I have a confession to make: I have a LOT of unfinished manuscripts on my computer. I used to have a lot more, until we discovered that the backups from my first computer had been corrupted and there was no way of salvaging the severely outdated documents.
It actually was not until recently that I discovered one of the major reasons why so many pieces I began went unfinished. A college writing assignment pointed out the error to me. The subject was “A Sense of Place,” as was basically about identifying key points in our surroundings and how they affect us as people.
You see, as a younger writer, I focused mostly on character development, adding layer upon layer to the backstory of my main characters and creating histories and motivations for the lesser players, but I never took took the same care with the set and the props. Since I write mostly fantasy, my stories frequently involve alternate or parallel worlds. I might have a rough idea of what this world with mermaids and mages looked like, but some of the details were frequently lost even on me, because it wasn’t the focus of the story.
The end result of this carelessness was that one of several things would happen:
1. I’d write myself into a corner I didn’t know how to get out of. My characters would find themselves in the literary equivalent of a darkened room with just a flashlight and no idea where the exits were. Until I found a way to shed light on the rest of the setting, I was going to be left with a very boring story.
2. I would skip certain aspects of the world altogether (such as government, politics, and social problems) because I didn’t feel adequately equipped to write them in an interesting, effective manner.
3. For one reason or another, I’d walk away from the manuscript for a few days, come back, and then have no idea what to write next because the world the story existed in was so foggy that I didn’t know where they should go next.
Obviously, this was quite problematic. You see, settings are something I’m just not very good at creating. There are so many nuances that have to be just right, so many tiny things that don’t seem important, but that really are.
For example, architecture. What kind of house does the main character live in? Is it a rambling Victorian, an old farmhouse, a cookie cutter suburban development or an ultra-modern mansion? Or something else altogether? What about the neighborhood? Is it full of these older homes? What kind of people live in them? Is it near water, or farmland, or a forest?
Things get trickier the further from reality the setting is removed. Legality was always tricky for me. If your main character lives in kingdom run by wizards and guarded by knights that ride dragons, what kind of laws to they have? It’s been my experience that in fantasy novels, even the good guys don’t exactly follow the law. What happens when they get arrested? What do their police look like? Are there trials? Are they fair? Would they appear in front of a judge, or would their crimes require an appearance in front of the king?
As they say, realizing you have a problem is the first step to finding the solution. Becoming aware that I was crap at writing effective backdrops for my stories was one thing; fixing it was something else entirely.
Over the last few years, I’ve developed four stages to writing good settings.
To start with, I cleared the decks, so to speak. When I began working on Threadbare, I decided for the first time that rather than using a generic setting (up to that point I hadn’t specified any locations in my stories, preferring to use a trick taken from many young adult novels that allows the reader to imagine the story takes place in his/her hometown) I knew very definitely that the story was set in Montreal. I chose the city for several reasons: I was in Montreal at the time, I loved the city, and it was just far enough removed from my own small town experience to feel like an adventure every day.
I wrote a little last time about how I developed Evie as a character. In creating the physical world she lived in, I based it heavily on the world I was experiencing. The bus route she she takes is the same; she lives at the end of the street where I was staying, and I worked my favorite land marks and hang outs into the story.
After many rewrites, the first full draft of Fortune’s Fight (Threadbare’s initial incarnation) was finished in 2009. Though the story would see many changes after that, I had the bones down and was able to build on them for the most recent draft. Though some of the plot points changed and characters were added and removed, the basis of the story is the same, as is the setting.
The second stage involves taking what you know and creating a world that is slightly removed from it. I did this for my Cassie Palmer series. While her address would read Plain City, Ohio, I’ve made some adjustments, adding many things that can’t be found on any map of Union County.
The third part is to write a place you know exists, but have never seen. For A.J. Marshall’s story, I chose 1920s Chicago. A.J’s world is very different from true history (for one thing, her world is powered by clockwork and steam, rather than diesel and electricty, and I made a few minor adjustments to Al Capone’s timeline). This gives me a basic framework to go from, but I can add buildings, politicians, and historical events as necessary to further the story.
The last step is creating a world from scratch. I’ve started to do this with my newest character, Olivia. I began by creating the building that she lives in, her family, and her friends. From there, I can work my way out to their political connections, which helps define the political and economic structure of her world.
Basically, what all of this boils down to is thinking of the world you’re writing as another character. There are the physical aspects to consider. What does it look like? What kind of architecture are the buildings? What are they made of? Why? What resources are commonly found in the area? If they use stone, then it follows that they probably have a lot of quarries or mines. Wood buildings are generally cheaper, more flammable, and surrounded by forests. If everyone lives in a circular tower, why? Do the circles conduct magical energy better than squares? What kind of furniture to they need to compensate for the awkward angles? What about property lines? Are they circular, too? These are all key things to consider, and your characters and your readers will thank you for it.
Is there another aspect of writing or development that you want to hear about? Leave a comment and let me know.