Tag Archives: setting the scene in your story

World-Building: Dressing the Set #amwriting

In any environment, fictional or real, the following is true: no matter how costly and rich or poor and rundown, personal belongings in a scene are only necessary for what they say about the people who own them.

WritingCraftWorldbuildingWhy is this so? Let’s look at an example.

Consider the protagonist in a scene set in a kitchen.

I cross to sit at the table. In front of me are a laptop, a cup of tea, a notepad, and a pen. The white page of the notepad stares back at me, accusing, as if to say, “Write, you fool.”

But words elude me.

As a reader, what do you see?

You see the word kitchen and assume it is furnished with everything you think should be there. You assume there is a sink, a stove, a refrigerator…and so on. Instantly, it becomes a room you can understand. Yet only the tea, the table, the notepad, and the pen are mentioned. The code word, the one that triggers the mental picture, is kitchen.

If we mention how the dark, heavy furniture lends an atmosphere of gloom to the room, that’s all the description we need to offer. The reader sees the laptop, notepad, and pen, along with a cup of tea against a version of dark and heavy dining furniture. The style of furniture will be something the reader is familiar with.

We don’t need to explain any further.

Possessions that are mentioned give the reader clues about many things. Some things will show economic class and background, but all should hint at the owner’s personality. Are they neat or untidy? Fond of some sort of art? Are there a lot of books? Maybe they are fond of music.

Perhaps they are a person who cares about style, or maybe they don’t. Their possessions reflect their personal tastes.

desaturated alice Tea setSo how is social class different from economic class? In some parts of the world, they are the same. In others, social class is inherited, and economic class is acquired.

When we meet them away from their environment, people’s social class can be hard to nail down just by looking at them. Behavior and manners are one clue, showing the standards and values a person was raised with, irrespective of their financial standing. You’d have to see their family and early lives to know their social class, if class matters to the story.

Most people from impoverished backgrounds are raised with good manners—politeness and respect are personal qualities everyone appreciates. People working in blue-collar jobs are curious about science and the world around them. They might love their work, but they may also value education and go out of their way to educate themselves. They might love all things NASA and look for science shows featuring space exploration.

 Many rich families lose their money and social standing over the course of generations. Who they once were no longer means anything. Who they are is all that counts.

Many children who start life in poverty grow up to own expensive clothes and cars, earning them through hard work. So, if you mention a brand name with “cool” status, such as Rolex or iPhone, you are only scraping the surface of the person. You have to go a little deeper, look into their personal values.

Consider the table in our fictional kitchen. Is it a beautiful antique? Maybe it’s a high-quality table from a high-end furniture store. Could it be a secondhand table with mismatched chairs? Or is it a modern-looking matched set from the chain store that sells overpriced furniture on contract and advertises huge discounts on TV, the used-car-salesmen of the furniture world?

We have a good-quality but overpriced matched set in my real-life dining room. What can I say? We are suckers for flashy advertising.

How do we use furnishings to show personality, wealth, background, or class?

People from impoverished backgrounds may value nice things and take care of them because they understand how difficult it can be to acquire replacements. They purchase items as much for durability as for style.

Our personal background formed the first two decades of our lives, but that is all. Once we leave home, that is behind us. Over the next forty to eighty years, life shapes us, forms our likes and dislikes. 

IMG_1206For instance, I grew up in a financially stable lower-middle-class family. But I never buy pre-distressed furniture, no matter how much the designers on TV love it. This is because, by the time my youngest child left home, all my hand-me-down furniture was distressed. I like my furniture to reflect my life—un-distressed.

The way a person dresses and sets out their possessions in their environment can be shown briefly. Clothing, even uniforms, can show personality, and objects can foreshadow things.

The following scene takes place on a starship. The crew is on a scientific mission:

Ensign Kyle Stone left his rooms and walked to Ensign Price’s door on the opposite end of the passage. He pressed the bell, and after a moment, the door slid open. He said, “I might be a bit early. Sorry.” “Kyle” was a name he’d like to lose. “Stone” was what he answered to.

“No problem.” Emma stood there, her uniform perfectly neat, as fresh as if they hadn’t just spent the morning wrangling with a broken levitor. “I’m not quite finished adding this morning’s notes to the brief, so if you don’t mind, I’ll get that done. Have a seat.” She turned and went to the little alcove that served as a study in all the quarters.

Stone sat and looked around, absently wondering how Emma had managed to make the same kind of utilitarian rooms all the unmarried personnel occupied feel so personal, so—lived in. The furnishings were exactly the same as his, built into the floor so you couldn’t rearrange things. Certainly, his quarters looked as personal as a hotel, with only his dirty laundry to show for his existence.

