Friday, May 25, 2012

Lesson 2: Setting

Okay, lets go with Lesson 2: Setting.

I used to always want to have the settings of my stories in space, or in some fantasy land. That way no one could tell me it wasn't real or authentic. Plus it seemed to increase the possibilities for the story.

Then I remembered the old adage about writing about what you know. Nothing makes you feel more stupid and less interesting than trying to write about what you know. Assuming most people are like me, you feel like your life is relatively boring and uninteresting. As I've gotten older I've come to appreciate the lack of drama in my life, but as far as writing a story that will hold someone's attention goes it doesn't provide a very deep well to draw on.

Most of the books I enjoy reading take place in either a big city in which I've never lived, or the main characters race around the world to locations I've barely heard of let alone spell correctly.  There's something exciting and fun watching Indiana Jones in exotic locations. Though I'm writing YA books right now, I personally enjoy thrillers and spy books and that means international intrigue. So, what do you do?

I know very little about the world outside my hometown. I currently have a sort of interesting job that has broaded my understanding of people. I teach English to people in foreign countries. I work for a company called "TellMeMore," based in France. I contact, either by Skype or through the Internet, students who live in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, China, Korea, Poland, Morocco, Venesula,  Columbia, Russia, Canada, and Mexica. It has been fun to not only teach them English but to discuss other subjects with them ranging from politics and religion to when a person should start dating or get married. This input hasn't necessarily increased my "setting" knowledge about places, (although it has improved my geography a bit), but, it has given me an insight into people around the world. Lo and behold, we really are all more alike than we would ever believe. I've met great and wonderful people every where and come to discover that what they really want out of life is pretty much the same as what I want out of life. And that knowledge does help in its way.

Well, to swing this thing back into settings, I have a some-what developed view on the write what you know about concept. Whatever setting you write about, you have got to be able to describe it well enough that a reader feels like he/she is there. And more importantly that you know what you are talking about. Consider a book you've read where the action takes place in a foreign city; they don't tell you about everything. They give you just enough details to make it feel right. They usually include a little anecdotal story about a place which really makes them sound like they have researched the place or perhaps lived there for a while. But, I don't think that is necessary. I've even come to think that reading these stories is sometimes part of my background search. I'm not talking about plaigarizing their material, but using it as a framework.

I read a blog by Stephanie Meyers where she said she picked the "Forks" location for her story by doing a Google search for where it was rainiest in America. She then did some research and wrote her story. I don't know if she ever visited Forks prior to the release of Twilight, but I don't think she did. So, in short, I don't think you have to be a world traveler to set your story in a foreign location. I think it would help immeasurably, but it's not a do-or-die proposition as long as you sound like you know what you're talking about.

You can probably create that overall setting feel by doing research and dropping key descriptions along the way. Even referring to a fence as being "red" can give it the right feel when done at the right time and place. What you can't skip, however, is detail.  By detail, I'm referring to a specific place where any action in your book is going to take place.

Let's say you are writing a shoot-out scene in a house. That house may be down your street, or in Timbuktu, but where ever it is, you must have a very detailed idea in your mind as to what it looks like. Where do the halls go? What is on the walls? Carpeting or hardwood? As the action moves through that location you need to know exactly where the characters are and what they are doing in relation to the world around them.

Now, having made a pitch for a setting any where in the world, I'm going to now make a pitch for writing a story that takes place where you live or in a location you know very well.

Bewitched, (at least in this first book) takes place in Smithfield and Logan, Utah, where I live. I used to shy away from where I live because I thought, Utah? Nothing happens here! That's not as true as it used to be, but lets assume it is true. Let's say you live in a  back water no place. That's sometimes exactly what your story needs or wants. Your monster doesn't always have to terrorize Tokyo. You can even make the story itself depend on the fact that it is taking place in a small town, or (where ever you live). In Bewitched, the characters are searching for a spell book that was hidden thousands of years ago. The location was purposely remote. Now the reason it is here in an out-of-the-way place all makes sense. It HAD to happen here. No where else would have made sense. (The TV show True Blood is in a small town in the south called Beau Temps. I don't even know if it is a real place, but the description is great.)

As far as Bewitched goes, I took a little car ride around town to find a location for Samantha and Clara's house. I even wrote down the turns I took and which little town I was in. I don't think these things have to be exact in a work of fiction (though it doesn't hurt) but it should be detailed enough to sound right. I took pictures of the local trees around the house I decided to make theirs. I asked my mother-in-law what they were called since she knew and I didn't. I wrote down a description of the house, but I then played with that a little. As a matter of fact while I was out in front of this lady's house taking pictures and writing notes, she came out to ask me what I was doing. I felt kind of stupid, but I told her what I was doing and she was happy to help out and answer any questions I had.

I did the same thing with Sky View High School. Since the high school actually exists and is just down the street from me I figured I better go and check it out. Someone from the office showed me around and answered my questions. I also asked a student a few questions. Some of the action that takes place below the school I made up (if there is such a place under Sky View they didn't tell me and I didn't ask), but the rest of the description of the school and the Rec Center I took from the actual place. In my mind when I drive by the school I see the "mausoleum" on the west lawn. :)

That doesn't mean you have to go to a place you want to use, but I would suggest drawing a little map. For another book I'm using I actually took photos of some girls I went to junior high with right from our old year books to use as I described what the characters looked like and how they acted.

Well, I know I've rambled my way through most of this, but I hope it was helpful. The next lesson will be about....Plot or Character....perhaps both. :)

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