Seeing the World through Your Character’s Eyes

How you describe a room should depend on your POV character.

While I was writing yesterday’s post on setting, something crossed my mind. I have no clue whatsoever what color my character’s room is in Airstream. I know that is in her room. I know how she’s personalized it. But color? I have no idea.

In a way, this is good news. Color is really important to me – I knit, crochet, weave and bead. Although I wear a lot of black and grey, I love color!

But my character isn’t me. She doesn’t do hand work. In fact, she’s all about function, i.e. how things work. In reality, I’m also a functionalist but I’m a functionalist who likes pops of color. My character? I’m not sure color is even on her radar.

Airstream is a science fiction story that starts on a space ship. I suspect the whole ship interior is the same color – most likely a neutral. This would drive me mad. My character? If she cared, I would already know about it.

When you describe your setting, describe it in terms of what your character would notice. If you aren’t sure how it would vary from character to character, think about how different people react to the same place.

My son hates artificial scents. He gets that from me. But where I will quietly dislike them while my nose stops up, he lets you know about it. “What is that stench?”

My mother-in-law loves dark interiors. The paint doesn’t have to be dark but she loves heavy drapes and wide slat blinds. Ornate sofas and arm chairs with dark fabrics are a plus. Infuser reeds and floral scents abound.

My husband wants sunshine. Lots and lots of sunshine. Natural wood is good. Painted wood? There’s a circle in hell reserved for people who paint wood as far as my husband is concerned.

Now imagine that each of these people is in the same room. Each of them is likely to describe it every differently. How you describe the setting in your own story will depend on who your character is and how this character views the world.

–SueBE

Setting Sets the Mood

What color is your main character’s room?

I’ve been noodling over how to use setting in my story, so it was only natural that the real estate ad that a friend posted had me wondering – who would live here? Not only is the main body of the house octagonal, but the whole house is black. The siding. The roof. The floors. The interior walls. The shower tile is white as it some woodwork but for the most part the house is a light-sucking black.

The realtor went with the obvious, calling for all Goth to come check it out. And that makes sense. I can imagineone of my son’s friends in residence. She’s a tattoo artist in training who seems to make every decision based on whether or not it will make her look edgy. This house definitely evokes a dark mood.

But it also brought to mind the afghan my grandmother had on the black sofa in her den. Squares were various dayglo colors – orange, green, yellow, red. These squares were joined by black connecting stitches. It gave the overall effect of stained glass. What mood would the same house evoke if carpets and upholstery were bright colors and the table was set with orange Fiestaware?

Setting details matter to the tone and mood of the story. A flat black house is going to look grim. What if you want it to be the home of your villain but you don’t want it to be too obvious? Make the black highgloss and pair it with glossy white subway tiles and a black and white check marble floor. That’s going to look expensive and perhaps even unapproachable. Now pair the black walls with brighly colored modern art work, stained glass, and furniture in primary and secondary colors. It is no longer grim and actually matches the bathroom I designed for an interiors class I took in school. Ahem.

Use your setting to create a mood. But don’t just go with the obvious. And details to keep your reader wondering. “Is this the villain’s lair or a trendy artist’s apartment?”

–SueBE

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.

–SueBE

How to Pull a Reader into Your Series

I can’t believe how many series titles I’ve been reading lately. There’s the Zita the Space Girl graphic novels series as well as The Way of the Househusband, a manga series. Then there are all of the mystery series that I’m reading – probably a dozen.

As a series reader, I have to admit that I don’t always remember everything from book to book. There are simply too many characters and too much background information to keep track of. There is also the problem that sometimes you pick up an interesting book only to discover that it is #3 in the series. Fortunately, there are things that we as authors can do to pull readers into our series at any point in the series.

Story Question

A series needs to have an overarching issue, something that is explored from book to book. But each book needs to have its own story. What is it that the character wants and why?

My least favorite series books are those that fail to do this. I want something to be settled between page 1 and The End of any given book in the series.

Meet the Characters

Whenever you write a book, you have to spend a certain amount of time introducing the readers to your characters. A series title is no different. In my experience, the hardest books to do this with are cozy mysteries and fantasies since they tend to have so many characters.

Whether a reader picks up book 4 or book 2, they need to know who the characters are and how they are related to each other. This could mean that they are actually kin or that the adventure together, solve crimes together, or live in the same town.

