One Writer’s Journey

January 17, 2018

Setting: Getting Specific

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:05 am
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The story that I’m working on is set in the Himalayas.  One of the problems that I’m dealing with is that there are only so many ways to say stone without sounding like you are raiding the thesaurus.  I’m also having to look for a variety of ways to say climb, slope and steep.

I want to bring the setting alive but I’ve never been to the Himalayas.  Fortunately, I’ve been in the Davis Mountains around Alpine, Texas.  Part of the Rockies, they are . . . rocky.  They are also high altitude and desert so that works to my advantage.  But what about the cold?  The Himalayas, at least the altitude where my characters are, are not as cold as I had assumed.  In fact, the temperature in Kathmandu, Nepal at this very moment is 45.  Our high today was 22.

But I’ve also watched wildlife videos filmed in the appropriate area. And I’ve watched hiking videos and hiking how-tos.

Another possible resource is The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Places by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This book has several pages that focus on mountains with suggestions for sights, sounds and smells as well as possible conflicts.  There are notes about the people who often living in mountainous areas and more.

This research will all go into choosing the right words to help my setting come alive.  Is it worth it?  You be the judge.  When I asked my critique group to read the first two chapters, Pat had yet to reach the point where my character calls the surrounding mountains the Himalayas but .  “This is the Himalayas, isn’t it?” Pat asked.

Choosing the right details, expressed with the right word, can help your reader know your story is set in the Himalayas vs the Rockies.  Given the fact that the two are half a world apart, specifics can make a world of difference.



August 11, 2017

Set Your Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:33 am
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Parade. Alpine, Texas. 1924

Recently, Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency posted a summary of her ongoing series “9 Story Openings to Avoid.”  I started to skim the list but was stopped on item #2.  “White Room Syndrome.”  What is that?

White Room Syndrome is what Nelson calls it when a writer forgets to set the story.  They have a character or two. They have action?  But what they don’t have is any kind of setting.

It really isn’t a secret that opening scenes are tough.  Too much dialogue?  Boring.  Heart thumping action?  Who cares! We don’t know the character yet.  From the opening page, you need to strike a balance between starting the story and getting it up.  It’s no surprise that this balance includes that all important part of “setting it up,” the setting.

You have to let the reader know where and when the story takes place.  This doesn’t mean that you have to start with a header – Alpine, Texas. 1924.  Instead, as your character goes about buying supplies and hurrying to school, you give a few setting details.

These need to include the geography.  For this particular setting, you might mention the mountains.  And the desert.  The town name?  That’s a little more difficult but maybe you could work it into the name of a business or school – the Alpine Feed Store or Alpine Elementary.

Don’t forget the time period – that means time of the year as well as the year itself.  Winter?  Sunny but cold.  Maybe a dusting of snow.  Summer?  Heat, but it’s a dry heat.  A mid-summer night might include glow behind the mountains from a grass fire.  For the year itself, you probably aren’t going to get the exact year unless you have your character peruse a newspaper (please, don’t). But you can use details to give a feel for the time period.  A horse tied to a hitching post reacts to a passing car.

Essential though these details may be, you have to work them into the story.  Start with page after page of detailed narrative and you are going to bog things down and lose readers before anything happens.  As with all things in writing, your opening scene must be well-balanced.  Just be sure that balance includes your setting.

For more posts on setting, see “Researching Setting: Walk It When You Can” or “World Building: Setting and Culture.”



March 23, 2017

Scenes: Creating a Sense of “Being There” in Nonfiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:50 am
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My most recent batch of students is busy writing away. They are deep enough into their work that they are attempting to create scenes.  A nonfiction scene is a lot like a fiction scene in that it is a great way to pull your reader into the story.  It uses dialogue and characters, setting and action.  Unlike the fiction scene, it all has to be true.

That means that if you include dialogue, you have to have dialogue to quote.  It has to be word for word.

That means that if you find “someone mentioned needing to buy new shoes” in a source, that is all you can write.  You cannot write ‘One of the students said, “I need to buy new shoes.”  Nope.  The problem is that the quotation marks imply that it is a direct quote.  To use the quotation marks, you need to have found those exact words.  “And I said to him I need to buy new shoes.”  “Marcus said to me, ‘I need to buy new shoes.'”  Something like that.

There are times that you have a bit of wiggle room.  When I wrote about a family of armadillos, I could describe the four young armadillos digging into the dirt and tearing into a fallen log when they heard insects.  Why?  Because they are typical armadillo behaviors.

