Time to Leap!

Recently I was watching an interview of a successful television actor who knew from childhood that he wanted to spend his life performing for audiences. Another individual remarked during the conversation that at one point in her life she wanted to sing and was asked, then why wasn’t she singing? It seems she never did, and that ambition of hers fell through.

From all that, my question for the person who wants to be a writer but isn’t writing is then: why aren’t you putting words on the screen?

Why is there hesitation in some people to commit to the simple act of putting a plot together–however wobbly–about characters and writing down what they do and say?

Why do some wannabes struggle or balk? Why do some think they must prepare and prepare and prepare before they ever attempt describing a character or depicting two individuals exchanging dialogue?

Is it perfectionism? Is it fear?

Granted, the unknown is a scary place to venture. People with imagination can build up terrors in their minds, and those terrors can become huge walls impossible to get over.

But what, after all, is there to fear in writing fiction? You may not know how to do it, but is that so terrible? No one’s waiting with a red-hot poker to assault you if you write a sentence that’s convoluted, over-qualified, and filled with passive verbs.

Will you be laughed at because you produce a paltry little scene without conflict and no resolution? Um, not if you don’t self-publish it or otherwise show it to anyone. And even if you do, and even if you’re disappointed by your reader’s meh response, just go back and rewrite. See if you can’t do better.

Or are you so in love with your idea, so enamored of your setting, so cherishing of your characters that you hesitate to put them where anyone else might read them and snicker? Even worse, that reader might actually dare suggest you alter one perfect detail.

Are you feeling timorous because you doubt your ability to write anything? Are you wishing you’d listened to your high school grammar lessons and truly learned the correct way to punctuate? Do you feel you can’t write stories because you can’t spell worth a plugged nickel? And is it nickel or nickle, (nickel in this context) and why is the English language so darned difficult?

I watch certain individuals tie themselves into Gordian knots over these issues. On the other hand, I browse Amazon and sometimes find dozens of books that are poorly written, poorly spelled, and enthusiastically slinging fast-paced adventure tales at avid fans. In such cases, I discover authors who let nothing hold them back from doing what they enjoy doing.

When I was about nine, my mother signed me up for swimming lessons at the municipal pool. It was the start of summer. Mom worked, and she wanted me to be somewhere safe, active, outdoors, and healthy during the afternoons. She figured if I could swim, I could be at the pool by myself. The lifeguards would watch me. I couldn’t wander away from the pool and get into mischief. She had no need to find a babysitter. And it had to be better for me than sitting indoors all day, straining my weak eyes by reading book after book.

Two college boys were the swim instructors for a two-week course that was supposed to teach a child’s class in basic swimming and diving off the side of the pool. My instructor was named Perry, and after lessons he and the other teacher would take us into the snack bar for candy, a treat my parents normally didn’t allow. (Did I tell them my teacher gave us candy? Absolutely not!) Perry must have been a wise and patient young man because for the first week he could not persuade me to put my face in the water. I adored Perry and would have done anything for him, except that. Yet Perry remained calm and persuasive. Every day, while the other kids were bobbing up and down and paddling around, I would not put my head beneath the surface. Perry had to explain to my mother why I was a week into the course and still unable to paddle. Finally, Perry figured out some way to convince me to try holding my breath and going under.

It was wonderful! I loved it. That night, I had to get into the bathtub in my swimsuit to show my father how I could hold my breath.

After that, although I never became a skilled or proficient swimmer, I learned several strokes and could then spend my summers at the pool, dropped off by my parents on their lunch break and picked up on their way home from work. Just imagine how much better a swimmer I could have learned to be if I hadn’t been so stubborn and afraid to try at first? Of course, as an adult I could have taken more lessons and become good in the water had I possessed enough interest, but it didn’t matter to me enough to put in the practice.

So it is with any skill. In writing, if you feel compelled to bring a story from your heart and imagination and make it live on the page, then just … do it.

No, it’s not going to be perfect. No, it’s probably not going to be quite the result you envisioned. That comes with practice. But no story can be revised or improved if it’s not first written. Who needs perfection at the start? Confidence comes from attempting something again and again until you know how.

