Setting the Scene

By now you’ve probably done extensive work on most, if not all, of your story’s characters. And even if you haven’t filled in every section of whatever character sketch template you decided to use, that’s okay. You can, and should, continue to work on character as ideas come. This may mean adding new information you hadn’t thought of before as other elements of your story, such as plot and setting, come together, or it may mean deleting certain ideas that no longer seem valid. Just last night I finished a character sketch for a pivotal character, the red herring, that I hadn’t been able to work on before without some research on setting.

Here’s what I mean: I decided my red herring, tentatively named Andrey/Sergey/Yuriy, would work in the meat-packing district in the East End of London. I didn’t know if there was a meat-packing district there, so I had to do some research on setting. Come to find out, the closest thing to one is the Smithfield Market where a variety of butchers sell their goods.

This couldn’t be more perfect because, in the 1888 Whitechapel Murders, there had been a suspect named “Leather Apron” and a theory that the killer could have been a butcher because of the way the victims’ organs had been removed.

So now that Andrey/Sergey/Yuriy works for one of the butcheries, his job might take him to the English countryside where the farms are and could place him in the village during the time of the murders. Without knowing this information on setting, I would never have been able to link my character to both the story I am creating and the original historical event I am using for inspiration.

In fact, every element of storytelling will inform others and generate new ideas you hadn’t been able to conceive before. Let this process happen naturally. Nothing creative can be set in stone.

Coincidentally, the second phase of Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days process is setting.

Setting is not just time and place. It encompasses landscape, climate, political/religious/social milieu, clothing style, language, food choices, employment opportunities, architecture, cultural values, behavioural norms, laws and the justice system, education, and most of all–secrets. You get the picture!

Unless you’re concocting a fantasy world where you are in complete control of all these categories, or you’re basing your story on a setting where you have spent significant time, like your childhood hometown, you’ll probably have to do some research. Obviously, taking a trip to desired setting will give you firsthand information, including atmosphere (mood), textures, smells, sounds, etc., but if that’s not possible you may have to resort to books, magazines, maps, travel guides, and Internet searches. Even better if you know someone who has been to your desired setting. Don’t hesitate to ask them questions and ask for any photos they may have. This will help create at least some authenticity. No one wants to read a story that takes place where s/he lives and find blatant errors like setting a ghetto housing project on St. Germaine Street when in reality it’s the swankiest neighborhood in the city.

My favorite way to research setting is through images. I am a visual learner and have files of images on settings for all my story ideas. From those images, I can make general assumptions about what things feel like, sound like, smell like based on similar places I’ve been. Here are some of the images I’ve collected for this project.

East End Pub
East End Pub
North Yorkshire moors 
Dorm room windows
Dorm room windows
Architecture
Architecture
Quaint village street
Quaint village street

 

 

 

 

School Dining Room
School Dining Room
Village alley
Village alley
Dartmoor National Park
Dartmoor National Park
Whitechapel 1888
Whitechapel 1888
Drive to campus
Drive to campus

 

 

 

 

 

It also helps to read other books that take place in your desired setting as long as the author is credible. Think James Joyce writing about Dublin. And then there is National Geographic, Rick Steves’ travelogues, B&N discount book section in which I’ve found no less than 10 huge coffee table books on the history of ancient Egypt, newspaper articles, etc. Reading as much non-fiction about your desired setting can give you valuable information that just may play a role in your story. And even if it doesn’t, whoever said knowledge was a waste of time?

Some categories to include in your general setting sketch are Time (Day, Year, Season, etc.), Location (City, State, Country, Region, etc.), and Language (Dialect, Vernacular). Other categories to consider depending on the genre of story you’re writing are Dominant Religion and Attitude, Cultural Customs, Political Climate/Government, and Dominant Social Class and Attitudes.

Now that you’ve got a feel and description for your general setting, it’s time to work on specific settings your characters will inhabit, such as their homes, places of business, schools, restaurants/bars, cars, etc. This should require little effort if you’ve done some research on your general setting. For example, you wouldn’t describe your protagonist’s home as being American Colonial style if he lives in southern California; however, you might describe it as being in Mediterranean or Spanish style. Likewise, you probably wouldn’t see too many convertibles in Alaska in winter but might see a lot of 4WD vehicles with plows on them.

Depending on what point of view you’re writing from (whether first-person, third-person omniscient, or multiple third-person limited), you’ll want to create a list of each specific settings your character(s) will inhabit during the course of your story. For instance, I am writing from a first-person POV, so my list will only include settings my protagonist will inhabit: private school grounds/quad, dorm room, common room, dining room, school newspaper office, classroom, village streets, village pub, moorland path, police station, and killer’s lair. I’m using some of the images above as inspiration only.

My protagonist’s roommate’s style is Bohemian gypsy/eclectic packrat, and I used the image below as inspiration for her dorm room decor.

Bettina's style
Bettina’s style

Then wrote this description:

It was like walking into a bohemian palace. Every wall covered in textured fabrics, woven throw rugs scattered on the hardwood floor, and Bettina’s bed enshrouded in what looked like a canopy of colored mosquito netting. In the fireplace, a lighted candelabra blazed and dripped wax on the hearth inches away from a pile of overstuffed pillows.

So this week, channel your inner fashion designer/set decorator, gather as many images as you can, and write sketches of what each specific setting might look like. You can write either brief notes to yourself and worry about the exact wording later, or you can write actual narrative as I did above and then copy/paste into your draft. If you choose to do the latter, remember that your description may well indeed change from this brainstorming phase to the actual drafting phase, so it’s best not to marry yourself to anything yet. Just remember to go for descriptions of all five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch.

