Place Descriptions: It’s About Atmosphere Not a Travel log

By Sharla Rae

When I first started writing, the one thing my critique partners complained about most was my lack of descriptions. I hated doing them. Only the action and characters interested me. Who cares what color the sky is? Who cares if the river was muddy or sandy? Just tell the reader where the character is and you’re good. Right?

Oh boy, did I get an earful. And every day I thank my lucky stars for it.

First a disclosure: If you’ve been reading my blogs you might have guessed that this one includes a descriptive list. No, you cannot skip to that part yet. Keep reading.  Please.

Good place descriptions are movies or paintings in words.

  • They show atmosphere
  • They show location or setting
  • They frequently show something about a character’s nature.

Location and atmosphere descriptions always hold hands. Actually they’ve always been married.

Perhaps the easiest example is a horror story. Saying a house is old and creepy is boring, but the right description can send chills down the spine. Peeling paint, a sagging porch, creaking doors, dirty opaque windows, and unexplained noises “show” the reader what old and creepy looks like and infuses the story with a mysterious or scary atmosphere.

Place descriptions may offer insightful clues to a character’s personality.

A simple example: If Joe lives in a shabby house, he might be poor. But if the house is also clean and neat as a pin, he might also be a very proud man. If the house is slovenly and the garden overgrown, the owner might be depressed or lazy. But wait, maybe the inside contradicts the outside. Maybe the character wishes to appear one thing when he’s really something else entirely. You see where I’m going with this.

Where to Start?   

Describing a place we’ve personally experienced isn’t as hard as describing one we haven’t laid eyes one. This is where research comes in.  Oops, a warning light is blinking. Don’t fall into the travel log trap, descriptions that sound like ads for Travel-R-Us. Think atmosphere. If we’re describing a desert, make the reader feel the dry heat, see the bleached blue of the sky, taste grit on parched lips.

Where are the best place descriptions found?

The answer is . . . everywhere. But I’ll simplify.

Books and websites for research are unending. My personal favorite for settings around the world and situations such as disasters like hurricanes, tornados and floods is National Geographic Magazine. Their descriptions of different landscapes and situations are phenomenal, often to the point of poetic. You can find hard copies at the library or visit their web site and watch videos. For different areas within the States, try state magazines, like Arizona Highways. The well-written articles describe interesting places all over the state right down to the local atmosphere. You’ll also find somebackground history.

Another favorite resource of mine, especially for landscapes like forests, rivers, mountains etc. is poetry. Don’t laugh. One of the very best is Hiawatha. The great thing about poems is that they utilize all five senses.

The five senses are essential to description of any kind because they instill atmosphere.   

  • Smell: Old houses are musty; a field of flowers is fragrant. Maybe the character smells the neighbor’s forgotten garbage can.
  • Sight: Keep in mind, colors inspire moods and atmosphere. Is there a sunset, a vase of cheerful flowers on a dresser, maybe a cracked vase of long-dead daisies? Perhaps a majestic green forest grows behind a mansion?
  • Touch: Does the character feel cool grass between their toes, the rough bark on the tree they’ve leaned against, the cold chill of mountain air?
  • Sound/Hearing: What does the character hear? Birds, growling animals, traffic, airplanes, children at play, the bickering couple next door or the sizzle of bacon?

Sometimes it’s fun to personify places and things, giving them a description that might be attributed  to people. The tree stood like a crooked old man, head bowed, skinny arms flailing about its body. This method may of course be reversed when describing a person, but that’s another blog.

There’s one more thing I need to mention. Definitions. Definitions are by nature a description. Don’t discount them when searching for ways to describe anything. You’ll find some examples below at the end of the list.

I’ll be posting a few of my descriptive lists over the next few months. The list in this blog holds words and phrases that might be used to describe trees, forests and wetlands. Use it, make up your own and add to it. Enjoy and share with the rest of us.

