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Exercises to Improve Your Fiction Writing

Updated on May 26, 2014

Easy Reading Is Damn Hard Writing

Easy reading is damn hard writing. But if it's right, it's easy. It's the other way round, too. If it's slovenly written, then it's hard to read. It doesn't give the reader what the careful writer can give the reader.

Maya Angelou

My thanks to Maya Angelou for that quote, and boy oh boy, did she ever hit the nail on the head.

The first time I read that quote, I had to step back and give it some thought. I considered some of my favorite authors, and I thought about how their writing flowed. It had a beautiful rhythm to it, like a symphony, and once I started reading some of my favorite books, it was darned near impossible to put them down.

That kind of writing is incredibly hard to do.

I have written two novels now, and without a doubt, the second one was much harder to write than the first. Why? Because I knew more about the craft of writing while I was constructing the second; when I wrote the first novel, three years ago, I knew next to nothing.

The results don’t lie. Novel #2 is much easier to read than Novel #1.

Today I thought I would give you some exercises that should help you in fiction writing. Over the years I have had many people ask me for advice. How do you write a compelling scene? How do you write believable dialogues? How do you write characters that are engaging?

It all comes from practice, and that is what these exercises are all about….practice.

So let’s get started, shall we?

Using pictures is a great way to describe scenes
Using pictures is a great way to describe scenes | Source

Grab Your Camera and Follow Me

Do you have trouble writing settings for individual chapters? Are your descriptions of rooms, buildings, streets, parks and/or coffee shops bland and boring?

Most likely it is not because you are a bland and boring person, nor is it because you are a bland or boring writing. Rather, it is because some people are visual learners, and you just might be one of them.

Set aside a couple of hours, grab your camera, and head downtown. Just start taking pictures. Take pictures of buildings. Take pictures inside of buildings. Shoot random shots down the street, and shoot random shots of people.

When you are done, you will have created a visual library that you can use for your next fictional writing. Remember that the readers see the scene through your eyes and the eyes of your characters, so use those photos to help you describe to the reader what you want them to see.

Draw a map of your setting
Draw a map of your setting | Source

It’s Time for a Drawing Lesson

Here’s a dandy little exercise you all can do if you need to give your settings some pop.

Sit down and draw a map of where your story will take place. Be specific. Use a large piece of paper, and make the map schematic and as precise as possible.

Include streets and label them. Draw bodies of water and individual buildings. Put in parks or forests, houses or strip malls.

If your whole novel or story takes place in one building, then draw a schematic of the entire building, room by room.

Now close your eyes and imagine what each individual thing on that map sounds like…how does it feel….what is its taste and smell?

Now you are ready to write a scene.

Grab a Tape Recorder

Remember when you are writing dialogue that no two people sound the same. We all have different dialects or speech patterns. Some of us use contractions when we speak; some don’t. Some of us use very formal English; some use gutter English.

In other words, your characters must reflect real life, in order for them to be believable.

Do you have a tape recorder? If so, head on down to your local coffee shop, order a mocha, and grab a table. Set the tape recorder on the table and turn it to record, and then sit back and enjoy your drink. When you finish your mocha you will have some conversations to listen to when you get home, and hopefully the speech patterns in those conversations will help you the next time you write dialogue.

Obviously this can be done anywhere where there are many people coming and going, so if you don’t like coffee, go to the food court at the local shopping mall.

Grab Your Notebook

Let’s continue to tantalize the senses.

If you are a writer you should have a notebook. This is not a suggestion. It is a statement of fact.

Take your notebook and head outside. It is time to do a little exercise for your five senses.

Go for a walk and record, in your notebook, what you smell along the walk. Don’t just write that you smell a rose. Write a description of that smell. Don’t just write that you smell dog poop. Write a description of that disgusting smell.

Move on to the next of your senses. Touch things along your walk. Touch the bark on a tree and write a description. Touch your neighbor’s…..hydrangea, and write that description.

Let’s do a taste test. Get those taste buds activated and taste a few things along your walk.

What do you hear? Don’t say you hear a chainsaw, but rather describe it in detail. Don’t say you hear a dog bark, but instead, describe that bark so that your readers will actually imagine they are hearing it.

Record it all in your notebook, and when you are done you will have some great additions to the next short story or novella that you write.

Record conversations that you hear
Record conversations that you hear | Source

For Those of You Who Are Not Visual Learners

Lay down on the grass on the next sunny day.

As lovely as that may be, you are actually doing it for a reason.

