The Writers Circle: Writing on Location

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Have you ever needed a change of scene in order to write a scene in your story? Have you needed to go to a place that resembles the one you are writing about? How does your physical location impact the story you’re writing? Does being in a location similar to the one depicted in your story help (or hurt) your storytelling in any way?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.


Just for Fun: Technical Failure

Just for fun, write a scene in which all technology suddenly fails to work (perhaps for an extended period of time). How do your characters react to the sudden lack of technology? How does the world in your story change without modern technology?

If you are comfortable doing so, share your work in the comments, on the forums or via a link to it on your blog.

Just for Fun: Discovery

Just for fun, write a scene in which you describe your character’s reaction to a big, new discovery. There are no limits to what this discovery could be — perhaps it’s a scientific discovery, or a medical breakthrough, or a discovery during a criminal investigation.  Does your character buy into the initially available information? Or is he or she skeptical?

If you are comfortable doing so, share your work in the comments, on the forums or via a link to it on your blog.

Setting Expectations

alien landscapeThe majority of what I read and write is science fiction or fantasy. My expectation is that these stories will be set either in a truly alien environment or in our world but with a different set of rules or technologies.  The amount of time and effort the author needs to spend describing the world depends on that decision: is it on Earth as we know it, or is it somewhere else?  Too often, I’ll pick up a book or story which advertises itself as being set on a planet other than Earth or in a spaceship or in the molten inner core of the planet and as I read, it feels like I’m just down the street or perhaps right in the middle of Central Park (though, admittedly, anything in New York City could be considered to be another world). Sometimes this may be by design — the author doesn’t want the story or its characters to be bogged down by or driven by the environment, or the author may have defined it away by allowing the characters to transform the alien environment into something more comfortable and familiar to both the characters and the readers. But sometimes it is evident that the author didn’t care about the setting, that he or she just wanted to write a story set “on another planet”.

My opinion is: if an alien or fictional landscape is unimportant then why would the story be set in an alien or fictional environment?  Just set it on Earth, in downtown Anywheresville and tell the story. But if the story is to be set in an alien or fictional environment, it needs to be described. For my stories, I will spend a fair bit of time (words) describing the landscape, the weather and the general environment in which the story is taking place.  The goal of this is to give the reader an understanding of what the characters are seeing and experiencing as they go about their days.  Given how often I read books that do not go into much detail about the environments, I often wonder if doing this is merely a distraction to the reader and a waste of precious time and word count within the story.  There have been times when this back-and-forth battle in my brain has led me to spend hours writing paragraph after paragraph describing the unique aspects of the terrain, only to later cut it on the first round of editing.

Does that mean I wasted all that time?

While the majority of those descriptive words may ultimately settle silently on the cutting-room floor during the first edits because they are deemed to be useless for readers, I would argue that there is a lot of benefit to me as the author in writing them.  By spending the time to describe and fill in the landscape, I become more familiar with it, more comfortable with it, and more attuned to how it can, should and will interact with the characters.  Often, if I find that the setting I’ve described is too familiar, it leads me to question whether or not I’ve actually gotten it right.  Living quarters on a deep space starship should not feel like your average living room.  Growing vegetables on Mars should not require exactly the same effort, tools or experience and should not result in exactly the same flavors, shapes, sizes and colors of those vegetables as what we’d see on Earth. I feel it would be unreasonable to expect that we humans could just will the Martian soil to grow Earth vegetables, or that life on a spaceship would be as comfortable as life in Suburbia, no matter how much we might want to say that science and technology advanced enough to make it so.

The bottom line for me is that if I am writing a story set in an alien or fictional world, the setting should be alien.  If my characters are humans from Earth, it should be something they at least notice, if not something they struggle to adapt to.  A second generation of humans who were born in that environment may not think of it as a big deal, but settlers would certainly notice.  Think about moving from one town, state or country to another here on Earth.  Even though you may still have a car and a house and the same clothing, there is still an adjustment period and an effort to adapt to the new environment, new laws, new food choices, new weather patterns.  We authors need to understand how the new environment impacts our characters. We need to understand how the characters react and respond to it.  And we need to describe for the readers — and ourselves — the parts of that environment which make the world different from our own.  Whether it is strange technology or topology, when I go back and edit I look for the things which make the environment unique and I try to focus the descriptive text on those aspects and on how those unique aspects impact the characters.  In my opinion, it makes the story richer, makes the characters more realistic and makes the setting important to the story and not just an afterthought.

What do you think? Whatever type of writing you do, how much time do you spend defining and describing the world in which the story takes place and how do you find ways to balance the description of the environment with the interaction between it and the characters?

Setting is not a Place, it’s an Emotion

To new writers, setting is passive, to place the reader geographically. A few prosy sentences and move on. To experienced writers, it’s seminal to the plot, an extension of the characters. Here’s what how-to-write books say:

“Setting is an important element of literature because authors use it to establish the atmosphere or mood of the piece.” (Writing from A to Z )

“Don’t tell us what it’s like. … Let us come to our own conclusions. Is it scary? Imposing? Barren? Evoke the mood by the description, not be telling us…” (Noah Lukeman)

“Setting can help to portray a swirl of emotion… When a reader senses that setting is being used to reveal something important, there is no danger of its being what one student calls ‘the stuff you skip’.” (Janet Burroway)

They all agree setting isn’t intended to objectively describe a location, rather to buttress plot and characters.

Close your eyes and describe the scent of the flower bed that borders a scraggly front lawn, the dreary London day, the sound of the subway. Each of those images mean little outside of the reader’s experience, connections to other parts of the story, and motivations. The flower bed tells us the person living inside the shack hasn’t given up. The dreary London day juxtaposes the character’s mood. The subway sound means new beginnings, hope. Readers don’t care a lot about the setting except as it affects the story. (I stipulate James Michener is an exception, as are nature writers).

Let’s try an experiment. The setting is a park. What do you see (don’t peek)?

Most readers expect this:



…but the description that follows, through the eyes of the main character, says this:

Its a tree in red

The first is no surprise. The second informs us about the state of mind, the experiences, the temperament of the character. S/he completely misses the beauty inherent in the trees and nature, thanks to a raging thirst that makes everything look deadly.

Another example–think of the Country Western song. The lyrics are often tragic, about loss and failure, but the feeling evoked by music is upbeat–man’s ability to overcome, to get up despite being knocked down again and again, to find happiness against all odds.

That’s how to write a scene. It’s not what the room looks like, it’s what happens there that matters.

For more about settings, check out Jurgen Wolff’s blog here.

More on settings:

Writers Tips #82: 7 Tips on Time and Place from Donald Maass

How to Describe a Character’s Neighborhood

How to Describe a Landscape

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. C

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Just for Fun: The Playing Field

There are many occasions in history when the world comes together to compete in sporting events (The Olympics, World Cup, etc.).  These events have many reasons for existing, of course, but the end result is that teams or individuals who differ ideologically come together to compete in sport.  How might such an event be held in your current (or past) works of fiction?  Describe what you’ve done in your works here in the comments, or put together a quick paragraph or two giving an example of how sports or other competitive events (spelling bees or chess matches, for example) might level the playing field amongst your characters and their societies.