Trees/ Forests/Wetlands

 Air even smelled green
Air-dropped a retardant over the forest fire
Bears eating wild blackberries
Bed of pine cones and needles
Branches weighted with 4 or 5 inches of snow
Bush fire/wild fire
Chatter of chipmunks
Conservationist
Crashing of trees echoing through the woodlands
Dank wetland forest
Decked out in rich green raiment
Deep in the wilds
Deer trail on the soft pine floor
Densely tangled ground growth
Dots of orange in the orchard
Flapping birch leaves sounded like the patter of rain
Foliage/verdure/herbage
Forest fires
Fox creeps from his den at night as the raccoon leaves his hollow
Fringe of the forest
Gnarled tree roots
Growing with lawless abandon
Heart of the forest
High whine of sawmill saws
Howl of wolves
Hunters wearing red
Interminable forest
Jungle of smelly peat bogs and gaiters
Leafy plumes of green bowing overhead
Lizard clinging to the bark of a cypress
Majestic Douglas fir
Mantle of cool green peace
Maze of mangrove in the Everglades
Mice nesting in the tree roots
Moss growing on trees
Mucked through gluey mud
Mushrooms growing in the damp soil at the base of trees
Palm fronds
Papery bark of the birch
Park ranger sat in his tower over the forest
Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox
Peaceful aerial cities (birds & animals)
Peat bog
Pine sent, balsam
Pinery (common name for the white pine area in MN)
Place of shadowy dreams and visions
Pliant branches gave way at the soft passing of
Populous trees of the grove
Pristine
Ringing axes
Roots heaving above ground in a snarl
Rough bark
Sapling (seedling), too weak to withstand
Scraggly gray locks of Spanish moss draped
Scraped raw of trees
Sea of brown saw grass in the Florida Everglades
Secluded pond in the shady cool
Sighing of the wind through the boughs
Smelled like Christmas year round
Smokey the bear
Soft succulent vines shivered
Solitude reigned supreme
Sound of marsh creatures
Spicy evergreen feathered the sky
Splashed with festive color by mother nature
Spongy, root-webbed forest floor
Spread their boughs like a canopy
Squirrels frisked in the tree
Stand of sugar pine
Sunlight seeped through
Swamps infested with mini dive bombers (mosquitoes)
Swatted at carnivorous bugs
Timbermen, lumberjacks, loggers
Tranquil woods
Treacherous wetlands full of quicksand
Tree bled sap
Treetops shrouded in foggy mist
Tropical rain forest
Uninterrupted silence
Unpeopled and untouched
Verdant glen
Wet ground was spongy
Where birds build towns in the trees
Whispering through the
White blanket of egrets covered the mangrove island
Wild boar took refuge in a copse
Wind blowing through the leaves sounded like clapping hands
Wood nymph, wood spirit, Sprite
Wood ticks
Wooded ravine and rank standing water
Woodland paradise
Woody scent
Zip lining over the rainforest canopy

