I’ve always known it’s a weakness of mine that I don’t include enough description in my writing. As a reader I often skip long descriptions, and it only takes a couple of well-placed words to give me a sense of setting. And I’m not sure I’m that interested in setting anyway (as a reader) – I tend to be more focussed on characters and what’s happening than where they are or what the scenery looks like. I don’t read historical fiction often, but I do think setting (time, as well as place) is doubly important in this genre – many readers love historical fiction because they enjoy reading about the history as much as the events that are taking place in the novel. But for contemporary fiction, be it romance or anything else that doesn’t use an exotic or prominent setting as part of the overall plot, how important is detailed description?
Take the first in my new series of cosy mysteries, which I’m working on at the moment. About halfway through the second draft I suddenly realised that although the book is set in Shrewsbury – a place packed with history – I had made virtually no mention of it at all. Well, I could argue, Shrewsbury’s history and architecture aren’t integral to the plot. Except, in some ways they kind of are …
Flora knows the back streets and alleys of the city like the back of her hand, and there is an important scene where she’s followed when she takes a short cut home. The reader will be aided in visualising this if I include some good description here, but it’s also important to do it without slowing down the action, or taking away from the tension of the scene. There’s another scene that takes place at the funicular railway in Bridgnorth – a location that will pop up again later, so it’s important that the reader be able to see it clearly and remember. The first scene is right at the start of the book, however, so again it’s necessary to give visual clues – and use the other senses, of course – to place the reader firmly in the scene, without slowing it down or getting bogged down in detail.
Generally, I think for a genre like mystery it’s a real bonus to have vivid settings. I’m hoping for more readers from the US for this series, and I’m keeping this in mind while I’m re-writing. Often I find the key is to choose one or two vivid images, rather than go on and on with description. What do you think? Advice from fellow writers welcomed, and preferences from readers especially welcomed too! 🙂