I am convinced that many people share this trait with me: we get so busy with our lives, that we fail to experience all there is in front of us. We have pressures on us, and we are thinking about what we have to do in the next hour, and we rush here and we rush there, when there is this wondrous thing called life going on around us that we are missing.

While down on the grass, close your eyes. Listen to the sounds of life. Smell the scent of lavender in the air, the honeysuckle, the newly-mowed grass. Feel the blades of grass and the soft whisper of wind through your hair.

Remember back when you were a child, staring up at the clouds, and seeing shapes in them. Imagine floating with that cloud, looking down on life.

It is all there for you to experience from your front lawn, and if you can experience it there, you can share it with your readers through the written word.

You Have Your Marching Orders

You have no excuses. It is summertime, so you can’t blame blizzards for keeping you inside. No matter how busy you are, you certainly can find fifteen minutes to try one of these exercises.

What do you have to lose? Absolutely nothing!

What do you have to gain? Quite possibly a whole new level of talent you never knew existed.

Remember that good writing is not supposed to be easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it.

Do you want to be a good writer, or the reader of good writing?

2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

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    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Exactly, Glimmer. I have done the same thing reading some fantasies. I swear, you give better examples of this stuff than I do. :)

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 3 years ago

      I love your example of drawing a map. My daughter read a series of books and each one literally had a map of the setting. What always fascinated me was that she would continually go back to that map so she could see where the characters were at a particular time.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      And we love field trips, don't we, Dianna? LOL Thank you very much, Dee.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      I consider this a fun field trip day! Thanks for inspiring the love of writing.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      What a great experience, Deb. Bev would be in heaven if that happened to her. :)

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I remember doing those things when I was a kid, but I closed my eyes when I heard those sounds, felt the rays of warm sunshine on my skin, and even opened my eyes to a young doe sniffing my hand. Five years ago, I had just awakened from a scurrying on my body, right down to my feet. I was living in the old homestead, which had lots of breaches to the outside. It was not a deja vu, but a baby squirrel, who enjoyed the heat from my body...

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Glad to hear it, daborn! Best wishes to you.

    • daborn7 profile image

      daborn7 3 years ago from California

      Very good suggestions. I really like the one with the recorder, I have never thought of that before. I am going to try some of these right away! Voted up. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      No excuses, Mary...as Nike says, just do it!

      Good to see you my friend. I will read your new one shortly.

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well, Rasma, dance away my friend, and write something memorable.

      Thank you as always.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 3 years ago from New York

      Awakening our senses awakens the writer within! As always Bill you challenge us to make use of what we have around us. No excuses, just writing!

      Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting, and shared.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 3 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and interesting. Inspirational as always. Every time I read your motivational hubs my mind is already dancing with idea. Gotta fly now and passing this on.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much, Vellur!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Mona, you gotta do it! No better time than now.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm glad to hear that, Alicia. Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      you are very welcome, vkwok! Thank you!

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 3 years ago from Dubai

      Great ideas to improve writing fictions! Inspiring and informative.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 years ago from Philippines

      Thanks Billybuc, I keep saving all your articles on my pinterest file thinking that someday I'm gonna get down to my book and start rewriting it. Well, I just gotta do it!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for sharing some more useful tips for writers, Bill. Your suggestions are great.

    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 3 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for sharing more amazing tips, Bill!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Exactly, Blossom. Many of these articles I write as reminders for me. :) Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Carry on, Eric, bleedy or not. LOL Thanks, buddy.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 3 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      What great advice! Even when we've been writing for a while it's good to come back and think about all these things and make sure that we're writing to the very best of our ability.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Thank you much here Bill, this was very helpful. That disgusting grating tat tat tat sound of fingernails hitting his laptop keys grated on Eric so much he was off to trim them to the quick but he will resume shortly with the necessary bleeding cuticles to silently peck away.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It is my pleasure, rdsparrowriter. Thank you!

    • rdsparrowriter profile image

      rdsparrowriter 3 years ago

      Oh wow billy , this is fantastic. thank you for sharing these tips as I was stuck for a whole month without words/inspiration to write and you gave me so many ideas :) God bless you!!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Shelley, well done! I can see a great mystery there. Carry on my friend.

    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 3 years ago

      Love the idea of going on a walk with your notebook. Truly awesome ideas such as sitting in a coffee shop and recording conversations. Quite a story there too, e.g. Bill had sat all morning recording conversations in the coffee shop while reading and enjoying his mocha. Now at home, listening to the recordings, vague murmurs caught his attention, pressing rewind, he listened again. Yes, someone was discussing their plan to murder, a person called Seela, Xeena, or Celia, he couldn't quite catch it. The next 48 hours were going to be the most traumatic hours of Bill's life - who is this person and could Bill save her life?