Story World

In addition to introducing readers to the characters in each book, series titles have to introduce readers to the world of the story. Where is it set? When is it set? Who lives there? What are the rules, customs, and expectations in this place and time?

The story world becomes increasingly more complex with each book. That means that introducing the reader each time is going to get more and more tricky. But that’s okay because you . . .

Introducing Backstory

The problem with backstory, whether it is something that happened in the previous book or before the story started, is that we writers know it all. We KNOW how important it is. We want to share it all.

The trick is to introduce it only as quickly as the reader needs it to understand what is going on right this very second.

It’s a lot to keep track of and in all series these elements can feel overwhelming. The trick is to treat each book like the first one a reader will pick up. As in any story, lure them into your story world bit by bit.

–SueBE

3 Ways Details Make a Difference

Nocturnal hallway lit by my flash.

I just met another deadline and have been getting ready to work on fiction again. Nonfiction is my natural writing fit but I have so many fiction ideas.

Okay, that’s not true. I do have a lot of fiction ideas. But I have to keep reminding myself that while I think of nonfiction as a natural fit, I had to learn to write it. My first lesson – how to hook the reader.

I have some idea how to do that in fiction but this weekend a lesson fell into my lap. This particular lesson was on details, specifically setting details. Take a look at two photos of the same hallway.

The top photo is the hallway at the lodge where we spent the weekend. The light doesn’t extend all the way to the end so something could be hiding down there. So it is a little creepy but not too bad.

Hallway from Hell

If only this is how it normally looked. During the day, the lights are on and it just looks like a hallway with green carpet (ugh) and white walls. But at night? At night it is normally lit only by the exit signs.

Totally different atmosphere. Creepy, scary and, I have to admit, I hate getting up at night to make the trip to the bathroom. Hate it! And all that has changed is the color of the light. Details make a huge difference in setting.

And setting isn’t the only area impacted by the details in your story. Details can also be used to forshadow upcoming events.

If the character thinks that the red light looks like blood . . . firelight . . . or rage, it could suggest something that is coming later in the story.

The same can be true of other types of detail. What a character carries in her backpack or purse could later provide a clue as to a murder weapon or a missing item grabbed from a museum. It could reveal who she really is and how she may have lied about herself if she claims not to have a dog but has a spare leash in her bag or says she is vegetarian but has an open package of jerky.

Which leads us to the last area I want to discuss. Details can also reveal things about your character. What would a dancer carry in her bag vs what a yoga teacher would carry? A scout working on a swimming badge would carry different things than a scout working on a first aid badge.

Setting, forshadowing and character can all be shaped by the details you describe in your stories. And, now it is time for me to get to work on chapter 3.

–SueBE

3 Tips for Spooky Settings

Some settings are naturally spooky
but you can set your spooky story anywhere.
Photo by Jack Gittoes on Pexels.com

I’ve been thinking a lot about spooky, creepy and eerie settings this week. In part, my preoccupation comes from reading an article that claimed only certain settings can be used to write spooky stories. You know – cemeteries, abandoned mansions and the like.

Stop. Just stop. That’s absolute nonsense. The spookiest, scariest book I read in 2020 was The Only Good Indian by Stephen Graham Jones. Was it set in a cemetery? Nope. Did the main character live in an abandoned mansion? Not even close. He lived in a modern ranch-style home with track lighting. This leads us to step #1.

Don’t rely on cardboard settings

A scary story can take place anywhere. I’m not going to tell you how Jones pulls it off but he isn’t the only one to use a modern setting. The house in You Should Have Left with Kevin Bacon is unforgivingly modern. Unforgivingly? That’s more a reflection on my taste than anything else. But the movie does not rely entirely on shadows and dust, dank and damp. You can set a scary story anywhere. After all it is a spooky story because . . .

Spooky things happen

What do I mean by spooky things? It depends on your story. It could be objects or even people disappearing when your POV character’s back is turned. Or they find a warning scrawled on a scrap of paper or the wall. Oh, be creative. Leave a spooky message on a banana. There are noises in the walls, flickering lights, and doors that open and close.

Careful word choice

When setting a spooky tone, an awful lot can be in the word choice. Is the light bright and cheerful? Or stark and harsh? Images in photographs can be good-humored or shadowed. It isn’t so much what objects you describe as how you describe them. A carnival glass pitcher can be oily or iridescent depending on the tone that you want to set.

