One of the most common reasons people come to my blog is to find out how to describe a scene. A subcategory of that is how to describe a winter scene. I can tell you one thing: you do not learn how to describe a winter scene by Googling it. You go outside. Stand still. Observe.
When writing about a place, we have a temptation to describe it all at once, but it’s more effective to begin at a distance, then move in for the smaller details. So there you are out in the snow and cold. What is the panoramic view? What specifically do you see in the distance? What sounds are coming to you from far away?
Bring your focus in a little closer. Pick out a few details from the middle distance. Now bring your focus in to your immediate area where all your senses come into play.
How do you feel? You are probably shivering because you thought you’d be outside for just a minute and didn’t put on a coat. Make a note of that and whatever else you feel. Touch the ice or snow or slush. Is there anything you can say about it besides its temperature? If not, forget it. Everyone knows what cold feels like.
What do you smell? Taste? Perhaps a low-pressure system is keeping the car exhaust from dissipating and it is so thick you can taste it. Or perhaps the smoke from wood burning stoves is choking you, and you can taste it in the back of your throat.
What do you hear? Cold engines idling? Birds calling? Children laughing? Ice crackling?
Finally, what do you see? Focus on the small details. Are dead leaves or blades of grass poking up through the snow? Are there mice or deer tracks? Is a perfect feather lying at your feet? Is a nest visible in the bare tree branches?
When you have absorbed as much sensory information as you can, you are ready to write the scene. Resist the urge to string together adjectives — too many can diminish the power of your description — and resist the urge to use everything you learned. It is better to pick one or two exceptional details that give an impression of the whole rather than attempting to describe the entire scene. Most readers today do not want to sit through long descriptions. They want to get a quick sense of the place and then move on to the action.
Better yet, couple your description with action; give it movement. Have snow crunching beneath running feet. Have a character dodging around a stalled car. Have the blood of a victim staining winter-dry leaves.
Most importantly, if you can’t think of a single original thing to say about the scene, don’t describe it at all. Why waste your time and your readers’ by telling them what they already know?
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.