As a teacher of writing, I’ve seen talented students get in their own way with doubts, hesitations, and stubborn refusals to take constructive criticism. Their natural abilities fall fallow and never reach the potential shining within them. So many problems with writing stem from psychological causes, and those I can’t fix.

I only can be like Perry, patiently offering feedback and trying one strategy then another to persuade a recalcitrant writer to leap for it. And I keep asking the question: if you truly want to be a writer, why aren’t you writing?

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Plot Progression

From time to time, people ask me for information on how to outline a plot. “How,” they ask, “do you know what should come first? Then what do you do?”

The answer can be hard to express. Replying, “I just know,” doesn’t seem to be an adequate response. Yet my story sense is such an intrinsic part of me I might as well be asked how I breathe. (I flare my nostrils and inhale. I relax my nostrils and exhale. Repeat.) Accordingly, I think about my protagonist and she comes to life, walking and talking and twisting her wheat-blonde hair around her finger while she ponders.

However, laying aside the temptation to be snarky or facetious, what can I suggest to people who have only nebulous notions of what might happen in their story and simply can’t get started? They sort of know where they want to go, but they don’t have a golden ticket that will take them there.

I always refer to my training in Professional Writing at the University of Oklahoma: Start with your protagonist in trouble.

In return, I’m given a blank, somewhat glassy stare. “Like what? What kind of trouble?”

Even in a buffet line, you start at one end or the other. Pick up a plate and decide if you’re beginning with salad or dessert. That’s your preference. Have you some idea of how you want to open your story? Do you have an ending in mind?

“No. I can’t decide. I’m stuck. I need to write this, but I can’t get started at all!”

Well, I prefer to start plot development at the beginning. Let’s do that. “What is your setting?”

“Uh … France or Italy. Yeah, I want to write a novel like UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN. I loved it! It’s my favorite novel.”

First and foremost and finally, that book–albeit delightful–is not a novel. I begin to understand why my questioner is having trouble cooking up a plot.

Fiction is not an assemblage of facts. It is not an autobiographical memoir. It is not a report. A story is a breathing, organic progression of change or growth within a central character due to direct antagonism.

I try again. “So your protagonist will be in France or will travel to France?”

“Right. I want him to go there, to search for information about his grandmother.”

Okay, this is better. We now have a nugget to work from. “Why?” I ask.

Another glassy stare as though why should I expect reasons. “I don’t understand.”

“Why does your character want to learn about his grandmother? Did he know her? Did he ever visit her? What was special about her?”

A spark of excitement ignites, replacing the lost look of bafflement. “He never met her. He just heard stories about her from his mom. Now she’s dead and his mom’s dead, so he wants to go there and learn more.” A long pause. “And maybe he read some of her letters to his mom. Now he’s curious.”

Sweet, I think, but not enough. In commercial fiction, we need stronger reasons than this to propel story people into action.

My questioner, perhaps sensing how dubious I am, blurts out, “I want it to be a mystery!”

It’s my turn to blink. I inhale–long and deeply. “What crime will be at the center of your story, then?”

“Crime? Can’t he just talk to cousins or something? Maybe learn about his granny and what she did in the second world war?”

“A mystery needs a crime.” Oh please study a genre before you choose it. Oh please read several mysteries so you have some knowledge of their tropes before you plot or write. “Did she commit a crime? Did she hide a killer or an enemy soldier? Did she have secrets? What was she concealing? Why is it necessary now for your protagonist to bring all this to light? Who would want him to leave things alone?”

“A cousin, I guess. Maybe his uncle?”

I’m growing weary. I feel like a professional dancer on DANCING WITH THE STARS assigned to partner a celebrity with two left feet and no sense of musical timing. My toes hurt, and so far we haven’t taken a step.

For solace, I think again of my training. “How can you get your protagonist in trouble from the beginning?”

“Oh, I’ve thought of that! He’ll catch COVID on the plane to Paris.”

“No. No. No.”

