Sunday, October 13, 2019

Setting the Mood (Jodi Moore)

When I visit schools, I often use my picture book When ADragon Moves In to talk about the parts of a story.

Once they name the characters, I ask them if they can describe the setting. Hands fly up immediately. “The beach!”

Which of course is a perfectly good answer.

But it’s not complete. Because the setting in a story should not only tell us the “where”, but also, the “when.” So, I press them for a little bit more.

“What time does the story take place?” I ask. “At midnight?”

“No!” They giggle. “It’s light outside, so it’s during the day.”

“Is it winter?”

“No!” More giggles. “It’s during the summer.”

“What else might the setting tell us, time-wise?” This is somewhat more difficult for the younger ones, so I prompt them. “Could this story have happened a long time ago when the dinosaurs were roaming the earth, or do you think this could have taken place this past summer?” In other words, is it historical fiction or contemporary?

In a picture book, setting is something that the illustrator portrays to the readers. When authors haven’t the luxury of an artist, such as those who write novels, it’s their responsibility to find the right words to express their vision to their readers.

As I’m finding out, it’s not easy.

Because at its best, setting can also “set” the mood. A rainy day can invoke this:

Or this:

What mood will you inspire with your words today?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

How My Setting Affects My Writing by Sydney Salter

I'll never forget the moment I walked out of a Harry Potter matinee, once again amazed at the visual representation of JK Rowling's thoroughly crafted wizard world. My eyes struggled to adjust to the bright sunny day, blinking and blinking, until I could focus on the stunning Wasatch mountains soaring into a deep blue sky. And it was so lovely and warm outside.

I live six minutes from a beautiful waterfall hike, twenty-five minutes from the Olympic venue for Men's and Women's downhill skiing. I can count on seeing the sun every day. A snowstorm is moving in this afternoon, but I still woke to clear blue skies. Utah can be frustrating, but dang is it beautiful.

My setting made up of sunny days and loads of natural beauty peeking above my otherwise ordinary suburban neighborhood, affects the stories I tell. Nothing in my immediate surrounding hints at the possibility of magical creatures lurking nearby. I'm sure someone could picture Dementors flocking to the local Olive Garden, but my mind just doesn't go there.

I tend to focus on the stories hidden behind the well-manicured landscapes of well-kept homes. Plenty of dark things happen in my community, but it's all splashed with sunshine and a gloss of outward perfection.

Sometimes those are the scariest stories of all!

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Setting: One Foot in the Real World by Kimberly Sabatini

This week on the blog we are talking about setting. 
For me, setting is often like a seperate character. And because my cooks aren't contemporary, creating a unique setting can get complicated. What helps me is to have one foot in the real world. I find I need that jumping off place--that solid footing--to spark my imagination. 
And once I've picked a place I love or connect with--I can then begin to mold and shape the real world to compliment the make-believe stories I have in my head.

If you've read TOUCHING THE SURFACE you're already familiar, but if you haven't, my book takes place in the after life. In a place called The Obmil. (Limbo spelled backwards <3) And it's kind of like group therapy for those who've died--and keep dying--because they haven't figured out what they need to learn in order to move on.

As we all know, the after life is wide open to interpretation. Have you watched The Good Place or What Dream May Come? Or read The Lovely Bones? 

Every body gets to invent their own version of the day after.

I stumbled upon the vision of my after life while on a day hike with my family.
Welcome to the Obmil...

Otherwise known at Mohonk Mountain House.

THIS is the place where I envision lost souls going to figure out why life altering mistakes are meant to alter lives. <3

And as I walked around, my mind jumping in a million directions, I discovered more and more things to spark moments in my story.

Here's Trevor's Pond...

The location where Elliot arrived at the Obmil...

Elliot getting into her boat...

Mel and Elliot sitting in the rocking chairs...

Elliot and Julia's tower room...

Being able to visualize a place where my story seemed at home put my imagination into a domino like effect.

And I believe that having put my foot in this world, allowed me to create a more believable magical world.

