Michael Connelly, the hugely successful author of almost two dozen novels centered around detective Harry Bosch, sets his books in Los Angeles. That’s where Bosch lives, loves, broods and works his dangerous job. We come to know Los Angeles as intimately as we know Harry—the neighborhoods, the winding road into the hills, the ocean views, the crowds at Dodger Stadium, the look of the klieg lights sweeping the night sky over Hollywood.
Discussing Connelly recently, a novice writer said to me he was annoyed by all the car action. “You’re always reading, ‘Bosch drove east on Santa Monica and west on Ventura and caught the freeway heading north at,’ etc. etc. I don’t live in LA,” the writer said, “this doesn’t do anything for me.” It does do something for the book, however. The accumulation of specifics adds verisimilitude to the story. Bosch is not doing his thing in a generic city, anywhere U.S.A., but in LA. That helps us take him seriously.
If you’re writing a book about a band of zombies that’s terrorizing Philadelphia, let’s see them accosting tourists at the Liberty Bell, trying to push over the Rocky Statue on the steps of the art museum, hanging off the Benjamin Franklin Bridge at the Delaware River. The reader is going to be more willing to buy the preposterous elements of your story when they are grounded in that real place, even if he’s never been to Philadelphia himself.
With beginning novelists, description often takes a back seat to plot and characterization. But description is not a cosmetic issue. It’s a necessary part of your writing. You might need to do some research, and it’s worth the effort. One author wrote a nifty thriller about murders in an upscale retirement community. The action was fine, but I suggested that it could be greatly enhanced if she painted a better picture. She spent some time Googling, came up with a number of ideas about the look and layout of such a place (walkways, flower beds, parking lot, dining room), and invented a composite setting that worked beautifully with her plot. And made it more exciting.
Description goes beyond the visual. Think of sounds, smells; tap into your own memory bank, recall details, and incorporate them into your text. Writing that “Barry Manilow was playing on the radio” is better than “there was music in the background.” Barry Manilow, right? Tells us something about that character.