Visualize This

By Jeff Salter

It’s a two-parter this week:

  1. Do I use visuals when writing?
  2. When in the writing process do I settle the visual issues of character and setting?

My jumbled up answers will (hopefully) respond to both.

Do I use external visuals?

Basically, no. At least not the type I’ve seen described by many other authors. I know of several writers who use Pinterest (or other sites) to assemble collections of visuals related to their W.I.P. Not me. I know of many who assemble physical scrapbooks or folders of related material. Not me. I know of at least one very successful author who purchases a new journal book (for each W.I.P.) and begins taking detailed notes on nearly every aspect of their upcoming story. Not me. I know of many other authors who craft detailed charts and boards and other things. Not me. William Faulkner supposedly scrawled the complicated lineage of his fictitious families on the walls of his home in MS. Not me.


In the 11 novels and four novellas I’ve completed so far – and in the several others which are half-finished or more – I believe it’s accurate to say that (starting out) I rarely have a mental picture of my characters — beyond perhaps imagining certain movie stars for a few of my heroines.

In my first three novels (all set in or near the real city of Somerset KY), I was scrupulous to describe the real geography, terrain, and other features of this actual place. But I realized that was hemming me in too tightly. So for all the rest of my stories – and, likely, for all those in my future writing – I’ve used fictional settings.

The Town I Created

Most of my stories are set in the fictional town of Verdeville TN in fictional Greene County — just east of Nashville. On an actual map, it would be approximately where Lebanon TN sits. But I have purposefully avoided looking too closely at real Lebanon because I want my Verdeville to be as flexible as I need it to be. I’ve used the real Cumberland River, I-40, and several of their actual highways, but I’ve adjusted the meanderings of each and given the interstate more exits.

What I Do

All of my stories cover a specific timeframe. When I first began writing novels, these calendars might span months. Later, I got into a groove of stories which covered about 2-3 weeks. The novella I recently released (One Simple Favor) actually spans only about 12 hours. And a novella I’m just about to finish drafting will have cover a time period of approximately ONE HOUR. But, whatever the length of time in that story, I need to know what day it is and how much time has elapsed… so every title has its own calendar.

For every novel and most novellas, I at least have a list of the characters. Usually none have names when I begin writing, but I indicate their relationship to each other, their approximate age and status, and where they work (if that’s important to the story). If it’s significant I also note what type of vehicle they drive. For the two primary characters, I often sketch out some back-story as well.

To keep my characters straight as I’m drafting (before I name everybody), I use codes:

FA = the heroine
FB = usually FA’s best friend
FC = often a relative (of FA or M1), sometimes a co-worker (of FA or M1)
FD = often a principal character needed for the plot but NOT otherwise affiliated with either FA or M1
Etc. (often I’ll have all the way through FI or FJ)
M1 = the hero
M2 = usually M1’s best friend (if he has one)
M3 = often a co-worker or relative, but sometimes the villain! (depends partly on how early M3 appears in the story)
M4 = might be the spouse of boyfriend of FB
M5 = often a principal character needed for the plot but NOT otherwise affiliated with either FA or M1
Etc. (often I’ll have all the way through M-12 or M-13)

Some of these characters do not actually appear in the story, but I need their identification (and their relationship to another character) for one or more points of reference.

Typically, the shorter the story, the fewer characters. Makes sense — right?

Amanda Moore or Less

I believe my most complex chart with character names and relationships is for this series which (so far) includes my screwball comedies, “Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold” and “Scratching the Seven-Month Itch.” Jason and Amanda each had their own friends (and relatives) and yet there were some characters both of them knew. And some of those characters knew each other (or worked together). So I had to chart all that out. That particular chart also indicates what type of vehicles are involved with each character (if they use their own vehicle in the story). This particular chart has 46 names!

Heart of Magnolia

Some stories I’ve written in the fictional town of Magnolia AL, a place created by a group of authors at Clean Reads (formerly Astraea Press). The series is called “The Heart of Magnolia” and so far the only released title is my own “The Ghostess and MISTER Muir.” But others are in the pipeline, I think, and still others being written. I, myself, have started at least three other stories in Magnolia (and hope one day to complete them and submit them for consideration).

What we created for this fictional town are detailed maps, with street names, with many/most downtown buildings identified, and a host of characters named and/or described. As I was writing G&MM, it was fun to send them to a particular restaurant – created and described by a colleague – and have them enter that other author’s “reality”. One example: My main characters teach at Magnolia H.S. and one of our colleagues mapped out the locations of various departments and classrooms.


