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!

 

Character Creation

According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of “story” is:

NOUN (plural stories)

Notice how the first element in this definition is “people.” That is, characters. Whether real or imaginary, all stories begin with a character. And only then can we as writers put them into messes and conflicts and see what happens.
Sounds like bad news for those of us who come up with plotlines first. For instance, I can’t think of one idea where I came up with a character and said, “Now, what happens to this person?” Rather, it goes something like this: “I”ve got a slew of dead bodies piling up in Jack the Ripper-esque fashion, and now I need someone to stop the killer before he strikes again.”
And guess what? I can’t go any further without figuring out who that person is. I can’t even really go any further unless I know why this killer is doing what he’s doing. So see, it’s not that hard to start with character even if you’re a plot fiend like me. Because whatever inspires you to write a story, you’re still going to need a character. That’s why the first step in Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days begins with character creation.
Now while I won’t share any of her brilliant insight or worksheets (you’ll have to buy the book yourself), I will share my process of character creation using methods she describes tweaked by me. And that’s what you should be doing: take the knowledge you’ve learned from various sources and manipulate it until you find out what works best for you.
Any book on writing or writing teacher will probably have/give a list of character sketches to complete with categories like Physical Description, Background Information, Personality Traits, Internal Conflicts, External Goals, etc. But to really get to the heart of your character, it’s imperative to know what s/he would do in extraordinary circumstances. This, in turn, will organically inform other areas of the sketch you hadn’t previously realized.
Here are some probing questions you might ask of your character (which may or may not make it into your story):
  1. What is your character’s biggest weakness/greatest fault?
  2. What is your character most afraid of?
  3. What is your character’s most prized possession? What one item or person would your character save in a fire and why?
  4. What is your character’s proudest accomplishment?
  5. What is your character’s guilty pleasure? Bad habits? Secret talent? Pet peeves?
  6. Who is your character’s greatest hero and why?
  7. If your character could bring anyone back from the dead, who would it be and why?
  8. What is one thing your character doesn’t know about him/herself? Who knows about this?
  9. Does your character have a recurring dream or nightmare and what is it? What wakes your character up at night?
  10. What is your character’s moment of most profound guilt? Redemptive forgiveness? 

But don’t stop here. Come up with your own questions. Anything that leads to deeper insight goes.

While some writers like (or need) to keep to a strict schedule, I’ve found it’s best to let things percolate. Fill out a few sections of the sketch at your leisure in any order you wish and revisit it often. There is nothing linear about writing and just because you don’t have an answer for one category in your sketch right now doesn’t mean you won’t in a few hours, days, or weeks. And it doesn’t mean you have to keep the first ideas you come up with either. As other elements of your story become clear, new ideas and answers will unfold. I promise.

In my last post, I mentioned how I didn’t like my main character. More often than not, my protagonists are neurotic, moody, overly-dramatic, bitches with a chip on their shoulders. I always love my secondary characters; they seem so much more complex, interesting, and sympathetic. Why is this? Maybe it’s because I have been writing in first person, and the only way I can show secondary characters is through action and dialogue–two of my strengths. I don’t have to get into their heads and describe what they’re thinking and feeling especially when there isn’t anyone else around to talk to.

What changed this time? I took out the horrible event from her past. Of course, I still needed a reason for my character to give up her education in the US to move to England, but it didn’t have to be so tragic. So now she didn’t have anything to prove or have a chip on her shoulder. She didn’t have to be tough (although she is). And that changed everything about her.

I wrote a few opening lines in third person to further remove myself:

Tate stepped off the plane all boots and leather and bleary eyes.

Then I made her outgoing, a chatty-cathy if you will, because, after all, if she’s going to be a journalist, she should probably like talking to people. So I wrote a few lines of dialogue between her and the cab driver:

 “The Queen said that?”

            “I swear on me mum’s grave.” Bartleby, the cab driver, crossed his heart and looked back at me in the rearview mirror. “Heard it straight from Georgie, me second cousin twice-removed.”

            “Georgie? The dishwasher with the lisp and the cauliflower ear?” I asked, leaning farther into the front seat.

            “Well, I only got one cousin who’s a dishwasher.” He erupted into a gurgling chortle that ended in a pneumatic wheeze.

            Wiping tears on the sleeve of my jacket, I gasped for breath between fits of laughter. “Wow. I never would have guessed.”

This new reincarnation of my main character percolated for at least a couple of months. I kept wanting to go back to some horrible event in her past. And I did. A couple of times. Until I finally settled on a more realistic reason for her to leave her friends and family behind, a reason that would connect her to the antagonist as well.

With this new inspiration, I was ready to work on all my characters.

First, I typed up a brief synopsis of each character’s identity and role in the story then filled out a pre-fab character sketch for each. For some characters, like my protagonist, I was able to fill out most sections relatively quickly. For others, like some of the secondary characters, particulary the red herring, I’ve only just begun to make a dent.

