Diving Deep into Your Setting

A few weeks ago, my husband and I took a long drive “along the river.” In our area, if you say that you are driving along the river, you aren’t really telling anyone where you are, because there are four rivers within an easy drive of my home.

The Mississippi

You might be driving near the Mississippi in downtown St. Louis. To the right is a photo during Fair St. Louis you can see the crowds below the Arch.

The photo was taken from a multi-story hotel among the skyscrapers and historic buildings that make up the city. It’s beautiful but you are driving on a major highway with scads of traffic.

That’s one distinct setting.

Driving along the Missouri.

The Mighty Mo

Or you might be driving near our house along the Missouri River. The river is wide and muddy which explains the other nickname, the Muddy Mo. People fish from the banks.

My favorite section flows along a winding road. For the most part, you can’t see the river and the road is narrow and shaded. I love it but I can also see that it would make a creepy setting.

The Meramec River

The Meramec is south of us. It appears wide and slow moving, but can be dangerous for inexperienced swimmers. There are cabins on stilts and people canoe the river. Trees grow not only along the river but also in the shallows. It is a very different atmosphere than the Mississippi or the Illinois.

The Illinois River

The River Road along the Illinois River.

East of us is the Illinois River. When you drive along the Illinois, you literally drive beside the river with the bluffs rising up on the other side. There are barges and sail boats on the water.

Every once in a while, the bluffs upon up and a town clings beside the river.

Why am I going into so much detail about the rivers in my area? Because if I set a story along a river, you should be able to tell which one I based my setting on.

All too often, we create generic settings. There is a river and a road. That’s all the reader knows. Use a bit more detail and you can set a tone and create an atmosphere. You also make your setting feel real.

Editors and agents receive far too many manuscripts with generic settings. Creating a genuine setting to pull your reader in.


Recent Reading

It always surprises me when people act surprised by what I read.  Yes, I am a children’s author.  Yes, I read adult books.  And I don’t mean found-in-a-brown-wrapper adult books.  Just books that are not shelved in the children’s section or the Teen Room at my local library.

My most recent two reads were Violet by Scott Thomas and The Institute by Stephen King.

Violet is what I consider old school horror.  It is very atmospheric and staying in an old house by a lake will have much less appeal after you read it.

Read this book to learn how to select setting details and how to describe these details to set a mood.  This one is also a great study in how to feed the reader information bit by bit.

The Institute is, at least in my mind, less horror and more psychological thriller.  Sure, there are paranormal elements but this is King at his cynical best.  People being horrible to people.  Not that everyone is horrible but those that are excell at it.  Redeeming qualities?  Not so much but he does show how they justify it in their own minds.

Pick this book up to learn how to deal with a massive cast of characters and merging story lines.  This is also a great one to study if you want to learn how to avoid making assumptions with your characters.  Let’s just say that you’ll never look at the town eccentric quite the same way again after reading this book.

You definitely need to read the types of books that you are writing but you should read at least some horror.  The best horror writers use detail to keep the reader on edge.  They feed out information bit by bit.  They add twists and turns and surprises.

Gather round and learn.



Horror: More Than Blood, Guts and Goo

HorrorRecently, a friend of mine wrote a horror short story.  Did I want to read it?

My son is on a serious zombie kick.  In the name of mother and son bonding, I have suffered through an entire season of the Walking Dead.  Never mind that I love Zombieland.  Horror freaks me out.  I may agree to watch it with you but someone will have to hold my hand and it will not be a pain free experience.  Did I want to read her story at home by myself on a perfectly sunny day?  Wait?  Isn’t that when the walkers come?

I hemmed and hawed my way into an embarrassing pause.

“Really, it isn’t Stephen King horror.  It’s more like what I used to write.”

This friend doesn’t particularly enjoy tormenting so I recovered enough to agree and soon found myself immersed in a non-gross horror story.  It was amazing.  Afterwards, we discussed the difference between old-style atmospheric horror and new-style gooey, pustulent horror.

In the old type of horror it is all about atmosphere.  How can you set your story up so that the reader is more than a little uncomfortable and expecting something that goes bump, glop or yuck in the night?  They expect it, but the details you provide aren’t necessarily graphic.  This is the gross and disgusting viewed through slightly parted fingers. Think Poe.  His stories are wharped and weird and offputting, but they aren’t particularly repulsive.

You build the horror by choosing creepy details ranging from the fall of light to the creak of a floor board or the closing of the door.  You include details that can be described in a creepy way.  Lace might be web-like, wind groans, and a cellar smells like the freshly turned earth of the grave.  Okay, that’s most likely heavy handed but I hope you get the point.  You can write horror without the ick.

Who is your favorite writer of bump in the night, creepy horror?


How do you Add Atmosphere to Your Work?

When he was asked to illustrate Creepy Carrots, Peter Brown knew the story needed to have a certain dark, ominous quality.  Sure, it’s a picture book but it just happens to be a picture book about a kid who is stalked by his favorite food.   To get a feel for scary qualities that young readers would be able to appreciate in his art work, Brown watched episodes of the Twilight Zone.  Because he’s an illustrator, he latched onto the weird camera angles and dramatic lighting.

What might have caught his attention if he was a writer?  To find out, I watched Valley of the Shadow and found all kinds of details that could be used to add tension and an ominous feel to a story.

  • A nearly empty gas tank adds a tight time element to the fact that the main character is lost (will he find his way before he runs out of gas?).
  • When he asks a local for directions, the answers are vague and hesitant (what is he trying to hide?).
  • He’s getting change when his dog takes off after a cat and the clerk stops him from going after the dog (what’s up with that?).

All of these odd, off beat elements add a sense of drama and a feeling that things just aren’t right.

So what could you do to add an ominous element to a picture book?  While you aren’t going to be able to do the exact same things as this Twilight Zone episode, you can use the same patterns.

What can your character be almost out of?  The clay she needs to finish an art project.  The yarn he needs to finish his mother’s present.  The possibilities are endless.

You can also use a tight time element.  Maybe your character needs to do something before dinner or before Mom gets home from work.

You can also have other characters reacting in strange ways.  Yes, your story will have to explain why but that’s part of the drama.

Having something hold your character back is what the Plot Whisperer calls an antagonist.  Maybe a teacher keeps your character in from recess.  Or he can’t go outside until he finished his homework or a chore.

Now think about the kinds of details you might include for an upbeat feel.   Its just like putting a puzzle together.  Piece by piece, you end up creating an amazing whole.


Have your character running low