To see more setting and character sparks, check out my

What is your favorite magical setting in a book? I'm going to have to say the world of Harry Potter. 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Action! (Mary Strand)

This month’s topic is setting, but I confess that there are few writers LESS qualified to talk about setting. Thus, my blog title.  J

Yeah, of course my books contain setting details. Description. But I’m pretty sparse about it. The truth is, in what I write and much of what I read, I crave action and dialogue. (The exception: I devour English Regency historicals by the truckload, and they’re chock full of setting/description.)

In my writing, just like in my life, I barely notice setting. I’m all about people and what they say and do. I don’t usually care what they’re wearing, or what their house looks like, or material objects generally.

One of my college roommates once moved a very large object in our apartment from one room to another, just to see how long it would take me to notice.

I never did.

So getting me to describe setting-type stuff in my books? Not easy!

Obviously, a lot of readers DO care about setting and other details, and my books need to work for readers. So ... I have a few tricks.

Conveniently, a Five Guys setting works all year long. 

First, I set books in places I know well, or close enough to the Minneapolis area that I can make a research jaunt to them. Two of my favorite official research jaunts: (1) the time I “had” to eat at Five Guys to make sure I got all the details right (even though I eat at Five Guys every chance I get) or (2) the time I talked my husband into driving ALL around Minnehaha Falls on a brutally cold January day as I took notes and he kept saying, “WHY AM I DOING THIS?” Good times. ha ha.

Why did I research Minnehaha Falls in winter when the crucial scenes are in fall and spring?

Second, my “settings” tend to include sports-related events, because I love sports. I can describe every inch of a basketball court or ski hill with my eyes closed.

Third, if I’m not writing about sports, I chat with friends who know about the topic. (Hey, it gives me an excuse to chat up a friend.) When I started writing my Bennet Sisters YA series, I wasn’t yet playing guitar in my personal life, but I had tons of musician friends and asked them a bazillion questions in order to bring my garage-band setting to life. Then, when I wrote the fourth book of the series, Livin’ La Vida Bennet, my heroine started guitar lessons ... so I took guitar lessons. It’s been a wild, rock-and-roll ride ever since.

Finally, I accept the fact that my first drafts are heavily weighted to action and dialogue, but that’s just a starting point. Deb Dixon, who’s brilliant at craft-of-writing workshops, once explained how to spice up the “flavor” of a novel by adding the five senses. As a result, in any given scene, I now check to see if the senses are engaged: sight, hearing, and particularly smell, taste, and touch. In one of my manuscripts, the teen heroine now feels gritty sand in her sheets and smells her mom’s perfume on her BFF, who’d swiped it from the bathroom during a sleepover.

It’s something I have to do consciously, and likely always will, but not everything about writing has to come naturally.

Like, say, setting.

Mary Strand is the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras and three other novels in the Bennet Sisters YA series. You can find out more about her at

Saturday, October 5, 2019

World Building: Physical Setting

World Building: Physical Setting 

Before you read any further, I need to confess something.  I've never taken a world building writing class.  But after three decades as a science fiction freak, it's no wonder I enjoy world building.  In fact, creating my own worlds may be why I write science fiction. But ever writer needs to know how to build the world, the vessel, that controls their story, whether that story is a contemporary, historical, or even memoir.
You don't have to write science fiction or fantasy to build your own world.  The world you build is the container for everything that happens to your characters.  You determine the size of the container, what's in the container, and more important--what's not in the container.
I'm in the process of beginning a new work so I'll share a little about how I put together my new planet. Yours could be a character's hometown, but there are rules.
The Vessel in NYC
Rule #1:  The setting is a character.  Your setting needs to have good things and challenging aspects, just like your hero and heroine.  Think pioneer women.  I can't imagine loading all my worldly goods into a covered wagon and heading west to battle unknown weather, frightening hostiles, and terrain. Prairies and mountains were characters in the lives of those Americans.  
We won't get into the people those settlers had to travel with, here.  Those are cultural and social aspects of world building, but today is about putting together a believable physical setting, whether it's a planet, a kitchen, a space station or a mountain cabin.  How exciting to control every aspect of your characters' lives from the get go!  Just be sure to use the setting as you would a villain or an ally.
In The Hunger GamesSuzanne Collins uses the game arena as a character, throwing challenges or rewards at her heroine.  
You want to remember to account for the basic necessities to sustain life in your world: 
food, shelter, light, warmth, air and water.  Then you can move to the interesting stuff like safety, animal or sentient life, and technology. In my new world there is no human food.  Imagine the conflict that evolves around a semi-annual food distribution.  To say nothing of the fear of no more food deliveries to the planet. If your world is the home of a dysfunctional family, conflict can abound between troubled adults and their children. 

