The Beautiful Writers Workshop: Novelty #7– Setting

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Good morning! So, here we are. Working our way through the bulleted list on Novel Writing. Today is about setting, but before I build up that world, I would like to remind you:

Keep in mind, there are many intricacies to writing a novel. It can’t all be learned in 7 points. Or 25. Or even 100. Most novelists have one or two ‘starter’ novels that never see the light of day. Because the process of writing a complete novel is, in itself, the real lesson of what does and doesn’t work. Until you do it, write it, fight through it, you won’t truly grasp which elements are most important, and how to get through the problems that you will inevitably face.

Now–on to Setting.

Setting is the world where your characters live, where the plot takes place and what influences those major themes. Setting includes physical space (mountains, city, country, house, street, etc), time period (modern day, future, Elizabethan England), multiplied by fiction and non-fiction (3050 space opera set on a distant planet versus 1944 Italy during the Second World War).

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I am a firm and staunch believer that setting is, itself, integral as a character in your story. Setting will dictate so much of your novel. The physical and temporal surroundings of your characters limit or promote certain behaviors, patterns of speech, choices, and opportunities. The setting, say a creepy old house on the coast of Maine, can even be a character itself, lending an influential factor to the events that play out. (Wouldn’t be the same if Destiny Harrison had moved into a swanky new apartment in L.A.)

My first piece of advice for setting is that if it is someplace or some time you aren’t personally familiar with, do a shit-ton (yes, that’s a real measurement) of research. If you can (time-machines not withstanding) visit the place, the area. Get a feel for it. Even better, do it in the season or hour that takes place in your novel.

If you have a scene on the harbor at dawn, your description will be more apt if you’ve been on a harbor at dawn. If you’ve never seen the bursting yellow of aspens in October, it’s hard to capture the exact shade of gold against the pinion green.

Secondly, when building the world of your novel, utilize all the senses. How does the sunlight break over the mountain? In dusty, slow waves or in a brilliant flash? Does the air feel crisp on the tongue or heavy with heat? What do you hear? This all goes hand in hand with showing the audience, not telling. Jack didn’t feel the heat of the fire. The fire seeped beneath his skin.

Thirdly, when you approach setting it is VITAL to find the balance between description and information dump. A common mistake (in my humble opinion) in even the most prolific writer, is to go on a little too long building the “world moment” to the point the reader is bogged down or the pace slows. Now, I understand, that some novels require a good solid understanding of their worlds (often if it’s unfamiliar to the reader– ie a sci-fi/fantasy or historical fiction). But, if you can manage, feed these tidbits to the reader throughout. Think snacking not gorging. Offer what is relevant, what moves or enhances the scene, or gives hints or important clues for later on in the book, then draw back and let the audience digest it.

Setting is a great place to build imagery, be a little poetic, and really put your reader in the middle of your novel. Similarly, sometimes the most simple of descriptions can be effective so don’t overwhelm with too long or heavy paragraphs.

Make it a living, breathing entity of the book, something that becomes part of the whole in a way that is inseparable from the action, characters, dialogue and voice.

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This week, look at your work in progress, pick out a particularly rough scene and ask yourself what’s going on with the setting. How can it influence or help your characters actions? Look at your longer paragraphs, are there moments where your readers might be caught in a deluge of description? Boil it down to the instrumental aspects of setting. What tone does it overlay? Does that enhance the other pieces?

Okay. Good luck out there. Let me know how it goes.

The Beautiful Writers Workshop Novelty #6: “The Kid’s Got Style”

Good evening, my little writing gnomes. This evening I’m writing from the NCW’s writing fall writing retreat in Estes Park, Colorado. Firstly, if you’ve never taken a weekend, or a few days, to do nothing but devote time to your craft, I highly recommend you give it a try. When you aren’t weighed down by laundry, school emails, or cat’s randomly vomiting out food that they didn’t apparently feel like chewing, you can actually get a lot of things done.

We’ll talk more about that in a later blog. Today…it’s all about STYLE.

Style isn’t regaled to only novel writing. Every author has a voice. This is not the Point of View, as we discussed last week. A voice is an author’s particular way of writing. If you want to look at the extremes, you could compare the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald to those of Ernest Hemingway. Contemporaries and acquaintances (it’s argued if they were actually friends) they shared a propensity for two things, drinking and good writing. Beyond that, they had incredibly different voices. Hemingway was a man’s man, bull-fighting, womanizer. Fitzgerald was more introspective, a romantic, one might say. And their voices showed it and affected readers differently.

This quote hangs above my desk:

“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.”

― Francis Scott Fitzgerald

Before you move on…read that again. Can’t you feel him speaking to you? Can’t you feel a hand on your shoulder or even a hand on your back (as one of my favorite inspirational women says: https://www.christinedercole.com/s/) encouraging you to take action, to not be dissuaded?

In contrast:

“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.”

― Ernest Hemingway

First–did anyone else notice what POV he just used? Come on…it was only a week ago. The dreaded 2nd and he, as always, did an amazing job. Listen, in my humble opinion, Hemingway was kind of a giant misogynistic ass, but he could write a fine damn sentence, and his work cut through your skin like wind on a cold February day. But notice the colder, darker tone. The harshness.

The difference between those two is not in their brilliance. It’s in the feeling they evoke, and to me, that’s what your voice is. A writer cannot help but leave a trace of themself on the page. It’s probably why my heroines curse, or why setting to me feels like it always needs a bit of poetry–utilizing the senses to accentuate.

I’m a bit more Fitzgerald than I am Hemingway…But I’m all Sarah. And you are all you.

STYLE is what makes your story, even if it fits a trope or a formula, unique. Because no one is you. No one has your experiences, your vernacular (why you might say wa-r-sh instead of wash, or creek instead of cr-ic-k), your vocabulary, your turn of phrase, your tone.

I’ve tried to read ‘popular’ authors that I just couldn’t stand because they made a point to turn every sentence into a dictionary-induced game of look-up-the-word or strayed too far from the point. I’ve read simple shorts that didn’t use a word over 15 letters long that left me with chills and turning the page hungrily.

It’s not in the size, its in your style (remember I said that fellas).

So… I don’t have much to elaborate on here. I can’t train you to write in your own voice. You just have to write and see what comes of it. Are you poetic? Are you straightforward? Are you humorous? Do you tend to sink into the gray dark, or do you lift up towards the light? When you write are you telling the story to an audience, or to a friend? Every day may be different for each of us, but in total, your ‘voice’, your STYLE, is the way you tell a story.

So, look over your work in progress, short stories or poems you’ve written, and try to feel out what your voice sounds like. It’s hard to do this, so feel free to enlist the help of outsiders (friends, family, book groups, critique groups).

You will know your voice when you hear it.

Stay true to it, because if you ever try to write in someone else’s, your story–your work, will suffer.

We can’t all be Hemingway. Please, God…don’t let us all be Hemingway. We need Plaths and Fitzgeralds. We need Rowlings and Brookses. We need it all. The whole spectrum of style.

So get out there and write true to yours.