Tuesday, October 29, 2019

State of Misery (Brian Katcher)

They say that when Stephen King was ready to write his third novel, he was ready to set it somewhere other than Maine. So his publisher sent him to Colorado, where he wrote The Shining.

My publisher does not send me anywhere. Therefore, most of my books are set in my home state of Missouri. In Playing With Matches, I based the fictional setting of St. Christopher on my hometown of St. Peters (suburb of St. Louis).

So why not just use the real name of the town? Because I like to play God. If I want to move a few streets or set up imaginary businesses, I can do that.

In Almost Perfect, the town of Baylor was based on my current city of Centralia. Though honestly, it's not difficult to create a small Missouri town.

Everyone Dies in the End takes place at my alma mater, the University of Missouri, Columbia. Also, the result of reading entirely too much Lovecraft in college.

When I signed the contract for The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak, my editor told me it was going to take place in Seattle. When I asked why, she replied 'Because it's not Missouri.' Fortunately, almost all the book takes place in an imaginary convention center, so it required little research.

My last book, Deacon Locke Went to Prom, took place in south Missouri, or as they like to call it, Arkansas.

I write contemporary fiction, so I'm not forced to create worlds. On the other hand, I don't get to create worlds.

My newest book is really stretching my talents: it takes place in Kansas.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Setting (Things Potentially on Fire) by Dean Gloster

            This morning broke cool and briefly calm, which was nice, because here in Berkeley we’re bracketed by wind-driven fires and the smoky aroma of incinerated brush and homes.

I’m typing this from a tiny table Cactus Taqueria, a few blocks from my house, because our power at home has been out for two days. For the cost of a delicious burrito, they have power outlets here and WiFi access from the Noah’s Bagels next door. Every time I look up from the laptop screen, though, it’s at the wind-agitated red-gold leaves and waving arms of a scrawny maple. Behind that, there’s the disturbing, almost apocalyptic sky--washed out, with too harsh sun filtered through too much haze.

            This month, we’re supposed to post about setting. Considering the circumstances, this may be a bumpy ride. There are some parts of writing I’m good at—dialogue, humor—but setting isn’t any of them. (Even, apparently, when the world is on fire.)

            At its best, setting is a character, helping to shape a story. It pushes on the characters, affecting their choices. Even the description of setting is filtered through the point of view character or narrator, passing along attitude and emotion.

            Like so many other parts of writing, setting conveyed well is a combination of familiarization—let me show you this thing, and you’ll recognize it because it’s close to what you already know—and defamiliarization: Let me show you a new way to see, to experience this thing. That’s one reason synesthesia works so well in vivid description—using one sense to describe a completely different sense: The “dry squeak” of cold snow under boots.

            I wish rain was on the way, bringing snow to our mountains.

            Two days ago here, Saturday, hot winds started swirling from the land side, which always unsettles me in October, our powder keg month. It’s the tinder dry end of the fire season in California before the winter rains. The ominous messages piled up over the weekend—from PG&E that there might be power outages and then news of the spreading Kincade fire in Sonoma—where 185,000 people have evacuated—and the Tick fire in Southern California. Followed by the Glen Cove fire in Vallejo, the Getty fire in L.A., the Grizzly Island fire near Suisun, the Sky fire in Crockett, and the Highway 24 fires near Lafayette, and nameless fires, well, everywhere. California’s governor just announced that firefighters have responded to 330 new fires in the state in the last 24 hours.

            In October when the swirling winds come from the land side, I always remember the hungry licking of the forty-foot-high wall of flame blazing through the ridge top homes in the Oakland Hills fire, 28 years ago this month, while I was driving to pick up my wife and daughter who were stranded in Tilden Park, and trying to eyeball how far North the fire had spread—if it had gotten to them already. (It had not. I picked them up safely, after being rear-ended on the way by another driver who was similarly looking over at the flames—I told him not to worry about the rear-ender. Perspective.)

