How To Write a Scene About a Place You Have Never Visited
From an Earlier Article
I mentioned in an article last week that writers construct scenes in stories and books through the use of research, imagination, and personal experience. I think writers, all too often, limit their scene descriptions to areas they have visited, not trusting in their imaginations. Let me give you a scene description from my latest novel, “Resurrecting Tobias”, based on a personal visit to New Orleans forty years ago.
“I could hear the streetcar trolley bell clanging in the distance as I began my first walk through the Quarter. Somewhere a trumpet was welcoming the new day. The smell of camellias mixed with the rich earth smell of the Mississippi River, and as the breeze picked up, I could also smell fishing boats, mended nets, black beans and the sweat of a city that rarely rested. Rear doors of delivery trucks clanged, reminding me of fourteen years of prison laid to rest, and women with honest-to-God parasols smiled shyly as they passed me.”
As I said, that short description was based solely on memory, but what about writing a scene for a place never visited? How does a writer go about that task?
Use the Tools at Your Disposal
For a little exercise to demonstrate my point, I’m going to write a scene description about a town I’ve never visited. I chose Franklin, Indiana, for this exercise.
What do I know about Franklin, Indiana? I’ve never been there, so this will be a difficult task, right?
I have the internet, so photos of Franklin are readily available to me. I have a writer’s imagination. I also have memories of other Midwest towns I have visited over the years. I almost guarantee that any Midwest town will have elm, oak and maple trees. I almost guarantee that any Midwest town will have some fast food joints, a diner where the locals congregate, a bowling alley, police station, courthouse and city park. I know that most of the downtown buildings will be constructed of brick, and I know somewhere nearby there will be a grange. These are constants in the Midwest of the United States, in some cases decaying memories of the good times long gone, but often just a way of life that is timeless and does not need to be modernized.
So I’m loaded with tools to use for this little writing exercise. Let me do a little research and then I’ll begin.
Thanks to my good friends at Wikipedia, I know the following about Franklin, Indiana:
- Population of 23,712 people
- The city was incorporated in 1823
- Franklin is the County Seat of Johnson County
- It lies twenty miles south of Indianapolis and ninety miles north of Louisville, Kentucky
- Canary Creek, Hurricane Creek and Young’s Creek flow through the city, and there is frequent flooding
- Very little racial diversification, with 94.9% of inhabitants white
- Hot, humid summers and mild to cool winters
- Franklin College is located there
- Toyota and Mitsubishi both have corporate offices there
Am I ready to write? I have photos of the town, some basic facts about it, memories of previous visits to the Midwest, and my imagination.
I’m ready if you are!
He stepped off the bus at the Greyhound Station and set his eyes, for the first time, upon Franklin, Indiana. He was a southern California boy, blond hair, blue eyes, and dimples to die for. He was raised with palm trees and the smell of the ocean, as comfortable surfing as walking, but nowhere in Franklin would he find the golden beaches of his past. This was farming country, and the golden beaches were replaced by green fields and amber waves of grain.
Hefting his backpack, he made his way down Jefferson Street, and was soon in the downtown section. Brick storefronts welcomed him, Rexhall Drugs and Ace Hardware, Clive’s Barber Shop and the Franklin Theater, sturdy buildings that had weathered tornadoes, some dating back to the Civil War. This was blue collar country, honed by hard times, and the air vibrated with the distant memories of wars survived, droughts endured, floods conquered and economic depressions overcome. In the distance stood the Johnson County Courthouse, a massive Victorian building that seemed asymmetrical to the rest of the town.
Men in bib overalls and John Deere caps, and big boned women with babies attached to their hips, all greeted him with a smile and a howdy. Elms and great oaks provided shade along the sidewalk on that blistering hot summer day. Pickup trucks caked with dust and loaded with hay and feed made their way slowly down the street, the drivers stopping occasionally to wave hello to friends and catch up on the latest scuttlebutt.
Finally he came to Ruby’s Diner and, since it was lunchtime, he decided to enter and fuel his body before looking for work. The doorbell clanged as he entered and he stepped aside as an elderly couple approached. He held the door for the old gentleman, who wore a VFW hat, and his wife with plump, rosy cheeks and a ready smile. They nodded their thanks and he then made his way to a booth and set his weary bones down. Almost instantly the waitress was beside him. Betty was her name, according to her nametag. She was in the upper range of forties, carrying twenty extra pounds but still a hint of the beauty she once was. Smiling a tired smile, she asked him what he needed.
“I’ll take a cheeseburger if you’ve got it, and a chocolate malt to wash it down.”
“Sugar, I’ve got that and so much more. What you see is not necessarily what you get, if you know what I mean.” She winked and was gone.
While he waited for his food he thought back to Malibu and the girl, and heartaches, he left behind.
Betty was back in ten with his food.
“You new in town, Sugar?”
“I am indeed, Betty. Looking for work. Do you have any suggestions?”
“I heard Toyota was hiring seasonal help. You might check with them. Go on down Jefferson about a mile and you’ll see their plant on the right. Farmers are always looking for an extra hand if you’re willing to work your ass off for minimum wage. The Grange is right across the road from Toyota, and you’ll find some local farmers who will be mighty glad to meet you. Where you from?”
“Malibu, California. I just got off the Greyhound. If I don’t find work here I’ll catch another bus and head down the road.”
“Well good luck to you, honey. You stop back here and let me know how the job search went. I work until six. Gotta go now, or I’d chat more. If Bob Eakins doesn’t get his steak soon he’ll be grumpier than a heifer in heat.” And with that she turned on her heels and went back to the kitchen, her hips swaying to a practiced rhythm.
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And That’s All There Is to It
I timed myself. Forty-two minutes to do the research and write the scene.
How did I do?
The point of this exercise is to help you, as writers, to realize your only limitations are the ones you impose on yourselves. I challenge you to try this exercise. I’m quite certain that once you do it, new avenues will open up for you, and you’ll soon be writing like a well-travelled pro.
2015 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”