If you stop by my parents’ lake cabin and root around in their refrigerator for a snack, my advice is to proceed with caution. Appearances, as they say, are deceptive. You might open that take-out container and find yummy leftovers from the local café. But you’re just as likely to open a carton expecting a deli delectable, and instead—find live leeches. Fishing bait is best kept cool. If opening up a tub of wriggling leeches is likely to turn your stomach to the point that you aren’t so hungry after all, then you’ll just want to be more careful next time, right?
It’s often small details like this—what we call “local color”—that best serve a writer looking to make their story setting come alive for readers. For example, I put these deceptive bait containers to good use in my upcoming novel. My character from out of town—the kid who’s a true “fish out of water” in my rural Minnesota lake country setting—is beyond startled when what he thinks is his lunch starts squirming. I turn this bit of local color into a funny and revealing moment.
It’s often easier to learn to spot the telling details when we’re thinking about locations that are alien to us; the things that are surprising or unusual stand out when we’re not overly familiar with them. For example, for a different book I was researching birthday customs around the world and came across something called “fairy bread.” It’s basically buttered white bread triangles dipped in sprinkles (okay, I admit, even the use of the term “sprinkles” varies geographically, but that’s what I call them). It’s apparently a kid’s party favorite in Australia and it has a huge Facebook following. And if I ever write a story about a kid visiting Australia, I definitely want to work it in; nothing could provide more local color than all those sprinkles!
As your young writers work on their stories, ask them to try a simple brainstorming exercise. Have them write down five details (or ten, for older students), that they could include to evoke a sense of place and time in their stories. If they’re using a historical setting, or one that is geographically distant, they might have to do a little research to come up with accurate details. If they’re writing a fantasy, they might have to stretch their imaginations to invent details. And if they’re writing a story set in their own back yard, they might have to stretch their awareness, so that they really notice those things that they have come to take for granted.
After all, there are those who take live leeches in the refrigerator for granted—and those for whom this would be an unusual but telling detail.