Rule #2:  Beware the laws of physics.  If you break one or more of the physical laws in our universe, you better have a darn good reason why your world works differently.  You must be able to convince your reader that the change is a real and consistent part of the physics of your setting.  Note, you don't have to be an astrophysicist to pull this off.  I'm not.  Editor comments about my world building let me know that my worlds are "solidly drawn" even if they are a bit "off."
While a planet with two or three moons and maybe a couple of suns would be interesting, the instability caused by overlapping gravity fields would be a major problem.  You'd be hard-pressed to convince me that such a planet wouldn't be pulled apart.  Likewise, random gravity might be an interesting concept, but you'll have to come up with plausible rules governing the phenomena.
Similarly, if you have a character who is being repeatedly abused to life-threatening levels, there must be a compelling reason why either the abuser is not imprisoned or why the abused person keeps returning to the abuser.
Rule #3:  Although your world is governed by the laws of physics in your universe, you don't want to dump all the detail on the reader up front. 
As exciting as abandoned alien tunnels may be to explore during the book, you can drop a couple of hints about the map having an obvious mistake when your character gets a little lost to set up the discovery that the rock is alive and growing and changing.  Or perhaps the oceans are polluted and the mist from the water causes hallucinations, but the sea monster with venomous fangs is definitely real.
Any time one of your characters is confronted by something new or different, setting details can help convey the tone and feeling of the experience, from a roller coaster rider to returning home and finding a burglar in their bathroom.
It's a good thing to expose facets of your setting throughout your story, but don't tell the reader about your world.  Show your character's daily life in the setting, or if your character is in an urban fantasy setting, let the reader experience the differences as your characters discover them.  Make your setting memorable. Save some surprises for your reader.  In this way your setting can be hero or villain--or both.
Rule #4:  Make a world that has everything, just like your dream vacation spot, or your worst nightmare.  Then work those angles on your characters.  They may not know anything but their own world, or they may be from elsewhere and know just how wonderful or how miserable their current surroundings are.  Drawing those comparisons will reveal layers about your characters by showing their attitudes and skills.
The world of my new book is beautiful, filled with crystals as tall as trees.  In fact, the
planet has only crystals and water.  No plants, no animals, no indigenous life. This world is a three-month (real time) journey from the nearest civilized outpost.  Why would anyone want to go there?  Ah--those reasons supply the social/cultural setting, which is a different than your physical setting.  

Rule #5:  If you choose to ignore Rule #4, change only one thing about our present world, but make it an important plot point.  Maybe the oceans have dried up.  How would that affect weather, food production, travel?  The reasons for the change would be considered back story, so don't fall into the trap of telling your readers all about the change.  Do describe the world as it is at the beginning of your story.  Maybe, as in Frank Herbert's  Dune series, your world is being actively terraformed to turn it into a more hospitable place for humans.  
We've all read books or seen television shows about contractors or home designers. Your job, as the writer, is to building your setting wall by wall, window by window, to let us, your readers, not only see the setting, but experience it with your characters. You don't need to write science fiction to do this. One of your characters can remodel, paint a wall, or buy a new piece of furniture that can work as a metaphor throughout your story to show that character's growth. Your setting can have a character arc!
Don't forget to mine every ounce of gold from your world building.  After all, you placed all those wonderful nuggets there as you built your setting.
What challenges have you overcome--or still struggle with--in creating your settings?  What are some ways you've used physical setting as a character?  Are there laws of physics that you need help with or ways to tweak physical phenomena?  
Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
P.R.I.S.M., Fae's debut book, a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, and love is now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Fae's second book in the series will be available for pre-order on Thanksgiving, 2019.