Other writers—and their characters—would no doubt have a different set of associations with these gusts. Here is Raymond Chandler, in his Philip Marlowe short story “Red Wind”:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

            That isn’t just setting. It’s voice, attitude, and world view carried on that hot wind. Chandler tells us more about Philip Marlowe and how he thinks than he does about the wind.

Where I’m typing this, the wall of windows on the street at Cactus shows that foot traffic is way down from usual, because of poor air quality, but what traffic there is looks normal—almost no one with a respirator mask, with pedestrians of all ages and their array of small dogs.

We’re just a few dozen miles from the mandatory evacuations and still-growing Kincade fire, but we’re safe. For now. There are renewed red flag warnings for tomorrow and the next day, though, with more high winds and low humidity in California.

The world is burning, friends,
and wind makes smoke a wall.
Hug those you love and speak your truth,
for one day that is all.

The world is on fire. Things are mostly normal. Both of those statements are true, and in my neighborhood of downed trees and crazy-quilt power outages, we wait patiently for our turns at the four way stops that three days ago were functioning traffic lights. For now.

This is the new normal, but it will soon be worse. Global temperatures have risen steadily since 1880 by a total of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, and the rate of change since 1981 has doubled. In the face of this threat, effective a week from today, the current occupant of the White House has pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord—the one significant international agreement to reduce the rate of man-made emissions that contribute to global warming.

You can imagine I have an attitude about that.

This morning, I started my day by driving 13 miles to the shoulder clinic in Lafayette where I do Pilates work for my back, not sure if it was still standing. I got an error message when I tried calling them, and I knew there’d been two fires in Lafayette yesterday. Fortunately, they were still un-incinerated, just suffering through another power outage, so I did my exercises in the semi dark, with only the dim light from the windows. We adjust. We persist. We engage in self care. And we respond to our changing setting. Right now, hundreds of firefighters are trying to get these fires under control before the winds come again tomorrow, trying to save tens of thousands of threatened homes—including homes of people I know.

Last night, at a World Series Game, 45,000 fans who had paid $2000 a seat booed the man who is pulling us out of the Paris Climate Agreement next week. They spontaneously started chanting, “Lock him up!”

Because of the power outage, I wasn’t able to watch the game on TV, but I did watch videos of the boos and chants on Twitter, entranced by them on the tiny screen of my solar-charged phone. It was glorious.

This wasn’t a political leader leading a chant calling for retaliation against his rivals. It was a spontaneous act of resistance by the relatively well off, who'd had more than enough.

The world is on fire. Thing are not entirely normal.

Our setting is becoming more extreme.

Perhaps it is time we all became protagonists and did something about it.

Good luck to us all, especially those near the fire.

Dean Gloster is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. He has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has all the usual Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and a slightly off-kilter sensibility. Also a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 74 percent of his soul.

When Dean is not writing, studying Aikido, or downhill ski racing, he’s on Twitter: @deangloster

Thursday, October 24, 2019

The Joys of World-Building (by Brenda Hiatt)

I’ll confess right upfront that I love world-building. In fact, it’s probably my very favorite procrastination technique. Nothing will make me pause in the act of writing like realizing I need to get some detail or other straight—whether it be my timeline (what happened when, stretching back several books now), calculating how much antimatter it would take to blow up a small town, researching online when a typical high school football season begin and ends these days…you get the idea. 

Lucky for me (though not for my writing speed) my Starstruck series has multiple settings I get to play with. First, there’s my whole little (fictional) town of Jewel, Indiana, with all its landmarks, shops, cafes and other quirky places in its tiny downtown. Then within Jewel, there’s my main heroine’s house, where a lot of story happens, a couple of other important characters’ houses where more action takes place, and of course the local high school where all the teens come together for learning, fun, angst and adventure. Each of those settings needs enough depth and detail to support the various ways my cast of characters interact with it and each other. 