Some settings will be easier to use in a scary story but I’d seriously consider erring on the side of originality. Sock monkey shop? Fairy floss stand? You decide.

–SueBE

3 Ways Your First Chapter/Scene Sets Up Your Story

Character, setting, sense of the story. Does your opening have it all?

I have to admit that this is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. How do you set up your story in the opening scene or chapter without giving it all away? In essence, you are making promises to your reader, promises that you have to keep. But how do you do this if the magic, in a fantasy, or the murder, in a mystery, doesn’t come until much later?

Then I saw Chris Eboch’s article on Fiction University – The Promise of the First Chapter. In the first chapter, the reader is introduced to your story. This means that they get to know three things:

The Main Character

Who is the story about? This is where the reader meets your main characters and gets to know a little bit about them.

This part works well enough in my story. The point-of-view is third person close so the story is from Clara’s point of view. But you also see what type of person she is. Yes, she is getting new tires on her car (boring) but she’s also trying to juggle giving a neighbor who can’t drive a ride to the hair salon and picking up her husband’s tux.

Why did I start it here? Clara is someone who does a lot for other people. Maybe a bit too much and she needs to focus on herself.

The Setting

Where and when does your story take place? Even if you don’t name your city, state and year, your reader should know if this is contemporary and a gritty urban setting or the suburbs. I name the city where the story opens (Nashville) and it is obvious the story is contemporary because of the cell phone usage.

Problems? The story quickly moves to another city. That change is set into motion by the end of the chapter so I’m comfortable that it works. I just hope my Beta readers agree!

What Type of Story Is It?

The first story also lets your reader know if this is fantasy, historical, or a mystery. And this is where I might have a problem. The murder doesn’t happen for several chapters – something that I’ve seen in many cozies. But that means I need to set the scene early on.

This is a big problem because I don’t feel like I’ve done that in chapter 1. I’m going to try to reshape the chapter so that Clara feels threatened.

What about your work in progress? If you’re writing a novel you have one chapter to get this done. If you are writing a short story, accomplish it in a scene. A picture book? The first two spreads. In that lenght of time, readers need to know what they are getting into.

–SueBE

Three Things to Consider for Your Story Setting

Art Hill, Forest Park, St Louis, Missouri, Art Museum
Across the lagoon . . . a forest!

Tonight, I was chatting with a group of my fellow authors about mystery writing. They’ve all completed and published mysteries. I’m working on my first cozy.

One of the things we discussed was what annoys us enough to quit reading.  One woman mentioned that she grew up in New Orleans so when she read a mystery in which the character stares out the window at the hills of New Orleans, she put the book down. Apparently New Orleans has one hill.  It is manmade.

I had a similar experience reading a mystery when the body was found in the tree line beside the St. Louis Art Museum.  The author had done enough research to know the museum is located in Forest Park but not enough to know that the forest does not come that close to the museum.  Back in the library bag it went.  And that leads us to the #1 thing to consider when creating your setting.

1. If you don’t know this setting like the back of your hand, using it might be a huge mistake.

The devil is, as they say, in the details.  You can find a lot of information online and Google Earth is a huge help.  But if you’ve never been there you are taking a chance.  What looks like a hill on Google Earth, may be something else entirely.

2. Making a setting up is 100% legitimate.

If you are setting your story in a real city and you need it to take 45 minutes to drive across town, you are simply out of luck if it only takes 30.  The same holds true for a real building.  If you need three floors and no more, but the building you are setting your story in is only two, that’s going to be a problem.

The solution?  Create a location that is just as fictional as your story.  You can make the city as large and the building as tall as your story requires.

3. Even a fictional setting can half real-life components.

I didn’t want to set my cozy in the city where I live, but I am using certain buildings as locations in my setting.  A church and a historic school house that I’ve actually visited have found their way onto the page.  By migrating a real place into my story, I can draw on the details that I observed while singing in a Christmas program, helping set up a wedding reception, or attending a punch and cookie event.  These details will help my settings feel as real as the places that inspired them.

–SueBE

 

Setting: Making It Real and Establishing a Mood

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.

–SueBE

Word Building and Setting Details

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.

–SueBE