No matter what genre you are writing in, your novel has to take place somewhere. In some cases that world is the here and now, a place you and your readers ought to find quite recognizable. In others, you may need to research a less familiar setting. No matter where or when you set a book, though, it is important to remember that every place and time is unique, and that no matter how ordinary an environment seems to you, there are readers who will find it vivid and intriguing–if only you take the time to make it so.
It is all too easy to take the present day for granted, but compare these two fragments:
“Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, water-color nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer-full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing washing-lines; it chimes and fountains with bird calls, bees, leaves and foot-ball bounces and skipping chants, One! Two! Three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black-lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.
In the Woods, Tana French
The rain’s wet Denny’s shirt flat to his skinny back to so the bones of his shoulders and the trail of his spine show through, even whiter than the unbleached cotton material. The mud’s up around the tops of his wooden clogs and spilling in. Even with my hat on, my coat’s getting soaked, and the damp makes my dog and dice all wadded up in the crotch of my wool breeches start to itch. Even the crippled chickens have clucked off to find somewhere dry.
Choke, Chuck Palahniuk
Both of these novels take place in the present day, and both evoke the past as a means of anchoring writers in the present. But they couldn’t be more different. French evokes the romance of an Irish summer; Palahniuk the grim reality of a U.S. historical theme park on an especially dismal day. Despite the fact that they theoretically take place within the same world and timeframe, it is hard to imagine Denny and Victor running loose in the bright backyards of French’s Ireland.
Rather than letting your setting work as a simple, perhaps even generic background for your characters, think of it as the stage on which your novel takes place–and remember how much work goes into designing stages in theater and film. A good set is designed in detail, built from the ground up and carefully ‘dressed’ with objects and spaces that allow the characters and the audience to fully explore the world they move through. In a similar fashion, a well-rendered setting can amplify your theme, enhance mood, add new dimensions to a character’s plight, provide ‘props’ for the action, and even take on character traits of its own. More importantly, setting is where your readers ‘go’ when they enter your fiction. Writing transports readers out of their daily lives and into new realms. . . and, indeed, you will hear from many people that this experience is exactly what they are looking for when they pick up a novel.
Needless to say, some settings are more easily established than others. Speculative fiction authors may build entire worlds from scratch; writers of historical fiction must bring the past to life.
When looking at setting, whether during the draft or revision process, ask yourself what is remarkable about the environment in which your characters move. Might any element of your ‘stage’–from the weather to the architecture to the religious climate–be considered noteworthy, even extreme? What is the first thing an ordinary person would notice, were they to walk through this world? What would excite them, or scare them? What would arouse their curiosity? Where and when are they, in other words? Does the environment require anything special of them–access passes, survival gear, money, social status, a minimum level of physical fitness, a health concern, or simple travel?
Once you have given your setting some thought, your task becomes making it real to readers. How do you do that? You can describe your setting, of course–but all too often new writes fall into the trap of offering a few bland visuals before moving on. Pause for a moment, and think about all your senses. How does this place smell, taste? What are its textures? If there is a dominant visual element, is it particularly compelling?
When teachers or workshop members tell a writer their work could use more sensory detail, this is what they are talking about: specific images that allow readers to experience what being in a particular place is like.
Compare the two text fragments above once more. How many colors does Tana French mention? How many sounds and tastes has she evoked within the short passage quoted above? How many of these images are things you remember or can clearly imagine? What about the Palahniuk? Do you have a good idea of what that damp and rainy cold must be like?
Now, consider the novel you are working on. Where does it take place? What is that place actually like? What are its ambient smells, sounds, and colors? What is the quality of the light like? Are the surfaces hard, soft, or a mixture? What does a footstep sound like? Do voices echo? Is it hot or cold? Ask yourself: how does this place affect its people? Who are the wealthy and poor of this world, the weak and powerful? What is an ordinary person’s life like in this milieu?
If you’re working on something now that could use a dialed-up setting, take the time to make a short list of these details, breaking the list down into several examples of each sense being evoked: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Next, decide which of these details is most vivid, or see if you can sharpen them from the generic (a blue summer sky) to something more specific (French’s “hot pure silkscreen blue”).
When placing your reader within a particular setting, the old adage “show, don’t tell” comes in. Having made your list of vivid sensory details, place them within your narrative–and let your characters experience the reality you have created. Instead of saying “It was hot,” show your characters sweating miserably and fainting from heatstroke. If it stinks, have them gag, complain, run in the other direction, or, eyes watering, reach for a gas mask.
