Instead of a picture book review this Friday, I’ve chosen to share a favorite writing exercise I read about in an art book a while back. The instructions were straightforward: using a pencil or pen, fill the bottom of your page with a drawing of grass. It sounded simple enough. I sketched a row of haphazard, waving, wandering wisps across the bottom of my paper, thinking I’d captured grass-ness.
Next, the instructions said to head outdoors and bring in a clump of grass, study it, and draw grass again. I dug a one-inch patch out of the corner of the lawn where I hoped it wouldn’t be noticed. Back inside at my desk, I brought out my magnifying glass and studied each blade. Clearly, I had missed some details in my earlier drawing. The blades of grass grew thin at the top where they reached a point and thicker in the middle. One of the blades had been nibbled by a hungry insect, leaving a tattered line along one edge. Another blade had a crease from being stepped upon. And at the base, where the roots disappeared into the earth, the deep green had faded away.
As a writer, I found this drawing exercise relevant. How often have I placed a story in a setting where I have never spent a minute or in a place I knew as a child but haven’t visited since? While I’m writing, I think I’m recalling the details of sight, sound, touch, and taste accurately. However, my descriptions, as it turns out, might be simplified, like my first drawing before I brought in the grass I dug from my lawn. So, what did I learn?
Set aside time to visit the location I’ve chosen for my story.
Take pictures from low on the ground and up high (if possible) for a bird’s-eye view.
Photograph as many details as possible.
Pull out my notebook and pen and jot down sensory details.
Make sketches of anything that interests me.
Video record with my cell phone so I can listen to and observe this place while I’m writing.
And, if visiting the location isn’t possible, do an internet search. Look up videos of the ocean, videos taken in space (if your picture book has a planetary setting), videos of farm life, etc… Google maps is also a great place to check out towns and cities on our globe you want the characters in your manuscript to interact with.
Let’s pretend my story is about two children who visit their grandparents near the sea. Let’s also pretend I live close enough to a beach to spend the day there.
I step onto the sand and take off my shoes. In my notebook, I write down the details about this moment.
The golden color of the sand, the warm temperature against my feet, the gritty, abrasive feel of crushed shells and sand beneath my feet.
I step into the ocean and notice…
The many colors of the blue and gray sky reflected on the surface, the foamy edges of the tide washing over the beach, a smooth seashell pushed up on the shore, the force of the waves washing against my legs, the roar of the waves, the cry of the seagulls, and the salty smell perfumed with a touch of fishiness…
Before I leave the sea, I photograph the water pulling around a shell on the sand, a wave building in the distance, and the entire shoreline. I add a few more drawings into my sketchbook of a crab scraping over a stone in its path. Then, I fill a small container with sand and collect a few seashells to bring home along with the memories I have gathered.
I’m ready to write.
Until next Friday.