But I don’t have to stop there! Sometimes the story moves beyond Jewel to much more exotic settings I’ve created for my world-building pleasure. The most extensive of these is the secret, underground colony of Nuath, on Mars. Since it developed independently of Earth for nearly three millennia, it has its own culture, complex social hierarchy, governmental structure, and technology (modes of transport, communication, etc). Back on Earth, I’ve also got my main Martian enclaves of Bailerealta in Ireland and Dun Cloch in Montana, each with its unique mix of Martian tech and Earth culture. Nor am I ruling out more settings in the future! 

For each setting and my story world at large, I’ve created complex histories, maps, lists of important secondary characters and their roles, government charts, royal lineages and more. By now I have tons of setting, history and character notes I can keep checking as I write the next book in the series—one reason I love writing in Scrivener, which lets me drag my whole “story bible” from one book to the next for easy reference. It’s super important to me (probably way more than it is to any of my readers) that all of my story “facts” are consistent from book to book and particularly within a given book. (I get particularly obsessive about my timelines, some of which overlap!) 

Needless to say, only a fraction of all this research/world-creation actually makes its way into the pages of my books, but I still appreciate having all that material available for myself while writing. I need to know as much as possible about the world my characters live in before I can make them live and breathe for me as I spin their tales. 

As a reader, I’ve always felt that thorough and detailed world-building that surrounds the characters with a fully fleshed-out world makes their journeys that much more believable. As a writer, my number one goal is to draw readers into my stories so deeply that they’ll remember them long after they finish the book. To do that, I strive to create characters and stories that will feel real to my readers—as real as they feel to me. A big part of that (and definitely one of my favorite parts) is constructing realistically rich settings for my characters and stories to inhabit. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Another World By Christine Gunderson

This month we’re talking about setting. I was thinking a lot about this on a trip to California where I had the strange experience of walking around inside someone else’s imagination. It was spring break and we were in California to visit family. While there, we stopped at Universal Studios to see Harry Potter World.  

Our mouths dropped open when we turned a corner and realized we were walking around Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. 

The details were perfect. Moaning Myrle was droning in the bathroom. There were robes and Quidditch supplies for sale. We ate lunch at The Three Broomsticks, bought wands at Olivander’s and stood on Platform Nine and Three Quarters. 

The amazing thing to me, as a writer, is that everything I saw came out of one woman’s imagination. None of this was real of course, but it felt real because J.K. Rowling built a world so deep and rich that people will spend real money (and quite a lot of it, as I realized later when I looked at my credit card statement) to walk around inside this world for a few hours, to inhabit a physical manifestation of a place that exists only inside her head and, thanks to her ability to describe that world, inside ours. 

When they turn your book into an amusement park, you know you’ve done an exceptional job of world building.     

Right now, I’m in the process of re-reading the Harry Potter books out loud to my children for the second time. It’s the best part of my day. And as I do this, I try to identify the ingredients in J.K. Rowling’s secret sauce, to analyze exactly what makes her world building so epic. 

The details are in the details.

J. K Rowling doesn’t just tell us Harry took a History of Magic test. She describes the questions. By the time she’s done, I feel like I took that exam with Harry. 

There are hundreds of details in these books that do not advance the plot. But woven together, they build a world as colorful and arcane as the real one we inhabit each day.

Great movies do the same thing. I’m a lifelong Star Wars nerd and I recently re-watched The Force Awakens. I love the sequence where we first meet Rey. J.J. Abrams packs that scene with details that reveal vital information about the character and her world. 

When Rey tips the empty water can to her throat and pounds on it to release those last few drops of water, we instantly understand that her world is one of heat, dust, hardship and deprivation. Behind her we see the giant husks of decaying star destroyers. She lives in the shadow of a dead empire. And because her world is so different from our own, we want to step inside and inhabit it with her.