Some Definitions

Arbor: enclosed by trees
Bottomland Hardwood:  Riverine forested or occasional shrub/scrub areas, usually occurring in floodplains, that are seasonally flooded. Typical trees: oaks (overcup, water, laurel, swamp chestnut), sweet gum, green ash, cottonwoods, willows, river birch and occasionally pines.
Candle: A standing tree with a broken top which continues to burn after the main fire front has passed. Usually they send up a fountain of sparks and burning embers which may travel some distance and be of concern if near the unburnt side of a control line.
Cloud Forest: wet mountain forest or jungle; may be shrouded in mist
Conifer: trees that bear cones such as evergreens, pines, firs and spruce. It is soft wood and easily worked
Coppice or copse: thicket or small trees
Crown fire: A fire that advances from top to top of trees or shrubs, usually independent of a surface fire.
Crowsnest: When one tree falls and lodges against another
Diana: Roman goddess of the woods
Duff: Layer of decaying forest litter consisting of organics such as needles, leaves, plant and tree materials covering the mineral soil.
Everglade: swampy area
Hardwood: wood from trees bearing broad leaves vs needles; harder and denser than softwoods. Some hard wood trees: Ash, Bird’s Eye Maple, Sycamore, Birch, Oak, Beech, Teak, Walnut
Hardwood Flat:  Poorly drained interstream flats not associated with rivers or estuaries. Seasonally saturated by high water table or poor drainage. Trees vary but often include sweet gum and red maple.
Huldre: Norwegian female forest troll. She entices woodsman beneath the earth never to be seen again. Although cloven hoofed she’s very beautiful  but her backside is hallow insinuating her beauty is hallow as well.
Maritime Forest: Forest area characterized by stunted growth due to its proximity to salt spray from the ocean. Typical vegetation includes live oak, red maple and swamp tupelo.
Pollard: (n) tree with branches cut down to the trunk to stimulate thick growth of foliage  and new root growth. (v) act of doing the above.
Resin: Type of tree sap that secretes from conifers. Found in soft woods but not hardwoods. Resins are used in many products such as varnish and adhesives.
Satyr: Greek deity of woods.
Slash: Debris resulting from such natural events as wind, fire, or snow breakage; or such human activities as road construction, logging, pruning, thinning, or brush cutting. It includes logs, chunks, bark, branches, stumps, and broken under-story trees or brush. Soft Wood Trees: conifers, Western Cedar, Mahogany, Elm
Swamp Forest:  Poorly drained riverine or non-riverine forest or shrub/scrub areas that are semi-permanently flooded. Typical trees include cypress, black gum, water tupelo, green ash and red maple.
Thicket, bracken:  shrubs, bushes, trees growing thick, brush
Deadfall: tangled mass of fallen trees and branches
Grove: small wooded area or trees growing close together
Heath: shrubby evergreen plants covering tract of open land
Shinnery: dense growth of small trees esp. scrub oak
Weald: forest wilderness; rolling upland region of woods; Wold

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16 Responses to Place Descriptions: It’s About Atmosphere Not a Travel log

  1. Stacy Green says:

    Wow! What a great list. Thank you so much sharing these. Description is one thing I’ve always enjoyed, but it’s something we always need to fine tune. Thanks!

  2. Sharla Rae says:

    Stacy, You’re right and I probably should have talked about over doint it, but as always . . . another blog.🙂

    • Sharla, I am sorry to leave my comment here. But for some reason I still can’t “get into” the actually comment box.

      I love, love, love the variety of descriptions you post. I am one who believes that setting is the second most important character in our stories. The descriptions of the places our characters travel within the story, tell much about them. It also puts the reader dead-on into the moment🙂 Thanks again for the wonderful links and resources.

      • Sharla Rae says:

        Florence,
        Have you tried clicking on the title “before” you try to comment? For the longest time I didn’t realize that’s what I needed to do. Tell me us the process you are using and I’ll see if our Tech savvy Jen can help you out. This important because someone else may be having the same problem.

  3. bonusparts says:

    I’m a huge fan of location description, myself! But sometimes I find myself unable to pass on what I already enjoy to do, to others. This is a very solid resource to share!

  4. Sharla —

    Stellar blog!

    Love that you included personification. Writers often overlook using personification to add interest to setting. Plus — it’s fun!

    I’m tweeting you. Hope lots of writers click over and get motivated to strengthen their setting!

  5. Shar,
    I’ve become a Fast Fan of your posts! Only the second week reading your blog and it’s the second time I feel the need to save it for later! =)
    Thanks for a wonderful post!

  6. Sharla Rae says:

    Thanks Donna. And if you have any subjects you’d like to hear more about. Let all of us here at WITS know. Our group of ladies each have multiple talents and we’re always looking for new and interesting subjects to blog on.

  7. Fantastic list. I live where I place my stories so what is around us is easy as long as I remember the seasons and how many years ago my story happened. Love your posts.

  8. Sharla Rae says:

    Thanks Paisley. You’re lucky to know your settings well an I imagine breathing atmoshere into them is easier too.

  9. WOW! Between your blog and your lists, you make a great case for me to go back and add more descriptions in my writing. I’m all about characters and actions, but…you might have converted me! 🙂

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Yep, descriptions can serve many purposes in the story. Still, among all of us here at WITS the description crown is worn by Laura. Her descriptions always make the reader settle into the cozy spot–the one where you feel right at home and instantly form a bond with the characters. It’s no wonder she just sold three books. Knew she would.🙂

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