Yet Emma’s quarters had a feeling of permanence. Maybe it was the plants she had set in various places. He noticed a carved wooden box on a shelf above the entertainment console. Beside the box was a framed picture. She never mentioned family, never discussed her personal life. He was about to look more closely at it when she returned.

 Emma said, “I uploaded it to Lieutenant Arrans, so we’re all set. Did you manage to find the schematic?”

Glad she hadn’t caught him snooping in her personal space, Stone said, “I did, and uploaded them. But I still doubt it’s what we need.”

Still talking, they left Emma’s quarters, heading to the small conference room.

What does the box signify? Who is in the picture? What did Stone’s observation of Emma’s tidy uniform and her plants tell you about her? How do these things relate to the larger story?

2016-08-12 21.26.16

Sunset at Tillamook Head, Copyright 2016 Connie J. Jasperson

In a sci-fi story, just as in a contemporary or fantasy story, the way we use observations and visuals says a lot about our characters, things we don’t have to write out in detail.

Use these visual observations to your advantage.

Your assignment is this:

Invent two characters and write a short scene set in any room, any genre. Be selective in the visual items you mention and only mention the things the protagonist finds important.

Readers will extrapolate information from those items, clues that will build an entire picture in their imaginations, populating the space with many things you won’t have to mention.

14 Comments

Filed under writing

Fantasy Food #amwriting

As many of you know, I have been vegan since 2012. However, I write books set in fantasy environments. An important part of world building is including the appropriate food for your level of technology.

I recently read a fantasy book where the author went to a great deal of trouble to give each kind of fruit, bird, or herd beast a different (and in some cases, an unpronounceable) name in “their” language.  This ruined what could have been a great book for me. Every time the protagonists halted on their journey, they pulled some random fruit with a gobbledygook name out of the bag and waxed poetic about it.

For me, Tolkien had it right. When I am reading, I don’t want to have to learn a new language. Fantasy food should be kept to the familiar. Bacon should be bacon, apples should be apples. Food is part of the world building, so it needs to something a reader is familiar with.

During the 1980s, much of the meat I served my family, we raised ourselves. Our chickens were cage free and had good lives, and our sheep were raised using simple, old-style farming methods. I grew up fishing with my father, and I have a first-person understanding of what it takes to put meat, fish, or fowl on the table when a supermarket is not an option. Take my word for this: getting a chicken from the coop to the table is time-consuming, messy, and smelly.

SO – in a medieval setting meat won’t be served every day, and not just because it is a real job to slaughter it. Other, more subtle factors come into play, things that affect the logic of your plot.

In the middle ages, the wool a sheep could produce in its lifetime was of far more value than the meat you might get by slaughtering it. For that reason, lamb was rarely served. The only sheep that made it to the table were usually rams that were being culled from the herd. And chickens were no different because once a chicken is dead, you lose the many meals her eggs would have provided. Cattle were also more valuable alive: cows as milk producers and bulls as oxen, draft animals.

In medieval times, on many estates, it was a felony for commoners in Britain to hunt for game. However, most people were allowed to fish as long as they didn’t take salmon, so fish was on the menu more often than fowl, sheep, or cattle.

Therefore, eels, eggs, grains, and vegetables were easy and figured most prominently on the menu. Pies of all sorts were the fast food of the era.

Wheat was rare and expensive. For that reason, the grains most often found in a peasant’s home were barley, oats, and rye.

Common vegetables in medieval European gardens were leeks, garlic, onions, turnips, rutabagas, cabbages, carrots, peas, beans, cauliflower, squashes, gourds, melons, parsnips, aubergines (eggplants)—the list goes on and on. And fruits? Wikipedia says:

Fruit was popular and could be served fresh, dried, or preserved, and was a common ingredient in many cooked dishes. Since sugar and honey were both expensive, it was common to include many types of fruit in dishes that called for sweeteners of some sort. The fruits of choice in the south were lemons, citrons, bitter oranges (the sweet type was not introduced until several hundred years later), pomegranates, quinces, and grapes. Farther north, apples, pears, plums, and wild strawberries were more common. Figs and dates were eaten all over Europe but remained rather expensive imports in the north.

Even a century ago, the average person didn’t eat meat every day because it was difficult to acquire. To buy it from the butcher, you paid them for their time and labor as well as for the cut of meat. It was not cheap.

For the most part, my characters eat a medieval/agrarian diet. In medieval times, peasants ate more vegetables, grains, fruits, and nuts than the nobility did. The main source of protein would be eggs and cheese. Herbal teas, ale, ciders, and mead were also staples of the commoner’s diet because drinking fresh, unboiled water was unhealthy. Medieval brews were more of a meal than today’s beers.

