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Writing Description In Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Writing description is like writing a dream. As you search for words to capture the sense of where you were, what you felt and what you saw, you try to visualize the way it was. When I describe my characters, the space around them, the way they move, their gestures and their tone of voice, I imagine myself present in the story.

The more information you have about your characters and their lives, the easier it is. When you’re writing for teens, you must imagine the location in great detail: the schoolroom, the playing field, the horse-drawn carriage or the car. You won’t use all the details, of course. It’s like exploring the prop room backstage at the theatre: you go in, take what you need and leave the rest.

I found the dream world of Victoria Rebels easy to access. Queen Victoria kept a diary and drew pictures of herself and people around her. Artists painted her portrait against vivid backgrounds. Far more challenging was Beauty’s Daughter, a novel about Hermione, the daughter of Helen of Troy. Hundreds of years passed before the Greek poet Homer dreamed his two great epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, describing the Trojan War and its aftermath, on which my novel is based. Descriptions of bloody battle scenes offered no help in telling the story to teen readers. Shards of ancient pottery present stylized pictures of ladies in long gowns playing lyres, weaving on looms and drinking from goblets, but those are meagre sources on which to build the dream world.

Occasionally I’ve had the rare chance to see for myself the details that bring the dream to life. When I visited Shrewsbury, England, where Charles Darwin grew up, I made a cold-call from a payphone to the owner of the house where teen-aged Charley courted his sweetheart, Fanny Owen. The owner graciously met me at the bus stop in a nearby village and drove me through his “patch” of perhaps two thousand acres to Woodhouse, a splendid white mansion on the brow of a low rise, overlooking thickly wooded grounds. Four massive Greek columns supported the grand portico. It wasn’t hard to imagine Charley arriving on horseback, entering the great hall with tapestries and paintings covering the walls and a broad staircase leading up to a gallery.

But it was the library that most interested me. This was where Charley intended to propose to Fanny before he left on his journey on the Beagle, asking her to wait for him but having no idea when he’d return.

Painted the soothing green of moss, the room smelt pleasantly of leather and tobacco. Books bound in leather and stamped in gilt lined shelves reaching to the high ceiling. Fanny sat down on a bench covered in yellow silk and patted the place beside her, smiling up at me. I was too nervous to sit.

“Will you wait for me, dearest Fanny?”

“Your future is so unclear! How can I promise to wait when I’m not sure what I’m to wait for?”

I had everything I needed. I was in the dream.


Carolyn Meyer’s author website:

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The True Adventures of Charley DarwinIn Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's StoryVictoria RebelsWhere the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker     The Girl Who Was Supposed to DieGlowHappyface

Writing Teen Novels

Using Setting Descriptions To Convey Mood In A Novel, by Monika Schroder

Writers often use setting descriptions to convey particular moods in scenes. One such common but effective way to convey mood is to give details of the weather. I will explore this technique here with a few examples:

My novel, Saraswati’s Way, opens in rural Rajasthan, the arid north-eastern state of India. The annual monsoon has not come; instead the land is parched by relentless heat. At the beginning of the book we meet Akash, my 12-year old protagonist, in his classroom in a poor schoolhouse in his village. Soon after the opening paragraph we learn that he has a talent for maths and, under-challenged in his class, hopes to go to a better school that would allow him to nurture and develop his aptitude for numbers.

Here an early paragraph:

A light breeze blew plumes of sand across the empty schoolyard. On the other side of a low wall the flat desert stretched out against the horizon. Over the course of the morning the dark rectangle this side of the wall would shrink and by recess time provide just enough shade for children like Akash who didn’t like to play cricket or run after a ball. From his seat by the open window Akash scanned the sky for signs of a rainstorm, for the swollen monsoon clouds that usually built up this time of year before they exploded with thunder and lightning to unleash sheets of rain. But the breeze only died, and Akash resigned himself to yet another day of relentless heat. 

I chose certain details to describe what Akash sees from his seat near the window to express a mood of boredom and anticipation of something that might not come. He looks out on the empty, flat desert, hoping for a rainstorm that would bring relief. Instead the wind dies down, leaving everything bare and exposed to the relentless heat for the rest of the day. The oppressive temperatures and desolate landscape reflect Akash’s sense of despair at the beginning of the book.

Andrew Smith, in his novel, Stick, also uses the weather, light and the color of the sky to express an atmosphere. Stick, the 14-year-old main character of the novel, lives in an abusive home with his gay brother, Bosten. After falling out with his father, Bosten leaves and Stick sets out to find him. He is confused, anxious and often overwhelmed by his sexual desires, and Smith keeps the reader close to Stick’s inner turmoil with an intense first-person narrative. On his quest, Stick meets many people, among them April and Willie who pick him up on his way to California. They offer him a place to stay on Willie’s houseboat and when they arrive Stick is not sure if he can trust them, but also finds himself sexually attracted to April. Andrew Smith sets the tense mood of the scene with this opening paragraph:

By the afternoon of my fourteenth birthday, the sky striped flat in ribbons of chalk and slate clouds that hung so low I could almost feel the pressure and weight of them, like a ceiling of sodden sponge that I could press my hands to if I had the courage to raise my arms high enough.

The reader feels the atmospheric pressure caused by the low hanging sky and relates to Stick’s insecurity when he compares the sky to a ‘sodden sponge’ he lacks the courage to lift.

When Stick finally returns to California and is about to be reunited with his aunt, Smith adds this description:

The sun had dropped below the horizon out on the sea, and I realized that there was a certain unique color the light would cast at precisely this hour.

This is a beautiful observation. We can all see that particular hue the sky takes on when the sun is about to set at the ocean. With this description Smith captures the mood right before Stick will see his aunt by comparing it with the special glow that occurs before the sunset. Stick is worried if she will welcome him and asks the truck driver who drops him off not to leave before his aunt has seen him. Stick doesn’t know if she will be happy to see him or not. In his image Smith expresses the beauty of the moment combined with the possibility of darkness that follows.

Weather descriptions provide an effective tool to depict mood in a scene, but writers have to be careful not to overuse it. The sky should not darken every time the character becomes sad and the sun should not come out from behind the cloud when the protagonist’s mood brightens. It is important to employ this technique sparsely and avoid clichés or too many “emotion-enhancing coincidences” between weather and character’s emotional state and instead to find fresh and precise images.


Monika Schroder’s author website:

Monika Schroder’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

The Dog in the WoodMy Brother's ShadowSaraswati's Way     Boys without NamesGlowThe RepossessionA World Away

Writing Teen Novels


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