Ninie Hammon’s Blog for Writers

Three Ways To Draw Pictures In Your Readers' Heads

Posted: April 19, 2013, 9:58PM

I suspect it'd be easier to sneak a pipe bomb through security at the Tel Aviv airport than to get any three authors to agree on a job description. Exactly what is it we get paid those megabucks to do? Toss that question out at a writing conference and watch the fireworks.

I say that to point out that what follows is The World According To Ninie. A quarter of a century in journalism, a biography and seven published novels into the writing profession, I've settled on what I think are the three most important elements. Like a three-legged stool. Those of you who've never had the privilege of milking a cow will miss the significance of that. A four-legged stool will stand up even if it's missing one leg. A three-legged stool won't. The other two legs aren't positioned to carry the weight.

These are the three legs on my Novel-Writing Stool. We must:

1. Draw pictures in our readers' heads

2. Tell a run-away-train story

3. Create characters so real they become cherished family members

This week, we'll talk about the first one.

How do you draw a picture in a reader's head? It starts with seeing the scene clearly yourself. If you have only a vague sense of it, that's what you'll convey to the reader, vague. Groceries. As we talked about last week, you can't describe "groceries;" you CAN describe Fritos and bean dip. It's called specificity. Know what the scene looks like, specifically, then transcribe it.

OK, you say, I see it. Now what?

You see it. Great.

Do you smell it?

Do you hear it?

What does it taste like? Feel like?

Drawing pictures in readers' heads involves employing the senses. Not all of them at once, though. The rule of thumb is not to employ more than three in any given passage. If you show the reader what it looked, sounded and smelled like, they probably don't need to know what it tasted or felt like, too. The reader will skip over descriptive passages and move on to the action if you devote too much attention to sensory detail.

You see it, you note sensory details, and finally, you use strong, active, concrete words. Let me insert a word of caution here. You'd be wise not to let description, drawing pictures in readers' heads, bog you down in the first draft. What's important in a first draft is to get black on white. The first draft is not the place to spend three hours figuring out how best to describe the ramshackle old house that is the setting for your whole book.

It's easy to talk about these things, envisioning, appealing to the senses, using strong, concrete words. It's another thing altogether to do it. Here are some examples of what I'm talking about, excerpts from some of my books, to help you see how you use different sensory details to draw pictures in your readers' heads. Next week, we'll talk about stories.



A sudden clap of thunder ripped open the crisp autumn afternoon, banged harsh and loud, but not in the cloudless sky. The crack and boom roared in the tangled roots of Black Mountain, deep in the dark guts of the earth.

In the stunned stillness that followed, time shut down for an airless, eternal moment. Not a bird cheeped; not a dry leaf rattled.

Then the earth groaned, as a man might cry out in his sleep. Rumbled. And the rumble swelled, became a grating death rattle like gravel in a blender. The ground shook, dogs howled, kitchen cabinets flew open, glasses, plates and bowls clattered out and shattered in a tinkling symphony of breaking glass. Pictures and mirrors leapt off walls, clocks crashed to the floor and stopped, all of them at the same time: 12:18 p.m.

Black Sunshine



Half a dozen different tribal dialects babbled around him, mingled with the animal sounds from a menagerie of creatures, cows, pigs, goats, chickens, guinea hens, in a background noise he heard but didn't really listen to.

But it was a lot harder to tune out the stink than the noise. The reek from the fish laid out on the dock when he stepped off the barge that morning had been heightened and magnified by the mid-day sun to create a stench that was foul beyond description. There was no wind, and the odor hung like a fetid fog in the air.

Ron began to make a mental list of all of his favorite smells: coffee brewing, honeysuckle after a spring rain, steaks on a backyard grill, the upholstery in a new car, a pretty girl's hair . . .




The steep, tree-lined Appalachians rose around him like giant ramparts protecting a castle, their autumn splendor set against a blue sky dotted with cotton-ball clouds tethered like hot-air balloons to the treetops. The medley of color splashed on the hillsides, Claret-wine red, the gold of a Spanish doubloon, smiley-face yellow, the deep russet color of a chestnut foal's coat or an auburn-haired toddler, pine green and an amber shade of brown, reminded Will of Scottish clan tartans. No, it was the other way around. The clan tartans he'd seen in tourist shops on the Isle of Skye had reminded him of autumn in the mountains.

Black Sunshine



Ron lifted the glass Masapha had set in front of him to his lips and took a big gulp. A sip  probably would have been smarter; he wouldn't have had quite so much liquid to spew back out of his mouth onto the floor and his shoes.

"What is this stuff?" he gasped.

"It is aragi, the local beer."

Ron noticed that Masapha drank only water. "You knew this stuff tasted like paint stripper, didn't you? That's why you didn't order any."

"Yes, I have heard it has the flavor of goat urine."

"I don't know about goat pee, but it definitely tastes worse than moonshine!" Ron sputtered, and spit on the floor to get the last remnants of the foul liquid out of his mouth. Then he saw the blank look on Masapha's face. "You don't get moonshine, huh. Never mind. I just hope I don't go blind."




She sits down in the backseat by the open window and cradles the little girl in her arms. She turns and stretches her legs out on the leather-covered bench and wiggles a little to get comfortable. Then she relaxes.

And with every breath, she concentrates on feeling Angel in her arms. The weight of her. Her warm, soft skin. The smell of her silky hair.

She pats her back softly and sings into her ear quiet, nonsense words borne on strange, haunting melodies. She kisses her forehead or her cheek or her nose between verses.

Angel stirs now and then, wiggles. Once she opens her hand and grasps Princess's finger and holds on, like she used to do when she was a newborn. Then she sighs and settles, the sweet scent of her warm breath a bouquet in Princess's face.

Five Days in May

Write On!





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"Oh, and about the 9 and the e beside my name. Say it fast, emphasis on the 9. That’s how you pronounce my first name -9e. (Think “rhymes with tiny and shiny, NOT with skinny and penny.”)

Suspense Author

I have soooo many stories I want to tell you, so many worlds I want you to see, so many people I want you to meet. People in trouble, most of them. Big trouble they didn't ask for but there it is. Ordinary folks like you and me who are forced by circumstances to fight for their lives. And then, smack in the middle of their everyday worlds they encounter the unexplainable. It's always the game-changer.

Welcome to my world. If you'd like to know more about me, I'm easy. Click on Meet Ninie and you'll see. My life isn't really an open book; it's more of a pamphlet, and you are cordially invited to read it. I'd love to interact with you on Twitter, Facebook Fan page, and Goodreads. Or come visit with me at 9e's Kitchen Table, a Facebook group where readers and I hang out. I think you'd like it.