprietor laughed and joked with several customers while he filled orders at the polished walnut counter. I meandered down each crowded aisle. Scents of dill, chives and cinnamon tickled my nose. Potatoes with earthy skins and papery onions filled open barrels. Small jars of pickled beets and corn relish, tins of fruit and baked beans lined the shelves. Huge burlap sacks of flour, sugar, salt, coffee and beans lay near the door, and wheels of cheese had been stacked above crates of smoked fish and salt pork.
Seeing the flatirons, hoes, plows and other tools all around brought a sense of normalcy back to my life. I realized I’d been wandering in a haze since Father’s funeral.
It may seem like the infamous “info dump” in the long paragraph, but having your character take action among all the details helps to “ground” the scene. Lily is tracking her father’s killer, by the way, via the transcontinental railroad—but soon realizes she may have been followed from her home...
I soon found the rack of notions. “Closing in half an hour, miss,” Mr. Porter said with a friendly smile. “Like to see my bolts of silk? I got pattern paper too.”
“I need a travel sewing kit, if you have one.”
Armed with a clever box crammed with thread, needles and a tiny pair of silver folding scissors, I wandered the back aisles. A leather money belt caught my eye, with firm stitching and eight compartments. Dodging a row of sturdy butter churns and stacked washboards, I placed the belt on the counter along with an oilcloth cape and several green apples.
“Two dozen peppermints also, please.”
Once I paid the bill, I scurried to a quiet corner away from the few remaining shoppers. Shiny snaps on the wide belt secured each compartment. I adjusted it around my waist and tugged my suit jacket to hide its bulk. Perfect!
I glanced around for a mirror and then froze, staring at my feet and then behind me. My pocketbook was nowhere in sight. I thought I’d wedged the leather two-handled bag between the crates of saltines at my elbow. Frantic, I searched the entire corner and each aisle of the shop in vain. Fear gripped me in a stranglehold. My expensive Pullman ticket, stolen! My hands shook and I had trouble thinking straight for a full minute.
I raced back to the counter. I waited until Mr. Porter finished a customer’s transaction. “Sir, did I leave my pocketbook here? I paid my bill not five minutes ago. The money belt, sewing kit, peppermints—”
“Sure I remember, miss.” Mr. Porter reached beneath the polished wood and planted my bag on top. “A gent brought this to me. Said he found it on a barrel.”
I stared at him. “What did he look like?”
The storekeeper shrugged. “Wore a suit and derby hat, like every other man passing through town.”
I opened the pocketbook’s clasp and glanced inside. Everything was intact, even my precious Pullman ticket and all my money. I murmured a prayer of thanks until realizing that my sketchbook was wedged upside down, on the wrong side. My black-edged handkerchiefs were crumpled on the bottom as well. Someone had searched the contents.
Someone who followed me from the hotel. Some stranger from the train, or Emil Todaro himself? A shiver raced up my spine. It couldn’t be possible. Or could it? Had I underestimated him again? Instead of being the hunter, was I now the prey?
That thought infuriated me.
Vivid details come from specific adjectives and nouns—silver folding scissors, sturdy butter churns, oilcloth cape, shiny snaps. Readers can quickly identify the items with the visual cues. Dropping a few other sensory cues—bell jangled, scents tickled my nose—helps also. Add a brief dialogue exchange to balance out the scene and interact with minor characters. Your readers will see that a character is not living in a “vacuum.”
I could have had Lily touching the earthy skins of potatoes, but that would have dirtied her gloves! So keep in mind your character’s personality, and drop in the vivid details like pearls along the path to avoid the dreaded “dumps.”
Meg Mims is an author, artist and amateur photographer. She writes historical mysteries and romantic suspense, and earned an M.A. from Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction program in January 2010. Meg also is a staff writer for RE/MAX Platinum in Michigan and for Lake Effect Living, a West Coast of Michigan tourist on-line magazine. Double Crossing was published this summer by Astraea Press and is available as an e-book and in print.
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