Setting is one of my absolute favorite things to research and write about because a few well-placed descriptions can conjure up any desired atmosphere and make your reader feel whatever you want. For instance, the setting above not only reflects the character who resides there, it becomes a magical, fantastical place where the characters can escape from the harsh reality of young murdered homeless, drug-addled women and where legends of jackals are learned. Here, it’s okay to think outside the box. In a sterile police station, it would be a different story.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next blog on plot!

 

To Pants or Not to Pants: The Age-Old Question

After two + years of post-grad education, a year of working 12 hour days, Christmas holidays, and shoulder surgery, I’ve decided to work on the 10th reincarnation of my MFA thesis.

I’ve always prided myself in being a pantser. Characters grew organically on the page and forged their own conflicts and resolutions. And while that’s great, more often than not, those stories were a million miles away from my original visions. I read recently in Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction, that there are four stages of writing:

creating short fiction

  1. The daydream stage when you are basically writing for yourself.
  2. The trivial stage when you are trying to break free from your fantasy shell but you haven’t quite cracked it yet.
  3. The technical stage when your stories are reasonable but lack structure or character.
  4. The professional stage when you have finally arrived as a writer.

Looking back, I think, in a way, that pantsing my past novels had actually hindered my goal of reaching stage four. I, as the author, was not in control of what I was writing. I relied on my characters to tell me where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do, and I know every writer longs for having this type of automatic writing experience, but it doesn’t allow the writer to tell the story only he or she can.

In fact, every time I tried to go back and rewrite or revise my finished novel, I couldn’t do anything with it because I didn’t like the main character or the story line. What else is there, you ask? I loved my setting and I loved my original idea of having a modern-day-Jack-the-Ripper-type murder mystery set on the English moors. Unfortunately, my novel didn’t even have a murder; it only had a disappearance, and it had more to do with The Phantom of the Opera than Jack the Ripper.

So after years of frustration, I decided just to rewrite the whole damn thing. And when I say “rewrite,” I mean start from absolute scratch. New characters, new plot, new everything. It took me years of not reading my original novel to be able to get it out of my head long enough for me to come up with new ideas that had nothing to do with the old ones. It’s a really hard decision to trash an entire 300+ page novel that took two years to write and two years to shop around to publishers and agents, but I wasn’t happy with it on any level. Because some (read “most”) of the story had autobiographical overtones, it was necessary to get that story out in writing, put it behind me, and start from a place unencumbered by personal emotion.

My decision to go from pantser to plotter came about after reading First Draft in 30 Days by Karen S. Wiesner.

first draft

It’d been sitting in my writing book cabinet for I-don’t-know-how-long. I don’t even remember when I bought it. But I noticed it, started reading it, and thought, hey, if I can make an outline so detailed it could pass as a first draft, then I was willing to take up the challenge. Though I haven’t kept the same schedule Wiesner recommends, I have learned that my characters and my plot can grow organically through the outline process while still holding true to my original vision. Organic growth doesn’t just have to happen during the writing phase. And while some people may consider outlining a pre-writing strategy, it is just as valid and, I am convinced now, even more necessary than what we have come to call the drafting phase.

For the next several posts, I plan to write about my process of going through Wiesner’s system, using my own variations of her techniques, complete with images of my writing. I do this so that, if you too are at a crossroads in your writing, you can make the transition from pantser to plotter without the fear and shame that you are cashing in organic storytelling for prefabricated stories.

Murder is Serious Business

I’m contemplating murder. Definitely more than one, but most likely less than three. An almost-three seems a good number.

It’s enough to say, “Hey, there’s a crazy Jack the Ripper killer on the loose. Could I be his next victim?”

Plotting a murder takes a lot of work.

First, you have to figure out who you want to kill. And there has to be a reason why you want this person dead. I mean, senseless killing is just stupid. There are really only so many motives for murder: love, money, power, revenge, and a whole host of offshoots. I’m not adding self-defense to the list because after all it’s hardly premeditated and no one would blame you. And if anyone brings up the Saw movies or I’m a Rob Zombie backwoods psycho-cannibal, I will murder you.

Secondly, it helps to know who is doing the killing. This can over-complicate things. Why stop at one killer? Let’s make a copycat killer. Or better yet, let’s have two killers with two completely different motives that somehow intertwine. But it’s best to keep things simple. Someone has something, tangible or preferably not, that someone else wants. The only logical choice is to kill them. Yes, there must be logic even in murder.

And lastly, there has to be someone who discovers the body, otherwise it would just be pointless and stupid. So word to all those unsolved murder murderers out there–leave a clue for god’s sake! You know you secretly crave fame and attention for taking another person’s life (as long as you don’t get caught). Or do you want to get caught? The only way someone will know how truly great and powerful you are is if someone says, “Damn you, John Smith! You killed my wife!” Or I suppose you might also want forgiveness. Either/or.

Seriously, how awesome would it be if we finally knew without a doubt who Jack the Ripper really was and why s/he killed all those prostitutes? I, for one, want to know what was going on inside his or her head. And I don’t buy into the old “I’m insane from syphilis” theory. It’s so pedestrian. But I suppose our not knowing has forced us to create a real person of sorts. We gave him a name (well, that one letter helped), we psychoanalyzed him, we gave him a top hat and a doctor bag and a flashing Lister blade. Yes, we, the people, created Jack the Ripper.

Why my obsession with Jack the Ripper? Why not, I say? No one can out-murder him. And it just so happens he is the inspiration for the novel I wrote for my MFA thesis, which I am now completely and utterly rewriting to get back to my original vision instead of the transparent autobiography it had become. Of course, my Ripper isn’t a man, doesn’t carry a doctor bad, and doesn’t kill hard-working prostitutes. Lazy ones, perhaps. (I do hate lazy prostitutes.)

A dead girl.

 

 

An English moor.
A mysterious killer.
And a creative writing student.
In Gaslight Alley.