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm off too, breakfastpop, but in the opposite direction. :) Thanks as always my friend.

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 3 years ago

      I think your ideas are necessary, inspiring and fun. I'm off!!! Voted up, useful, interesting and awesome!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much, Ruby! I'm always glad when you arrive at the party.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you MG. I appreciate your kind words.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Brian, you raise an excellent point and I thank you for it. That is a tightrope any writer must walk...when is too much too much? Thanks for mentioning that my friend.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I like the idea of floating on a cloud and looking down at life. Great exercises Bill. Thank you...

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 3 years ago from Singapore

      Great post Billy, as usual you always have a very relavent message. Thanks

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      My biggest flaw in my fiction, according to feedback from writing group colleagues, from book editors, and from a variety of readers, is too much detail. As important as it is to practice describing the smell of a rose, the feel of a tree trunk, it is as important to practice the knack of knowing what details to leave in and what details to leave out. The reader actively participates in filling in the details of a setting and gets bored if the writer includes too much. The Philosophy section of the Wikipedia "Ink Wash Painting" article expresses what I am striving to learn to accomplish in my writing. "... the goal ... is not simply to reproduce the appearance of the subject, but to capture its spirit. To paint a flower, there is no need to perfectly match its petals and colors, but it is essential to convey its liveliness and fragrance." Your fiction is good at that; I'm learning, I hope. Up, Useful, Interesting, and shared with follower.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Dora, and wish the best to your daughter for me.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Marie, whatever the reason was for you stopping by, I'm glad you did. I doubt seriously if your imagination atrophied, and I also suspect it might have a bit to do with shyness....but then maybe you are one of those people who never writes a book and is perfectly okay with it. I've read quite a few books that should never have been written. :)

      Anyway, thank you for being here on this Memorial Day, and have a wonderful week.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Jo, I wouldn't roll in wet grass either, but Bev would and has. She is my better half for sure. :)

      Thank you dear friend. Have a great week.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Flourish, I was wondering if anyone would catch that. Thanks for not letting that joke die on the vine. LOL

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      W1totalk, I appreciate you taking the time. Thank you.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I agree with you, Sherry. Thank you!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Very relevant. My daughter (a writer) and I had conversation last night about details that create the mood of the story. We will discuss this article. Thank you.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      I don't know what possessed me to read this, Bill. I have never written a book (perhaps that's why). I think my imagination may have atrophied a little with age (heaven forbid!).

      You haven't given me anything I don't know (I've taken classes at F2K and Universalclass.com--and, of course, had some creative writing experience at college).

      I just joined Book Country and am on my second book review (taking my time with it, too).

      So, why am I not writing a novel? Am I afraid I actually might have something to say? (Perhaps I need to write a twin hub about my shyness and procrastination, similar to my one about money.)

      Anyway, a first novel is a LOT of work. Developing characters, outline chapters, etc. Then, there are those really gifted writers who just just down at their computer keyboard, typewriter, or pen and paper and prolifically pour out the best characterization, dialog, setting descriptions, rhythm, plot with subplots you can imagine. (Whew!)

      There has to be a reason to write, a message. Maybe someday I'll find enough of my writer's voice to do a novel.

      Thank you for this review of writing exercises, and a blessed Memorial Day!

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 3 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Billy, music to my ears. I spent part of each day gazing at clouds, caressing hydrangeas and clicking my camera at everything that moves, it's far too wet to roll in the grass but three out of four ain't bad. :) another brilliant write, always inspiring.

      Take care, and my best to you.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      Touch your neighbor's ... hydrangea. Haha I liked that.

    • W1totalk profile image

      W1totalk 3 years ago

      It's been awhile since I've indulged in a Billybuc lesson. This is refreshing and enlightening. Thank you again billy.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 3 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      I think these exercises can help in non-fiction writing as well. Vivid descriptions are very important in any kind of writing. Voted up.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Heidi, I can't draw worth a lick, but I can make a rough sketch if I absolutely have to. :) Thanks for the visit....hope your week is successful.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Sounds like some fun things to do for a holiday weekend, regardless of whether you write or not. Although I have to admit the drawing thing might be a bit of a stretch for me, even though I have pretty good spatial and color sense. I didn't get a C in drawing class for nothin'. :) Voted up and sharing!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My pleasure, Inky, and thanks for the following.

