At a Willamette Writers Conference one year, Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, was a keynote. She spoke about how she will start writing a scene based upon elements found in the location she is writing about. While she might not use the item, this technique often helps her get her writing juices flowing through a series of questions and answers to describe the place, the moment, and the characters.
She spoke about how she collects auction house catalogs associated with the time period and cultural elements of her books. She will pull one out and flip through it, looking for things that could be in the room with her character. In her example, she chose an amber crystal vase.
In her mind, she put it in the room, but had to debate with herself where in the room it should go. On the window sill? On a shelf? On the desk? She chose the desk.
What color amber was it? Was it deep or light colored? Where was the light coming from that illuminated it, or was it in the shadows? She chose the light coming from the window shining on it.
If the light was coming from the window, then what time of day was it? Where was the light positioned? What color was the light? Was it strong or filtered? What was outside that would block the light, or be clear for the light to pass through?
Returning to the vase, she looked at it in her mind. Why would it be on the desk? Did it have historical significance? Personal significance? Who put it there? Was it the main character, the spouse, housekeeper, or possibly a decorator and it had no significance at all to the character? If it had significance, what is its story?
What is it made of? Is it truly crystal from stone or cut from glass? Who made it? Does it matter who made it to the character or the story?
Is it on a pedestal or plate or just sitting on the desk? What is the desk made of? Why? Was that a good material to choose? Where is there light on the desk? From outside or is there a lamp? What kind of lamp? Where is it? What fuels it? What does it look like…
Where is the character? Is he sitting at the desk? Standing next to it? Is he looking at the object? Why? What does he see when he looks at it? What does it remind him of? What is he thinking as he looks at it?
You get the picture, and that is what she does, she creates the picture from an object and keeps going, testing it out on the character, fleshing out the scene in and around the object. It isn’t about the object but the object helps to define the scene and the character, making the scene come alive through this brainstorming series of questions, each one building upon the other.
Think of a thing in the scene with your character and go through the same process. Keep asking questions, building the scene piece by piece, including light, sound, texture, pattern, smells, all the elements around the character, then paint that picture with your words.
You can find more writing tips, NaNoWriMo prompts, and writing tips for NaNoWriMo on our Writers in the Grove site.