I hate exercise. I know it’s good for you and all the benefits it provides your body and mind, but I just hate it. However, some years ago I tried running, which I surprisingly loved, but ultimately got lazy and gave up on it. Now, I’ve decided I want to try to get more healthy and fit, but I can’t just pick up running again because I’m too out of shape (because I don’t exercise) so I’m starting off slow, by walking 30 minutes a day.
I recently moved, from a very ‘city’ neighborhood to a much more residential one–still in the city, but a lot less implicitly urban. This means I have some nice areas nearby to do my walking. The other morning I walked nearly a mile through the quiet, sleepy neighborhoods that surround my apartment complex. It’s a nice brain jog to have so much new scenery to take in. It’s fun to explore, too–kind of exciting, and weirdly scary, every time I’ve wandered a good distance from home into an area I’ve never been before. Not scary because I think something is going to happen to me, or I’ll get lost, just the vaguely nerve wracking thrill of wandering around somewhere unfamiliar and outside my comfort zone. I walked all the way to the interstate one morning, and it was pleasantly odd to know I was somewhere I had never been before on foot and didn’t even know I could get there from my starting point. Discovery! Newness!
This has something to do with writing, I promise. This is a writing blog, after all.
The neighborhoods I walk through are very suburban, even though I’m not in the suburbs. Each squat, tidy house (no big houses in this area, most are one and two stories, and very compact) with a nice efficient square of yard in front of each, many with towering trees surrounding them. Smooth, clear sidewalks, all flat terrain with maybe a gentle hill here and there. A maze of interconnecting streets I haven’t explored yet, each much like the other. I walk past a school and a factory (which is blended into the neighborhood setting with trees and gorgeous landscaping and tall fences). Each house and yard seems much the same, apart from the personalized touches the owners and tenants have added–flowers, bushes, lawn sculptures, patios, a splash of bright color here and there. Having lived in an overly gritty, ‘city’ area for so long, I forgot places like this exist. We’re also in the full blush of spring right now and the grass is blazing green, the trees burgeoning with leaves.
Here’s where the writing part comes in: based on the description above, you can probably picture this neighborhood. Not the exact details of course, but you get an image in your head, because you’ve probably been in a place just like it. Describing how a setting looks is pretty easy. Based on a few descriptors, most readers can picture an idyllic, quiet, well-maintained neighborhood on a spring morning.
Much harder to capture in writing is the way a setting feels. And even if you can capture the feeling, there are still readers it won’t resonate with.
In our formative years, as children and young people, our eyes are ‘wide open’ because everything in the world is literally new to us and we’re taking it in for the first time. During that time, feelings get attached to certain sights and events–namely, how we felt when we first saw and experienced them. As I walked through this neighborhood, all fresh and new to me, certain things kept sparking my memory–the way a fence sat, the sprawl of a yard, a box of flowers, the way the shadows gathered under tall, thick pine trees. Not so much memories as the memory of a feeling. I can’t tell you from what point in my life those memories came, but they kept getting triggered over and over. When I was a child I grew up in the desert, where neighborhoods are only green if they’re watered and maintained constantly. We lived in a few of those places and they were always eye-opening to me, because at other times we literally lived in places where the backyard was sand. I think the onslaught of neat, idyllic greenness took me back to that time. Everything I passed had an interesting, comfortable, elusive feel to it that I couldn’t explain if I tried. It was a good feeling, though.
The problem with conveying the feeling of a setting is that your readers don’t share your memories. And while something you hit upon might resonate with a few of them, some are not going to understand. We share a lot of universal truths as human beings, but our memories–and the memory of feelings–are our own. You can still convey this though, by making your character’s memories a vital part of who they are and in moving the story forward. You don’t know me or share my memories, but after explaining my background to you, you can probably understand why a lush, picturesque neighborhood would make me ‘feel’ my childhood. You can explain your character’s feelings by pointing out why they have them. A few people might really get it, too.
Every day is a writing lesson! Even taking a walk to try to stop hating exercise can make you a better writer.