World building is my favorite part of writing. I think this is the reason I love dystopian fiction and science fiction. Why stay in this world when you can inhabit a different one? 

The single best thing about a good writing or good reading session is that moment when you look up from the computer screen or the page, and you’re disoriented for a moment. You were in another world and you’re startled to remember that the real one still exists. 

Sometimes it’s a relief to find the real world is still there. Sometimes it’s a disappointment. I remember being crushed as a child when I realized there was no piece of furniture in my house capable of transporting me to Narnia.

I think that’s why writers write. If we can’t find a wardrobe to take us to another world, we’ll create one of our own, and use words to take us there.

Christine Gunderson is a former television anchor and reporter and former House and Senate aide who lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband, children and Star, the Wonder Dog.  When not writing, she’s sailing, playing Star Wars trivia, re-reading Persuasion or unloading the dishwasher. 


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Subtlety of Setting (by Patty Blount)

Settings are my weakness.


I hate admitting that. I once had an editor ask, "Where is this conversation taking place?" in one of my novels because the last clue to where or when in the story readers were had been given an entire chapter earlier.

I have a friend who writes contemporary romance with such amazing attention to settings, I feel like I could reach out and touch, smell, and taste them. (Jennifer Gracen -- go check out her work!)

There is an art to bringing settings to life so that they don't read like long boring lists of description. I make it a point to improve my settings work in every project and I do see some improvement but it is still something I must pay close and careful attention to.

One tip I followed came from Stephen King's ON WRITING. In the chapter in which he proclaims that writing is telepathy, he uses a thought exercise involving a rabbit in a cage on a table with a number painted on its back. King explains that some readers will imagine the cages as small, others as larger pens. Some will have lace edges on their table cloths while others won't. The point is readers can supply enough of the detail they need to paint a mental picture. Authors don't need to provide the specs on each piece of scenery.

What I learned from this exercise is that some details simply don't matter to the story you're telling. Use only the ones that do.

In my first novel, SEND, main character Dan makes it a point to describe the kitchen of his family's new house. What color it is, how big it is, how it smells.

Do these details matter in a YA novel? For the character of Dan, they were essential.

Dan spent time in juvenile detention. The house he's describing is not the one in which he was raised. His careful attention to these details is a way of reassuring himself that he's 'home' -- though this is a different house, it has his Mom, his Dad, his grandfather, his favorite foods, therefore, it HE is home.

I ended up writing a scene I was quite proud of.

There's another tip I follow but I can't give credit where it's due because I just don't remember where I learned this. It's to write setting in an unusual manner, using the basis of the game "Taboo" to describe the scene. In "Taboo," players must guess words on a card while their team-mates describe the word without using any of the taboo words also printed on the card. For example, for the word ACCIDENT, the Taboo words might be CAR, CRASH, WRECK.

The author used an example of a room -- an institutional room made of painted cinderblocks. Boring and antiseptic. The directions were to describe that room without using its obvious characteristics, meaning the cinderblocks were now off-limits. The author wrote,  "It was a room no one ever fell in love in."

I immediately felt the chill, the total absence of joy in that sentence. It made a huge impact on me and though I don't remember who taught me this lesson, I have never forgotten it.

So I now try to find some unique aspect of my settings to explore through the eyes of my characters. I'm working on an adult romantic suspense and the primary setting is an old Victorian house, like this one.

I sprinkled in the aesthetic and architectural details like color, size, number of floors throughout the story but I also wanted this setting to convey certain moods. For Angela, the home's new owner, it was home and haven. For her grandmother, it was nightmare and prison. For Roen, a contractor, it was opportunity and challenge.