    • InkyBlueMind profile image

      Jo B 3 years ago from USA

      Thank you for the awesome tips! :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Marlene, I was going to suggest recording conversations in a tavern, but that might be a bit too saucy. LOL Thanks for being here my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you for your kind words, Shyron. Giving back is what it is all about for me. :)

      bill

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 3 years ago from Northern California, USA

      Truly helpful exercises. I like the one about the tape recorder. I can imagine capturing some of those raw conversations could provide some really saucy inserts into the story.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 3 years ago from Texas

      Bill, I find this very helpful. You are an amazing writer, you write encouragement for other writers.

      Voted up, UABI, and shared.

      Blessings

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My pleasure, Mike...thank you again.

    • HappyMikeWritter profile image

      HappyMikeWritter 3 years ago

      Do not get me wrong :-) Writing is my passion I am just too hard on myself sometimes when I want to explain in english the main point in my articles. Thank you so much. People as you inspire me :-)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      HappyMike, I cannot imagine trying to write in English if it is not my major language. Well done my friend. With that kind of perseverance, you will do well in the long run.

    • HappyMikeWritter profile image

      HappyMikeWritter 3 years ago

      What an amazing article. I love writing but still luck of describing things properly. Maybe it is also as my english is low and I tend to replace difficult words with simple one. Your creative article really interests me and makes me feel I should give it a go. Thank you for inspiration :-)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Dr. Bill, and I think you speak for a great many writers. Obviously the tips work; remembering them is a whole new ball of wax.

      Thanks my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very wise, Sheila. It is an invaluable tool for anyone writing a novel or a series of novels. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm glad to hear it, Nell. Happy to have given you something new that might help you. Thank you!

    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

      More great tips. They each work, very well. The real challenge, for me, is to exercise the discipline to continue to remember to use these techniques, all the time, throughout the writing, and to pick up the lack thereof, in the rewriting and editing. When it works, it really works. When you forget, it shows - as you point out, so well! Thanks, again, for sharing! ;-)

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      sheilamyers 3 years ago

      Great tips! I've actually drawn maps of locations. One is for the area around Jake's cabin. I don't use that setting often, but I have the map so when I do drop it into a plot I always give the same directions and know where I have everything located.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

      Thats a great idea with the photos and the maps! I do tend to sit, close my eyes and listen to the sounds around me, then try to jot them down in my notebook, but yes definitely going to do the photos, what a great idea!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Please do, Ann. :)

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      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      I'm glad you think I'm wise - I think you're the only one!! I'll have to quote you on that! :)

      Ann

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Lizzy, that may be the most serious comment I have ever seen from you....and it makes sense! :) Thank you and no apology necessary.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ann, I always knew you were wise, but your comment is proof positive. :) Yes, take pictures of the mundane. Writing imitates life, and we all see mundane....so use that in your writing, but describe it so the reader can visualize it. Great comment my wise friend. :)

      bill

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      Liz Davis 3 years ago from Hudson, FL

      Each example has a common theme: be mindful! You're not just looking at a building, but glass and bricks and color; you're not merely listening to voices, but thoughts and accents shaped by years of living. I would add that keeping an artist's journal--one in which you draw and write--would help open your writer's eye. I can't think of anything goofy to say. Sorry 'bout that ;-)

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      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      I've found that I'm more and more aware of details in my surroundings & I therefore take more and more photos wherever I go. Even things which seem mundane take on a new significance. It's true, we need to see, feel, smell, absorb all the information around us.

      I'm definitely a visual person so my photos are my passport to all sorts of stories and situations.

      Straightforward, sound advice here, bill, delivered with your usual pinch of humour! Let's hope lots of hubbers (and others) take note! Hope you have a great evening. Ann

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very true, Sha, Whatever works for the individual....thanks for the visit on this Memorial Day, 2014. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You are very welcome, Anna. I'm glad you found something here that might help.

      bill

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      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      I love the idea of taking a notebook for a walk and describing everything you see, hear, smell, feel and taste. Talking into a tape recorder would work too. That way you can record your descriptions without missing a step.

      Great tips, Bill!

    • Anna Haven profile image

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      I am always armed with a notebook and a camera, and you are so right it helps a lot.

      I have never drew a map of my fictional towns. I like that idea and I will have to try it some time. It is in my head but it would be good to have it on paper as well. Thank you. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      As always, thank you Janine! Have a great day with your family.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I appreciate that, DDE. Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Glad you liked them, Nikki. Thank you!

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 3 years ago from New York, New York

      Seriously, awesome tups and a few I have tried. But definitely pinned to look back on now. Wishing you a wonderful, Memorial Day now Bill!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Amazing how you always come up with such helpful suggestions. You show true talent through all your hubs.

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      Nikki Wicked 3 years ago from Louisiana

      Thanks. Really good tips.