One Writer’s Journey

October 22, 2019

Setting: Making It Real and Establishing a Mood

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:15 am
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The Grotto Spring in the day time.

Today I read a really interesting post on how to build a strong setting by D.M. Pulley. In addition to the importance of deciding whether or not you should you as actual place or a completely fictional location, she also talked about mapping your city or neighborhood and drawing something similar to a blueprint for all important buildings.

Something else I noticed this weekend was using a setting to establish the mood or tone of your story.  Last Friday, we were walking a friend back to the Writer’s Colony in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.  Just before we reached her house, we met a couple sitting on a bench enjoying the cool air and watching the wildlife.  A pair of foxes had just wandered off into the dark.

They asked us if we had every been down into the Grotto Spring which they were sitting next too.  The cave-like grotto was down a set of stairs and shrowded in darkness.  No way was my friend going to go down there but I’m often nosier than I am bright.  The light from my phone wouldn’t let me see back into the corners so all I could get a look at was the shrine against the back wall.  I’m not super spooky but it was creepy.

The rest of the walk we discussed how perfect the town was on a dark October evening as a setting for a ghost story or horror.  Leaves rattled in the dark. The damp sidewalks were uneven limestone, often slippery underfoot.  Periodically a Victorian house loomed up out of the dark.  The next morning not far from her house, we spotted a tree full of vultures!  A fossil shop had a cave bear skeleton for sale.

Flatiron Bldg. Tile

But then it quit raining and the sun came out.  All around town were houses painted bright colors – pink, red, yellows and greens.  We met a friendly cat and oohed and aahed over broad porches, towers with conical roofs and even a statue of a protocerytops in one yard.  Sunlight reached to the far corners of the grotto.  One building in the historic district had gorgeous tile work. This wasn’t a horror setting but someplace a girl might accompany a family member to one of the healing springs.

Touching historic fiction.  Light hearted family story.  Or dark, gothic mystery.  Any of these types of stories and more could be set in the same town.  It all depends on what details you the author choose to bring forward.


April 16, 2019

Word Building and Setting Details

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:26 am
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It seems like I’ve been seeing a lot of blog posts and articles on world building and setting.  Maybe it is just because, writing fiction, I am paying attention.  Which is possible.  It is definitely something that I am thinking about.

There are so many things that you need to consider just in regard to your character’s home.  Is it a free-standing structure or a connected dwelling like an apartment or a duplex?  How many rooms are there?  How large are they?  Are there windows? How many? How are they shaped?

You need to know these things to make your setting feel real.  It’s a lot of work.  And the temptation is to share all that you know with the reader.  But you can’t.  It would be overwhelming.  Besides, you are writing from the point of view of a particular character.  Done right, that will help limit you.

What I mean is this – you can only discuss the things that your point of view character would notice.  And you need to describe things in terms this character would use.  As an example, let’s say that my husband and I walk into the bedroom.

I’m going to notice the painting at the head of the bed.  It has been the same painting for 17 years now and I want to change it.  I will also notice the drapes that are too short for the sheers and that there is a small stack of mail in the sewing chair by one window.  I’m really happy to have a chair in that corner so I notice it often. Somewhere to sit and tie my shoes.  Yay!

My husband?  He’s looking for the jeans that he left hanging on the hook on the bathroom door.  Hmm. He’s pretty sure he left them there but they aren’t there now.  He’ll poke around on the dresser.  Nope, no bills to pay.  But there’s clean laundry on his side of the bed.  Sigh. Now he has to put it away.

Note – there is no notice of how high the ceilings are.  If you ask, my husband will be specific. I think they’re probably 10 feet.  Right?  Is that it?  Each character will notice slightly different things about a room. What they notice may depend on how their day has gone or what they need to get done.

You need to know it all so that you know what each will notice.  Your reader, on the other hand, will be just as glad if you keep some of it to yourself.


March 7, 2019

Setting: A Matter of Modern Mystery

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:27 am

A realistic setting is vital to your story. VITAL.  It is one of the things that makes your story real and pulls readers in.  We’ve all heard this advice time and time again.

Yet there is something that I’m realizing this year.  Not every author reveals where their book is set.  If I hadn’t decided to Read the Map, I probably never would have realized just how prevalent this is.

Whenever I finish a book, I pull out my map and color in the state where the book is set.  So far I have 11 states colored in but I’ve read something like 30 books.

Part of the problem is that an awful lot of books seem to be set in California.  I read another book set in the Four Corners area.  That knocked out New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado.

