Be honest: when you're reading a book and you come upon a great solid block of print with no white spaces and no quotation marks so that you know it's all description—don't you skip over it? Or at least…skim it?
So will your readers if you treat your settings and descriptions as if they were lumps in the oatmeal. Readers crave a forward sense of motion, of change, and no matter how gorgeous that meadow is on a summer morning—it's just sitting there, moving nowhere.
Then what's a mystery writer to do? Place, as we've mentioned, is a vital part of the story—the ground your people walk on and the world that the crime has shattered. How, then, to create a strong sense of place—and have your reader read it, too? You can do this by using only a few details—those that give a sense of the place and its emotional meaning, and by weaving those details through the ongoing action of the story.
At the beginning of your book or story, you can provide a quick, "establishing shot" to borrow from film terminology. In the same way the camera shows us where we are at the start of a movie, you can set your scene, moving your imaginary camera from a broad, panoramic overview into our actual setting. For example, you could first describe the broad fields around a small town ("Thirty miles of rolling hills away from the nearest movie house…") then move into the town itself, briefly described, ("…population 5,000…") then into a garden, ("behind a hedge kept level and symmetrical in all seasons…") and finally, into the actual place our characters await us. Do this logically, as if you truly were holding a camera. Move from the large outside to the spot we're in and don't go back and forth. And, since you're not in your character's point of view until you hone in and focus, only use this technique at the start of the book or, if you must, at the start of scenes.
Otherwise, weave your descriptions into and through your action and story. That way, we'll experience place the way we actually do in our real lives—while something else is going on. It's true that every so often we closely observe and take stock, or suddenly notice familiar spots, or even stand and stare in silent wonder—and so can your characters when it truly works for your story— but mostly, we move through or use "the scenery"of our lives, and that's what you want to do in your novel. So you needn't give us more than a few details when we meet someone or are in a new place, and you can show us the rest. You needn't tell us the room is ornately decorated if your protagonist slips on the marble floors and grabs hold of the gilded framework of a velvet-upholstered chair. You don't have to describe how hard it's raining if your character's slacks are drenched by a passing car.
Remember, always, who is experiencing the scene and what they'd notice. A designer might be able to identify the expensive furnishings mentioned above—but not even the designer might note them if the Aubusson rug has a dead body lying on it. That's what she'd notice and at best, a blurry sense of what else is there. People notice even familiar settings when something has changed, or they've been away, but don't normally inventory their own apartments when coming home. So you can give us a sense of it by having your sleuth emptying his pockets' contents onto his Mexican painted dresser, (or the floor) or finding his day's shirt by pawing through the laundry basket or opening a closet where all garments are color coded… Make the details show us more about the person than statistics about what he owns or wears or inhabits.
You are only going to use a few details in any descriptions and leave the rest to the reader's imagination to fill in, but choose the details that make the setting unique, that most characterize it and, ideally, that convey how the character feels about the place. After all, a room can be cavernous or spacious; cramped or snug, feel safe or threatening, familiar or bewildering, and so forth.
Atmosphere continues throughout your mystery. Don't forget what you set up. If it's wintertime in a cold climate, let people shiver and stamp snow off their feet and have dead car batteries and icy slides on now and then. And if it's hot, let people feel that heat throughout, perspiring, fanning themselves, dressing skimpily—reminding us how oppressive it is. This won't be incessant, of course, but neither will it be forgotten, once said.
Finally, while doing all of this, try to get texture, shape, style, color, pattern, and movement onto the page. Don't limit your descriptions to what can be seen and don't let them be stagnant. Instead of having the sun "set", show its effect through the sky and earth's changing colors, the shifting shadows, the drop in temperature and so forth.
Once you do all this, nobody will skip your descriptions. They won't notice them—they'll simply feel as if they, along with your characters, were there, which is the whole point.
Next lesson: It's all in your point of view.
Adapted from: You Can Write a Mystery, by Gillian Roberts.
© Gillian Roberts.