IT'S THE HEAT (OR IS IT THE HUMIDITY?)
By T. Lynn Ocean
I'm going off topic this month, but I'm too darn hot to care. I was talking to my sister last night, who teaches for DODDS in Germany, and nestled outdoors to chat. So I'm outside, beneath the covered porch, with the fan turned on high. It was 5 p.m. my time (11:00 her time). She was already past happy hour and flirting with bedtime, but I was just winding down. Since she's flying back to the states for summer and will be arriving in Florida on Father's Day, our conversation revolved around my dad, who passed away more than ten years ago, and who is still our hero. We miss him terribly, when we think about it too much. And we miss his advice, despite the lectures on annuities and the importance of staying out of the sun. (He was right, of course, on both accounts. Neither of us are great financial planners and we've both had skin cancer.)
Half an hour into our talk, I went inside to retrieve a glass of chilled Pinot Grigio, and sliding the patio door closed behind me, I realized that my tee shirt was drenched. My hair was soaked, too, even though it was pulled up into a pony tail. Returning to my patio chair, dreading being one of those people who talk about the weather, I did it anyway. In South Carolina, it's been damn hot lately. Hotter and more humid than I remember it being last year in June. Even my dogs lie around like beached whales, not even bothering to run and sniff the grounds for rabbits and other critters like they usually do. Which got me to thinking about writing and something a wise author told me years ago: embrace the senses of your reader.
As I sat talking on the phone, alternating between reminiscing over funny things we've done with our father and looking forward to getting together this summer, I embraced the heat and took it all in. The azaleas, whose leaves were limp, and the lack of birds flying around my backyard fountain. The neighborhood in general, which is usually buzzing with folks standing around in driveways, gossiping, but lately seemed to be a silent void, broken only by the hum of heat pumps circulating cool air throughout homes. The experience reminded me of something that is so important to writers of all genres and that is, SHOW, don't tell.
If you're writing a scene in the middle of summer in any sticky, humid, Southern town, show your reader that, yeah, it's freakin' hot. Don't say, "It was hotter than…" Rather, write that the dogs are panting, the plants are droopy, and the only sounds on the street are buzzing air conditioning systems. Paint the picture of shirts soaked through with sweat, and perhaps the sensual, visceral feeling of water droplets seeping through pores and running down the back of your character's neck or trickling, tickling, between her breasts. And remember that the weather certainly doesn't pertain only to one or two senses. Have you ever smelled a salt marsh at low tide when the heat index is into the 100's? Or a downtown city block at night, near a dumpster? Or, the sweet scent of confederate jasmine blooms mixed with warm, discarded beer?
Sitting in the smothering heat reminded me that writing is really all about painting a vivid picture in a reader's mind. When my editor first scrawled the notes, "Show don't tell" on a manuscript, I didn't quite understand what she wanted. I called her. She told me not to shove thoughts down the reader's throat, but rather to paint a scene and let the reader draw their own conclusions. Doing so makes for a much more challenging writing experience, but it pays off with a much more enjoyable read.
My point? If you're a writer, embrace the heat. Or the thunderstorm when it's raining sideways and dropping chunks of ice like little golf-ball sized air raid bombs. Or the blizzard that causes a vibrant northern city to come to a screeching halt in the middle of a January day. Writing begins with observations, and observations lead to wonderful stories. So instead of griping about this summer's heat, get out there and embrace, embrace, embrace! (An icy mojito may help, especially if it contains a few extra lime wedges.)
Happy summer reading (and writing),
T. Lynn Ocean
T. LYNN'S latest book, SOUTHERN PERIL (St. Martin's Minotaur) is available download at your favorite online retailer. See http://www.tlynnocean.com/ for more info.