Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Using Setting as Inspiration

Michelle McGill-Vargas
There's a saying: write what you know. Or even: write what you don't know! Well I've done both. My setting is in the place I'm familiar with, but there was so much about it I didn't know.
Most of my stories take place in my hometown of Gary, Indiana. I've chosen Gary as my setting because I've always heard about the glory days before 1970 (which is sad to say because the country's first black mayors were elected in both Gary and Cleveland in 1969.) I've seen pictures of a vibrant downtown, beautifully manicured school campuses and an abundance of places and activities for an active social life. A lot of that is gone now. What outsiders see and post on social media are crumbling and abandoned buildings, a struggling school district and young folks desperate to leave. Certain people perceive this as a place to avoid when the sun goes down. I expect, and usually get, a negative reaction when I disclose where I live. So I want to tell of the city's glorious—and oftentimes infamous—past. All of it fodder for my active imagination.
Everyone knows the basics: the city was a company town founded by the United States Steel Corporation in 1906. While that may not sound all that interesting, US Steel's acquisition of the land for the mill and the city is. Milwaukee was the first choice, but the discovery of an unpopulated, marshy, swampy region right on the shores of Lake Michigan and nestled between the Grand Calumet and Little Calumet Rivers was easier to acquire. In 1893, the Chicago stockyards threatened to move operations into that very spot in northwest Indiana. Hoping to cash in, people began purchasing all that property. But it was just a negotiating tactic, and the stockyards stayed put. Now those people were stuck with land they couldn't unload...that is, until 1905 when A.F. Knotts, under the authorization of steel executive Judge Elbert Gary, made secret purchases of that property in cash.
Within a year, Gary, Indiana was born and its storied history began. Using setting as a tool to craft stories allows me to add layers that help enrich the story. And it’s not just about the physical description of the place. For me, my hometown’s history has allowed me to explore graveyards and churches older than the city or overgrown stretches of land that were home to a twenty-year feud that could rival Old West tales.
I want my friends and neighbors to appreciate what Gary was, not what the media and surrounding towns perceive us to be. I picture my best-selling novels being made into blockbuster movie epics filmed right in the city. The public becomes so interested in and intrigued by the setting that they flock to the place, ushering in a new era that rivals the city’s “Augustan Age” back in the 1920s (a girl can dream, right?)
Michelle hails from Gary, Indiana where she enjoys writing historical fiction, flash fiction, and short stories. Her writings have appeared in Lutheran Witness, Splickety Magazine, The Copperfield Review, and Typehouse Literary Magazine. She also currently serves as vice-president of the Indiana Writers' Consortium. Until the day her historical fiction manuscripts get published, she pays the bills as a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing. Read her short stories and blog at

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Know Your Place

Janine Harrison
When I was enrolled in a fiction course while earning my M.F.A. degree in creative writing, I received my first short story draft back with feedback that read something akin to “Place detail lacking.”  I’m sure that I furrowed my brows.  I was confused.  After all, time and location had been indicated and my characters’ conversations weren’t floating in air—I’d remembered to root them to scene.  So, what could Professor Sandra Jackson-Opoku possibly have meant by her comment?  
I soon learned to think of the concept of “place” as being far more encompassing than that of “setting.”  What she taught the class proved to be one of the most valuable lessons that I learned in my program:  To think of place as its own character and to use place to support the story, in relation to characterization and plot.  Place is vital in not only fiction but also creative nonfiction and poetry.  The discussion that follows is essentially the same skeletal framework that my professor taught to me and that I now teach, with the addition of my own examples, to show why you, as a writer, should know your place.    
Place can be used as a symbol, such as an island as isolation or water as rebirth or weather as indicative of mood.  It may be used as an extended metaphor, as in the instance of the rooms in Edgar Allan Poe’s, “Masque of the Red Death,” as analogous to the stages of life from birth to death.  Place may also be employed as the antagonist as in humans vs. nature; Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm comes to mind. 
Place can be used as a mimetic device, in which it mirrors human behavior; for instance,  Miss Havisham’s house in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Miss Emily’s house in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” are in states of decay, which reflect the characters’ decline. Human behavior may also mirror place, as with the boys’ increasingly uncivilized behavior on the island in William Goldings’ Lord of the Flies or Teacake’s irrational behavior as he and Janie Starks travel through the Florida Everglades in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. 
Place can also be used to depict a certain atmosphere.  Use of social, cultural, and political space, which are often inextricably interlocked, can show norms of a time period.  For example, in Ann Petry’s The Street, set in WWII-era Harlem, Lutie Johnson strives for the American dream but is blocked by overwhelming racism, sexism, and classism.  She becomes, in fact, a tragic hero.  Such use of space can influence readers’ outlooks about characters by magnifying or diminishing the conflict they face.  To illustrate, if Suzy breaks up with Johnny in front of their high school lockers after school, readers’ sympathies aren’t going to be as strong as they would be if she sends him a “Dear Johnny” letter, and he receives it while fighting on the frontline during the Vietnam War.  A site of collective memory may also engender strong emotions.  In Brian Doyle’s flash piece, “Leap,” for instance, the mention of “south tower,” clues all readers who lived through or learned about 9/11 in to the setting without directly stating it.  Other types of space that build place and, therefore, story, include sacred space—any place from a church to nature to a writing desk—that shows elevated importance, and mystic space, in which readers are asked to suspend disbelief and to embrace that which extends beyond the five senses, such as in the instances of magical realism or speculative fiction. 
Place can be viewed through different lenses.  When a character travels to a foreign land and then judges its inhabitants through his or her own cultural aesthetic, for instance, by considering the indigenous people as “savages” or “barbarians,” it is egocentrism.  In contrast, when a character judges outsiders with fear or hatred, as a resident of a small town may do to a stranger or as a citizen of a particular land may do to a visitor from abroad or a new immigrant, it is xenophobia. 
No matter the creative genre, you have place at your disposal to use as a tool to affect both characterization and plot.  It is invaluable.  Why settle for time and location then, when so many other possibilities exist to intensify your readers’ connections to your work? 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Setting Development: How to Breathe Life into Your Settings