Throughout the story, I changed descriptions to show whose POV I was in as well as to reveal conflict. In flashbacks to Angela's grandmother, I describe the house's chill and mechanical problems, and spots she avoided, but when Angela's on page, I use terms of her treasured childhood memories.
Angela and Roen share a desire to preserve the house's history. But Roen wants to update it with modern conveniences and open floor plans. For Angela, that's way too much change...until she discovers the horror her grandmother endured. Preservation takes on a different meaning and Angela shifts closer and closer to Roen's intentions to renovate the space in ways that cleanse the house of its past, which speaks directly to Roen's need for challenge while still honoring Angela's need for home.

Here's one to show Angela's grief.

ECHOES OF THE LIFE AND the love that used to fill the old tower house taunted Angela.
Or maybe the right word was haunted.
She pressed a hand to her mouth when the grief hit again… a sharp lance straight through her shattered heart. Gusts of wind rustled through the still-bare trees on the property that had once been her favorite place on earth. Now, it only reminded her of all that she’d lost. Gran wouldn’t be waiting on the porch for her, gray hair flying in the breeze, arms open and ready to wrap her up in a warm hug. 

Here's another, to show Angela's waning patience:

The tower house stood tall and lonely against a deep purple sky when she rounded the curves of her driveway. The construction mess still made her twitch but she was coping well, under the circumstances, if she did say so herself. Maybe it was because she had a bigger puzzle, a bigger mess to organize. 

The end of renovations:

She lifted her head and looked at the house, really looked at it.
And then she ran, ran with the same excitement and anticipation she’d felt when she was a little girl, coming here to stay with Gran for a week or a summer. She ran to the front of the house and up the new stone steps to a renewed porch that didn’t sag or squeak. 

It doesn't matter that the house is gray or beige, or if the tower is on the right or the left side. Those details are added where and when they do matter. But what matters in these scenes is the mood, the emotion, the connection to place and time.

Tell me about stories where the settings were so real to you, you wished you could visit?

Monday, October 21, 2019


The rights to one of my first YAs, PLAYING HURT, reverted to me earlier this year. I'm in the midst of doing some revision, polishing the text...I'm also updating the sequel, PLAY IT AGAIN, getting the two books ready for a re-release in 2020. 

PLAYING HURT is a summer romance that takes place over a three-week summer vacation. PLAY IT AGAIN takes place four years later. Chelsea has just graduated from college, and memories are percolating up to the surface--as they always tend to do when we find ourselves ending a chapter of our lives. 

Unable to get that life-changing summer out of her mind, Chelsea decides to travel back to the Minnesota resort where she met and fell for Clint. 

Setting in this sequel has to play a powerful role. How has it changed? Has is changed, or has Chelsea's memory turned it into something it never was? What happens when we return to a formerly special spot? Can being in a physical place do something to us? Change us? Fulfill some missing piece? 

Those are the questions that are on my mind as I work my way through the manuscripts...

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Down at the Drive-in [Laurie Boyle Crompton|

I grew up in western PA, but my parents were from Queens, NY, and so we’d travel east a few times a year to visit our extended family.  I loved these trips and would watch wide-eyed from the back seat of our car as the New York City skyline sailed past my window. The glowing skyscrapers bewitched me and as soon as I turned eighteen I moved to New York on my own. I quickly made friends, adopted a New Yawk accent and never looked back... that is, until I started writing novels. All set in rural areas including the Punxsutawney which is only about an hour from the town of Butler where I grew up. 
How could my heart resist?
As much as I love the bustle of New York and the incredible experiences it has afforded me, I still have a connection to the countryside and feel the need to immerse myself in nature from time to time in order to connect with my true self. We have a small piece of property upstate where I get my open air fix and where we make it a point to visit another one of my favorite settings from my childhood: the drive-in movies! From waiting for Bambi's mother to show back up, to screaming at John Carpenter's The Thing, I've had some amazing experiences at drive-in theaters!

