Posts Tagged ‘setting’

Working with the Real World

So! October has not been going the way I’d like it to, in terms of writing, mostly meaning that the Changeling story continues to limp on and not get finished.

But, since the end of the month is a little over a week away, I have to accept that it’s not going to get done, and that I really need to get on planning my cozy mystery for Nano, or that’s not going to get done either.

So, alas, here we are.

I love mysteries, and I like cozy mysteries, though I do admit that the “theme” really makes or breaks them for me. My favorite series is the Meg Langslow series by Donna Andrews, of which I have read all 20-odd books (there’s a new one coming out for Christmas), which I suspect I like because the theme is mostly bird-pun titles (brilliant) instead of book content, and because they have a wonderful selection of weird relatives.

I’ve avoided writing one before because the whole concept of writing one is terrifying, but the thought of writing a novel with no speculative elements is ALSO terrifying, so, uh, I’m not going to. Luckily paranormal cozies are a thing.

Now, even so, I can’t really set a mystery in a secondary world of my own creation. Well, I mean, I can, but it’ll get categorized as fantasy and not mystery and long story short (too late), that means I have to use the real world as a backdrop.

Cozies usually take place in made up towns located in general real places. I intend to follow suit. I’m thinking small mountain town, probably here in Colorado. And I’ll do a better job than a certain cozy author I shall not name who I’m pretty sure has never stepped foot in Colorado in her life. But! I will have to make it up. Something to do over the weekend, I think. Make maps. Maybe I’ll share them next week. Maybe I’ll horde them. Who knows!

Anyway, real world. I’ve decided my main character owns a New Age shop. She’s a witch (kind of a mash-up of real world and fairy tale sorts of witches) so it helps her to hide in plain sight. Now, I haven’t been in a New Age shop (are they even called that anymore?) in a while, aside from booths at festivals and cons, so I went out this morning for research purposes.

I found three shops within a ten-mile radius and laid out a circle route to hit all of them.

Now, a good author who understands people would tell the clerk that she was researching for a book, and would the clerk mind answering a few questions about what it was like to run the store, and how busy they were, and what sort of people came in.

I, however, arrived at the first store, and when the very helpful clerk asked me what I was looking for or needed a solution to, I said, “I’m not sure,” and meandered about the store for ten minutes, looking at the offerings.

(I ended up with a book about Christmas magic and a stone bracelet made of sodalite, which is apparently good for creativity and focus.)

(With how the Changeling story has been going, I need all the help I can get.)

It’s probably a combination of being an introvert and not having had to talk to anybody new in approximately seven months, but despite the clerk being very nice and very helpful, the whole experience was overwhelming.

Next I drove to the second store, sat outside, decided I was done for the day, and went home.

So, uh, limited success.

I don’t know how people do that! How do you go up to someone and ask for their insights into their work? I know, probably, that most people like to talk about themselves, but it just feels like a huge imposition.

Eh, I’ll figure it out.

How’s your week going, squider?

Depth of Setting

Well, Squiders, I’ve talked about Holly Lisle’s revision class before and how helpful I have found it when putting together my own revision process. I still reference the class often, even though I’m working on my fourth revision since I took it the first time.

There’s one lesson, Lesson 7, that deals with setting. As I mentioned sometime recently, setting is something that I’ve only recently come to appreciate as an author. I normally skip lesson 7. I did it the first time through the process, but found it unhelpful, and so skipped it for the next few novels (which were, coincidentally, Shards and City of Hope and Ruin).

But as you guys know, I’m working on the revision of the first book of a high fantasy trilogy, one I’ve been working on for more than half my life at this point (sheesh). I decided I needed to do lesson 7 for this one because of the complexity of the setting. This first book takes place entirely within a non-human species and their homeland, and it’s been hard work over the years dealing with mythology, customs, geography, history, and all the miscellany that comes with building your own society from scratch.

You see, lesson 7 is about setting, but it’s not about the layout of your world–it’s about how your world works. The customs. The philosophy. The way your magic system works and its limitations. What items are available to your characters and why they’re needed/make sense. The objects that make up your world–the doors, the buildings, the plants, the animals.

And I got to tell you, I put this lesson off for a long time. I reached it at the beginning of September. I read back over the lesson. And then I avoided it for approximately three weeks. The thought of having to go back into the story and pull out what made the world work–or didn’t–was overwhelming.

But I finally got my act together and went into it. And I’m so glad I did. Just by going through how the world was designed to work and how it was presented in the current draft actually helped me work through a ton of worldbuilding issues that I’ve been struggling with for years. I hadn’t expected that at all, especially not with how useless the process was with my YA paranormal.

It just goes to show you, again, that each novel is individual and has its own needs.

Of course, now the next step in the progress is to consolidate everything that’s wrong with the novel (the list is practically novel-length itself) and then put together a plan of action for fixing things (and, to be perfectly honest, rewriting most of the dang thing).

Ever tried something in revision that proved to be way more helpful than you expected? Thoughts on setting/worldbuilding?

Don’t Skimp on Setting

So, I got an email this morning from a semi-local school about doing an author talk to their kids in November, and it first it was like, Hey! Cool! Someone thinks I’m neat! But now that I’ve looked at it closer, it seems to be meant for another author (one who actually writes children’s books and so makes infinitely more sense than me, who writes mostly adult fantasy). So now I’m left to wondering–did they get the wrong email for a parent and/or teacher? Did they BCC a bunch of other authors in case the original one is not available and/or interested? Should I respond? Should I leave it be?

And if I was just accidentally emailed, what are the odds that it be by someone local looking for someone of my profession?

Questions, questions.

In other news, Turtleduck Press will again be taking up residence in the Author’s Row at MileHiCon in Denver, Colorado at the end of October. I shall be about for most/all of the weekend if you are a Coloradoan or close to Colorado and want books/sigs/landsquid, etc. In addition, TDP’s newest anthology, featuring space princesses (eeeeee), will be out on Nov 1, so we’ll probably have something special for that at the con. Or I’ll at least draw you a space princess if you bring something for me to draw on.

Right, now that that’s done with, let’s talk about setting. Poor setting. I think it gets glossed over and forgotten by a lot of authors. I certainly used to be that way. What did it really matter where a story took place? Stick it in a generic school or forest or cruise boat and get on with the action and the mystery and the suspense, right?

Luckily, I’ve learned better, though I will admit it took me longer than it should have. At first glance, setting seems like a backdrop. Just a stage for your story to take place on. I’d like to think that was me just being young and inexperienced, unaware of how different people could be from  me and how people lived differently throughout the world.

Your setting does three important things:

  • It creates your characters
  • It creates your world
  • It creates your plot

First off, characters. Characters are characters, right? What does setting have to do with them? Well, where your character grows up affects them as a person. Someone living in a crowded, rundown tenement is going to have different experiences and a different viewpoint than someone who was born on a spaceship and has never been planetside, than someone who grew up in a comfortable house in the countryside. People–and characters–are created by their environment, and your setting sets up a lot of a character’s background and, hence, their characterization.

World is probably obvious. Your setting is part of your worldbuilding, along with language, customs, economy, geography, etc. But a society that lives high in the mountains and has to mine water from clouds is going to need different worldbuilding than a culture that lives in a bubble under the sea. Not only that, a well-thought out setting will have things unique to it, things that directly inform culture and society, and your world will seem richer and deeper when those things are pulled into your story.

Plot! The great thing about setting is that sometimes it can pull in plot and subplot elements. Going back to the well-thought out setting mentioned above, the setting itself can provide inspiration for conflict, and not just the “Dear God, we’ve got to get over this mountain to the valley beyond where the only remaining magical healing plants grow,” though that’s certainly something to do with it. But if you’ve determined a resource is short, different groups of people could fight over it. Or your character needs something, but it’s only located in their enemy’s territory. Or your character is very tall yet all the doorways in your setting are very short, because the people who lived there memories ago only came up to your character’s chest.