L: brief synopsis R: basic character sketch
L: brief synopsis
R: basic character sketch

Though you can’t quite see on the left image, there are some characters who only have one or two sentences descriptions as well as changes made to others after the fact. As a rule, I like to do most of my prewriting by hand. It seems more organic to me to have the thoughts flow from my brain to my hand to my pen to create the letters and words on the page. Typing is faster and less messy, and it’s all up to you how you like to write, but writing, in general, is messy. Plus, it’s easier to carry pieces of paper around with you to fill out as the ideas come instead of trying to get into a computer file. And, I’ve found, these sketches are not set in stone. I keep revising them all the time.

After I filled out the basic sketch, I worked on answering some of the harder questions for my protagonist and then free-wrote a summary of her backstory.

The hard stuff
The hard stuff
L: Antagonist freewrite R: Protagonist backstory
L: Antagonist freewrite
R: Protagonist backstory

The whole idea with freewriting is to just slap a whole bunch of ideas onto the page and see what sticks. I won’t use everything or maybe even anything that are on these pages, but getting your ideas out there on the page will lead to new and improved ideas you may never have come up with if you hadn’t gone through this process. I ask questions in my writing, some I follow up on, some I discard before even considering the answer. I make notations about things I would need to research. I contradict myself over and over again. And that’s okay. Nothing is perfect in this stage and it shouldn’t be.

There are other tricks writers use to get to know their characters, and I’ve tried pretty much all of them: journaling in your character’s voice, interviewing, writing dialogue between two characters, writing the scene of one of those hard questions. And you probably have some of your own methods: making a collage of your character’s favorite things, finding a photo of someone who represents your character, making a playlist that represents specific moments in your character’s life…

Whatever your strategies are, use them. Not just for your main character but for all your characters. Figuring out what motivates everyone will inspire new ideas. I promise.

If you’ve got a favorite method for creating characters or have a question or even just want to chat writing, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

Calling All You Writing Freaks

 

Halloween is by far the scariest time of the year. Not just because it is the one night when the veil between the worlds is opened allowing spirits, ghosts, and succubi to cross over into our realm or because gangs of teenagers run amuck through the streets toilet papering trees, waxing windows, and smashing pumpkins. Halloween is scary because it falls on the eve of NaNoWriMo. Yes, that dreaded month when every writer willingly surrenders himself into the depths of hell and participates in self-flagellation in the name of writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

So I thought Halloween would be a great time to prepare yourself for the month to come. All you have to do is write for one hour at some point on October 31. It doesn’t matter what you write because the best part about this is that your writing can put on a costume and pretend to be whatever it wants for those 60 minutes. If it turns out to be just a character sketch, or backstory, or even a few lines of dialog, it’s okay! It’s come as you aren’t night. So don’t get all self-critical or go all hyper-editor on yourself. Just have fun! Because the next 30 days are going to be anything but.

In case you need a few suggestions to get you started, here they are: (and they’re all conveniently Halloween related)

1. Find an eerie image or a piece of haunting music to inspire you 

2. Write about what monster scared you the most as a child (or as a grown adult): vampire, Frankenstein, mummies, zombies, mad scientists, ghosts, witches, etc.

3. Write about what the town children would do if Halloween was canceled because of a freak weather anomaly

4. Pick your favorite Halloween costume from childhood. What was it? Why? Now write about what kind of life you as that “person” would have lived.

5. You’re getting your fortune told at a fair when the psychic tactfully informs you that you are already dead.

6. You foolishly accept a dare to spend the night in a cemetery/haunted house/abandoned prison/insane asylum/whatever.

7. You arrive at your friend’s Halloween party when one of the guests turns up dead.

 

 

Come on guys, it’s just one hour. Let go of your old habits and have fun with this. You never know where your next great idea will come from.

Enter this Halloween challenge…if you dare! Muwahahahaha.

Dreamweaver

Even in my dreams I like to control things because, last night while in one, I thought up an idea for an adult novel. I know, what the hell do I know about being an adult let alone writing for them. But it seemed kind of cool and I ran with it. Three women, all friends and all with their own expertise, run a business. The business happens to be procuring real estate for vacation homes. One woman is an expert in real estate, another in travel, and the third in design or something. Clients would approach them to find and decorate a property overseas.

So it wasn’t exactly thrilling.

My brain then transformed the idea into three elderly women in the jewelry business who had their own reality show. Two very stark and emaciated women enter the shop looking for jewelry to complete their outfits of sheer belly dance choli tops and harem pants. Neither woman had ever worn anything that was related to monotheism.

I can’t make up this stuff.

But even when I awoke, I thought there might be something to my original vision of three friends in some kind of cool business together. What the plot could be, I have no idea.

Coincidentally, my friend relayed a dream she had of us about to fight high school zombies until she becomes scared and runs away leaving me to kill them all myself. Now this is a story! But not one I’m going to write.

These thoughts of dreams led me to come up with the writing exercise I’m sharing here.

Take one of your dreams and write about it. The homework I gave my friend, who is distraught over her fear of zombies, was to rewrite the dream on paper. I told her she could be scared and run away, but she must write it into the story that she returns to help me kill all the zombies, and we are victorious.

The dream of my designing women is a bit harder to work with because nothing much happened, but I still think there might be something to these characters if I could put them into action.

You never know, one of your dreams may end up being the next vampire cult phenomenon.