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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.


From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: Environment

Make Every Scene Count: Environment and Pace

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Environment should always play an important role when building a scene, but it is particularly crucial when it comes to setting the pace and mood of each scene. The way you structure the environment and how the characters respond to it can indicate a characters' unspoken emotions can and even hint at circumstances to come. When building an environment, I think many writers struggle with establishing what to include in the details. This struggle may stem from the fact that most everything can be used to enhance the atmosphere of a story. Merely describing a warm, sandy beach allows the reader to picture the place. Showing the effects the weather has can make that picture even clearer. But having your characters react to that environment and describing intricate details about the space can really bring the environment to life. So here are some things you can focus your attention on.

Lighting. It's easy to establish whether it's day or night during a scene. However, writers often forget some of the other effects that time of day can bring. For instance, if it's night, is there a full moon, a partial moon, or no moon visible at all? Different moon phases affect the light reflected off it, thereby altering shadows as well. Certainty of what one can see in the surrounding area depends strongly on lighting, and characters' (as well as readers') speculations about it can change when an environment is dark or dimly lit. Keep in mind how the lighting of any given scene might affect surrounding objects and characters, and use it to your advantage; describe physical features of characters and/or objects using these changes.

Time of day/Day of the week. Time isn't something writers always focus on in great detail for scenes, but it does have a direct effect on the environment and can help establish one. During rush hour on a weekday, for example, there would be much more traffic (and background noise) on a main street than there would be on the weekend. On the other hand, a place like a mall might experience more crowds on the weekend rather than a weekday, especially if it's a holiday. Take time of day and day of the week into consideration when it comes to the surroundings during a particular scene. You might be surprised how it can change the outcome of your characters' actions or responses to one another. It might even introduce unforeseen conflict.

Reaction of the characters. Believe it or not, even dialogue and body language can help build the environment and pace of a scene. How you respond to the things around you can indicate quite a bit about what is going on. Shivering for instance, indicates the temperature might be chilly. Fidgeting and darting eyes show nervousness, a clear sign that something bad has happened or is about to happen. And short, choppy dialogue can indicate action, conflict, and emergency situations, adding to the pace already established by body language. If you're not sure what body language to use to convey specific emotions, check out the book The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It gives a wide range of actions that characters can perform to express emotions without dialogue.

Senses. In any given environment, there will be smells, sounds, textures, tastes, and a sense of temperature. You don't need to describe every one of these for every scene you write, but providing as much detail as you can, particularly for new or unfamiliar objects/places, can really enhance the scene. An old building holds far different features than a new one, and a busy city has a far different kind of background noise than your typical suburb does.

Nature. For the most part, writing in a few descriptions about the weather is easy. It's one of the first things a writer learns to incorporate into his/her writing as part of the environment. What is easy to forget is the rest of nature, especially the living parts. If you're writing a story that takes place in an existing geographic location, research the plant and animal life in the area. Find out what types of plants grow there and during what time of year. Find out what animals are natural inhabitants of the land (and water). One of the biggest complaints I hear from people when a book is written about a city they are familiar with is that the writer got the environment wrong. They mention animals, plants, and sounds that aren't really prominent there, or they get the overall sense of culture wrong. If you're picking a place you're unfamiliar with, make sure you know what you're talking before tackling the project of its environment.

Foreign objects or material. New and unusual objects are sure things to take note of. The technique of describing an object in detail is also effective for noting red herrings giving hints about later plot points. If the object is something a character comes in contact with, describe the texture and temperature of the object as well as its shape, size, and color.

My overall advice about establishing environment and pace is to include as much detail as possible in your first draft. It's much easier to remove things later than it is to add them in.

Toying with Time

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

When you mention the genre fantasy, some people imagine dragons and faraway lands, some steer toward vampires, werewolves, and witches, and others--like myself--tend to be drawn toward the element of time. Time is a mysterious idea, even to modern-day scholars. It fascinates scientists and writers alike, spawning many theories and stories revolving around the variables of this fluid beast. We know that over time organic matter breaks down, and new matter can take its place. Time propels us forward, making progression possible. We use time to categorize and arrange past events. But little is known about time other than how it affects us. However, it is something that we religiously base our routines and everyday lives around. Acceptance of time means changes are inevitable; some things can be completely replaced over time, and others simply altered.