You might think that the problem is that I’ve been reading fantasy.  Nope.  As much as I love fantasy, I haven’t read anything set in a purely fanciful land although I have read speculative fiction set in Tennessee.  And that book set in the Four Corners.  And I’ve got another on my bookshelf set in Illinois.  So fantasy isn’t the problem.

So many books simply never name their setting. I have to admit that I’m not feeling slighted.  Some of these books have absolutely vibrant place settings.  Plunk me down in the school in question or the character’s street, and I’m going to know that I’m there.  It is a living, breathing setting.

It just isn’t a named setting.

I’ve found myself wondering if this is a marketing ploy.  Perhaps they think it will make it feel more universal.  And, to a point perhaps, it works.  But if you’ve ever lived on the plains or in the desert, you aren’t going to buy that any of these grassy, hilly, tree-lined avenues are yours.

And I’ve noticed it is much more common in books for children and teens than books for adults.  In fact, I think the setting in every adult title I’ve read has been named.

What does this mean? I’m not sure.  Just something I’ve been noodling over.


November 7, 2018

Setting: Luring Readers In Step by Step

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:31 am
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Anyone who knows me knows that most of the time I’m reading one book and listening to another.  No, not at the same time.  Reading takes place in the evening.  And it is a print book.  The audio book is for when I’m rowing or doing handwork.  Rowing is a morning or afternoon activity.  Handwork can be any time of day but most often in the evening. And right now I’m critiquing two manuscripts as well.  That’s a lot of setting to keep straight.

Maybe it’s because I generally have more than one piece going, but I like distinctive settings and I love it when a writer knows how to draw you into that setting whether it is the Buttle apple orchard (The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle) or a small pet-friendly Virginia Town (Murder She Barked).

Wherever your story is set you need to introduce this setting to the reader.  It can be tempting to try to get this out-of-the-way with a gigantic info dump – paragraph after paragraph of important setting detail.  Important though these details may be, they tend to pull the reader out of the story.  What then would work?

One thing you can do is introduce your reader to the setting through the eyes of your character who is seeing it for the first time.  That’s what Krista Davis does in Murder She Barked. Holly hasn’t been back to this town for five long years and a lot has changed.  Wagtail is almost unrecognizable.  So we see it even as she sees it for the first time.

Or you can take your character from one side of the setting to the other.  That’s what Leslie Connor does in The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle. As Mason makes his way from place to place, he thinks about how great the orchard used to be.  He still loves it but a lot has changed in just a few years and Mason is a deep thinker.

Both of these approaches work because the author gives the reader setting details a few lines at a time, not a few paragraphs.  In this way, the setting is woven through the story and the reader has the time to really take it in.


September 14, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Testing Your Characters and Your Setting

Are your characters unique?  Is your setting woven into your story? These are the kinds of things that can make a story top-notch instead of ho-hum.  Here are some simple thing you can do to test how well you’ve done.

Change the setting for your story.

If your story is contemporary, consider resetting it 100 years ago.  If it is set in modern New York, move it to San Antonio.

If this is easy to do and nothing changes, you need to weave your setting deeper into your story.  The time period needs to be seen through the culture, the artifacts, and how people get around.  The environment needs to impact people’s clothing and outdoor activities.  The culture of where they are needs to come into play.

If your story can take place any-where and any-when, sadly you have work to do.

Swap one character for another.  

Two of your characters are about to confront the antagonist.  Swap the secondary character for a different secondary character.

Or your main character has just discovered who the informant is.  Swap this sneaky so-and-so for another secondary character.

Does your main character have two sidekicks?  Find a scene with both of them in it.  Can you cut it to only one sidekick?

Or find a scene with only one sidekick.  Can you swap this sidekick for the other.

Love interests, adversaries, and mentors can all be tested in similar ways if there is more than one.

You’ve probably guessed by now but if you can swap one for the other or eliminate one altogether, they are too much alike.  They are probably also two-dimensional. Contemplate what you can do to make them both interesting and integral to the story.

If you’ve discovered that your setting and/or your characters are ho-hum, don’t panic.  Rewrites are a great opportunity to fix problems just like these.  Speaking of which, I have a two-dimensional sidekick to bring into a three-dimensional world.


August 24, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: World Building

Recently I read a post on the SCBWI Summer Conference Blog about Malinda Lo’s session on world building.  As a science fiction and fantasy author, Lo spoke on the importance of creating a culture and setting that make the story feel real.  This isn’t something that takes place only in science fiction and fantasy.  As I read this post, I realized that it is something I am doing in my mystery.

Here are 4 5-minute exercises you can do to help build your setting.