A piece of the mood board for FREAKY IN FRESNO
When we were dating, my husband and I would go to the Westbury Drive-in on Long Island religiously and were heartbroken when it closed twenty-odd years ago. Now our family only gets to the drive-in upstate once a year, but I'm inspired by stories of communities that have rallied together to save their own local drive-ins. I drew upon that inspiration when I was developing Ricki, one of the main characters in FREAKY IN FRESNO. Working with her crush to save the Starlight Drive-in at the opening of story seems like the perfect romantic set-up to me. Their passion to save the theater, along with their shared love of horror classics has us rooting for them from the get go. Of course, a body switch between Ricki and her cousin Lana causes a few complications!! Setting the story at a drive-in movie theater is my own special way of preserving the Drive-in Theaters that where I've had so many great memories.

Friday, October 18, 2019

You Can't Go Home Again (Alissa Grosso)

I always struggle with the right answer to the question, "What is your hometown?" I usually default to Hackensack because a) it's where I was born and lived for the first few years of my life and b) thanks to Billy Joel everyone has heard of it. Who needs a house out in Hackensack anyway?

Downtown Hackensack, though where we lived was a tree-lined (including a massive one that almost fell on our house) suburban sort of road.

By the time I was starting kindergarten my parents decided they certainly didn't need a house out in Hackensack and moved a few miles away to Ramsey, NJ. We lived in Ramsey for about six years in two different houses, and because it's where I spent most of my childhood it probably feels a little more like a hometown than Hackensack. Ramsey is what I consider the classic suburban town.

We walked or rode bikes to school. Our bustling main street was full of an assortment of shops and businesses including a movie theater, a five and ten and an ice cream parlor. The second house we lived on was on a dead end road and in the summer all the kids in the neighborhood would be out in the road playing ball until it got too dark to see.

A glimpse of Ramsey's downtown. I had no idea that downtowns were a rare thing until I moved to a town without one.

However just before I started fifth grade, my parents decided they didn't need a house out in Ramsey either, and we moved again. This move was a bit further than moving from Hackensack to Ramsey both geographically and culturally. Although we stayed in the Garden State, we might as well have been relocating to the surface of the moon.

Byram, NJ was a culture shock to this girl from the suburbs. There were toothless old men in overalls who sat on rotting front porches and waved to passing cars. There was a distinct lack of sidewalks. Television was nonexistent unless you had cable. I had never been on a school bus before, and now I had to ride one to school every day. Clearly, I had entered the Twilight Zone.

Though I lived there for longer than I lived in Ramsey or Hackensack, Byram never had the feel of a hometown. The strangeness of the place never really wore off.

A few years ago, I attended my high school reunion and was chatting with one of my former classmates. She was telling me how she and her husband had been living in Hoboken or some other town in the normal part of New Jersey, but had recently had kids and so moved back to Byram to raise them there. You know how when somebody says something that clearly proves they're insane and you have to try not to look appalled and instead are supposed to politely smile and nod? Yeah, well, I think I didn't quite manage to hide my look of shock and dismay before I did the smiling and nodding thing.

Byram was such a bizarre place that of course I had to set a novel there. My second novel Ferocity Summer takes place in this town at the southern end of Sussex County. The main character Scilla lives in a discarded vacation home that's not unlike the one my family lived in when we first moved to this quirky town. It's a dark and edgy book about a girl who is having a pretty bleak summer and the third town I called home just seemed like the perfect backdrop to her story.
Before Ferocity Summer came out, I brought my boyfriend Ron to the town where I spent my teen years and might have gotten him a little bit car sick as I drove him around town so he could film some scenes for this book trailer.

To date, it's the only book I've set in a real, live town, which does seem strange to me, especially since leaving Byram I've lived in six other towns in three states. Maybe it's because Byram is such a unique place that if you made up a town like it people wouldn't believe it.

They say you can't go home again. I don't know whether or not that's true, but you can always set a book there.

Alissa Grosso is the author of 6 novels for teens and adults and these days she calls a small town in eastern Pennsylvania home. It's pretty quirky. She might have to set a book there some day. Find out more about Alissa and her books at

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.