Last night I had the privilege of speaking to the Albuquerque branch of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. They’re a friendly group and I was happy to discuss some of my ideas on how to maximize the use of setting in our writing. For today’s post, I thought I’d share some of the things we talked about.
For starters, I enjoy writing about place, especially foreign places. Four of my books are set in New Zealand (two of these are nonfiction) and one is set in Egypt. One of the best things I can hear from a reader is that my settings “made the story come to life.” I take that to mean that I’ve made the setting essential to the plot; without my setting details, the story just wouldn’t be the same.
The following list includes some of the things I do to make writing about setting just as much fun and vibrant as all the other story elements I strive toward.
1. Choose the setting you love, not what you think will please an editor or follow a trend. In many instances, the place we are from is our best starting point; it’s our “root” equation. Give that same foundation to your characters. Everyone has a sense of “home” with both good and bad associations.
2. For fictional settings: write first, research later. Even if you’re describing your hometown, get your story down on paper first and don’t worry too much about the “facts.” You can add all the precise information you need later. This goes for any kind of extra detail you might need to further your plot. For instance, in my current WIP, my heroine is an art restoration expert. I don’t know how to restore a painting or what kind of environment is needed to do so. It’s far more important to me that I write about her motivations, goals, and character development before I worry about her cleaning products. Right now I’m calling whatever she uses to fix a painting “Magic Art Clean.” I’ll insert the correct brand names later. I’m writing a novel, not a treatise on art conservation. Equally, when I write about place in fiction, it’s important for me to keep in mind that I’m not writing a travelogue or a term paper. I don’t need to know everything.
3. To find what part(s) of your setting is important and worth including, think in terms of levels or “boxes”: in your WIP notes, describe your characters’ immediate safe place, i.e. their room, cave, or cupboard. Follow that by describing the home that contains that room. Move out into their yard; their neighborhood; workplace; city; country; and finally any foreign destination that takes them away from these safety zones.
4. Whenever you’re embarking on either fiction or nonfiction research, ask yourself: a) What do I already know? b) What don’t I know? c) What do I want to know? Brainstorm your answers. Make extensive lists and then pursue the information you truly need. Useless research can eat up a lot of creative time.
5. Narrow your focus: rather than try to describe an entire panorama, choose a few unique details to define your setting in as specific and simple terms as you can. The main reason editors and many readers claim to dislike the inclusion of overly-descriptive passages is that they slow the story down.
6. Good news, bad news: you don’t have to travel to the places you write about. (And here you were thinking you could call that dream vacation "research.") Foreign travel is great of course, but not necessary to your writing. The trick is to use research opportunities that go beyond simply reading a nonfiction book about your chosen setting. My absolute favorite starting point (as you’ll have gathered from my last two posts) is to collect magazine photos to get a feeling for the look of the place. I gather photos that show my setting by night, midday, dawn; luxury tourist areas and the poverty-stricken backstreets; private homes, grocery stores, schools, business districts. I try to get as wide an angle as I can on every aspect of my setting.
7. Read cookbooks. A good cookbook is so much more than a collection of recipes. Besides providing insights into foreign foods and ingredients, the books are often filled with memoir, historic references, and overall cultural attitudes to life, religion, festivities, as well as tiny details that may otherwise be overlooked. Trying out some of the recipes is just as important too!
8. Foreign newspapers are excellent resources, especially the back pages. Advertisements and the classifieds in particular can help you learn about the types of employment in a town or country, as well as the price of items and what kind of things people are interested in buying and selling.
9. Read as much foreign fiction as you can that originates from your chosen setting. Watch foreign films and television programs.
10. Order some items from your chosen country online: food, clothing, cosmetic items, and crafts. Just seeing how these things are wrapped for shipping is an amazing view into “how things are done.” Often these items will have their own unique and sometimes surprising scent that conjures up all kinds of images. For instance, I recently bought some paper scraps from India. The smell of incense, curry, and industrial strength bleach emanating from these colorful sheets is enough to describe an entire marketplace.
11. With that in mind always, always write with your five senses. Description of place goes far beyond the way it “looks.”
12. If you do get to travel to your chosen setting, make sure you take some time to be by yourself away from tourist sites. Go to the grocery stores, shopping centers used by locals, back neighborhoods. Be still; observe and record; again, use your five senses.
13. When in doubt, make it up. (Within reason of course!) But really, there’s nothing on earth to stop you inventing your own apartment building, restaurant, private school, or subdivision. Just make sure it follows the “norm” of wherever it's set and isn’t too bizarre, such as a Starbucks at the top of the leaning tower of Pisa (though maybe there is such a thing now, who knows…).
14. Fantasy, science fiction, or mythological settings. This is when you can put the Starbucks wherever you want it. The key to creating fantasy settings is to stay consistent. You will have to make maps, create your ground rules for place and image, and once again, use the five senses as much as possible. Magazine cut-outs are especially useful here to help you portray and remember your other-world.
15. Finally, keep in mind that setting is tied into the emotions of your characters. It can be a source of conflict, comfort, wonder, pleasure, and downright boredom for them. It’s up to you as the writer to choose which parts of your setting are the most important to your characters and discard whatever doesn’t keep your story moving forward.
Tip of the day: Get out those notebooks! Try a week’s worth of writing practice based solely on setting. Where are you now? Where do you wish you could be? Write.