So, in Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers, when food is mentioned, it’s likely to be oat porridge, soup or stew, ale or cider, or bread and cheese.

Billy is captain of a mercenary company and an innkeeper, and for most of his story he does the cooking. I keep the food simple and don’t make too big a deal out of it. The conversations that happen while he is trying to feed the Rowdies are more important than the food. The food is the backdrop.

For Huw (pronounced Hugh), starvation is his most urgent problem, so food and the difficulties of obtaining it are an integral part of his story at the outset.

Knowing what to feed your people keeps you from introducing jarring components into your narrative. In the world of Neveyah (Tower of Bones), my people have a New World diet. It isn’t really mentioned, but maize and potatoes are important staples as are beans and wild greens.

When it comes to writing about meals, I feel it’s best to concentrate on the conversations. The food should be part of the scenery, a subtle part of world building. The conversations that occur around food are the places where new information can be exchanged, things we need to know to move the story forward,


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Medieval cuisine,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Medieval_cuisine&oldid=896980025 (accessed May 14, 2019).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Peasant Wedding (1526/1530–1569) PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

Village Scene with Well,  Josse de Momper and Jan Brueghel II PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

14 Comments

Filed under writing

#amwriting: setting the scene: making use of maps and floorplans

cape_disappointmentOnce again I am mapping a novel. This one will most likely top out at 80,000 words in the first draft and settle back to about 75,000  by the third draft. Right now I am writing the high points of this story as a rough draft.

However, to do this right, I need to put together the background and research the most up to date maps.

This piece is a contemporary novel and is set in a place that really exists: the area of Cape Disappointment on the south coast of Washington State. It is a place I visited many times as a child, and have fond memories of. This also gives my hubby and me the opportunity to revisit the place to see how it has changed and to better set the scene in my mind.

As I am writing, I will, of course, avail myself of Google Earth. This is a great tool for anyone whose work is set in the real world. Urban fantasies, contemporary literary novels (which is what this particular book is) and any number of romance or mystery stories benefit from the author’s diligence in making the background scenery as realistic as is possible. Google Earth give you a recent real-time view of many places.

google-earth-view-of-beards-hollow

Just as if you were writing a fantasy, making the setting as real as possible is critical. When writing any tale set in a real city or place, the author needs to know the general lay of the land, even if the setting is rarely mentioned. Remember, every time the protagonist and his/her companions leave the house, they will be in an environment that should be known and recognizable to the reader. Your knowledge of place will be clear in your writing, with every casual mention.

the-house-at-barons-hollow-smallI have drawn the floor plan of the house where much of the action takes place, and also the cove, along with the beach. The weather will keep them indoors a great deal of the time, and while it’s a large house, these people are a volatile mix, with many secrets that emerge over the course of the novel.

The floor plan and map of the pool area is critical, as some overheard conversations must  take place in an area where the inadvertent listener can remain unseen. The beach itself is  a known quantity, and the places people can find privacy in the dunes are all available via the Google Earth satellites.

The towns they will be going to for entertainment are also well-known to Washington residents, and while the names of the restaurant or bar will be my own creation, the street address will have its roots in reality. I will do this, despite the fact these are the sorts of things that never get mentioned. This is to make it real to me.

The biggest research issue for me with this novel will be learning about extreme sports, such as storm surfing and rock climbing. I know about surfing, as an interested bystander, but I am reading articles and threads on extreme sports enthusiast sites, to get an idea of the mindset of people who do these kinds of sports. When I began searching these sites, I wanted to know what the people who surf the Northeastern Pacific during storms consider too hazardous to attempt, and what they are really looking for.

 

The following is a link to a YouTube video of the kind of surf my two risk-takers would love to surf, but as this story takes place during the summer, the storms will be less severe than what this little clip shows. The beach, the cliffs, and the house will be the main scenes of the action.

Storm At Long Beach, YouTube

Whether I am writing fantasy or general fiction, my goal is to have the background scenery and setting as unobtrusive as possible. I want the reader to see it in their mind, which they will if I visualize it clearly and give them just enough imagery to hang their imagination on. The reader’s ability to imagine the setting is as important as what I believe the setting to be, so I must be careful to never contradict myself, or the reader will be confused.

413px-cape_disappointment_and_cape_disappointment_light

4 Comments

Filed under writing

#amwriting: consider the scenery

 The Garden of the Author, by José Benlliure Gil via Wikimedia Commons


The Garden of the Author, by José Benlliure Gil via Wikimedia Commons

I had an intriguing email conversation with a new acquaintance, a young man I met through PNWA at the recent conference. He was struggling in his writing group, trying to get a handle on  the showing vs. telling aspect of writing. As he writes mysteries, the setting and environment of certain scenes are quite important.

