For Want of Brush or Pallet

Madeline (M.M.) Gornell is the author of seven award-winning mystery novels. Her current literary focus is Route 66 as it traverses California’s Mojave Desert in her “Rhodes” series. Madeline is a lifetime lover of mysteries, and besides reading and writing, is also an occasional potter. She lives with her husband and assorted canines in the High Desert. Visit her website and Amazon Author Page.


Several happenings on several fronts led me to this post. First off, in my books I occasionally go on and on about sunrises and sunsets—especially in my two Rhodes tales. A few evenings ago a particular sunset caught my

Beauty in the Mojave

fancy—they’re all beautiful to me—but some, depending on weather conditions, are quite spectacular. This was one such sunset, so I found my camera (easier said now than was actually done at the time), and took a few pictures. After some thought and really looking at those pictures, I honestly doubted I could ever express in words the colors, the striations, and the emotional content of those pictures. Not a happy consideration for me.

Secondly, in my current WIP[i]—I realized, “it” just wasn’t right—almost at the point of my tossing the whole thing out. I didn’t feel I was there with the characters, or the story. But before giving up, I did take a few moments to “think.” About my story line, about my characters, about my back stories, even about the underlining premises—and finally I realized what was wrong.

My opening didn’t take me there. And why? I haven’t painted an enticing picture—not taken the reader (in this case me) there. Not that I don’t know the picture I want to open with—but I hadn’t brought that world to my WIP. Sure, I had described the where and what in Billy Belleau’s (opening character) world, but I had not painted the picture.

Easier to do with cameras, or paints if you have artistic talent. For example, while pondering (translate: being lazy) I’m in the middle of a mystery series on DVD called Blood of the Vine. It’s French, with English subtitles, and is set in French wine country. The opening panoramic scenes through the Bordeaux and other wine country regions in each episode are so magnificent, so enticing—as a watcher I’m there immediately. Their plot be darned, script be darned—I want to experience whatever it is that’s about to be revealed.

So bottom line for me, my tale is renewed in my mind, and I have some ideas on what needs to be added to paint my picture to try to take my reader there. And the point of sharing all this? It is to say, sometimes you need to toss. And sometimes you can fix. But in my opinion, if you paint an enticing picture at the very beginning—invite your reader to see what you see, paint a place a reader wants to go—you’re off to a great start.

Not easy, I don’t think, painting with a word-pallet (though the English-language-hues are seemingly endless)—but well worth the effort. Which  leads me to another topic of writing discussions (and potters also banter this same question around)—Art or Craft? I vote both.

Happy word-painting trails!


[i] Rhodes The Caretakers

22 thoughts on “For Want of Brush or Pallet”

  1. Yes! Opening your story with vivid imagery draws the reader in. I’ve always likened a book’s opening chapter to going to a party where you don’t know any of the guests. Walking into a warm, comfortable environment allows you to relax enough to stay until you meet everyone. And I agree – good writing is an art as well as a craft. Great post, Mad.

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    1. Thank you, Miko, for your kind words and your thoughts. I remember so well (from younger days!) feeling so much not part of the group when walking into a party with new people. But if the hostess/host grabbed me and took me around with introductions–made a world of difference. Excellent thought for me to keep in mind when taking a character, and hopefully a following reader, into a new situation. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks, Linda. It really hit me when watching those DVDs how photography and painting let you bring images easily to the viewer, while with writing–gosh, you really have to work at it!

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  2. A painter with words… That is definitely your forte, Mad. You capture a setting beautifully. But you also place your characters in a background that enhances their personal story. I don’t think you can separate them or else they would be somebody else. So when a writer takes time to paint that backdrop, it captures more than their essence. It captures their entire being. You do inspire us. Thanks.

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    1. Thank you, Gayle, for your encouraging words! Eons ago I really wanted to be a professional photographer, but my eyes weren’t quite good enough, so now I have to find words to bring a setting alive–and there’s no darkroom to fiddle with the negative in! (smile) And your comment about the background “enhancing” the personal story of the character is so true. Made me think of another “touch” for me opening. Thank you a second time in one comment…

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  3. Madeline, now you have me pondering! I find setting descriptions the most challenging part of writing—painting with a word-pallet, a turn of phrase I love. To me, descriptions need to be enticing but concise, and that isn’t always easy to achieve. I remember those beautiful sunsets over the Mojave desert from my time living in the Antelope Valley.