“But that’s exciting. That’s a lot of trouble. And while he’s in quarantine, he’ll overhear a couple of nurses talking about the village where Granny lived. He’ll get some information on how to find it.”

Somehow I swallow the acerbic remark that all he has to do is rent a Citroen and use his phone’s GPS. I am here to help, not crush.

“In fiction,” I explain, “there needs to be a compelling reason for your protagonist to unlock Granny’s secrets now. Those secrets need to be exciting. If you’re writing a mystery, they need to be dangerous and best left alone, only your protagonist can’t avoid probing into Granny’s past. Who wants to keep Granny’s secrets buried? Who will strike against your protagonist to stop him from asking questions?”

“So can he still catch COVID? ‘Cause I think that will create complications for him plus give him a reason to meet this cute nurse. They can become romantic later.”

Again, I reach for patience. “How will that tie into your mystery plot?”

“Does it have to? I mean, the nurse comes from the village where Granny lives, so isn’t that a connection?”


I’m going to stop this example here before my brain explodes. Even this imaginary invention of a conversation with someone who doesn’t know how to plot makes my blood pressure rise.

There’s nothing wrong with not knowing how to start. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes or asking questions. How else can you learn? At some point, however, you must follow instructions even if you wobble. Stop saying or thinking, I can’t, and just do what the directions tell you to do.

Here, therefore, is a short schematic of how to organize your idea into a step-by-step progression of plot events from start to finish.

Step 1: Start with a dramatic problem for your protagonist, something that can’t be ignored, something that changes your protagonist’s life or circumstances suddenly and drastically. This shouldn’t be random or disconnected from all that will follow in the story. Therefore, COVID as an opening problem works only if your story is about someone coping with that or dealing with the aftermath of losing a spouse/family member to the disease and the fallout thereafter.

The opening problem should connect to your intended story. It should have consequences that lead the protagonist on a road toward solving that opening problem.

Step 2: Give your protagonist a chance to process this sudden problem and then decide on attempts to solve it.

Example: perhaps your protagonist’s brother dies in a freak accident. Protagonist deals with the grief and funeral in about three paragraphs of summary and then the attorney says, “Come by my office in the morning because we need to talk about a situation with your brother’s business.”

When the protagonist gets there, he learns his brother was losing money heavily for no apparent reason. Perhaps there’s been an ongoing police investigation for fraud. Protagonist next goes to the factory, meets staff. Some are weepy and shocked. Others are belligerent and obstructive. Protagonist digs into records and finds discrepancies.

Step 3: Consider who in this story world would want to keep the truth concealed. Who in this story world wants to stop protagonist from discovering brother’s secrets? Brother had an ally who is involved in the illegal activity. Who is this villain? Was the villain responsible for brother’s death? Was it murder instead of an accident? How does protagonist’s probing threaten villain?

Step 4: Have villain move against protagonist either directly or through other characters. Anything they do will only intensify protagonist’s suspicions, so he won’t stop investigating. That, in turn, drives the villain(s) to attempt an “accident” for him. Protagonist barely escapes. What, now, can he do to retaliate?

Step 5: As protagonist and villain clash and maneuver against each other in a series of escalating confrontations of conflict, how is the protagonist being changed? What is the protagonist learning about himself in this process of ongoing trouble?

Step 6: Protagonist and villain will come together in a showdown that resolves the problem. Who wins? Who loses? Can the protagonist prevail and stop the villain? Can the villain be brought to justice? Yes or no. The end.

Granted, these few steps are greatly simplified, but plot doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. It should be easily understood and easily followed.

Keep things simple. Keep things happening. Keep trouble intense.

Don’t let protagonist sit in a chair and contemplate the sunset. Don’t meander with random, disconnected incidents strung together. Follow writing principles and, more importantly, trust them.

This is how you move a nebulous idea into a cohesive plot.


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It’s Alive!

As promised in my previous post, here’s the Amazon link to my latest novel, A MAN OF HONOR.

I’m using the pseudonym of Lewis Kern for my westerns in homage to my grandfather and father, both of whom enjoyed a good story set in the old West.