If you can learn to evoke the heart of your setting with intensely sensory phrases, preferably filtering the sensations through a point of view character you’re developing at the same time, you’re already on your way to writing an unforgettable book.
Readers don’t ask me where I get my ideas that often, in the grand scheme. In my more self-aggrandizing moments, I like to imagine they look at my ideas and run screaming. What’s more likely is that the people I talk shop with tend to have already tried writing. As a result, they’ve had a chance to figure out that having ideas is far easier than crafting them into stories. Perhaps they already know that the real bind is having ten great concepts and knowing you won’t get to them all, certainly not before you’ve had a thousand more.
Ideas can, in fact, be very easy, especially once you’ve had some practice.
Don’t believe me? Try this. It’s not a new exercise, certainly not unique to me, but a few times now, I’ve decided on a new project by making a list of every single thing I could think of to write next. These were long lists, numbering twenty-five, even fifty items. The lists included simple and perhaps questionable ideas (“Macbeth in Spaaaace!”) and complicated, unworkable ones. They had pure romances and hard SF concepts based on articles I’d read in anthologies like The Best American Science and Nature Writing and lots of offshoots of the things I love to write most: other world fantasies, historical fiction, time travel, alternate history, magic-mystery fusions. They also had stuff I write less often, like YA and horror. Though I write prose fiction, they’ve included concepts that screamed screenplay; there’s even been a musical theater idea or two.
Even if you are pretty sure you know what you’re going to work on next, there’s value in embarking on this type of quick sift through the idea basket.
Why? First, it plugs you directly into the fun of writing. There are few things more gratifying than the pure untrammeled glee of creation, of playing with your subconscious, your muse, your writerbrain… whatever you care to call it. Thinking about what you might write is like the part of your birthday where you get to open your gifts and count up the loot, but haven’t yet moved on to discovering that one of the sweaters doesn’t fit, or that some of the boxes say Some Assembly Required or Protagonist Not Included.
A wide-ranging and uncritical exploration of possible writing projects creates a collage of the inside of your mind. It gives you a good picture of where you’re at artistically and emotionally, what you are interested in exploring, the psychological and thematic terrain you may want to cover. These insights can, in turn, inform the idea you eventually choose, whether they initially seem like the heart of the matter or not. When you generate dozens of possible ideas for novels, some of them are sure to overlap. If there are three stories in your long list that center on lost kids, or unrequited love, or people grappling with their parents’ health issues (or any common element) it may be a hint that you’re ready to dig into that material.
A long list of everything you might write might just as easily contain a couple variations on stories you’ve done before, giving you an opportunity to evaluate that impulse to cover old ground… to decide if you’re taking on something that might be comparatively unchallenging. The list should have a few things that are so ambitious they feel well beyond your current reach. One hopes, finally, that there will be a couple oddball concepts in the mix, glimmers of silliness or lunacy, peculiar possible experiments.
Finally, once you go through them, the long list of everything you might write should turn up a few things you are desperate to work on. Ideas so compelling that the thought of shelving all but one of them is painful. Bright, challenging, cool and above all exciting… that’s the one you’re looking for.
(And what if you can’t narrow it down? What if there isn’t one obvious contender… what do you consider when choosing between a small group of obvious winners? That’s a subject for another essay… so stay tuned.)
Every time you commit to a writing project, you’re simultaneously deciding to not write ten or twenty or a hundred other things. Having a look at the opportunity cost, before you start, can help ensure that you are making the highest and best use of your precious writing time.
One of the tricky elements of writing mysteries set in the here and now which feature amateur detectives–cozies, in other words, as opposed to procedurals–is writing in the police in a way that doesn’t make them improbably dumb, corrupt, or negligent.
I’m really against the police looking ineffective. While it’s true that not all law enforcement officers are created equal, they have a big advantage over Jo Civilian in solving any given crime. They are more of them, for one thing. They have specialized evidence-gatherers and the legal right to ask impertinent questions of the suspects. Plus, solving crimes is their job, which means they get to do it for eight, ten, twelve hours a day. I realize that the heroes and heroines of cozy novels are usually underemployed, but still.
Anyway, I had some fun Friday making a short list of reasons why a civilian without a forensics lab might beat the police to the crimesolving punch.
It’s not murder: In the absence of forensic evidence to the contrary, police rule the death accidental.
