Thursday, October 27, 2011

NaNoWriMo Prep III: Food and Fire

Home for Setting Starters

Benjamin Franklin once said that a house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body. I've always liked that quotation, and not just because I agree with it. Ben throws down a challenge for us to define exactly what is food and fire for the mind.

My guy and I are semi-minimalist homebodies, and over the years we've refined what I think of as the 3-C home: casual, comfortable and calm. We don't care about impressing people or following rules, which is probably why we have a country kitchen, a Mission bedroom and a beach cottage master bath. The high school kid has a red/black/white quasi-Asian/Anime cave going in her room. The guest room is serenely sea-nautical themed. My office is all about books and the job. Our living room has no particular theme other than a general air of "sit down and relax"; our dining room with its wall-size Victorian crazy quilt is half mini folk-art museum, half tea room.

The walls in almost every room are hung with quilts and art and family photos. I try to keep things tidy, but most days you'll see something one of us left out: a chunk of my latest manuscript, my daughter's sheet music, my guy's computer printouts. There isn't a harsh color or highbrow stick of furniture in the place. You will find dog toys in unexpected places because we're always playing with the dogs.

Whenever I come back here after being on the road, the minute I walk through the door I feel like I shed a thousand pounds. I know my guy feels the same, I can see it on his face when he gets in from work. Home is our favorite place to be, because home is all about us and what we love and the people we love to be with.

Back to the Mountain

While climbing to the top of your book mountain, you will be making stops in different places. Part of your job is to describe these places to your reader so that they can see them, too. While locations are not as active as characters or plot, they do provide the setting (and often the time period) of the story, so they're necessary.

I used to really dread writing setting, and most of the time I still have some bad moments. It's not as fun as writing characters, and it's very hard to find the right balance of showing the reader an interesting place without boring them to tears with endless or over-the-top description. I think the root of my problem is related to the way I've always researched setting: by using real-life models and locations. I'm always so engrossed in presenting the right/actual details that I forget to consider the characters who have to live or work or travel through there and/or what they'd want. This is why if a character of mine lives in Paris, they usually get a house very similar to one I've seen or visited in Paris.

What I've been trying to do lately is to temper the obsessing over details by making my settings more about the character than me. I came to this conclusion because I finally realized why writing settings for my StarDoc books was never a problem; I invented them from scratch based on my world-building and my characters.

At the moment I'm putting together an apartment for one of my female protagonists. She's nothing like me, so to create the right home for her I have to see it through her eyes and put it together using her heart. Although my girl is an edgy, ultra-modern young female, she has very feminine, secret longings for all things Victorian. Because she's lived alone for a significant number of years, she will have had the time and means to collect and arrange her living space with exactly what she likes.

Personally I couldn't deal with all this fussy stuff (I'd be dusting it for the rest of my life), but I know my character loves it. She adores rose-colored velvet and tatted ecru lace and milk glass and beaded lampshades and ruched satin. Her bathroom looks like a time tunnel to the thirties. She has little rose-shaped soaps in a porcelain bowl by the sink, a vanity table with a crackled mirror, crystal perfume atomizers and a bud vase with peacock feathers.

Finding the Food and the Fire

What makes this space a home for my character isn't about the stuff inside it, it's that it creates a space in which she can relax and feel happy and be herself. This safe-haven feel to her home is very important to her for reasons that relate to self-esteem, backstory and personality. Thus her home is about the person she is on the inside, this very old-fashioned girl who is romantic and loving and genuinely sweet. What's so cool about bringing this side of her out in her home is that it's the only place you would see it. The minute she leaves she puts on the edgy, ultra-modern persona, wearing it almost like armor, and to most of the outside world she is a completely different person (and her office is nothing like her home, because that's where she's on display.)

When you think about the settings you create in your stories, consider not just what suits your character's situation, but reflects on their personality as well. Think about what they do when they come home; what is their favorite room in the house, and why do they spend so much time there? (My girl doesn't cook so her kitchen is a bit like Mother's Hubbard's, but she loves spending hours soaking in her big bathtub, so the bathroom has everything she could possibly need or want in it, including a shelf of books, a mini-stereo and a cordless telephone.)

What are some of your concerns with writing setting? Do you have any tips on how to make it more effective or easier to put together? Let us know in comments.

Setting Building Tools: Nicholas Morine's Ideas in Creative Writing: Setting ~ Keith Gray's Creative Writing Masterclass 4: Setting (video) ~ F. Locke's Writing Creative Fiction: Setting

Also, PBW's Fun with Setting ~ Props ~ Virtual Design Ten

Image credit: © Virgil Graham |

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