Monday, September 30, 2019

All Over Again (Holly Schindler)

I mentioned this last month, but the dream of a do-over regarding my first-pubbed books is no longer merely a dream for me. The rights to a bunch of my YA stuff (from two different publishing houses) have reverted, and I’m in the midst of planning out massive revisions.
I have to admit, this is utterly delicious.
I love revision. Talking LOVE. Some of my early work can definitely be tightened—and updated for the current world. Some of my early work will remain in the same age group and category; other books will be bumped to adult, and even moved into another category altogether.
New covers, new blurbs, new plot twists.
It’s exciting.
Does that mean I feel like I did something wrong the first time around?
I feel like I’ve changed as a writer. I’ve learned. I’ve grown. I should feel this way. If I looked back on my first book and still felt it was the best thing I’d ever written, I’d pretty much want to cry my eyes out.
The first planned (re) release is Playing Hurt and a sequel, Play It Again. Both are getting a shine-up, new chapters, new additions. When I got back into the original Playing Hurt manuscript, I really did want to keep the heart and soul of the book intact. So the update’s been a real juggling act—figuring out how to preserve what works and update some of the rest.
But I have to admit, it’s really been a blast.
I’m hoping to have both books ready to release in early ’20 (nine years after Playing Hurt’s original release)!

Sunday, September 29, 2019

I Hate It When Other People Are Right (Brian Katcher)

I suppose every author who dares reread their published works has those moments where they wish they could rewrite a paragraph or a few dozen chapters. I'm sure whoever carved the Rosetta Stone looked back and thought 'Why did I use the squiggly lines there? The bird thing would have been much better.' But it by then it was carved in stone. Literally, in that case.

Out of all my books, the one I wish I could reedit the most is, ironically, my most successful and critically acclaimed: my second book, Almost Perfect, which came out in 2009.

The story deals with Logan, a boy smarting from a romantic betrayal, and his relationship with the new girl in school, Sage. When Logan discovers that Sage is transgender, he has a lot of intense and conflicting emotions.

While writing this book, I expected backlash due the topic (I believe this was the second YA book about a transgender person, after Julie Anne Peters's Luna). What I feared more, however, was anger from the transgender community, as I was writing about a topic I was unfamiliar with.

And there was a lot of legitimate criticism. While I never meant to appropriate anyone's life, my errors were mine and mine alone. So if I could speak to myself as I was writing the book, here's what I might suggest changing.

*The term is 'transgender', not 'transgendered,' though in the early 2000s, the terminology was not so hard and fast.

*I would have rethought the scene where Logan initially reacts to Sage coming out to him. In the book, he raises his fist, but stops himself just in time. I thought it was powerful and realistic writing, but in the end, it's never justified to think about striking someone weaker than you, be they a romantic partner or friend.

*The ending. I went back and forth with the my editor, trying to find something appropriately happy and yet intense. I'd always imagined Logan and Sage going off to college together, still friends, with their romantic future undefined. In order to make the book edgier, however, the book ended with Sage leaving town and Logan trying to get on with his life. In my defense, my editor was laid off during this process, and I was kind of left without much guidance while facing a deadline.

If I could do it all over, I think it would be better if Logan and Sage stayed in each other's lives, as friends, if not lovers. Logan asked for too many last chances, and I think if he'd stuck with her in the end, the book would have been a lot more positive. Unfortunately, what's done is done, and I can't rewrite the past, as it were.

I have an idea for a sequel, if any publishers are interested. Anyone?

Friday, September 27, 2019

How The Secret Year would change (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

Three things would have to change if I were writing my first book, The Secret Year, now instead of back in 2008. (It came out in 2010.)

The first is technology. Back when I wrote TSY—envisioning the events in the book having occurred a few years before its publication date—it was still conceivable that some students wouldn’t have cell phones, especially when they had the money problems that Colt’s family had. Colt and Julia communicated by notes and occasionally on his family’s land line. But mobile phones have increasingly infiltrated young adulthood and childhood; I think they’re now seen as more of a necessity than a luxury. Colt’s family would find a way to get him one, even if it had a very restricted plan.