The sheer magnitude of the concept of time is one of the things that makes it so fascinating to us. There is almost an unspoken knowledge of its power. It's something that we have absolutely no control over, causing anxiety for some and a sense of relief for others. For writers, time is one of those magical toys that can be dreamt about contorted. It defines the lives and journeys of the character that we craft.

But playing with time is like playing with fire; it's a difficult to harness but is extremely dynamic. Most writers use this capability to their advantage, even in the most basic sense. They establish a chronological order of events but present them in a way that is the most effective for conveying the story. However, when time is presented as an object in a fantastical story, it becomes a living creature capable of wreaking havoc on the characters and story being told.

In order to best utilize this tool, there are three main areas a writer should focus on.

Idea or Object? Time is either going to be seen as an idea or an object in a story. If it is simply an idea, it will usually follow a linear path and affect the characters much like time in the real world as a unit of measure to signify when certain events occurred. If time as seen as an object, it is elevated and personified, and can be captured, manipulated, or even stopped. This view of time is most likely to occur in a story where there is sorcery. It will require the creation of extra rules which must be consistently maintained. Toying with time in this way alone can certainly hold a great amount of potential for plot development and unexpected twists.

Time Travel The next thing you'll want to establish is how flexible time will be: Will time manipulation and/or time travel be possible? Managing this view of time is tricky. There are whole shows based on this idea. Some are executed quite well, but ones that aren't are monstrosities. The best aid for writing this kind of a story is research. See what's out there, what works well, and what doesn't. Come up with your own rules and try them out. Just make sure that every action has a consequence. Based on context of the story, readers will know how devastating the consequence should be. When something as big as time travel is involved, readers will expect long-term effects to characters' actions. Even if an immediate consequence isn't appropriate, one should be queued for later.

Weave in History If there is any sort of manipulation of time in your story, a history of why and how time came to be that way is absolutely crucial to a well-developed plot. Without it, the actions of the characters toward the object of time are meaningless. Be careful to avoid long blocks of backstory though; doing so can simultaneously bore readers and give away too much of the plot. Use it instead as a detail to enhance the current point in the plot and peak interest in past events.

Why Good Writing Matters: Environment and Mood

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

One of the first things that usually comes to mind when writing a story is environment/setting. This is especially true for the fantasy genre, since most fantasy stories revolve around made up worlds. But for some reason, this also tends to be the one area where good writing is typically lacking.

My theory as to the source of this lack of description is the fact that many writers experience the rush of ideas, and since we can think (and picture) an environment much quicker than we can jot it down on paper or type it out in a word processor, the details end up being sparse when we finally do get it down. So how does this affect the reader's perception of a story? What other elements of a story does it affect? How can writers compensate for this rather common circumstance?

Without a decently written environment, both believability and mood of a story will suffer. If the physical environment/setting of a scene (or whole world) is hard for the reader to picture, they might get frustrated and become uninterested in the book. There are some that believe leaving the details up to the reader is a good way to connect with the reader, giving them some control. I say that idea is pure nonsense and an excuse for the author's laziness and/or lack of writing ability. As far as mood goes, it will be hard to pick up on if enough details of an environment aren't provided. The combination of conveying how a character feels along with a clear description of their surroundings and current situation can go quite a long way. It's what makes the difference between someone reading your book, and someone being engaged in it. A good book will always draw the reader in and provide a necessary escape.

In order to prevent environmental sparseness, first work to prevent the problem, then solve any traces of it that exist the best you can. Here a few handy tips:

  • Keep a notebook with you wherever you go. If an idea strikes you, jot it down immediately. Include as much detail and description as you can possibly can. No matter how much you think you will remember later, it will never be as clear as the moment the idea first plants itself inside your brain. 
  •  Make an outline of your story, including the physical environment. I know that I've reiterated this point in several blogs, but the clearer the structure of your world, the less likely you are to forget any of it or misconstrue it. Consistency = believability and credibility.
  • After writing a scene, go back and edit it. Examine it both in the context of the whole story and the surrounding scenes. Try to approach it as someone who has never seen the text before, then fill in the missing pieces. Add detail as necessary and take out any repetitive material. Replace weak verbs with strong ones, and steer clear of clichéd adjectives/colors.
  •  Use the added features to enhance the mood of the scene. Especially when combined with sensory details, well-written context of a setting can convey a strong mood and clear emotions of characters involved. When achieved, the reader will be completely immersed the text.
  • Have someone else whom you trust, who hasn't yet seen the scene/story, take a look at the piece. Ask them for specific feedback and if there are any places where the description is lacking.
  • If you have a whole story or several scenes that require editing, break it down into manageable chunks. Set deadlines for yourself to work on them, and have someone hold you accountable for those deadlines.


