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


  1. OMG setting is such a problem for me! I always forget to write it, thinking it's obvious when characters are in school, in a car, in their room, etc.

    My editors beg to differ...

    1. Yes! I can picture it in my mind, which seems MORE than enough! :-)


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