It’s the Forest, Not the Trees

Author Rebecca T. Dickson stated, “Good writing is detailed.”

In one of my creative writing classes, we always took ten minutes at the beginning of the period to close our eyes, sit quietly, and listen, imagining what might be happening and envisioning scenes, incorporating what we were hearing, perhaps even smelling, then putting it on paper. We also felt inside small paper bags, containing various objects, trying to make out what the items might be. This helped heighten our senses. But hearing and feeling are only part of creating a place and setting, which, by the way, are not to be confused as being the same thing.

Place is the location, of which there is usually more than one, such as a town(s), a park, or maybe just a room. A strong sense of place is needed in order to convey reality to the reader. There is the constructed world that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis created in their fantasy books. Then, there are real or fictitious locations in other works. If the writer uses an actual locale then he must have the details correct. If he takes liberties, he should include a proviso.

Putangirua Pinnacles, locale for the Dimholt Road (

Putangirua Pinnacles, locale for the Dimholt Road, “Lord of the Rings” movie (

Setting refers to the immediate details—specifics such as the era of the story, the weather, etc. In some stories settings can even be a character, such as the Salinas Valley in Steinbeck’s East of Eden or as in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.“ In the latter, the young girl in the story mentions that the mountains across from the train station look like white elephants and says …”That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?” The man ignores her comment. Then while waiting for a train to take the couple to another place, the man notices their bags:  “there were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.” Hemingway’s writings are filled with beautiful details but demand alert reading to understand his symbolism. In this story, it becomes evident the girl is pregnant, and the hills, looking like white elephants, signify the burden of the baby the man wants aborted. The numerous labels on the bags tell the type of relationship they have.

One of the things I’ve found that can ignite sight and creativity is traveling and immersing myself in another country and culture. Even if I can’t hop on a plane, there’s usually a place nearby to see in a different light. I discovered during my time as a freelance travel writer that experiencing where we are and really seeing—looking past what we first perceive, not merely being— can fire creative juices. To quote meditation teacher Natalie Goldberg, “When you are present, the world is truly alive.” This is especially true when a novel is contemporary and set in a place of familiarity. Frequently a writer overlooks the obvious when a place is well-known and sees it in memory, forgetting the reader isn’t a mind reader. It goes back to the adage of not being able to see the forest for the trees.

“Discarded betel nuts and paan spittle littered on the ground” (Photo credit “Asia’s Crimson Addiction,” Huffington Post

Writers need to be travelers, as opposed to being tourists, whether in their own hometown, a new place down the road, or an exotic locale.  On one of my trips to Papua New Guinea, I saw tourists turn up their noses and walk away from the spiky Durian fruit with its disgusting smell of raw sewage. By doing this, they missed out on the luscious, sweet custard on the inside. The same people probably looked at the red-splattered pathways and passed on, but I questioned, discovering the blood-like stains were made by locals spitting juice from chewing betel nuts (Remember, Bloody Mary from South Pacific?) mixed with lime. These things, as well as visiting the inside of a stifling village hut, dripping ebony creosote from every wall and rafter, where a 100 year-old smoked mummy was ensconced, whetted my imagination for stories to come. Even the hollow tones of sticks striking garmuts (slit drums) and the eerie sound floating from carved wooden flutes over mosaic gardens of sweet potatoes and marigolds where women hoed and men walked leisurely wearing nothing but penis gourds, gave me lots of ideas. Just a small piece of one of these scenes taken out of context could make for an intriguing story.

Looking at photographs can also spur inspiration. A character in Maria Silva’s novel Mary Coin stated, “Seeing is about looking past surfaces of predetermined historic and aesthetic values.” This is exactly what Silva did when she wrote Mary Coin after she found herself questioning Florence Owens Thompson’s backstory, the woman in the Depression’s iconic photograph, entitled Migrant Mother. Silva questioned who Thompson really was and what she must have thought and felt when her picture was snapped by Dorothea Lange. Even though Silva didn’t write Thompson’s biography, her questions  and research gave her fuel for a unique read.

Florence Owens Thompson, Dorothea's Lange's "Migrant Mother," in a less familiar pose. (todayifounditout.com_

Florence Owens Thompson, Dorothea’s Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” in a less familiar pose. (

Also, as in travel, writers need a plan, a map if you will, to know where they are going with their stories. Just as one doesn’t take off down the road to a strange destination, neither should a writer.  Most often maps are only for the writer’s use in order to remember and not become confused because memory regarding streets, building or house layouts,  a character’s favorite foods, eccentricities, etc. can easily be forgotten from the start of a story to its end.

American novelist James D. Houston once said, “What has fascinated me for a long time now is the relationship between a locale and lives lived there, the relationship between terrain and the feelings it can call out of us…”  In writing my historical novel, Whisper in The Blood, I had a map of the Chicago area where my story was set. I researched locations and names of buildings during the early 20th century because it is common for buildings to be torn down or have many different names over the course of years. I also had to be sure that something I referred to even existed seventy-five or a hundred years ago. Street names can sometimes change, too. I drew up character profiles, even for  minor players because at some point I might need to bring them back. There are times, authors do provide maps or family trees for the reader, in order for them to keep characters straight or to give a visual as to the lay of the land.

It isn’t always easy to craft a vivid world with great characters, but when a writer does, he engages the readers’ five senses so that they will lose themselves and become immersed in the story. This is what every author aspires to and strives for when writing.


Do you have a particular scene from a novel or short story that sticks in your mind? Please share.


2 thoughts on “It’s the Forest, Not the Trees

  1. I’m a big fan of concrete details, especially when they do double duty to serve as subtext. Four novels come to mind: Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Ron Rash’s Serena, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. A first reading gives you the story, but if you appreciate writing craft, then reread with pencil in hand and look for patterns of images and what they suggest. For example: O’Connor’s use of animal images, particularly as they apply to people (the blind preacher Asa Hawk), and eyes (again Asa “Hawk-eye” and the protagonist Hazel–“Haze” Motes–“mote”).

    Students used to ask me if authors intend such patterns, symbols, and themes. Of course not! They’re just a bunch of monkeys randomly typing in hopes of producing a Shakespearian masterpiece. 🙂

  2. Chris, rereading and marking is excellent advice. I was brought up not to mark in books, but I did, despite mother’s protests. A former boss, author, and philosopher Mortimer Adler wrote a book, “How to Read a Book,” that speaks to this. I know your students learned a “lot” in your class.

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