  1. What do people notice?  When someone steps into your world, what is the first thing that they notice.  I live in Missouri.  When exchange students from Malaysia arrived here in the fall, even these young people from Southeast Asia commented on the humidity.  Yep.  We’ve got that in abundance.  In the alpine deserts of New Mexico and West Texas, it is the space. At the base of a mountain or an overlook, you notice that you can see a remarkable distance.
  2. Unique food or drink. There is going to be something, no matter where you are, that no one else seems to eat.  Louisville has a turkey sandwich called the Hot Brown.  St. Louis has toasted ravioli and crab rangoon.  Texas and the Southern US?  Sweet tea.  What is it in your setting?
  3. What is the question that people ask?  In St. Louis, everyone asks where you went to highschool.  Outsiders don’t get it, but this question reveals where you live, your socio-economic status and whether or not your family has engaged in white flight. Other questions that can be just as telling are what sport your child plays and where you picked up the gift for a child’s birthday party.
  4. Unspoken rules.  Rules are something that Lo spoke about.  Unwritten rules are tough and every place has them.  I remember staying with my aunt in Florida.  She sent me to my room to change 4 times.  She wouldn’t say, “You can’t wear slacks to church.” Finally I had to start putting on my mom’s clothes which solved the problem.  She packed no slacks. I packed no skirts.  A lot of these rules have to do with clothing but there are also a lot of food rules – no one eats tacos with chocolate sauce or stuffs a turkey with hot dogs. What are the unwritten rules of your setting?

Take five minutes and brain storm one of these topics.  Work through all five of them and you’ll have pulled together information on the physical world of your story as well as the culture.



August 13, 2018

Subplots: How Much Is Too Much?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 12:24 am
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Since I wrote “Plot and Subplots” about two weeks ago, I’ve been paying special attention to subplots and plotlines in the books I read.  One of the things I’ve been wondering about is how many is too many.

At the moment, I’m reading Breakout by Kate Messner.  Plots and subplots include:

  1. A prison break (that’s the main plot)
  2. Social justice/justice and what it is to be fair
  3. Racism
  4. Friendship
  5. School
  6. A time capsule
  7. And the power of poetry.

That’s seven and it might seem like a lot, especially in a middle grade novel but it works.  It is all tied together neatly and at no point so far am I wondering why?  Why on earth did she think that she had to throw that in too.

I just finished another novel and this time I’m not going to name it because . . . well, you’ll see.  The plots and subplots include:

  1. War
  2. Family and separation
  3. An incestuous relationship
  4. Step-parents
  5. A specific health issue
  6. Anti-immigrant

That’s six total and this book is young adult.  You might think that if Messner could pull off 7 in a middle grade novel that 5 would be easy peasy in YA but it didn’t work out that way.  Every time something new was brought forward I rolled my eyes.  “Seriously? This too?”  I expected to see the kitchen sink on the next page.

Why did it work in one but not the other?  I’m not sure.  I think that part of it may be that I like the main character in Messner’s book and was a lot less sympathetic with the character in the second.  But I don’t think that is the biggest part.  I think it is a matter of grounding your reader.

I knew when Messner’s book was taking place – now – and where – in a small town in upstate New York. I feel like you could plunk me down in the town and I’d recognize it.

While I would recognize the area that key elements of the story took place in the second book, I didn’t feel grounded.  When was it?  Maybe now.  Maybe 5 years from now but I’m not sure.  I know the country but that just wasn’t enough.  I think that not having a firm time element set me adrift and because of this I was a lot less tolerant of numerous plot lines.  Each one just felt like one more thing to keep track of.

The lesson?  Anchor your reader in place and time.  Do that and then you can begin to pull in various plot lines.  Readers are a lot more tolerant when they don’t feel like they’ve been set adrift.


July 13, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Sensory Detail

Bringing your setting alive is often a matter of including true-to-life details. But they have to be more than realistic.  They have to be real.

What are the things that you would notice if you were there vs if you simply researched your setting?  I contemplated this last weekend as I took part in my first Pickle Making Party.  Simply put, three days of rain led to rapidly growing, monster cucumbers.  No one wants to eat one cucumber that big let alone 35 pounds of huge cukes.  So we pickled.  This was my first time making pickles and I drank in the details.

The good thing is that there details don’t have to go into your first draft.  Or your second draft.  There are the kinds of details that you can add into draft three or five.  When you have a few minutes, take a look at one page of your story.  If you don’t have three sensory details on that page, add one or two or even three.  And mix things up. These should all be sights.  Go for the more difficult touch and motion.

