Thursday, March 10, 2011

Confessions of a Setting Wimp


Current Project: Blindsight, Romantic Suspense
Status: Inching along near end of first draft
(I tried to write an educational limerick about setting and/or description in honor of St. Paddy’s Day, but the rhyme turned to drivel—something about mimes and shrines and York. Drivelly-er than ordinary limericks. Extremely drivelous. So I will leave it off this blog post.)

I have a confession to make. I don’t like to write about places I’ve never been. The challenge of writing authentic description under those circumstances nearly paralyzes me. Why should I risk antagonizing readers? Or the postman who must deliver tons of helpful and/or angry letters from readers compelled to correct my mistakes?

Instead, I cheat. I find a real setting that I know well enough to feel comfortable with, then rename it and alter it slightly or combine it with another similar setting. As Queen of my story world, I can plant a fictional place on the map and avoid many of those kind and/or indignant letters.

Or I go visit the place.

I also like to write alternate history stories. If anyone calls me on a Jersey cow when everyone knows all the cows in that area at that time were Holsteins, I smile and make something up. “Swine flu spread to cows in the 1850’s, and only Jerseys were immune. By 1861, all the Holsteins had been replaced with Jerseys.”
Both historically-accurate stories and alternate histories require extensive research and world building. With alternate history, a writer has some wiggle room.

With historicals, not so much. If I ever write an accurate historical, maybe I’ll choose a culture or time period that is mostly a mystery to archeologists and historians.

What tricks related to setting are hidden in your writing process?

15 comments:

Genene Valleau said...

LOL, Sarah! I love the Holstein vs. Jersey cow anecdote.

As for keeping settings "hidden," I also like to use fictional places. Yes, they usually have similarities to real places, but hey...

Another danger of using real places is that they change! Probably the most infamous example of that is the Twin Towers that used to grace the NY skyline. And I also remember reading a book years ago that was set in Salem (where I live) that talked about a developed area by the river that was weeds and blackberry bushes at the time. I don't remember anything about the book other than that inaccuracy. Or maybe the author was seeing into the future and the beautiful park that now exists. :)

I did use Portland as one of the settings in my first trilogy, but kept the references to general areas, such as Northeast Portland, rather than specific street names.

I also like to visit the settings I use. That's not always possible, but a visit gives me a much better "feel" for the location. That way, even if I don't name a specific street or building, I can add enough of the flavor of the setting to be realistic.

Thanks for an entertaining post!

Sarah Raplee said...

Genene, those are great examples of events overcoming 'accurate' settings. Good point about how things change.

I agree that it can be hard to portray the 'flavor' of a place unless you visit. I bet 'flavor' errors are more irritating to readers than 'fact' errors. You'll hear me say over and over that I'm a very forgiving reader; just don't annoy me! LOL

Thanks for the insightful comments!

Paty Jager said...

LOL Sarah!! I didn't know that about the cows and my daughter studied them in vet tech school. Very clever.

As for setting. I prefer to go to the places and I like to use real places to ground the reader.

This weekend I had a nice chat with an agent while pitching my books set in Guatemala, I confessed I haven't been there, my husband didn't think it was a good vacation spot but I collaborated with someone who lives there. Her comment was- and I can't remember the NY times author who wrote a book set in China, but he didn't set foot there either. He used National Geographic dvds to "see" the country and the agent had been there and said he did an excellent job of portraying the country/area in the book.

So I think if you can use some authentic flavor even if it's second hand it give credence to your stories. But after all the books I've done in real settings... I would one day like to make up a setting and use that in a book. (and I have plans for that day)

Sarah Raplee said...

Thanks for the tips on researching a foreign setting without actually going there yourself. How did you find someone local to collaborate with?

Paty Jager said...

Sarah, I googled Guatemala life or living and a blog popped up about Guatemala living. I wrote int eh comments that i was writing a book set in Guatemala and wondered if they or someone they knew could help me. The woman writing the blog then offered to help me make the story ring authentic and did a final read for me. She just wants her blog credited in the acknowledgments.

Sarah Raplee said...

And thank you, Paty!

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