Posted by: Kerry Gans | July 27, 2011

How To Deepen Your Description by Gerri George

Today we are pleased to have author Gerri George as a guest blogger.

A used bookstore near my home, had posted a sign: “Going out of Business, Books on Sale.” Since I brake for bookstores, sales or not, the sign lured me in. I’m a slave to those palaces with secret chambers that hold treasure, namely books, in this case, a search for reference books.

The store smelled nostalgic, agreeable, like a weather-beaten cottage on the beach. The inventory stood in alphabetical order on nut-brown shelves: From acting, art, architecture, down to religion, speech, and travel. I bought titles which stirred my curiosity and matched my projects, current and future.

In this manner, I broadened my already budding reference library, something all writers should consider, no matter the type of writing. It can even apply to screenplays since scripts, too, should first and always be enjoyable reading material for gate-keepers and decision-makers.

Description in its raw form presents a picture to the reader. Words plucked from a reference book can enrich that picture. Word choices are the building blocks of your voice. They matter. Take time to give them substance.

For instance, I own several books on the topic of color. If I can’t think up a color to describe clothing, flesh, or a prop in a scene, I’ll pull Color in Your Life by Irving Adler from my shelf, or another book on color, and search until I discover the right word. I’ve chosen the more alive “scarlet” over red, and “shrimp pink” over pink. As long as the description sounds authentic, such colors clarify and amplify what the writer means to convey to the reader.

Author Michael Ondaatje also inspired my search for uncommon colors. He used aubergine in The English Patient, a shade then new to me. Aubergine is dark purple, like an eggplant, an imaginative color he chose which also suited the sentence rhythm of his luminous prose.

Some of my other titles: Fabrics and How to Know Them by Grace Goldena Denny (for my use of texture in description) and Drawing the Human Head by Burne Hogarth, a book for art students, but sometimes useful in physical description of a character. I have books on millinery, costumes, geography, philosophy, old cookbooks, and others. Imagination can run rampant.

The public library, Internet, and a thesaurus (the only reference book John Updike reported he used) are resources to rouse and inform a writer’s use of words. But there’s also pleasure in skimming a handy book straight from your shelf and discovering a gem.

Untraditional books used as reference spark the mind’s eye in surprising ways. For instance, while a book on gardening is not an unusual purchase for a gardener, it was for me, the writer. I bought such a book for its section on sunflowers, those flaxen beauties that charm the eye. I learned they droop when the seeds mature. From this fact, I crafted a simile for a character in one of my stories: her mood sagged like a drooping sunflower.

In writing The Shipping News, Annie Proulx gained inspiration from a book she came across on nautical knots. The knots became structural metaphors in her book, which received the Pulitzer Prize.

In a global sense, books hold memories of mankind; they entertain, inform, and inspire. Expand their use, add to your bag of techniques, all in the service of your craft. Root through stock at flea markets, thrift stores, bookstores, yard sales. When small helpings of reference material used for description are diverse and unconventional, a writer’s subsequent inspiration can be deeper and more distinctive to the creation.

Gerri George lives in Wynnewood, near Philadelphia. Her stories have appeared in Literal Latte, Penn Review Literary Magazine, The Bucks County Writer, Quiddity International Literary Journal, Wild River Review, and elsewhere. “Night,” read by a professional actor in London, also appears in audio and text on the Liars’ League website under Sex and the City theme. She received a Barbara Deming Memorial Fund writing grant for women artists. Her poem, “America Ground, Hastings,” was read at the Hastings Festival in England on July 4. “The Great Idea Drought” appeared in The Penn Writer, a newsletter for writers. Her movie script, “Number 9 House,” received Honorable Mention in Writer’s Digest contest.



  1. Excellent points, Gerri. Researching that which we do not know firsthand is often critical to evoking just the right emotion in our readers.

    Our mutual friend, Leslie Banks, once told me that she’d write in ethnic resturants to soak in the sounds and smells which she would later use to accent her work with the type of authenticity that pulls the reader right into the scene.


    • Thanks, Don! It really does make a difference. And Leslie had it right, as well. Environment can add to a writer’s bag of research tools.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: