Friday, June 24, 2011

In the Throes of Thursday--What I've Learned About Writing Novels_7

So I usually take care of these miscellany on Monday, but I totally undid my system this week because of my jaunt to Amsterdam, so I have to take care of some business before moving on to my usual Thursday post.

ROW80 here I come. By next Wednesday I will have the first completed draft of this WIP. Cross my heart. I'd cross my fingers too, but I need them to type.

And here's a special boost to my ROW80 writing buds Sheri Larson, Susan Kaye Quinn, Margo Berendsen They are cranking out the good prose and should get some kind of award for all their hard work.
Now, what in the heck have I learned about writing novels that I haven't already shared? HA! This series could continue forever on this blog because I've learned so much and I continue to learn daily, hourly, each minute. . . Okay, that's enough.

I've learned how important setting is to the tone, the character development, the plot, the whole darned story. I don't mean you have to write pages of "description," and make the reader plod through that to get to the story. I mean you have to carefully choose the place where the action happens, where the people live and interact. You have to let the reader see the characters interact with the settings they inhabit.

So first, nailing the setting without slowing the pace.
Let's say you are writing a story about a girl who is very privileged and then suddenly has almost nothing. That would be my second book, The Princess of Las Pulgas. Sorry, I know this is kind of a shameless plug, but it's a story I know pretty well and in which setting plays an important role.

Here's something about Channing. The rich side of town. I needed to make this town especially attractive because when my MC leaves, I wanted it to be wrenching. But how much description did I need? Here's one bit about her home and another about her high school.

     I point toward the two-story house across the street, home for as long as I can remember. The wide path winds to the main entrance, and the leaded glass panels in the door glow from the entry lights Mom leaves on until we’re all home. Inside, the vaulted ceilings cast soft shadows in the living room and at the back, I see someone, probably Mom, in the kitchen. 

Heading into the cafeteria, I spot Nicolas in the Bistro section. 

Is that enough? Did I capture the Channing house and the high school by letting the character see those places?  For the school, I thought Bistro was all I needed to establish Channing's cafeteria as upscale. Also I didn't really use description here; I let the character move inside the setting and reveal it from her pov. Was I right? 

Now for the contrast. Here's the Las Pulgas apartment and high school.

An hour later we’re inside the Las Pulgas apartment, but I’m seeing, catacombs. The dark rooms with a narrow connecting hall remind me of pictures in a National Geographic article about the early Christian burials under Rome. When I open the door to my room I expect to find bones stacked inside crevices.

      He gazes at the chain link fence that separates school property from the sidewalk.

Again, there isn't much in description, but I chose what I thought would capture the feeling of a school without a lot of donated time and money. What do you think? Enough to let the reader "see" the setting?

I think adding significant details like vaulted ceilings, Bistro for Channingthen chain link fence and catacombs for Las Pulgas brought the setting to life without hitting the reader over the head. Of course, I love beautifully written description. I have a tendency to indulge myself once in a while and try to capture the place my characters live in. 

And now for nailing the setting with a bit more prose and a hint of what's to come in the story. This is from The Mermaid's Mirror, by my friend, L.K. Madigan.

Lena made her way down to the edge of the water, where the sand was rippled from having been under water a few hours ago. The tide was out but she could feel the urgency of the sea . . . soon the tide would sweep back in and cover the sand where she stood. The waves pounded as if hungry for the shore.

If you know the story, Madigan did a great job in making the sea almost a character. It wants Lena. Lena wants it, but she doesn't yet know why.

The key points I've picked up about the setting are these:

*Don't forget you have 5 senses and use them when developing your setting. See it, feel it, smell it, taste it, hear it. (Next week I'm going to focus on how to use all of your senses in developing the setting.)
*Have your characters interact in their setting. Don't rely on simply describing where they are.
*Make your setting special--a place that's like no other. A lot of that is done by making a vivid impression with the details you choose. It's not a small room, it's claustrophobic; it's not cold, it's an icy tomb. 


  1. Great post! I struggle with setting myself. I read back through my work and sometimes all I have are talking heads!

  2. All of the pieces in a story have to fit and that doesn't happen easily. I hear what you're saying, Cinette.

  3. You covered a lot of excellent points regarding setting. I think the chain link fence description works great. It's so easy to leave setting behind, but we need to remember how important it is to orient the reader regarding where they're at, and having the characters interact with the setting is a good technique to work at. On the other hand, too much description of the setting, like you said, takes away from the story and clutters it up. Nice post.

  4. I think setting can make or break a story. Like you said, "Have your characters interact in their setting" and I'd add, with their setting. Great post!! Thanks!

  5. Really worthwhile information, Lee. You are a wonderful writer and teacher ... now that could be the framework for a new book ... a character who wants to do both in life ... but is still a YA and not sure how to make it happen. Just a thought! All best for the week. --Daisy

  6. Great post, Lee. My stories mainly take place in unpopulated, wild areas and I love trying to bring the scene to life, and almost making it a character.

    By the way, thanks for your comment on my blog - how good to meet another steam enthusiast! Perhaps we can exchange pictures on book blog sometime - or facebook!


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