Julia’s secret diary, discovered after her death, might be digital nowadays—but then again, it might not. As a writer, Julia would know of the theories that handwriting may allow us to tap into creativity in a different way. She liked texture and touch; she liked the flow of ink under her hand. She liked color; she appreciated the purple of her journal. So that might not change.

However, even more than technology, the biggest change in Colt and Julia’s world would revolve around politics.

The setting of the book, a mid-Atlantic rural town whose farms and few industries had dried up, became one of the battlegrounds on which the election of 2016 played out. The income inequality gap between the town’s richer and poorer residents was the fault line that formed the book’s main conflict. There’s even a scene of racist mockery—a scene that could become far uglier nowadays, I suspect. There’s no way I could write about this community today without addressing the political fallout from 2016.

Looking back on TSY, I do think sometimes about which way different characters (and neighborhoods) would have voted, what lawn signs they would display, how they would treat one another now. Where would they look for solutions to their problems? Where would they try to pin blame?

The final change involves the river, a part of the setting so important that it was almost like a character itself. Colt lived on its banks, and the back of his family’s property was already wet. In the book he mentions in passing how high the floodwaters had gotten in the past, never reaching the house.

Sooner or later--probably sooner--those floods will reach the house.

In looking back on TSY, I wish I could say that the problems I wrote about would now be obsolete, that they’ve all been resolved. But it’s gone the other way. We are still dealing with job loss, income inequality, bitterness, racism, and rising waters. The challenges have multiplied.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Why I wouldn’t rewrite history by Brenda Hiatt

For this month’s topic, I agonized a bit over which book to count as my first. First book I ever wrote? First book that was actually published? Or my first YA book? Since this is a YA-focused blog, I decided to go with that last one. 

Starstruck was released in September, 2013, six years ago this month, but I started writing it more than four years before that—something I didn’t realize until I started digging into old files to write this post! The earliest draft I was able to find was from March 2009 and contained the first five and a half chapters. Surprisingly, the first sentence of that very early draft is exactly the same as in the published book! (Surprising because I tend to rewrite my beginnings multiple times.) 

Considering that I’d already published fifteen novels, some of them on fairly tight deadlines, before starting that one, you might ask why it took me so long to write and publish Starstruck? There are a few reasons. Because this was my first foray into a brand new genre, I desperately wanted to get it “right.” Shifting from my historical voice to an authentic YA voice was a challenge, as was researching how high school had changed since my own experiences mumblety-five years ago. I also took my time because this book was closer to my heart than most—another reason I wanted to get it “right.” By September, 2009 I had a complete first draft (I discovered in my files) but I did a whole lot of polishing after that. Plus by then I’d realized I had the makings of a series, even though the first book stands alone. 

Sure, I’d written several linked historical romances, but I’d never before written a series with a continuing protagonist. Worried that I’d discover while writing book 2 that I’d inadvertently written myself into a corner with book 1, I decided to at least draft the second book before shopping the first one to agents. I didn’t start sending out queries until mid-2010, by which time I’d finished a full draft of Starcrossed and had at least a rough outline for Starbound. 

For more than two years I submitted Starstruck to both agents and publishers while continuing to write book 3 in the series and polish books 1 and 2. During those same two years, I began indie publishing my historical backlist and was seeing more success there than I’d expected. Finally, around the time I had Starbound polished up and had started writing Starfall, I decided to ditch the query process and publish Starstruck myself. I haven’t been sorry! My six (and counting) YA books now outsell my historical romances (15 backlist books plus two newer front list titles) by almost two to one! 

So what would I do differently if I could? Looking back, I have to say not a thing. If I’d sold that first YA novel to a traditional publisher early on, or published it myself a year earlier, I wouldn’t have had the time I needed to properly weave all the details into the whole, original 4-book series. That delay, I firmly believe, not only let Starstruck become the absolute best I could make it, it also allowed me to produce a series I’m now extremely proud of. Sure, it was frustrating to get rejection after rejection for two whole years, no matter how flattering some of them were. But as others have said, sometimes things happen for a reason. I definitely think it did in this case!