Thursday, August 27, 2009

Snowy Hills and Deserts

It looks like I’m a little different than the rest of The Novel Girls so far when it comes to setting. I’m sort of obsessed with it. Setting is a huge deal for me in my books, and I don’t necessarily mean where each particular scene is set –although that’s important, too -- but the overall locale where the story takes place always has a big impact on my stories.

Perhaps one of the reasons setting seems like such a big deal to me is that the backdrops of the pieces of my own life have been vastly different. I grew up in a suburb in Pennsylvania, with cold snowy winters and green lush landscapes. Most of my adult life has been in Arizona, amidst the desert, dry air, and sometimes, unbearable heat. Maybe this is also why I think about weather and landscape a lot in my books because my own history has shown me such vast opposites.

I recently did an interview with a Philadelphia newspaper where the reporter asked me why I chose to set The September Sisters near Philadelphia even though I'd already moved to Arizona when I wrote it. I had a hard time answering that question, but then it occurred to me that I've been switching back and forth for setting -- every other book I write is alternately set in Philadelphia or Arizona. For example, my next book, The Life of Glass, is set in Arizona. Then my third book, The Transformation of Things, is set in a fake suburb of Philadelphia. And the book I just finished working on is very, very crucially set in the desert of Arizona. I guess like Lisa said, when it comes to setting, I write what I know.

But what I really love about setting is the way it can mean so many things to a book -- in my suburban Philadelphia set books snow and cold weather and the suburban mentality help shape the story, and conversely, in my Arizona set books heat and dry air, monsoon storms, scorpions, and mountains become a part of the story. I can't imagine The September Sisters without Abby and Tommy sledding down a snowy hill or holding hands in the snow, or existing in a world that isn’t frozen, and in The Life of Glass, Melissa and her best friend Ryan have a habit of riding their bikes in a desert wash, which becomes integral to the book.

I guess for me, setting really is a character in the story – where the characters live, what the weather’s like, what the world around them is like, is absolutely key. A city, a part of the country, a landscape – all of these things give the book and the characters a particular feel, and without them, I’m not sure I’d even know where to begin.

PS. I'm having a contest over at my own blog to win an ARC of The Life of Glass. To find out how to enter, click here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Places everyone

It's good to be back. I've been away for the last two posts and I'm finally ready to start writing again. Over the weekend I drove Will, my youngest child, to college and while I'm happy for him there's still a pit of sadness growing inside my gut. One that unfortunately started a little more than two weeks ago.

Before I get onto the subject of setting I want to take a moment to thank you all for your thoughts and prayers for our wonderful family friend, Josiah Berger. I feel as though I've lost my own son. Josiah was tragically killed in a car accident almost two weeks ago and I had to watch his dear family, who is so precious and dear to me, suffer through the agony of removing their beloved boy from life support.

Josiah died on his 19th birthday, the day before he was to leave for his first day of college. Another reason why this has been so difficult is that Josiah was my Will's very best friend and has been since they were eight years old. Here's a photo taken while vacationing with the Berger family several years ago. Josiah's on the left and that's Will on the right.

Josiah loved everyone. He was generous and kind and always a great beacon of light. People were naturally drawn to him. A natural-born leader, Josiah took a stand for righteousness even at his tender age. That's not to say he stayed away from fun or frolic. He participated in his own share of pranks - mostly alongside my son. When they were fourteen, Will and Josiah were caught climbing on the walls and roofs of the downtown buildings in our picturesque little town of Franklin, Tennessee. When asked by the cops what in the world they were doing, Josiah and Will told the police, "Pretending to be Spiderman, of course."

Around 11:00 p.m., Josiah was on his way to meet some friends. He was due to leave four days later for the University of Tennessee. It was rainy and foggy outside and he had chosen a windy river road as his route. Josiah hit a tree and even though there were airbags all around him, the brain injuries he suffered were ultimately fatal.

No parent should be faced with the decision to take their child off life support. It's unarguably every parent's worst nightmare. But miraculously Josiah made the decision for them. When he was 18, he signed his donor card - all on his own. His parents had no idea. So when it came time to have to make this horrendous decision, Josiah made it for them. His major organs saved five lives the next day at Vanderbilt Hospital and he ultimately affected 77 people by his selfless gift.

