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Writing Setting and Character

Hey guys!

Last Saturday evening, I attended a writers' group that I've been attending for a few months now, run by Hannah Retallick. While we were there, we talked about setting and character, specifically how to combine the two for good descriptions. 
I thought it'd be a good idea to post what we talked about over here on my blog, along with the writing exercises that I did. So, here goes. This is being written directly from my notes, by the way, so if it feels awkward or strange in bits, it's probably me trying to convert my notes into an article, which is harder than it looks, let me tell you.

The first thing we did was go through a brief overview of what it meant to combine Setting and Character. This bit was all about using details in order to bring the setting to life. Then we did our first exercise. For this exercise, we had to write two or three sentences describing our respective houses, using unique details rather than bland ones in order to bring it to life. The following is what I wrote. 

Exercise 1
My House

The front door opens into a long cream-walled hall, one wall lined with books, a wardrobe and a cabinet. A skylight peaks down the carpeted stairs. Outside a little wooden shed sits at the bottom of the gently sloping garden, with a big tree that's nearly the size of the house looming over it.

Obviously, not my best work, but still you get the basic idea. 

We then went into more detail about the topic. We were told to use all the senses, sight, touch, smell, taste and sound. Think, how would the character react?
There are several different ways in which character influences description. 
First is general interest. When an architect walks into a beautifully designed church, they would notice the architecture, would ask about the architecture. Show the reader what makes the person tick. Secondly, show what's important to them. Character is important. Just because everyone walks into the same place, does not mean they will see the same thing.
Thirdly, think about their emotional connection to the place. Either they have one, in which case positive or negative it'll influence how they look at it, or they don't, which is important in itself. For example, say a character walks into a school. If they had a good experience when they were in school, they'd have a different reaction to someone who had a bad experience. If they didn't have an experience at all, because they didn't go, then they'd have a different reaction again. 
Finally, the character's state of mind in the present. Right now, at the point you're writing about, how are they feeling? If they don't want to be there, then they'll have a different reaction to a place than someone who does want to be there. What if they're really angry or upset about something? When they walk into somewhere, what they pay attention to will be influenced by their feelings. 

The final exercise was spaced over about fifteen minutes. We had to write a short story/description combining setting and character. We could describe a fictional place or a real one. I, naturally, chose a fictional place. Here it is. 

Exercise 2
I stare up at the grey-stone walls surrounding Mirror-Creek Manor with an icy feeling in my gut. I glance to the side, where Simon stands, grinning at me.
“I'm really not sure about this, Si,” I say, trying my best not to sound as scared as I am.
“Why?” Simon laughs. “You're not scared are you? You don't really believe it's haunted?”
I bite my tongue and straighten my back. “Of course not,” I snap and that's the final push I need. I stalk forward and dig my fingers into the stone-wall. It's cold, sending shivers up my arms. But I can't turn back now. I haul myself up the wall, bit by painful bit. By the time I reach the top of the wall, my hands are torn and my shoulders are on fire.
I take a deep breath, staring into the overgrown garden. The black and grey house looms over the garden, the shadow covering much of it, like dark fingers trying to suck in all light and life.
“Well,” I mutter to myself. “I've come this far.”
I shove myself off the top of the wall, the wind howling in my ears as I fall and land on my hands and knees in a thorn bush. I jump to my feet and clamber out. I look at my arms. Honestly, I look like a pincushion I've got so many thorns stuck in them.
I heave a sigh and look longingly back at the wall.
“I've come this far,” I mutter to myself and start forward. My trainers crunch against the frost-bitten over-grown grass, as I force my way through the undergrowth. I catch brief glimpses of the snow-white sky between trees every so often, but they never last long.
Finally, I reach the end of the garden and stumble onto a patio.
The patio is made of rotting mahogany that might have looked very beautiful in its day, but now looks old and decrepit. An eerie creaking rips its way through my bones, as I spin around, only to see a broken rocking chair, moving back and forth in the wind.
I clench my teeth.
“Nothing to be afraid of,” I mutter to myself. “You're being ridiculous.”
The shadow of the house is even worse here, looming over me as though it wants to eat me.
I walk forward, stepping as lightly as I can. The patio looks like it's about to fall to pieces. I reach the door and easily push it open, staring deep into the black hallway. I can't see anything. Anything at all.
I'm pretty sure it's unnatural for a hallway to be this dark.
The stories of the manor crawl their way back into my consciousness, of the murders that occurred here, the wealthy family who went insane, the screams coming from it at night.
“No, Billy.” I snap at myself. “You're being stupid. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

  I stalk forward and step inside the house.

As I said, this post was more an adaption of my notes than a real blog-post, so it's a bit different to my usual. Still, I thought it might be useful.
Have any of you thought about this sort of thing before? Do you use all the senses in your descriptions, or just sight? Have you tried doing this? Because it really does make your descriptions more lively. 


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