Of Dollybirds and Broccoli

Dollybird, by Anne Lazurko
Dollybird, by Anne Lazurko

I recently went to a writing presentation by Anne Lazurko, author of the award-winning historical fiction novel Dollybird, at the Saskatchewan Writers Guild annual conference.

Anne’s topic was creating atmosphere in your writing by describing setting through the eyes of your character. From a character’s viewpoint, setting is never neutral, and the way the character feels about his or her surroundings needs to shape the way it is described. The description, in turn, gives the reader a sense of the inner landscape in the character’s mind and heart.

Here is the example she read from p. 99 of her own book: the prairie as seen through the eyes of 20-year-old Moira, banished to the wilderness as a result of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy:

People in Ibsen had told me the prairie was harsh and unforgiving, and I’d be lucky to last the winter. But perhaps it was instead a kindred spirit of sorts, its obvious failures pocking the surface for the world to see: the slough dried up before the ducks could hatch their eggs, the would-be trees stunted into shrubs, the fledgling grasses destined always to wait for the sun. My failures simply blended in.

It’s a lovely description that tells us a much about Moira’s state of mind as about the scenery.

After listening to Anne’s joyful and inspiring presentation, I bought Dollybird. I wasn’t disappointed–it is full of beautiful, atmospheric prose grounded in the thoughts of its two main characters, characters that lived with me for some days afterwards.

My challenge now is to put Anne’s advice into practice, and write my own descriptions from the deep viewpoint of my characters. Since I write kids’ fantasy, not adult historical fiction,  my atmospheres will be quite different from hers!

My current work-in-progress is a middle-grade adventure called The Mystery of the Giant Kohlrabi.

When it starts, Nero’s family is lost in the backroads of the prairie, trying to find Uncle Peter’s farm of giant vegetables. When a speeding semi runs them into the ditch and the car gets hung up on  stump, Nero takes time out under the shade of a nearby tree.

The tree was very strange. Its bark was pale green and perfectly smooth, and its branches had leaves like fish fins. Each branch led up to a single dark green leaf as big as a parachute. Shivers trickled down Nero’s spine. The swaying leaves were held open by stiff, white bones, and one of them had holes the same size as the one in the road sign. Above him, in the centre of the tree, sat a bulging, alien…brain.

Can you guess what Nero found?

Hint 1: you normally eat it with cheese sauce.

Hint 2: It’s in the title of this post.

Happy atmospheric writing.

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