False confession: They have a guilty party who’s confessed in custody
They know who done it: They have a solid suspect, one they’re ‘sure’ of but can’t arrest.
Bored now: The case is cold.
He needed killin’: The murder victim is a pariah and nobody cares if the case is solved.
“You can’t prosecute the Queen!”: The subject of their investigation is politically protected.
“You can’t prosecute my mom!”: It’s a smalltown cop shop and the head of the department loves the most likely suspect.
I’m taking my toys and going home: There are multiple cases, in multiple jurisdictions, and the cops aren’t playing well together.
Code of Silence: Everyone in the community where the crime took place is entirely resistant to talking to the Man, man.
“You expect us to care about one little murder, Amateur-San, when Godzilla is attacking Tokyo?”: They’re busy, okay? Jeez.
I know I’ve missed some goodies. What are some of your favorites?
I am reading through the Blue Magic page proofs this week (196 days until it’s released!) which means I am going through printed pages that are laid out as the book will be, looking for any small errors. I’ve already gone through the copy-edited manuscript, where all the big errors and inconsistencies have been found and vanquished.
After that, my current plan is to have a hard look at a short story that’s all but done. It’s provisionally titled “Losing Heart among the Tall.” As titles go, I’m not convinced that’s perfect. This polish is half about actually finishing the story, and partly to reacquaint myself with the details of the setting, a place called Stormwrack, which also appears in a number of other things I’ve been working on this year. This includes a story called “Among the Silvering Herd” that I’ve sold to Tor.com. (I’ll let you know when it’s gonna be up, as soon as I know myself!)
This weekend, I’ll be hopping off to VCon to rub elbows with fabulous people like the latest denizen of the Twitterverse, DD Barant, Mary Choo, and Julie McGalliardon. On Saturday evening, at our 9:00 p.m. group reading, I’ll read from my story “Wild Things,” which takes place in the Indigo Springs universe, between the events of the two novels.
Once “Losing Heart among the Tall”‘s events and details are fresh in my mind, I’ll dig into the other stuff set in Stormwrack, for all of October.
Finally, if that goes well and I can wrap up by Halloween, I’m thinking of joining a number of my Nanowrimo buddies-in-crime in November by setting myself a goal of 50,000 words of new short fiction. Since I mostly write novelettes in the 7500-8500 word range, that’d make for six stories. I thought another squid story about Ruthless, perhaps, to go with “The Town on Blighted Sea,” another Stormwrack story for sure, and I have a few other ideas. But I don’t as yet have six ideas, and I thought I might throw the floor open for prompts, requests, challenges, a contest… somesuch thing.
Have any of you done this, either opened the floor to challenges in this way or contributed to a call for prompts? How did it work? Was there a prize? Were you happy with the result?
Not long ago, I decided to do something about my desk… or, rather, the walls around my desk.
When we moved into this apartment in 2001, the walls in the larger bedroom were somewhat trashed. The previous owners had raised two sons in there and they had–among other things–driven a blue ballpoint pen into the drywall, dozens and dozens of times, leaving a couple honeycombs of blue punctures. There were lots of holes from hung objects, too, and a few chunks of adhesive that would, if removed, surely rip out even more.
Easily fixed stuff, but painting that particular room wasn’t a priority, so I just continued the trend, putting up my bulletin board in the corner where my desk lives and proceeding to stickpin or sticky note whatever I wanted to see on or around it. And then, when one photo or note got old and I had something more current, I’d put up a new one overtop.
Over time, the sedimentary layers built up. And I have this picture that my great-grandmother Phil did, that I’ve been wanting to put up… my grandma Joan gave it to me on one of our visits to Onoway, and I had it framed and have been sitting on it for ages. (We’ve been wanting to redo our pictures for awhile now, and just haven’t managed to do it, so tackling this constituted a symbolic Start of sorts.)
So I did a good winnow, tossed the bottom few layers of images, sorted the rest, hung Phil’s picture and created some free space for new stuff. It’s still essentially a jumble of images with a computer at its heart, but it was an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, and I’m pleased with the result.
As I write this, it occurs that this is the second lunge I’ve had at the office lately; I also recently rearranged the closets. I have fantasies about disassembling the shelves and desks that dominate this room one day, taking every single thing out and making a huge pile o’ stuff in the living room while we patch (and patch, and patch some more) and paint the walls, and then, possibly, doing a radical rearrange of the space… but this will do nicely for now.