One thing that I harp about is the use of great sensory details. When a story is specific, it comes alive.
Janet Fox does an amazing job of choosing the exactly right details in her story, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. She chooses details that create a mood and pull on your emotions.
A fairy-tale like plot, there’s a great evil brooding over Rookskill Castle. Interestingly, this is another story of children leaving World War II, war-torn London and going into the countryside. But the castle-turned-school has centuries old secrets to hide.
When you create a creepy castle, mood becomes very important. You can’t go around saying things like, “Oh, she was so scared.” When you TELL the mood, it falls flat. Instead, you must choose the right sensory details.
Imagine a happy playground. What do you see, hear, touch, taste, smell?
Bright sun, red swing set, comfortably warm slide, popcorn and ice cream.
Now, imagine a scary playground. What do you see, hear, touch, taste, or smell?
Lightning streak, peeling paint, frigid slide, (no taste), smoke.
Do you see how a simple choice of details changes the mood?
Here’s Kat’s first look at the village near Rookskill Castle:
She saw something of the village, wreathed in mist, as they passed through–small and silent, no souls strolling among the thatched-roof cottages or in and out of the shuttered pub with the sign of a spread-winged blackbird: THE ROOK. The road wound upward from there, back and forth, like a hawk hunting, turn and turn again, the wheels making a hawklike squeal as they rotated in the muddy ruts. The drays puffed steamy breaths as they hauled their load up the hill. The smell of damp decay filled the air. (p.25)
What wonderful details!
See: mist, silent and small, no souls, shuttered pub, sign of spread-winged blackbird.
Hear: hawklike squeal, steamy breaths
Smell: damp decay
The voice is strong here, as the details are woven into a paragraph that starts and stops and leads us inevitably toward something evil. The rhythm patterns created by the choice of sentences of various styles and lengths lead us on, inevitable, up and up and up the hill toward something not quite right. This is masterful writing.
A second technique Fox uses is present-tense. The villainess, Leonore, is about to enslave the souls of the children who have fled the bombings in London and presumably found safety at Rookskill Castle. She’s evil. She’s doing evil things to children. Fox could have just let us hate the villainess because of her evil, but instead, she chose to give us enough information that we feel sorry for Leonore. It’s a risky thing because why should the reader care about someone so monstrous. But the choice to fully characterize the villain is part of the charm of this story.
To accomplish the almost impossible task, Fox uses alternating chapters in present tense. Leonore’s story unfolds as if in real time, even though the text clearly explains that it’s 1746. The result is a heroine of her own story that takes a wrong turn. She is trapped in situations that force her to terrible choices and hardens her soul. The storytelling voice is another masterful stroke in this amazing story.
The circling birds of Rookskill Castle could tell a tale. Back and back–time weaves a tapestry. It is 1746, and a terrible conflict lays waste to the land and people.
A girl, Leonore, contemplates her misfortune. She has not been able to fulfill her marriage vow. . . She cannot deliver a child to her lord. He plucked her from nothing for this alone, having disposed of the three unfortunate wives who came before her–he picked her for her peach-cream skin and thick black hair and her youth. Picked her from the village, after the other lairds refused him any more of their daughters. At least she has escaped her father’s fist, the bruises and the fearful hiding.
This narrative introduces the backstory of Leonore and makes her understandable, even if we still deplore her evil.
If you’re looking for a mentor text for great sensory details, the use of present tense, or how to make a villain understandable, this is a great choice.