Last Sunday his father, who is also the pastor of our church, told our congregation that he could not wait to have the opportunity to put his ear upon the chest of the person with Josiah's perfectly healthy heart and hear it beating. He longs to share the stories of his son's tenderness and love for everyone around him. Josiah's father went on to assure us that the miracle we prayed for came, it just wasn't the one we wanted.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to digress from our weekly topic and share a little about someone who meant so much to me. Josiah is thanked in my book, Whistlin' Dixie in a Nor'easter, as he was my head cheerleader for years, always taking the opportunity to encourage me and dream along side me about all my possibilities for success.

And as for this week's topic, I'm no expert - that's for sure. I'm one hundred percent with Tracy and Maureen. I'm more of a dialogue girl than a place setter. But I took some excellent advice about the setting of my own novel early on. Someone whom I trust in the literary world made the suggestion that by setting the novel in Memphis (my hometown) it would come across as the most believable. He went on to explain that since it's the place most passionate to me, the passion would come across naturally. "It'll show in your writing," he said, "if you write about a place you love." And since my research budget for this first novel was non-existent, that sounded right on to me.

And as I've said before, I really was an innkeeper in Vermont so when Leelee moves to the North, Maine would not have been the optimum locale to set the story. I think the lesson about setting, for me anyway, comes back to the old writer's adage . . . write what you know.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Not the Resident Setting Expert

I'm with Tracy on this topic--setting is definitely not my strong suit. I tend to focus more on dialogue--both internal and external--when I'm writing a scene. But that's not to say that setting isn't important. See, while the emotion of a scene is kind of like the skeleton, the setting helps to add flesh to your scene's "body."

OK, that's kind of a weird example. But what I mean is that a scene can't exist solely on two people talking in a vacuum. Now, depending on the book (and certainly what's happening in the plot at that particular instance), setting will be more important than others. For A BUMP IN THE ROAD and NOT READY FOR MOM JEANS, setting was important but not make-or-break. But if I was writing fantasy, let's say, obviously where the events were taking place would be much more crucial. (One reason why I'm looking forward to Lesley's post this week--our resident fantasy expert!)

I tend to set my scenes in not just logical places, but also places that I find fun. For example, in A BUMP IN THE ROAD, there is a scene where my main character, her husband and her in-laws all go to a Cubs game. Was it entirely necessary that this conversation took place at a baseball game? Probably not. But being a huge Cubs fan myself, I thought it would be fun to write a scene in a place that I'm all-too-familiar with. It's those little personal details infused into a story that really makes it come to life for me.

Not to mention, my first two books are set in Chicago, where I grew up. So, I guess, setting is one way to not only add life to your story, but a neat way to sneak in some little near-and-dear snippets!

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Little About Setting

And I mean very little, as setting is not one of my strong suits. My focus tends to fall toward the characters: their emotions and their interactions with others, and how these affect the unfolding plot. That being said, setting is crucially important. It's just one of those things that I have to work extra hard at.

Being able to see, smell, and even feel where the story is taking place is a critical element to good storytelling. Sometimes this element needs to take center stage, and other times it doesn't, but always the reader should have a sense of where the characters are while the scene unfolds.

For me, setting is nearly always the bits and pieces I need to drop in and fine tune through my editing process. Every now and then I get it right immediately, but usually during a read-through, I'll recognize that my characters could literally be anywhere--and in most circumstances, this is not a good thing. I need to anchor them within the world they exist, and detailing the setting is a great way to do this.

So, how do I add the details necessary to bring life to the setting? With the five senses. What does the character see? Touch? Hear? Smell? Taste? I don't usually attempt to bring every sense into focus in every scene, but I definitely will pick out one, two, or three, and use them as building blocks in order to give the reader that mindseye picture they need.

Think about the words you use when describing--oh, let's say a house on the edge of a lake--to another person. What does the house look like? How does the air smell? What are the colors you see inside? What about outside? What season is it? What does being there feel like? Perhaps if it's in the middle of summer, it's relaxing and rejuvenating. But maybe in the winter, when the lakefront homes are mostly empty, at dusk, it's creepy and gives you the jitters.

The setting can, and should, add to the story being told. It can add to the emotions the reader is feeling. It can tell them if they should prepare themselves to laugh, cry, or look over their shoulder in fear. It can leave them on their edge of their seats, or enchanted by the world being shown them.

So yes, setting is critically important, and is a valuable tool within every writer's arsenal. And, I have to say, it's one I'm continuing to develop every time I sit down to write.