But when I wrote about the protests in Ferguson in Black Lives Matter, I couldn’t say that a protestor did X or a protestor did Y unless I had that information from my source material.  Even if X and Y are both fairly innocuous actions, when I’m talking about people, I need to know that someone did it.  Otherwise I have to say, a protestor may have done X or may have done Y and that isn’t the sort of thing my editor is going to let stand.

Creating a scene can be tricky but if you have the facts to pull it together it is one of the best ways to pull a reader into your writing.



October 24, 2016

An Interesting Life Feeds Makes for Interesting Writing

cabin-and-truck“An Interesting Life Feeds Makes for Interesting Writing.”  When you saw that title, whose life did you think that I meant?

Maybe you first thought of the character’s life.  Certainly a character with an interesting life will be more fun to write (and read) about than a character who sits on the sofa, plays video games and eats chips.  Snore!

What I actually meant was that when a writer has an interesting life, it makes for interesting stories.

Lately, I’ve been doing the prep-work for NaNoWriMo.  I’ve finished half of my character interviews and I’ve scrapbooked the characters and settings.  This means that I’ve been doing a lot of research.

Google Image is my friend.  I’ve collected photos of historic iron mines, miners cabins, ghost towns, and a deserted mansion.  There are photos of Lon Sanders canyon, iron ore and old timey mercantile stores.  All of these things came into the story intentionally.

But as I was searching cabins (my main character has to live someplace!), I had an epiphany.  I needed exterior dairyimages but I needed to know the layout as well.  A number of interior artifacts would also be useful.  Where oh where could I find these things together.  Then it hit me.  My father-in-law has helped restored a log cabin.  In is now set up as a museum complete with wood burning stoves, a spinning wheel, and a kitchen.  Seriously, I can be so dense at times.  That’s a photo of the cabin and our truck, both restored by my father-in-law. Thank goodness I have such interesting people in my life!

Then something completely unexpected crept into the story.  What do they grow on this farm?  Originally, the farm where this cabin stands, included tobacco fields.  We know this because there is a tobacco barn.  My mother died of lung cancer and my father has COPD.  Yeah, I already really like this character and she is not going to grow tobacco.  Besides, I’ve moved the cabin to slightly different geography that is far too rocky for tobacco but there are cattle aplenty.

Guess where my family went this weekend? The photo to the right is my son drinking a soda in a calf barn.  We went to a local organic creamery.  Now, in my story, the Wilkersons keep dairy cattle and, by the end of the book, will be working towards having a full-fledged dairy.  I so did not see that coming and will have to go back to the real dairy (oh woe is me!), take the official tour and do some delicious research.

Spend time with interesting people.  Go interesting places.  Do interesting things.  They will find their way into your stories.



August 30, 2016

How to Add Depth to Your Writing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:29 am
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depthFor the first time in quite a while, I am once again sending out manuscripts without a contract in hand.  And today was only the beginning. I’ve got another one to submit tomorrow.  And another to go out on Wednesday.  Still another is ready and will go out Thursday.  Deep breath.  Tale a deep breath, Sue.

It doesn’t matter how many sales I have.  If I’m lucky, sending material out like this means that I’ll get a rejection.  If I’m not so lucky, I’ll get feedback with an offer to read it again. How’s that unlucky?  I’m only joking, a little.  Getting feedback of any kind is actually great but it means that I’m running the risk of hearing one of the phrases that I dread.  “You need to add depth.”

I know enough to realize that this doesn’t just mean add to the word count.  Adding another scene isn’t the way to get the job done.

But what does it mean?  For different writers or different stories it can mean different things.

For some writers, your story may be too slight.  Yes, you have a plot.  It is a well-developed plot and your hero has to put out some serious effort to succeed.  That may be enough if you’ve written a picture book, an early reader, or a chapter book.  But novels, both for middle grade and young adult readers, often have subplots.  You may need to add one or more subplots that in some way mirror the main plot.

Sometimes the problem is that the reader needs more insight into your character.  Fixing this problem may be a matter of inner dialogue or making sure that some of the dialogue has not just text but subtext.

Last but not least, what is lacking may center on the setting.  You have details.  You have descriptions but they seem to be incidental to the story itself.  You need to find a to have the setting speak about the character, the story problem or a theme.

