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How to Write Descriptions People Want to Read: an African Landscape

How do you communicate to Western world readers the uncivilized, nature-controlled land that is Africa. If your story includes an African setting, you must get that untamed, mysterious feel across or you lose credibility.

Here are a few books you can read that will drench you in the scents and colors of Africa:

Here’s a list of descriptions, in part drawn from these books:

  • Flat, dry, and monotonous, a seemingly limitless scrub waste without landmarks or water or other relief
  • because of the time and the approaching rain
  • followed small antelope trails instead of the larger buffalo trails
  • Oxbow lake
  • Narrow rocky defile
  • Beneath the jutting stone ledge, she sat hunched into a ball, knees tight against her chest, her damp clothes about her.
  • Olduvai appeared like a dark rift
  • Along its length, cottonwoods had sprung up; young trees little more than twice a man’s height.
  • Thick grass had carpeted the narrow strip
  • distant harsh mountains composed of granite, covered with thorny shrubs and acacia trees
  • mountains, thrusting spires of naked rock into the heavens so high that you would believe the very sky was pierced
  • thickly scented spruce branches clutched at his clothes, slapped against his chest and shredded his hand
  • thick forest that carpeted the uplands

 

  • dust was everywhere—on leaves, branches, even on my teeth and lips
  • Easing over humps and trenches, potholes and stone rivers, bashing through the trees where a track is blocked, the bucking climbs up steep eroded banks
  • the cloud mist lifted, gradually came the dull patches of red glowing far beyond the cliffs. Two active volcanoes
  • mouth of a thick sulfurous stream
  • watch the river to see the coiling of its muscular currents, catch the shimmering of waves that caught the sunlight like scales
  • swallowed up by the jungle
  • dry creek bed
  • bounded on three sides by basalt outcrops and partially screened by brush
  • followed the ridge down toward a patch of grass
  • back to a rotting log that some long-forgotten flood had deposited crossways on the spit
  • Cracks like hardweed through a broken sidewalk
  • Gordian knot of …
  • he saw  its fields, steppes, villages and towns, all bleached white by the moon and bright stars.
  • the gallery forests of river red gum, various grasses, that lined the channels. Maybe a low-lying area where runoff from high ground collected after rain. Sometimes dense stands of mulga (acacia) woodland would grow there, where water was easiest to find in a desert.

Photo credit: Kibuyu

More Descriptors:

 Characteristics That Make Your Character Memorable

How To Write Descriptions People Want to Read: Horses

How To Write Descriptions People Want to Read: Wild Animals

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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21 thoughts on “How to Write Descriptions People Want to Read: an African Landscape

  1. Thank you again for sharing another in-depth article to show us writers what we can do if we research. Your research astounds me but then that is why you are such a good writer.

    • This is just me as aggregator. I collect it from others. Reading these convinced me I am not a nature writer–though I use nature. Those geniuses (like Mathiessen) have a real flare for getting the rawness and beauty across.

  2. A good post, but having lived in Africa for more six years (three in West Africa and three in the southern part), I have to take issue with describing the entire place as a wild land. It has some of the world’s oldest cities and civilizations, so if one is to accurately portray the continent, places like Timbuktu and Great Zimbabwe must figure in. Also, you have cities like Cape Town, Pretoria, and Johannesburg, which combine all the good and bad of cities anywhere. I might add that Nairobi (except for the horrendous traffic) is quite an interesting city. There are also undulating veld lands, deserts, mountains, areas of hard leaf trees not unlike parts of the southwestern U.S. or south, etc.

    • Thanks for adding this, Charlie. I’ve never visited. I wanted to see the migrations in East Africa, but the State Department site said ‘go at your own risk’ which dissuaded me.

      So I should really title this list–I can’t come up with a name. Something that makes it clear this is the side of Africa ruled by Nature and animals, not cities and man.

    • Writing about Africa–trying to get that raw emotion across that only Nature can evoke (and dogs, them too) got me into admiring the talent of nature writers. They always know exactly the right word.

  3. I like the bullet pointed tips, they’re quite good. Although, your opening paragraph did annoy me:

    “How do you communicate to Western world readers the uncivilized, nature-controlled land that is Africa. If your story includes an African setting, you must get that untamed, mysterious feel across or you lose credibility.”

    I haven’t heard of any land that isn’t controlled by nature, and the possibility of a writer losing credibility because they don’t have an “untamed” or “mysterious” feel about the continent is very quite sad. It shows how deep some of the misconceptions western people have of the continent can get; that they expect a writer to blanket the description of an entire continent with those sorts of connotations. Besides that, the descriptions are useful, I just hope others don’t think that’s the only way they can go about describing Africa.

  4. These are great, Jacqui. I love the line “dust was everywhere—on leaves, branches, even on my teeth and lips” – it reminds me of a drive I took from Cairns to Cooktown in Australia. :D

  5. Nice reading about you

    Thanks for visiting my blog. Be in touch. Browse through the category sections, I feel you may find something of your interest.

  6. Pingback: How to Write Descriptions People Want to Read: Nature | WordDreams...

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