Expect to do a lot of rewrites. No writing is good writing the first time around. It takes many, many drafts and attempts at editing to get a piece exactly right, even if it's just one scene. Preventative measures for bad writing are the most effective of course, but edits will always be necessary eventually. As Dory from the movie Finding Nemo might say: Just keep writing, just keep writing.

Using the Five Senses in Writing

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

One of the most well-known pieces of writing advice that you may have heard is to show events rather than telling them. While I do like this piece of advice and find it useful to a point, I think there is a better approach. The whole reason to avoid flat out stating everything that happens in a story is to give the reader sensory details that make them feel like they're really there. So why not just make sure you focus on using those sensory details, and let them do all the "showing" work for you?

Let's start by taking a look at each of the main five senses and discussing what using each of them can add to your story.

1. Sight.Describing how things look in the story is simple, straight forward, and can add a significant layer of depth to any scene that will instantly give your readers a front row seat to what's happening. It's also probably the easiest to accomplish and one that is remembered more than others. The only thing you should be careful to avoid doing when using this type of sensory detail is to refrain from using common colors in your description, such as "blood red" or "fire engine red" and "midnight black" or "dark as night." While readers will immediately know the color you are referring to, it becomes boring and rather cliché to hear them in every piece of literature.

2. Hearing.When's the last time you remember seeing a scary movie without a bunch of creepy music playing in the background? The truth is, you probably haven't, and for good reason. What you hear has a direct effect on what you perceive the environment to be in a story. If a horror movie had happy music playing in the background, you might expect a different outcome than one that was playing ominous, you're-about-to-get-your-head-cut-off music. The same is true when writing. Just like good movie scripts do, well-written books suck their audience into the current scene by taking advantage of this sense. It doesn't matter what the scene is, there will always be some type of noise that the characters encounter, whether it's just the hum of the refrigerator, someone coughing, or an enormous crash of thunder as a streak of lightning touches down close by. No, not every line needs to have auditory details in it; that would just be overwhelming and silly. But don't forget about this useful sense either. Especially paired with one of the other main senses, it provides a pretty powerful environment.

3. Taste. Out of all the five main senses, this one is probably the most forgotten of all of them when it comes to writing, without surprise. It's hard to find a good place to include details about taste, other than with food. It adds a lot to meals of course, but apart from that, it can be used to describe things in the environment that give off an aroma that you can "taste" to describing blood in someone's mouth without directly stating that they're bleeding.

4. Smell. Another one of the seldom used senses in writing, smell proves to be useful tool. It's particularly good for building suspense if a character is in a dark environment and is trying to figure out where they are. It's a prime way to triggering memories for characters within a story.

5. Touch. What better way to establish urgency than to have a character groping their way around in the dark? What better way to establish a sexy, romantic scene than to describe the soft, caressing touch of a lover's body? What better way to make a reader want to pet that soft, fluffy kitten? What better way to pull your reader into the slimy, sticky muck? You get the point. There are so many different textures to explore in this awesome world we live in. My toddler knows that perhaps better than anyone. And there is no better way to explore those textures than by sense of touch. Using this detail in your story will give your writing texture as well and make the situation much more realistic to the reader.

Using the main five senses clearly has the potential to give depth to your story and make the environment a vivid one. It will even help take care of that pesky "show, don't tell" rule that editors often try to hammer home. But remember: Don't just describe what you see and hear; feel, smell, and taste your way through your writing too. Even better, don't just limit yourself (or your audience) to the main senses. Pain and temperature are two additional sensory details that really make your writing pop; they're easy to relate to, and they heighten the environment quite well. They can even help develop the mood for a particular scene.

With just a little bit of work, sensory details can transform a great piece of writing into an extraordinary one.