If an editor describes your story as slight or asks you to add depth, give the comment some thought.  Read your manuscript again with this comment in mind.  The key is to craft a solution that fits right into your story, seamlessly, as if it has always been there.


June 27, 2016

Researching Setting: Walk It When You Can

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:38 am
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trees around feed plotMy middle grade science fiction novel is set on an Earth-like world.  The area where the main character lives is very like an area I frequented as a child and still visit as an adult.  That said, my mom and grandmother never encouraged off-road strolling.  There were too many snakes and ticks and chiggers.

Lucky for me, I now live in male dominated household I lovingly call “Man Land.”  Paths and roads are mere suggestions.  Before you go down, you spray your clothes with Sawyers (tick repellant) and you use the video feature on your cell phone to self check for ticks in hard to see areas.

This weekend, I took the time to stroll through several feed plots and up a rarely used road or two.  I discovered that walking an overgrown gravel road is actually much easier than walking a well-maintained gravel road because the gravel is anchored in place with weeds.  When you walk past a stand of short leaf pine (at least I think that’s what it was).  The bark looks a lot like shag bark hickory and you can smell that glorious piney smell when you stroll past.  I was surprised how closely together the trees were growing.  Not even a tween could easily pass between the trunks.  Certainly not a teen in a hurry.

Not far from that was a stand of cedar.  Pines have long needles.  Cedar have scaly needles/leaves.

There were clusters of multiflora rosas growing amid clusters of blackberries.  I had forgotten how small wild blackberries could be, not finger-tip sized like the ones in my yard.

The sweet smell of honey-suckle stood out but I didn’t notice any scent what-so-ever from the trumpet vines.  The flowers were beautiful and easy to see but scent?  Nothing I could detect no matter how much the humming birds love them — and I actually saw a humming-bird alight on a branch and rest there for a time.

I had already roughed out the scenes in which my character moved through this landscape at about this time of year.  I’ll definitely be reworking them now that I’ve done it on a humidity drenched evening as the sun was pushing the horizon.  I know it isn’t always possible but this experience helped me see that your character’s sensory perceptions will be much sharper if, before you pen that scene, you take the time to walk the path.



April 22, 2016

Is your setting real enough?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:25 am
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Nevada, Abandoned, Building, Shack, Shed, DesertMy new project was humming merrily along as, each evening, I added two new pages. They’d fled, evading capture, and headed off up the mountain. Then, as they approached the area where they would make camp, the story ground to a halt.

I dutifully kept my butt in my chair, adding a sentence, deleting a sentence and generally annoying myself.  Why couldn’t I get them as far as the deserted mansion?  Maybe, said the tart voice in my head, it’s because you can’t envision your setting?

Oh.  I’d been trying to write about the wreckage of an old estate and although I’ve been through abandoned forts and deserted mining settlements, ramshackle mansions have not been a part of my past. I typed “deserted mansion” into a Google image search and found myself clicking through sprawling stone estates in Europe, ante-bellum disasters, and a towering urban structures standing shoulder-to-shoulder with equally deserted neighbors.  Then I saw it. Red brick. Three stories.  In the middle of a field.  There were even interior shots.  As soon as I had my setting in sight, the words flowed.  You can find my r

When you find yourself unable to write your characters through a scene, give some thought to the setting.  If you can’t see it in your mind’s eye, get online and do some looking around.  Not that you should stop with the visuals.  You need to know what it sounds like when a door screeches open, how a long empty house smells, and the feel of spongy half rotten wood underfoot.

Staring with photos and a picture in your mind allows you to write with the level of detail that is essential in creating realtic writing that draws your reader into the story.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to do some research on general stores.  Check out my image research here on Pinterest.


December 10, 2015

Creating depth in your writing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:11 am
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There are certain phrases that you simply never want to hear from an editor.  Top on my list?  “This just feels slight.”

Yes, there are fixes including adding subplots but I’m always worried that these subplots will feel like they’ve just been tackeThe-Target-cover-lo-res-277x418d on.  After all, I didn’t plan them as I was creating the story so, in a sense, they are tacked on.  Fortunately, you can avoid this “tacked-on” feeling by creating parallels between your plots and subplots.

As I’ve been listening to the audio-book of The Target by David Baldacci, I’ve noticed these types of parallels between his plot and subplots especially in terms of setting.  He has a main plot and numerous subplots.  I’m not being cagey on purpose but it is sometimes hard with Baldacci to tell where one subplot ends and another begins.  His working is far too complicated to ever be called slight.

