How To: Love Your Setting

Today is the second "How To" blog.  I debated from my list what to do this time around.  My muse was whispering at me - her name is Sophie - yet I was ignoring her.  The one she wanted to do, I hadn't intended to write on at all.  Why?

I suck at settings and their details.

You don't believe me?

Case in point:  Manuscript in drawer: Hero's billionaire grandfather owns a string of hotels.  Bad guy chasing our hero and heroine and they hideout in several of these hotels.  Forty instances of [insert setting details here].  Avoidance much?  Geesh. Can I tell you how much of a pain it was to clean those up?  (Read that book - coming soon - Deadly Peril by my pen name, Maren Franklin.)

After that manuscript, I decided I really needed to get a better way to approach scene details, especially since I like writing hometown Americana type books and the setting makes those books.  So here's a few tricks I learned.

Whether I choose a real-life location or decide to make one up, the steps are still similar.  The only difference is in how I use the details.  First stop is the internet.  I search for maps, for pictures, and for Chamber of Commerce information.  If I'm making the place up, I search for details that I can pull to form my town based on what I'm planning on presenting.  I print the pages and put them in the setting tab of my manuscript binder.   If I've actually visited the place I've chosen, I sit down and write out all the details I can remember - the things that made it special and any detail I intend to use like names of roads, special places I visited or any people I met that I remember.  If I have pictures, I have copies made.

My next step is to visit around the internet or to the library for travel books, for any information on the area I'm using. I copy/print any pictures or articles that I think are useful and put them in my manuscript book (a three-ring binder I use to keep track of all the book details - read Phyllis Whitney's Guide to Fiction Writing to get the basic idea)  Not only do I look for setting stuff for my current work, but I also keep anything that catches my eye that I think I might use later.  It also goes in the binder.

Then I take all this information and spread out some project paper or poster board and I draw my area, putting in pertinent houses, streets, and places.  Then I glue other pictures I found around the edges and write key descriptive words.  Then I put it on the wall near my desk.  I also use this technique for specific things.  In my last work in progress, one of the characters collected antiques.  I printed pictures off the internet, wrote out the descriptive details and viola, there was my details.  When I have to describe something now, I look up and my setting map gives me all the information I need.

The more visual details I find, the easier it gets to describe, so I go all out with pictures and written descriptions.  And you know what happens then?  The less instances of [insert setting details here] are left for me to clean up.

Want to know my final tip?  Plan your setting before you begin to write as much as you possibly can, then you're prepared to insert the details.  You'll never have to use the [insert setting details here] technique unless your manuscript has veered left when you meant it to go right.

[Originally published on Happy Endings, May 19, 2010]

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