To show you how, I will brain storm sensory details for five minutes.

Sight:  Dark green peels.  Feathery dill.  Ivory garlic.  White cucumber flesh.  Shiny pepper flakes.  Billowing steam.

Smell: The tang of vinegar.  Pungent garlic.  The freshness of orange (someone had a snack).

Sound:  The swish of  water going into a pot.  Bubbling.  The purr of the dishwasher.  The hum of the exhaust fan.  The clang of the pot lid.  Hissing pressure cooker.

Taste: The tang of the brine.  Mellow cucumber.  The bite of garlic.  The green taste of dill.  Yes, to me dill tastes green!

Touch:  Rubbery cucumber flesh.  Prickly cucumbers straight off the vine.  Papery garlic skin.  Lava hot jars.  Cool tap water.

Motion: The whirlpool motion as you stir the brine. The subtle motion as the lid is sucked down and seals.  Billows and swirling of steam.

Not great but I got this many in five minutes.  What could you come up with if you only had to think of three?


July 3, 2018

Setting and Its Impact

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:44 am
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This past week, I spent five days in the Smoky Mountains.  It took us an hour to drive from Gatlinburg, TN to Cherokee, NC in spite of the fact that it was only 20 miles away.  On one side of the mountain we drove through sun although we could see mist in the distance.

Come around the side of the mountain and we would find ourself in mist and fog.  That was when the 35 mph speed limit seemed excessive.  We wondered how often people hiking through the woods walked right up on one of the many black bear or spooked one of the elk herds.

As we explored the area, I found myself thinking about how the setting would impact the people who live there. We saw a magic shop.  This wasn’t a fantasy shop but one that sold the various bits and pieces necessary to cast spells.  We saw fortune tellers and palm readers.  As a writer I could imagine the impact that the setting had on the people’s beliefs.  This misty, mystic atmosphere would lend itself to a mysterious, magical belief system.

But not every group of mountains would have this impact.  My Dad grew up in the Davis Mountains in the west Texas desert. Magic, mystical beliefs?  No.  Not even close.  There were rules and you followed them.  In the Davis Mountains, when tourists got lost you didn’t wait for them to wonder back into camp.  You sent out a team complete with climbers and a stretcher.  Injured or dead, that piece of equipment would come in useful.  Dad’s sense of humor is sharp and more than a little cutting, an awful lot like the landscape.

Think about the setting for your story.  How would life in temperate rain forest effect a character’s beliefs and ways of doing things?  What about a swamp or the taiga?  What impact would these ecosystems have?  I plan to do some reading on this and I’ll let you know what I find.

Click here for a post on researching your setting first hand.


July 2, 2018

Setting: Be Specific

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:39 am
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This past week, my family and I were in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.  I love mountains.  Love them.  My father was born in the Davis Mountains in West Texas.  That’s them below with historic Ft. Davis in the foreground.  The Davis Mountains are my default setting for mountains.  Big.  Rocky.  Not overly cluttered with trees.  Yeah.  I remember calling trees clutter at least once. In my defense, they really limit your view.

But this time around I was in the Smoky Mountains.  The “smoke” is actually water vapor from the trees which says all you need to know about the number of trees.  Where the Davis Mountains are dry, the Smoky Mntn’s may be as humid as St. Louis in the summer but it is much cooler.  We were there for a week and it rained every day.

The Smoky Mntns and Me with plenty of mist.

Smoky Mntns w/o mist.







This really made me think about the importance of a detailed description.  Mountains clearly have to be more than tall or vast.  They have to do more than make other things look small or inconsequential.  If you have mountains in your story, you should be able to hand a reader photographs of three groupings of mountains (the Davis Mountains, the Smoky Mountains, and any other group), and your reader should be able to choose just the right grouping.

You may not provide a lot of detail in your story but you need to have the setting in your mind’s eye as you write.  This means that generic mountains will not do.  Do your mountains have a scattering of trees, specifically cottonwood, or is there cactus like in the Davis Mountains?  Or maybe your mountains are covered in Mountain Laurel, hickory, mimosa and hemlock like the Smoky Mountains.  If your setting is a mountain group, remember that elevation also impacts what grows there.

But this level of knowledge doesn’t apply simply in the mountains.  A rainforest can be full of kapok (the Amazon) or even cinnamon (Southeast Asia).  Cities, bogs, suburbs and grasslands, each one will be unique.  Not only do they look different but they will have a different impact on your characters – our topic for tomorrow.

For more on setting, check out this post on using maps to keep track of your setting and this one on setting as character.


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