Anyway, back to that setting.  In this particular book, the setting that draws the plot and subplots together is prison, not a specific prison but prison in the generic sense.  At one point, the main characters who are both CIA agents are sent to a training facility.  Because it is “be reevaluated or stand trial,” they don’t have a choice and they have no freedom to leave. They are, for all practical purposes, in prison and are treated no better than prisoners. One subplot takes place in a prison in Alabama.  The other subplot involves a character who grew up in a North Korean prison camp.


There are also strong parallels in the details used to describe these prisons.  Cells and huts are described as windowless and dark.  Characters who are no longer in these confining spaces spend a great deal of time gazing out windows, often looking for a variety of spies, either true-spies or snitches.

By including numerous parallels within the settings of his plot and sub-plots Baldacci creates a book that has depth and the layers needed to engage both an editor and a wide variety of readers.  For more on creating depth in your writing, specifically depth in your characters, check out my post today at the Muffin.



July 7, 2015

World Building: Setting and Culture

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:20 am
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world bldg setting cultureIn the past year, the vast majority of my work has been nonfiction.  I’ve been thinking about fiction a lot lately.  I have two novels in the works (note: long deserted) and really want to get back to them.  They are both fantasy which is going to require a lot of world building.

What do I mean by world building?  I’m talking about all of the details that go into creating your fantasy world.

In part, this is a matter of setting and there’s a lot to consider.  What planet or land is the setting for your story?  What does it look like?  Smell like?  Feel like?  When we create a fantasy setting, a lot of the time we get hung up on the differences to our own world.  And that’s understandable.  It’s what makes your setting beyond ordinary.  Because of this we obsess about things like multiple suns, desert planets and dragon filled skies.

But don’t forget to consider what is the same.  The same?  The details that are familiar to your readers help build a bridge between their every day lives and the world of your story.   It makes it understandable.

World building goes beyond the physical world to also include the culture of the story.  The culture includes everything that makes up  a people’s way of living.  It includes language, technology, social organization (monarchy, republic, etc), economy, politics, religion and how they react to the environment and conflict.

When it comes to matters of culture, we again tend to focus on the “different.”  We make up a language and system of naming children.  The society is matriarchal with women having multiple husbands.  The people are vegetarian and commune with the trees.

As groovy as those kinds of details are, we again need to remember to include the familiar because it (say it with me) forms a bridge for the reader.

Having to noodle over all of this is why writing science fiction or fantasy is such a huge undertaking.  Tomorrow, a bit more about creating a bridge.


June 30, 2015

World Building: Not Just a Matter of Fantasy

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:38 am
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world bldgWhen you say “world building,” many people assume you are talking about fantasy.  The truth is that you have to world build any time you are taking readers into a specific world with which they are unfamiliar.

Yes, Rowling had to world build in Harry Potter.  But Milne also carefully constructed the 100 Acre Wood.  Whether you are writing a mystery in which the setting is key or a gothic story with a dark, moody setting that impacts the story, you too will have to world build.  Here are 5 things to keep in mind.

1.  Know your setting before you write about it.  You need to have the details in place before you start writing.  Some writers create maps.  Others pin images on Pinterest.  Still others print things off and make a scrap book.  Do whatever works for you but know your setting ahead of time.

2.  Pick and choose.  Especially when you’ve created a complex and wonderful world, you’re going to want to share it with your readers.  The key will be feeding them the information a little at a time so as not to overwhelm.  This means that you will have to pick and choose the details you want to reveal first.  To know what to reveal when…

3.  Consider your scene.  As you take your reader into the setting for the first time, what is the most important thing to reveal?  A lot of this will depend on your scene.  If you want to create an air of mystery, you will reveal something strange or curious.  If you want to an air of forboding, you will reveal something creepy or ominous.  What detail from your setting will best convey this?  Once you know you are ready to …

4.  Create your tone.  You know what you want to get across and what details you have chosen to do it.  Now carefully choose the words that will do this.  Branches can be spidery or grasping.  The scene of flowers can be fresh or cloying.  It all depends on what you want to convey.

5.  Consider your character.  Now that you know what you want to do and how you can do it, consider your character.  These have to be details that your point of view character would note.  Does it still work, if not, you have some fine tuning to do.

It sounds like a lot of work but if you do it right, you will create a rich, vibrant story world that pulls your readers in and drives your story forward.


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