This is Marilyn Meredith's handout for her talk on description:
USING THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF DESCRIPTION FOR PEOPLE, PLACES AND THINGS
Use color, texture, smells, sounds. Use strong, active words for description. Nouns and verbs--less or no adjectives and adverbs.
Readers want to know what your characters look like—give some hints right away, so they aren’t shocked later to find out who they’d imagined is not at all like that. You want them to “see” your characters as you see them.
Don’t put great hunks of the characters’ description in one place. Scatter them.
Include how someone’s voice sounds.
Be sure to keep track of these details, so they don’t change later in the book. Give reminders every now and then—tossed back her mane of red hair—polished his bald head with his hand—adjusted his glasses—limped back to her seat.
Use descriptions as dialogue tags. She smoothed her long skirt before sitting. He loosened the collar of his dress shirt.
Same with vehicles, what kind do your characters drive?
For places, if you’re using real places, be sure you get everything right. Readers will let you know if you’re wrong.
If you’ve created a fictional place, make sure you keep track of where things are—even if you don’t remember, someone else will.
Weather can create a mood for your story. Remember weather changes—or if it doesn’t, how it affects people can add to your story. Hot too long, foggy too long, too much rain, etc. If it’s cold, you want the reader to feel the cold—and vice versa. How the weather affects your POV character.
Describe what you think your POV character will notice about the place where he/she is.
Be sure to describe the places inside and out, let us see where people are having conversations, what it’s like where the action is going on. Description of houses and furnishings can add to what the people who live in them are like. Rich people, middle-class, poor. Neat freaks or slobs.
Same with vehicles, what kind do your characters drive? Should fit their personality.
Some of the authors I think do great description of settings are William Kent Krueger and James Lee Burke.
A couple of examples:
James Lee Burke—
We went through a brightly lit shopping district, the entered the old part of Lafayette, where live oak tress hung with moss still form canopies over the streets. --- The mist was gray, floating across the trees and shrubbery and hedges in the university district.
The sky was black, but floodlight illuminated the signs advertising the drive-by windows where the owner sold frozen daiquiris to the happy motoring crowd at five bucks a pop. The outside light also lit the iron framework of the ridge and the bayou’s surface which was running high up on the pilings and looked like yellow rust. When I got out of my pickup, the night air was throbbing with the sounds of tree frogs, the wind blowing through a sugarcane field out in the darkness.
The Tin Roof Blowdown
William Kent Krueger—
True to her work, in one minute she appeared, a dark-skinned woman with a bright, white smile. Her hair was a crown of black and gray. Her eyes were dark and shiny in a face full of welcome. She was clearly well fed, though not quite rotund, and dressed in the blue-short-sleeved shirt of a postal employee. Below that, she wore bright floral shorts.
We continued to follow the river, winding out way up out of the valley between the mountains until we came to a cutoff with a sign pointing southeast—SULFUR SPRINGS 8 MILES. The road we followed snaked steeply upward then crested. Below, along the base of the range, lay a kind of alluvial plain, an apron of high desert with a clear view to the south.