The Weather in New Orleans has been horrible today and is forecasted to be the same through the weekend. It's days like this that I get so much reading and writing done and honestly not much else! Thanks to all the rain, it's perfect timing for our next blog post which is about the importance of setting in your story/writing. Our guest blogger has done a thorough job (including helpful links) in teaching us more about this subject and I know you are going to LOVE it! So let me introduce you to our guest blogger this week , Erica Merchant.
Erica Merchant was born in New Orleans into a family of readers. Her first memories all involve books and she began writing at age seven. After graduating from LSU with a double major in Creative Writing and Philosophy, minoring in French and Painting and Drawing, Erica moved to central China where she intended to spend a year teaching English and deciding what sort of graduate studies to pursue. Instead she spent twelve years developing her career, working a variety of jobs from ESL teacher to executive coach to soft-skills trainer. Erica successfully completed NaNoWriMo in 2013 and Camp Nano in both July 2016 and April 2017, writing a draft of a novel about expat life in Beijing and Shanghai and a non-fiction book about the changes in mainland China from 2003, when they won the bid for the ’08 Olympics, till 2010 when they hosted the World Expo. Erica is currently writing a fantasy novel inspired by Asian history which explores the intersection of science and spirituality. In her free time, she enjoys hip-hop, practicing yoga, making art with her children, and reading about her many interests including mysticism, transpersonal psychology, and non-dualistic philosophy.
Last November, I started writing a scientific fantasy novel that’s been kicking around in my brain since 2015. My draft so far has a lot of nuanced characters and rollicking action but is incredibly light on setting details to ground the story. Many fantasy authors can happily world build for hundreds of pages but I am so caught up in the drama I forget not everyone can see the vivid and complex world so well developed in my head.
Writer Elizabeth Bowen said, “Nothing can happen nowhere. The locale of the happening always colors the happening, and often, to a degree, shapes it.” Location is an intrinsic part of a story; even if it hasn’t seemed important in your draft so far, having a convincing setting makes your work more persuasive. It is easy to write about primal landscapes – the place you grew up or one where you spent a lot of time. But what about foreign lands, places to which you haven’t travelled? Further out still - what about imaginary worlds, alternative histories and realities? How do you know which setting details are important? This is where point of view plays a crucial role, as the significance is determined by the observer. A person who has never seen the ocean before will respond very differently to crashing waves on the shore than an experienced sailor, who may not even notice them.
When you begin your project, it’s helpful to decide how big of a role the setting is going to play in your work. Is the setting integral to your plot as with historical/geographical fiction or is the story more archetypal?
We can find compelling examples of both types. Take Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. New Orleans is a central component of the story. Now imagine it set in small town northern Louisiana like Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries (which inspired the HBO series True Blood) and you have an entirely different story. Salvatore Scibona’s stylish 2009 novel The End is set in an Italian immigrant neighborhood in 1953 Ohio. The story takes place over the course of one day and would fall apart without the specific time, place, and location.
On the other hand, many of Shakespeare’s plays are more humanistic and can be transplanted to a new setting without losing the essence of the story. Ralph Fiennes set Coriolanus in modern times (while keeping the original dialogue). Baz Luhrmann remade Romeo and Juliet into a romantic crime drama. There’s also a film called A Midsummer’s Night Rave, which is exactly what it sounds like. Wikipedia has a list of modernized adaptations of old works (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_modernized_adaptations_of_old_works where you’ll find films like Apocalypse Now and Clueless, the successful film adaptations of 19th century novels.
My work falls into the first category. I’ve meshed the sweeping deserts, formidable mountains, and verdant oasis of Central Asia with the towering skyscrapers of Tokyo or Hong Kong to create an entirely new world inexorably linked to the story I’m telling. Consider your own short story or novel – how would a change in setting affect the style, characterization and plot? Which setting details are significant and which are extraneous?
The answers to these questions can be applied to world building in our own writing - all fiction, even the most realistic, demands creative use of ‘reality’ and requires a suspension of disbelief. Judicious research will help you choose sensuous details that captivate your reader. The question then becomes how much research do you really need to do?
The answer will differ drastically depending on whether you are writing a modern novel set in your hometown or a historical novel set in 270 C.E. about the intervention of the central Mexican city of Teotihuacan in Mayan dynastic politics. You also have to consider your audience – novice, expert, or somewhere in the middle? A glaringly wrong detail takes the reader out of the story and can put them in a foul enough mood that they may decide to stop reading. It helps to know your audience. Do some market research and find out who is reading the kind of stories you are writing to get an idea of how much research is enough.
