Saturday, January 29, 2011

Where in the World?

Setting, or milieu (don’t you love that word?), is the environment or physical time and place in which a story takes place. Exotic locales start me dreaming—my imagination goes into overdrive. I spent a few months in Mexico and always wanted to set a story there.
Pat Conroy’s novels have a powerful sense of place. Appalachia is almost another character in Vicki Lane’s books, and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone could only have happened in that isolated mountain area.
Setting provides a backdrop and color. Streets, buildings, restaurants, or some wild, rugged terrain—it all depends on your story and what you want to happen. Most people write what they know or have a good chance of finding out. I wouldn’t set a book in Alaska because I doubt if I could get enough of a feeling for it from books (even Dana Stabenow’s rich and beautiful novels) and movies or the Internet but I could set one in Atlanta or most towns in the South even though I may not have been there.
These days, if you chose a place you’re not familiar with, you can easily find pictures and information about restaurants, streets, businesses, and places of interest, but if you can find someone who’s spent time there, maybe they’ll help. I’ve found many people willing to share their impressions. They may be able to add some details you wouldn’t otherwise find, such as smells, sounds, whether it’s windy or the air is visibly polluted.
How does it influence you? Do you have a sudden hunger to read something with a particular setting? Or does finding some special place set off bells in your head? 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Cast of Thousands

Keystone Cops
  Even in a big drama with a large cast, readers need to know who they’re dealing with. They have to know someone to care about the person.

Just as too many cooks spoil the broth, too many characters spoil the story. If you have many minor characters, consider combining a few.

Viola Davis in Traveler

Realistically, you may not get stopped for speeding by the same cop who comes to your door to serve a warrant and then is the first officer on the murder scene, but in a story, if the cop is always Officer Davis, readers will get to know her and not lose the story trying to keep track of Shultz, Winchell, and Chan. If the character will make several appearances, show something of her as a person. Maybe Officer Davis could be interrupted by a phone call from her child’s teacher. (But in my WIP, her name is Charlie Bone. What a great face!) Then, if something happens involving the officer, readers will have a connection and be more likely to care.

I’ve given up on books because there are too many characters, and I can’t remember who’s who. If I have to look back to see who someone is, I’m out of the story and lose the mood of the scene. The more this happens, the harder it is to get back into it.  What do you think? Have you ever put a book aside because of the huge cast?


Friday, January 14, 2011

Pleased to meet you, ma’am.

When a character first makes an appearance in a story, the writer really ought to call upon good manners and introduce the character to the reader. It’s awkward when a stranger appears in a small gathering and, while everyone else seems to know her and interact easily, I’m distracted from the action, trying to figure out who she is.

If she’s going to be around a lot, I’d like a memorable introduction, something that makes her stand out so I’ll recognize her when we meet again. If she’s a minor player, it helps if the meeting is in keeping with her role in the story, either by putting her in a setting where her role is obvious or by explaining. For example, in a scene with a man in a restaurant, you might have the new character come in with a tray of coffee. Readers will understand that she’s some kind of server. However, if she’s not, her role or relationship should be explained so the reader won't be jarred later when the impression is corrected. Elwood continued to read as his niece  Leona came in with a cup of tea. Otherwise, if, in the middle of a scene, Leona comes in and spills tea or starts talking, the reader will be thumbing back through the pages trying to figure out who Leona is. It’s jarring.

What do you think? Does it bother you when someone walks in and you have no idea who he or she is or why they're there? Do you have any memorable examples?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Incidental Characters and Walk-Ons

Incidental characters are like walk-ons in a play—they enter, perform some brief action, and then exit. Walk-ons aren't in the story long enough to develop character or, in many cases, to have names.  But the reader must be able to distinguish one from another, so the writer often gives them physical characteristics or mannerisms that can be described in a few words for a quick reference.

For example, the hero might be stuck in a grocery store line behind a bubbly girl who's chatting with the cashier, a tall, thin fellow. After the reader has "seen" them, if the hero is talking or thinking about them, he might begin referring to them as Bubbles and Stretch. This gives the reader a much better picture than repeating the girl and the boy. It also helps the reader identify them, especially when the walk-ons are the same sex: the first girl with a phone, the second girl with a yellow bag, the girl at the cash register, the girl in the line. 

Give these characters some feature that can be described simply: one might have impossibly red hair (the red queen), another might wear a hat (blue hat) or have brown eyes. An lumpy-looking, deeply tanned character might remind the point-of-view character of a twice-baked potato and become “the potato” in future references.

Limit these names to characters who are involved in enough action that they need to be distinguishable and whose names would not naturally be given. Too much of a good thing isn't always wonderful.

If this sounds like a lecture, it's because it is. :) It's from one of my classes. I love to hear what you think. Any ideas or suggestions? Examples, good or bad?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Resolution: Nap More?

The Answer--Napping
New Year’s Day, and what are my resolutions? Only one I’ll seriously work at. That’s to organize my time better so I can write regularly. It seems to me that having a consistent time every day trains your brain. After a few days, things start to flow more easily at that hour. Since I’m a morning person, I’ll wake up thinking about the book. If I can write for an hour or so every day before work, I can probably keep it going and get a little more done at lunch. Not much in one day, I know, but it adds up. And then there are weekends. Maybe a little time out for this blog and Facebook, but once I’m into a story, the words come more easily. It sort of runs through my head in the background, like a softly playing radio.

Young Winston

When I write, I see the scenes like a movie. Directing’s kind of fun. If it’s not working, I can have the characters do it again another way.

What I really want is to get more out of each day, but how? Winston Churchill, whom I admire tremendously, took a short nap every day and found it refreshed him so much he could accomplish almost two days work in one. That’s an idea worth trying. But when to work in the nap? I have a friend who naps for thirty minutes after supper, and then he’s good for another four or five hours. I’d have to set a mighty alarm to wake up that soon, but maybe I’ll try it. On a Friday, so if it doesn’t work as I hope, I’d have a day to recover. That’s my only idea. Have any to share?

My friend Maryn Sinclair is a nighthawk. She’s sharp and thoughtful late in the day and likes working into the wee hours. (Must be a good plan—her sizzling new book is coming out from Loose Id this spring.) I don't think she naps at all.

After dark I’m more like a denizen of Helm’s Deep. Of course, Aragorn could probably wake me up.

How do you do it? Any magic formulas?