I suggested he view the scene through his protagonist’s eyes.

Every memorable element in a fictional story must be necessary to the story.  In creative writing, this concept is referred to as “Chekhov’s Gun,” as it is a principal formally attributed to the great Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov. He said this with regard to the settings for his plays, but in terms of writing, what this means is that if your characters notice a gun on the wall, someone must fire that gun, or it should be removed from the scene.

It was a neighborhood Dionte was unfamiliar with.  Just as he entered Tyrone’s gate, his phone dinged, a text from Ty. He’d had to leave for a minute, but Dionte should go on in and wait in the kitchen. Both men were on the board of the Community Action Council, but he didn’t know Tyrone well, and wondered where he’d been called off to.

What does Dionte see, and how does it register in his awareness?

He went up the walk, climbing the worn steps of the front porch. Feeling odd at entering the home of a casual acquaintance when he wasn’t there, Dionte reached for the knob and turned it. The door swung open, and entering the small sitting room, he was overwhelmed by the amount of clutter.

Tyrone had no TV that Dionte could see, but most of the furniture in the room was buried under stacks of newspapers and piles of laundry. His computer was partially hidden behind a stack of library books and a coffee cup, half full, sat atop them. A plate with a slice of toast sat beside the keyboard as if Ty had left in the middle of his breakfast.

Feeling claustrophobic, Dionte found the path to the kitchen, unsure now what sort of mess awaited him in there. To his surprise, the kitchen was immaculate.

The incongruity of the pristine kitchen contrasting with the clutter of Tyrone’s living room is all noted mentally. Each thing on our character’s path into and through Ty’s home is an image that registers in Dionte’s consciousness briefly, but is not mentioned again.

Tyrone had said there might be a serious problem, but wanted Dionte’s take on it before he brought it up at a meeting. Wondering what it could be, Dionte sat at the table, looking at the clock on the stove, seeing it was 11:15. He’d gotten the text only a few minutes before. Tyrone had to have been called to somewhere close by, as he’d left his house unlocked. He hadn’t passed Dionte in the front, so he must have left through the back.

The sound of someone coming up the back steps caught his attention, and his eyes were drawn to the screen door.

It’s a murder mystery, so who was approaching? What happened next? And why is the toast by the computer important?

Scenes require a certain amount of description. Let’s say we’re writing a short story about a grandfather fixing dinner for his grandson. He’s had to go out shopping, and now he carries his groceries home in a snowstorm, fearing he will slip and fall. This scene could be set several ways, and here are two, one less wordy than the other.

Snow fell softly. Holding a bag of groceries, he gazed at the stairs leading from the walk to the front door, fearing a layer of ice lurked beneath the pristine whiteness.

OR

He gazed at the icy stairs leading from the un-shoveled walk to the front door, his bag of groceries growing heavier.

Either way works, but personally, I would go with the second.

Pawn_of_Prophecy_coverIn 1982 I picked up Pawn of Prophecy by the late David Eddings. This was an amazing, eye-opening book for me, both as a reader and an author.  Eddings had the ability to convey a sense of place in a few well-chosen words. He put those words into  beautiful, poetic prose. The book opens in the kitchen of a farmhouse with Garion’s memories of playing under the table in a kitchen as a small child.

Garion’s earliest memories are of being a toddler: the sound of knives deftly dicing vegetables, his aunt keeping him corralled and happy under the table while she works, the sparkle of the gleaming pots and kettles high on the wall lulling him to nap.

“And sometimes in the late afternoon when he grew tired, he would lie in a corner and stare into one of the flickering fires that gleamed and reflected back from the hundred polished pots and knives and long-handled spoons that hung from pegs along the whitewashed walls and, all bemused, he would drift off to sleep in perfect peace and harmony with all the world around him.”

Later, when Garion has been completely uprooted, this passage becomes important, as it describes the place he thinks of as home. In that paragraph, we see the important things in the room, and we have a visual image of it. The child’s sense of contentment and safety that the kitchen represented is conveyed by the impressions of the kitchen instead of the image of it. The detail supports the story rather than impeding it.

The scenery in the narrative must be organic. It has to be purposeful and not just there to fill the space. I like books where the scenery is shown in brief impressions. We see it only when it needs to be there. Sometimes we see it through the protagonist’s eyes, and other times we see the protagonist set in the scene as described by a narrator, but everything we see must be a part of the characters’ experience.

4 Comments

Filed under writing