I’ve heard it said that your setting is almost another character, a living, breathing entity that grows and changes.

So don’t skimp on your setting. It’s what makes your world real, what gives your story life.

Thoughts on setting, Squiders? What do you think I should do about the school email?

Writing About a Place You’ve Never Been

I’m working on getting a novel ready for publication later this year, and part of it takes place in Greece. I have never been to Greece. I am extremely unlikely to get to Greece between now and when the book is due to my editor.

So, what’s a girl to do?

Luckily, we live in an age when there’s a ridiculous amount of information floating around, easily accessible to the masses.

Unlike a fictional place where you can design everything yourself, if you write a real place wrong, readers that are familiar with that place will feel subtly (or not-so-subtly) at odds with your setting. It may ruin the book for them. That is a Bad Thing. (I should note that fictional places located in real places like, say, a small town in the middle of Greece, still need to feel appropriate for the overall setting even if the town itself doesn’t exist.)

I know I’ve had books ruined for me because Colorado is portrayed incorrectly, and I’d hate to do that to someone else.

So! What tools can we use to learn about a place we’ve never been?

1) Travel Books and Videos
These are great, because someone else has gone to wherever and taken the time to tell you all about it. What to expect from the people, the hotels, the food, the sights. Driving conditions, what languages are spoken, a recent history of the location, you name it. Travel videos don’t contain the same level of information as the books, but they do show you what the place looks like. It’s one thing to know whether or not there’s a forest somewhere, but it’s quite another to be able to see the size of the trees, how much undergrowth there is, and whether or not it’s moist enough for moss and ferns to grow on everything.

(My own go-to for all things Europe-related is Rick Steves. My husband always teases me, but the man knows what he’s talking about, and his books have a nice conversational tone to them, making them easy to read.)

2) Google Maps
Or, I suppose, the map program of your choice. You can see the layout of cities, check distances between places (how many days would it take to get from A to B in a carriage?), and use street view (which, while it may give you a nice view of whatever building, I like because you can see the cars and the pedestrians, which bring the city to life a little more than some staged publicity photo).

3) Google Images
I can’t help it, Google is going to take over the world. Google Images is fantastic, because you put in what you’re looking for (for example, I did “Greek forest”) and then you get every image on the internet that’s tagged something similar. You can click on a picture to see it bigger, and go to the website the picture is on and possibly find useful information pertaining to the subject at hand. And it helps you visualize your setting in your head, making it easier and more believable to write. I tend to save my favorite images somewhere so I can use them for inspiration.

4) Other People’s Travel Experiences
There’s whole websites out there designed specifically for people to blog about their travels. Not everyone makes theirs public, but you can see what people did, what experiences they had, and look at pictures they took.

Anything else you’d recommend, Squiders? Any places you’re doing research on at the moment?

Using Fictional Places in Realistic Fiction

So you’re writing a book.  Aside from plot and character, one of the most important things is setting.  This determines the when and where of your story.

Let’s say you’re writing urban fantasy or contemporary fiction or something that takes place in the real world about, oh, now.  You’ve got a couple of choices.  You can pick a real place.  You can twist a real place (useful for alternative realities and so forth).  Or you can make up a place.

I prefer the latter for one main reason.

I was born and raised in Colorado.  And, in almost every instance where I’ve read a book set in Colorado, it has manage to offend me in some manner, and I am not that easy to offend.  And I live in fear that I will do that to someone else.   It’s easy enough to make up a town or a city, to draw out the layout or base it on something else.

In fact, if at all possible, I don’t mention a place name.  Most of the time it’s not really important, as long as your description gives enough information, and very rarely does it affect my plots.

Of course, everyone is different.  What do you prefer, as a reader or as a writer?  Do you like having real places, with real street names and real businesses that you can look up on a map?  Or do you not really care as long as everything makes sense?