Tiffany T. Cole
I’m a huge fan of Batman. At first I just liked it for the action and the darkness, but the more I watched the movies and cartoons and read the comics, the more I found myself genuinely interested in the characters and the plots, the more I began to look closely at all the elements of Batman that made me enjoy it on a deeper level. Then I realized something that jumped out as powerful to me, something that made me re-evaluate and further appreciate works like Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland…
Gotham is alive. It’s a living, breathing entity that is as dynamic and important to the story as Batman, the Joker, and all the conflicts. It, in itself, is a character with moods and history, with attitude and layers, and if there were no Gotham, just as if there were no Hogwarts, there would be no Batman.
Unfortunately, of the many stories I’ve edited or even read, I rarely see settings brimming with such life. This isn’t necessarily a problem. Just as some types of stories are better being character-driven while others are better being plot-driven, not all books would work very well with a setting as significant to the plot as the main characters themselves. In fact, with the wrong type of story, that could be detrimental.
Even so, you never want to your settings to be at the total opposite of the spectrum. If the setting matters to the plot at all, if an important scene occurs there, it’s vital to breathe life into the setting.
When editing books, a particularly disorienting problem that I hone in on immediately, next to vagueness and awkwardly written sentences, are scenes where characters are talking or are in the middle of some kind of activity and there’s lots of dialogue and action sentences with little to no description of setting or placement, giving readers an eerie, disorienting feeling that characters are in a blank white space, doing stuff…somewhere.
So, how do you go about bringing you settings to life and developing them as though they are characters? First off, I want to start by saying that I don’t suggest thinking too intensely about settings and getting caught up in details when writing, especially when writing a first draft. Just get the story written first. That’s most important. After and before you write the story, you can better write well-developed settings when you ask the right questions.
·         What kind of scene is taking place in this area? Is it informative, emotional, casual, unimportant? Based on the type of scene, how will characters interact with the setting?
·         What are all the objects in the area? Are there other people in the area? Even if these objects of people play no direct role in the scene(s), is it likely they can interact with the characters. For instance, let’s say the characters are talking at a crowded party. It’s very likely someone might bump into the characters or interrupt to ask them to dance or drunkenly mistake them for someone else. That, or it’s likely the characters in the scene might notice someone or something while talking. Sprinkle in examples here and there to bring the setting to life enough to keep readers realistically privy to the fact that the setting is as alive and dynamic as your characters.
·         How many characters are interacting in the scene? What are their placements? How involved are they in the scene? I remember editing a scene where four characters locked themselves in a school office. Two of the characters got into a heated argument, one rolled their eyes because they were tired of the arguments, and the other got nervous they were going to get caught. This is the perfect scene to bring a setting to life, a scene that I’d have a lot of fun writing. However, the writer got fixated on the two characters who were arguing, and very quickly the nervous character and the irritated character were completely forgotten, so much so I had no idea where they could even be standing or sitting in the room, and the argument became two talking heads and no setting.
Don’t let settings just be flat backdrops where your characters interact. If you bring your settings to life by asking the right questions and letting the settings breathe, you have a story that’s even more dynamic.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

How Much Description is Enough?

Kathryn Page Camp
I don’t use a lot of description in my stories. As a reader, I prefer letting my imagination fill in the details, so I write that way, as well. Still, there are times when some description is necessary.
Genre may also dictate the amount of detail. Romances often include in-depth descriptions of each character, the clothes they wear, and their decorating choices. Thrillers generally don’t.
So how do you find the right level for your work? This rule comes from Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle:
The problem for the writer of popular fiction is to give sufficient description without giving too much. The best solution is to keep your type of reader in mind all the time, and follow what I call the clutter rule: If something isn’t serving the advancement of the story, it needs to go.
His admonition to “keep your type of reader in mind” recognizes the differences between genre, but the basic rule applies to them all. If it doesn’t advance the story you are writing, get rid of it.
In On Writing, Stephen King says, “”For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.”
So how do we find those well-chosen details? By ignoring the ones that are common to every similar scene and adding those that the reader will translate into the message you want to send.
Maybe your characters meet in a coffee house. Most readers know what a coffee house looks like, so you don’t have to describe the counter or the room crowded with tables and chairs. But if this particular coffee house is on the verge of bankruptcy, you could mention the empty tables or the cracks in the linoleum flooring.
Or do you want the reader to know that your protagonist’s best friend is poor? Put her in a faded shirt that is too big for her. You don’t have to describe her outfit again until she suddenly appears in a new dress that fits perfectly. That will peak the readers’ interest more than a constant fashion (or off-fashion) show will. If your protagonist is obsessed with what people wear, however, that’s another matter.

You can evoke a country setting by describing a white clapboard church with a cemetery and surrounded by farmlands. Or you can place your story in an urban setting with a stone church sitting on the corner of two streets lined with brick houses. These few details are enough to paint the picture.
Every reader is different. But if you want to keep my attention, tell me what I need to know and let my imagination fill in the rest.
Both of the photographs are © 2010 by Kathryn Page Camp. The first is the Lund Mission Covenant Church near Pepin, Wisconsin, with a graveyard barely visible on the left. The second picture shows the Old Pullman Church in Chicago.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at