Thursday, October 23, 2008

Writing Fiction: Session 7 - Setting

When preparing to write a novel, it's a toss-up whether to develop your setting or develop your plot first. I think you'll find yourself working on both at once. However, it's helpful to sketch out your setting and your plot in separate piles so you can keep track of the details.

First, let's talk about setting. Before you write your novel, you must choose and define your setting or settings. If this is your first book, I recommend that you keep your settings as simple as possible.

How many?

Some books take place in one room. Others use multiple locations. Because you have so much detail to keep straight just with telling your story, don't complicate your life by having your story jump from one location to the next every few pages. Remember, the more settings you have, the more details you'll have to manage. So, when plotting your novel, determine how many settings you'll use.

Details, details...

Next, you need to determine the amount of detail to include about each setting. This depends on the tone and pace of your novel, and it may vary within the novel. Is the detail needed? Is the detail part of the tone and the rhythm of your novel? We've all read those sweeping historical novels where part of the pleasure of reading them is luxuriating in the description of the rolling hills and the deep forests leading up to the grand plantation house.

In fast-paced novels, where the emphasis is on the action, you wouldn't want to slow down the action by describing the details of the surroundings. The villain, while he is fleeing the scene of the crime, won't have time to stop to contemplate the flowers in bloom along the side of the road. Your reader won't want that interruption either.

So, keep the pace of your book in mind. Only you, the author, can determine for your reader how much detail you want and how much detail will best serve the pace of your book.

Gathering and storing important setting information.

There are unlimited ways to gather and record the information about your settings that you'll need later while you're writing your novel. Here are a few:
  • Make a list of your settings as you develop your plot. Put the name of each setting on a piece of paper or note card (one card per setting). Jot down notes about the settings as they occur to you.
  • If a particular setting is indoors, draw a diagram of it similar to a blueprint of the room. Within the room, mark the doors and windows. And, draw rectangles, circles, squares, etc. to represent furniture.
  • Make a list of the items within the room and their significance to your story. Be as detailed as your novel requires.
  • Draw diagrams of other locations when necessary. For example, a diagram might serve you well if your characters go on an outdoor picnic in a secluded picnic area. John leads Brenda along a winding path. Draw a diagram of where John is leading Brenda and note that he turned right at the tree stump, so your readers will gasp when Brenda is running for her life and turns toward the cliff rather than toward safety. Details are important.

Maps and pictures.

If you're writing about a real city, obtain current maps of the area. This will ensure you'll accurately name the streets and describe the city locations. If your city is fictional, draw a map of it and name the streets, parks, downtown area, etc, so you'll be consistent as you describe the setting.

Another way to gather information is by taking pictures of pertinent landmarks, houses, furnishings, etc. With a digital camera, this is easy to do and inexpensive. You'll be able to ensure accuracy in your descriptions when you have pictures to refer to while you're writing.


Yes, we did talk about backstory in Session 6, but it's important to mention it again. Make notes, as detailed as you need, about the backstory for each setting before you start writing. If you're writing about a real location, get the pertinent history straight in your mind before writing. And, remember, you may be using an actual location, but not all your readers will be privy to the details. So make notes to work in salient details to bring your settings to life.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Writing Fiction: Session 6 - Backstory

Before writing your novel, write or develop a detailed backstory. It's one of the keys to making fiction believable.

What is a backstory? Simply, it's the story of what has happened to your characters before they reach the first page of your novel and how all those past events of their lives have affected them. Without a backstory, you plop your characters into the current moment of your story as if that's the first day of their lives.

In the previous session, you wrote resumes for your characters. These list the schooling, work history, and achievements of each one. This information is vital, but it only gives you the framework.

The backstory for each character will fill in the details. A good way to write the backstory is to write a tell-all biography about each of your characters. Concentrate not only on what has happened to them but how they reacted and handled or mishandled the events of their lives. For example, does the character always withdraw from confrontation or does he/she charge through life with an attitude? Why?

You want readers to discover the depth of your characters from events in the book. By knowing the backstory, you'll be able to weave just enough of their history into the story, so your readers will come to understand their motives and anticipate their actions and reactions.

Don't look on devising the backstory for your characters as a chore. You needn't waste your best writing on this task. In fact, it's okay to devise your backstory in list form.

For example:

Let's say Don is one of your main characters. His backstory might contain some of these items:

  • He was born in Samson, Michigan.

  • His mother died when he was 7. His father was devastated and ignored Don's needs.

  • Don felt he never measured up to his father's expectations; consequently, he learned to tiptoe around his father, so he wouldn't hear how worthless he was.

  • Don took out his aggression on others by playing tricks on weaker kids throughout grade school.

  • He received average grades in school.

  • He didn't make the sports teams in high school.

  • He rarely dated; he was rejected by Sally Simpson in high school in front of others on the bus and didn't recover quickly from that.

  • He had a natural talent for piano... liked blues the best and would lose himself in music, playing for hours when his father wasn't home.

  • He began to date in college and that opened a whole new world to him ... etc.

I imagine you can see where I'm going here. Basically, you make a list of significant past events and the character's reaction to those events. Having a detailed backstory solidly in mind will allow you to get to know your characters as if you grew up with them. When you know the details of each character's backstory, they will begin to take on a life of their own as you write.

In our lives, we all act or react in any given situation based on our history and how our past reactions worked for us. Your characters will do the same. They'll react based on the backstory (or in spite of the backstory if the character is trying to overcome the way he/she has operated in the past). Based on this, I imagine you can see how valuable a backsotry will be to your novel.

It may sound like a lot of work to develop a backstory for each character. However, you won't need the same amount of detail for all of your characters. Obviously, you need the most detail for significant characters. Minor characters may need only a paragraph or two.

A backstory is not only about your characters. In some stories you'll need a backstory about your setting, too. This will especially be the case when you set your novel in a fictional town. In order to maintina consistency, you need to develop the past events of your fictional town and how the people of the town reacted to them.

If your setting is a real town, your backstory is the history of the town. You'll want to have a working knowledge of that town. Your readers will be able to tell when you haven't done your homework. And... they will let you know when you get something wrong.

So, get started on developing backstories for your characters and setting. You'll be thankful you did.