Imaginary worlds are often based on real places, and I find the level of research needed to create a fantasy world matches or exceeds that of historical fiction. Created worlds are usually inspired by the world we know, so finding a place to draw from can be extremely helpful. When writing about a world that has rules different from our own, the author must be mindful of the internal logic of the story. The rules may be different, but they must be consistent and non-contradictory, or risk deus ex machina. There should be enough truth for the reader to relax in the story world without constantly thinking, ‘That’s impossible!’ Rules are particularly important if you are writing about magic, a subject which already requires appreciable suspension of disbelief for the average reader. If you are interested in this subject, I would refer you all to Sanderson’s laws of Magic. The First law can be found at [ https://brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-first-law/ ] and is aimed at fantasy authors, however the second and third laws have some generally great writing advice using fantasy settings as the context.
When I think of research, the first image that comes to mind is a table next to a window in a quiet room, filled with stacks of books and dust motes dancing in the light. Research is actually much more varied and sometimes can be done from your chair with your eyes closed. Writer Amity Gage, who teaches the setting module in the Coursera creative writing course offered by Wesleyan University breaks research down into three types: functional, inspirational, and imaginative.
Functional research is discovering facts by visiting places and interviewing people firsthand, or using libraries, databases, and websites. It’s ideal to travel to your chosen location and spend some time walking, observing, and taking pictures. It doesn’t have to be a long trip, just enough for you to get a feel for the rhythm of the city or landscape. If you are unable to travel, all is not lost - you just have to get creative. I use Google Image to help me with visual descriptions. The great thing about the Scrivener software is that you can split the view finder so your chosen image takes up one half of the screen allowing you to write in the other. This helps me with landscape details immensely. I also read about the GDP of countries, locations of natural resources, food blogs, textiles and other particulars necessary when creating entirely new nations.
Check in the children’s section of the Library (900’s non-fiction) for excellent photo books on history, religion, geography, or anthropology. You may also need to read longer primary and secondary sources, but for writing inspiration, particularly when it comes to visualizing setting, picture books with captions and chunks of information can be just what you need to stimulate your muse.
Inspirational research involves listening to music that puts you in a certain mood, searching through junk shops or family photographs, and reading short stories, poetry, or novels that open your heart and mind. Writing about an ancient land far in the future led me to discover the oldest known melody, discovered in Ugarit, Syria dating to 1400 B.C.E. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBhB9gRnIHE ). I’m fond of listening to regional music while I write and highly recommend the Traditional Music Channel on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4gNHCugaKSSCpaI2hL2Jmg) though I would advise against listening to sacred music casually. Sometimes when I am feeling stuck, I choose a song (instrumental or in another language), close my eyes, and start typing along to the music. This is a variation on automatic writing, the Surrealist technique used to transcend the conscious mind and tapping into the sub- or superconscious mind.
Once we have gathered our facts and found our inspiration, it is imaginative research that directs the deployment of those details. You must walk through your own setting and know it with your skin getting truly immersed in your world. Use your senses to describe not only the sight and sound, but also the taste, feel, and smell of a place. These details, even if fantastical or unfamiliar to the reader, can help to ground your story in a place.
An excellent way to do this besides staring out the window (seriously) is to try visualization and meditation exercises. I’d like to invite you to try a short three-minute meditation. Set your clock for three minutes and prepare to sit in silence. Think of a setting you are using or want to use in your story or novel. Close your eyes. Place your point of view somewhere within that time, place, and situation. Begin to walk around. Engage your senses. You can remain on the ground or fly into the air for a hawk’s perspective. Walk in a building. Do you see any characters? What are they doing, seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling? If your mind wanders, which it certainly will, simply bring yourself back to the setting. Focus on sensory input. Do not give up – this exercise is designed to improve your concentration, a necessary quality for completing a project.
After you have finished, spend a few minutes writing out a debrief. Was that the longest three minutes of your life or was it peaceful like a budget mini-vacation?
This is a helpful exercise when you are feeling stuck. Our imagination is infinite yet the distractions of modern life make it more challenging to tap into this precious resource. The more you practice sitting in silence training your mind’s eye, the more powerful it will be. Think of your imagination as a small puppy. If you are inconsistent with training, you will have sporadic obedience. With consistent practice and discipline, the mammal can be brought to heel and come when you call.
Aside from the links I’ve included in this post, if you are looking for additional resources on crafting setting, I would recommend the Great Courses series Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques by James Hynes. It is available on Audible and Hoopla as well as the Great Courses website. Wesleyan University has a Creative Writing Specialization in 5 modules offered through Coursera. There is a special condensed version centered around NaNoWriMo which has 4 modules taking place from September to November, then a break to write your novel, then submission of your first chapter for peer review in December. This version is extraordinarily intense (especially in the two months leading up to NaNo) but provided a lot of valuable feedback in the form of peer-reviews and a lot of great insight from the professors.
Whether your mise-en-scène is so developed it qualifies as a character or just a backdrop for your scintillating plot will in some part determine the outcome of your tale. How big of a role does setting play in your current project? What techniques do you use to transport yourself to your world? What tips do you have for crafting sensuous, immersive settings? Let us know in the comments.