Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Adding "Color" to Your Work

A sneak peek at Book 6 of my Regency Warrior series

Hopefully, debuting around the second week of July

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I am in final edits of The Abominable Major, Book 6 in my Regency Warrior series. And in every edit since the very first, I have kept an eye out for "color." Have I painted not only a clear picture of the scene, but have I given it enough details, enough vivid color to make it memorable? Fortunately, on this next-to-the-last run-through, the answer was mostly "yes." 

But even after forty books, it's a constant problem. We rush ahead, all too often following that English hunting expression: get over the ground as lightly as you can, when we really need to stop and smell the flowers. Take the time to add that extra daub of paint that turns our work from ordinary to masterpiece. (And yes, I'm mixing my metaphors, but anything it takes to make a point!

Over eight years of Mosaic Moments, I've spent a good deal of time on the importance of in-depth characterization, but Adding Color has to come close behind in a list of what's needed to make your manuscript come alive. So let's take a look at what I mean . . .

Main Characters
Physical descriptions are needed early on, hopefully with some hint of the person's inner character and aspirations. When possible—when it fits into the story—describe what your main characters are wearing, preferably making their choices part of who they are. (For example, a dress can be gorgeous or it can be vulgar.) Make sure readers can truly visualize that Regency gown, biker leathers, a uniform, a too-skimpy top, those torn jeans . . .

Secondary Characters
Give important Secondary Characters the same treatment as your Main Characters. The hero's third-best biker friend, however, may need little more than a mention, as does the kitchen maid in an Historical Romance who plays no significant role in the story.

The days when novels began with long descriptions of a house, countryside, or other setting seem to have passed into oblivion. Which absolutely, positively does not mean that Setting doesn't count! Although it's become common to begin a book with an action scene or with a flurry of dialogue, Setting is still vital. Somewhere near the beginning of each scene you must make it clear exactly where your Point-of-View characters is. Settings which keep recurring in a book are in particular need of detailed descriptions that allow readers to picture the backdrop behind the action. The same for settings where important events occur. Even if it's a one-time setting—perhaps an alley where a robbery or murder is about to occur—a vivid description of the setting will greatly enhance the action to come. No, it doesn't have to be long—it just has to be there, enough to give your readers the shivers.

Setting Examples:

Wedding. What is a grand wedding without the setting? Not just the bride and groom, but the church or great outdoors, the guests, the reception, champagne corks popping, the music of the band, the fight between Aunt Nellie and her ex . . .

Battle scene. Not just what characters are fighting and why, but, Where are they fighting? What weapons are they using? Add the color of the uniforms, the smell of gunpowder, the screams of the horses, the boom of cannon, the blood . . . 

A Regency Ball. Not just clever dialogue, a country dance, and a waltz, but candles sparkling the crystals in the chandeliers, the orchestra tuning up, the kaliedoscope of colors in the swirling gowns, the never-ending chatter, the heat . . .

Weather. Are your characters outside or inside? Is the sun shining? Is it raining hard or just a mizzle? Is it warm, hot, cold, icy? Do your characters need an umbrella, a poncho, hip boots . . . ?

The Abominable Major - Chapter 2, opening paragraph
I could have written:  
Fortunately, it snowed the night before the troika race, covering the ground with six inches of new snow.

Instead, I wrote:
As if Prince Konstantin Dmitrievich Turov had the power to command the heavens, snow fell steadily from dusk on Friday until dawn on Saturday, covering the ugliness of old snow with a pristine six-inch blanket of white. The clouds dissipated, the sun shone bright, coating both city and countryside in crystalline splendor. The Countess Alexandrova peered out her window at the fairyland world and drew a deep breath of satisfaction Merveilleux! To ride in a sleigh again . . . a sleigh speeding across sparkling snow behind three powerful horses . . .

In addition to Physical Descriptions and Settings, there are other areas of writing that need color.

Sounds. Water, for example, is not simply blue or gray or wet. It flows, ripples, rushes, plunges, cascades, waterfalls . . . Birds sing, creatures rustle in the grass. Cacophony rules a room full of people. Rather than a simple "cry," try sob, wail, a torrent of tears. Instead of the overused "jog" or "trot," use the thump, thunder, or the clip-clop of horses' hooves. The roar of jet engines, the high-pitched scream of a fire siren . . .

Smell and Taste. Not just "He ate a slice of pie," but "The scent, like the apple pie his Gramma used to bake, drew him to the kitchen. Ah . . . tasted like it too. Warm, with sugar and a dash of cinnamon. He finished it down to the last crumb." 

Grace note: My mother told me about an expression her Grandmother Kelly used. Though it's never passed my lips, it makes a vivid illustration of using colorful "sound." Referring to some really nasty smell: "That's enough to stink a dog off a gut wagon!"

Action. There's seldom a problem with this one, as almost everyone realizes they need to write strong, colorful narrative in order to make an action scene come alive. Nonetheless, it's a challenge to give readers enough vivid and juicy details so they can see what you see. One author who writes truly outstanding Action scenes is Lindsay Buroker. Her Emperor's Edge series has the the most hair-raising action scenes I've ever read. (And I've read the entire series twice.) If you need guidance on writing a good action scene, I recommend taking a look at her work. 

General Narration. Even Dialogue tags can be considered "Narration." There was a time when Harlequin/Silhouette dictated the use of nothing more than "said" and "asked" as Dialogue tags, declaring that anything more "distracted" from what was being said. A philosophy I've never been able to understand. There are so many colorful verbs out there, just waiting to add color to your dialogue: stammered, burbled, whispered, huffed, wailed, shouted, hissed, exclaimed, and on and on ad infinitum. 

     Introspection the thoughts and feelings of the character with the Point of View—is yet another aspect of General Narration. These inner emotions can be minimally stated, clear but dull, or they can be enhanced by adding color. An example from my WIP, The Abominable Major

I could have written (re the Countess Alexandrova):
[She] had ample time to reflect on the events of the long months since the death of her husband. Most particularly her decision to flee Russia.

Instead, I wrote:
[She] had ample time to reflect on the events of the long months since the death of her husband. Most particularly her decision to flee to the freedom of an island so small the great Russian steppes could have swallowed it without so much as a burp.

     Other. Even if you're doing no more than describing someone walking across a room, unless the added color detracts from the main purpose of the scene, try to keep it interesting. (He slouched, she exited with dignity, etc. . . . ) But always keep in mind that frequently "less is more." For example, in action scenes and in dramatic moments, a simple "He walked to the door" works, because it states a vital fact without detracting from the more important things that are going on.

There are as many ways to add color to your writing as there are facets to your imagination. If you didn't take the time to do it the first time around, be sure to keep an eagle eye out for lost opportunities while editing. In some scenes I keep layering in the coloring even to third and fourth edits. 

Never forget that "color" in all its aspects is vital. Without it, your readers are likely to be asleep by the third chapter. And never buy your second book.

Never be afraid to "play" with that first draft. Never be so confident that you think the first time around was the best you can do. (Yes, an occasional scene will be "gold" from the moment it makes it to the screen, but the experience of writing 40+ books, tells me most scenes will need tweaking; some will need major revision—not just once but twice or more. 

And when you revise,NEVER think it's because you're stupid! Good writing is hard work. Why do you think it took Margaret Mitchell ten years to write Gone With the Wind?

Take pride in what you do. Stop, think. Don't let your work sink softly into the night. Make your work glow!

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