    I’m glad you reminded me of Blood of the Vine, a show on my TBS list.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Maggie. Yes, you certainly would be familiar with Mojave Sunsets. I have yet to figure out the ins, outs, and why some are so spectacular, besides it having to do with air quality. You point out an aspect of descriptions that I often struggle with–being concise. Fortunately one of my editors is pretty good at saying–enough! the reader gets it already (smile) But still, getting everything in without boring a reader to death is hard…

      I’m into season three of the series, Blood of the Vine, there’s one more I know of. It’s very low key, and I find the protagonist rather charming. Not your usual. And you have to get used to subtitles–but got into that with Montalblano (sp- an Italian series.) But the aerial shots, especially over the vineyards in France are quite lovely. And learning about wine stuff is neat.

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      1. I’m pretty used to subtitles, but the ones on Montalbano go very fast. If you can keep up with them, you can keep up with them on any show.

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  4. What a wonderful post! Your namesake is in the Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery I’m writing, now set in Tehachapi. Though I’ve been there several times, going to make a research trip for the very reasons you mentioned here.

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    1. Wonderful! Tehachapi! You may not remember but when I had energy to travel (smile) we ended up at a book sales thingey there. Good memories… Can’t wait for your next book, you are my inspiration. I know you get tired of hearing that…(smile) See you in Vegas in July at PSWA.

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  5. Great post, Madeline. I always try to “paint” my settings like pictures so readers can visualize the settings and see themselves in them. When I write I “see” the scene as though playing on a movie screen, but I don’t have pictures, only words, so I need to describe not just the action but also the setting so readers can see what I see. There’s nothing worse than not knowing where something is taking place, or not being able to put yourself in the scene with the characters… a quick way to get the story put down unfinished. I try to salt in enough of those “painterly” details to keep readers hooked. And I agree, it’s both craft and art… good writers are true artists.

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    1. I like the thought, Susan, that good writers are true artists. That’s how I actually think about my writing-heros, but I hadn’t really thought about it that way until you said, “good writers are true artists” Thank for stopping by and sharing…much appreciated. I see you are a featured speaker at PSWA, looking forward! So glad I finally met you last year.

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  6. Great Blog, Marilyn. Descriptions about setting are difficult for me, too. Writing what I see, doesn’t always come out well on the page, so I’m always searching for a better way to write them. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. But I’ll never give up.

    Blood on the Vine sounds like a great series. We subscribe to MegaHertz TV, so we often watch mysteries from France, Germany, and Sweden with English subtitles. I’ll have to see if that program is in our listings.

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    1. Evelyn, MegaHertz sounds really great! We don’t have fast enough stuff out here, I’m forced to buy DVDs, sigh. Though, I’m not complaining. Thank for stopping by, and yes, sometimes soooooo difficult. But like you, will never give up.

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  7. You paint the pictures so well, Madeline. I wish I had your talent. I tend to get more into my characters, and I need to start reminding myself about painting the scene. Excellent post!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Marja! And I’m blushing from your kind words. But I’m sending them right back at you–because it’s your characters (hopefully I’ve mentioned in reviews) that I soooo love in your books(including the dogs!) Bringing characters to life is so important to–and G.B. Pool said in her comment “place your characters in a background that enhances their personal story” which resonated with me. I’m going to working on both aspects enhancing each other… And I thought it would be easy…this writing thing! (smile)

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    1. Your words, Patricia, are music to my ears. Just knowing you took some pictures away with you is so encouraging to “keep on keeping on,” (goes something like that I think). I appreciate you taking the time to stop by. Thank you!

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  8. This thoughtful and inspirational blog gave me a better idea of why I have felt the way I did while reading your novels. I am excited about the story, intrigued by the characters, and enamored of the descriptions. I enjoy those pictures so much that I find myself slowing down to appreciate the writing more. I am not anxious to finish the book. It is like being on a wonderful trip that is coming to a close. I am not ready for that to happen.

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    1. Oh Frank, your words are music to my ears! So kind. I think your music, your songs, and your playing also paint a picture. (art for sure) A musical picture, which even a tone-deaf person like me can appreciate. I’m thinking, one day, you’ll also get your novel out there.

      Again, thank you for stopping by our blog, and leaving such positive thoughts! I’m certainly smiling…

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