I guess I’m a bit lazy. If I’m inclined to work on Story ABC, I want to dive in and write the scene, the dialog, the exchange (or whatever). I don’t want to put that creative energy on hold while I write note cards, make spreadsheets, or draw diagrams. When I realize I need them – and only then – I’ll stop what I’m doing and create those props. But until I stop the word production to create those VISUALS, I usually just leave a detailed note at the pertinent spot in my ms. Something like “check whether FA can see the river from her couch”. Or questions like, “how old was M1 when he joined the military?”.

After I’ve finished my first draft, I can go back and wrestle with such details. Unless it’s something I have to know RIGHT THEN. In which case, I will stop everything and draw the map!

What I have done (for some titles) is:

* create back-story timelines (especially if a lot hinges on when – and how far apart – things occurred)

* draw maps (whether it’s an apartment complex, a ranch/farm, or a neighborhood). [A few of my novels have so many characters, that I lost track of them until I numbered them and plotted their movements on my map.]

* draw floor plans (whether it’s a hotel layout, a specific set of rooms, or even a single space). [In some of my scenes, it’s important for me to know exactly what a character can see – or cannot see – from a particular vantage point.]


How much do YOU rely on visuals in your writing?

Or, if you’re more of a reader than a writer, how important are the story’s descriptive details to you? Do you prefer the author to layout the general sense of a character / place? Or do you want a nearly photographic representation?


About jeff7salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Twelve completed novels and five completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015, "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015, "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015, "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014, "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014, "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014, "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014, "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013, "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013, "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013, "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012, "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012. Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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9 Responses to Visualize This

  1. jbrayweber says:

    By nature, I’m a very visual person. With my dyslexia, it is how I learn. But I do not rely on elaborate visuals when I write. Not at first. I’m entirely a pantser. I have an idea of how my characters look. But as the story grows and I get to know them, that’s when a mental picture is painted. That’s when I might scour Pinterest for photos to help with character layers. I’ll even look for photos that might represent an emotion or mood. It doesn’t have to look like my characters for me to draw from the feelings that I am searching for.

    Same goes for setting. Many of my towns are set in real places (historically speaking, with my pirate books). I might look at photos to get a feel of the landscape. And will even Google Earth places just so I can tell how shallow the water is around islands. I need to know if a ship can dock or has to be anchored off shore.

    Great post, Jeff.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jeff7salter says:

      Thanks, Jenn.
      It sounds like your books are very well researched.
      I did a lot of research for my novel “Hid Wounded Reb”… which contains a lot of local Civil War history and context.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your system sounds great. I like how you map out rooms and towns. I never thought of doing something like that though it would be nice to have something like that around for reference.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jeff7salter says:

      In some cases, with rooms — as in the hotel suite in Ghostess & Mr Muir — my wife helped me draw up the floorplan and provided other valuable input.
      For one of the several WIPs I have going, she has also come up with very helpful floorplan assistance.


  3. jeff7salter says:

    By the way — this graphic (with all the sticky notes) is just something I grabbed from the internet as an illustration of how a story board might look. It’s nothing I created or used.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That is some complicated work and I applaud you, Jeff!
    You asked about detail….that is a difficult question. Well done, it needn’t be overwhelming. In a previous post I mentioned writers who detailed every morsel of food that went into any character’s mouth, and we aren’t talking gourmet or adventuresome fare.It was boring.The same with every article of clothing that every character, or even ONE character wears, especially if there isn’t anything especially unique or something to be envied.
    The book Quo Vadis is a great book that has detailed descriptions of EVERYTHING.It can be overwhelming to some people, but you really see everything the writer pictured.
    It’s a fine line to walk Some situations demand more, more can do with less.I think it is a matter of judgment and talent, Jeff, and unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules to go by.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jeff7salter says:

      As a reader, I have found — especially in recent years when I’m more jealous of my reading time — that (even with a well-written book) I may skim over paragraphs if I see they’re excessively detailed about description. I consider that it slows me down and therefore slows the story… so, for me, excessive detail is a negative.
      As a writer — so my various editors have told me — I tend to UNDER-detail the descriptions of people and places. So in the content edits, we usually fix that.


  5. Patricia Kiyono says:

    I like your system, and if they work for you, go for it! I’ve had critique partners remind me to include details about the other senses, so sometimes I’ll forego some visual details and describe sounds, smells, and feelings. And like you, I’ll make a note in my ms – usually in all caps – like WHAT DOES THIS SOUND LIKE?? and go on until I have a chance to puzzle over how to describe something.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jeff7salter says:

      my primary beta reader often asks me questions about sounds, smells, etc.
      My editors usually ask me about characters’ feelings.


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