My grandfather was a cattleman. As a child, he moved to New Mexico the year it became a state. He played teenage pranks during Prohibition, attended military school, and watched General Pershing’s troops pursue Pancho Villa into Mexico prior to the United States entering WWI. My grandfather worked as a cowboy, caught wild horses out of the mountains and broke them to sell to earn extra money to support his family, owned a gas station during the Great Depression when so many people were migrating to California, served as a deputy sheriff, and ranched cattle. He registered a cattle brand for me–one I still have–and gave me a heifer to start my own herd. He did the same for each of his grandchildren. I spent my childhood summers on his ranch, learning how to drive cattle, help with branding, build and repair fences, and watch the skies for thunderheads during the vital months of July through September for those all-important annual eleven inches of rain that could make or break any chance of growing sufficient winter feed in the pastures. Such experiences made an indelible impression on me. I don’t claim to be an expert on the desert, guns, and history, but I feel westerns are an important part of American mythology. The genre itself, so tiny in the giant publishing industry, shouldn’t be marginalized or lost. So, as I carve out spare bits of time, I like to add my tales to the offerings that are out there.

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Announcing a New Novel

I cannot tell you what a relief it is to announce that my latest novel, A MAN OF HONOR, is now in processing at Amazon for imminent Kindle release. I started this western nearly two years ago, and it has proven incredibly difficult to write. Life has been full of distractions, but I kept chipping away at it a few paragraphs or pages at a time.

I think of my past production, when I used to write three books a year, then later advanced to producing one 100,000-word tome annually. As I worked on this one–so small-scaled and unambitious in comparison–I kept beating up myself with reminders of what I used to do. I asked myself over and over what was wrong with me, other than being overwhelmed by a ton of unexpected hardships in a worldwide pandemic. I told myself that being confined to my house should be wonderful for getting writing done.

But this book was different. It didn’t flow at all.

Am I rusty? Yes. After all, our writing skills can corrode in as little as two weeks.

Did I think of my professional writing students, particularly those who struggle desperately with their novel assignments and are so obviously beating their brains to produce words that won’t come? Yes, I did.

Did I reassure myself that I haven’t lost the knack–that, despite the pressure of deadlines and personal high standards of professionalism, creativity cannot be forced without dire consequences? Yes, I did.

Did I have to figure out that talent can be abused and imagination can be injured if we aren’t careful? Did I have to decide to let the creative process heal in its own time and in its own way? Yes, I did.

So, despite a steadily ticking clock of passing days and eroding time, I had to let this project run free and not force it. Above all, I had to trust in my innate story sense and skills in the writing craft and just be patient.

How scary is that?

Over Thanksgiving, I stared ahead at the approaching end of the year and had no idea of how to pull my central story line and two subplots together into a climax.

No idea. I–teacher of writing, coach of the craft–had no clue.

Beyond scary.

Sure, I knew the construction. I hadn’t forgotten what’s obligatory for ending a story in a cathartic way that satisfies readers. But that didn’t mean the story fell into place the way it should, the way it used to, the way I wanted it to.

Years ago, my writing teacher Jack Bickham used to say over and over to his students: Trust the process.

He taught me so much, but I think that advice might just be the most valuable of all. Trust the process. Once you learn the craft, trust it. Always. Listen to your story sense.

Between classes one day, I sat down and sketched out my story question and what my villains were doing. I ordered them sequentially in how I thought they should be dealt with as the plot wrapped up. And then, as the semester closed, and with no feeling of inspiration or confidence whatsoever, I planted myself in my writing chair to write the ending. And it came. Not exactly the way I’d outlined in my miniature planning session, but that was okay. What my story sense supplied was better. Several drafts later, I could type THE END with a feeling of relief and accomplishment.

I had already printed out a hard copy of the rest of the manuscript just before Thanksgiving. Those of you who know me well should recognize that as a book nears completion, I start to freak and take extra precautions to protect it. I lugged that manuscript out of state and back. Didn’t look at it. Didn’t touch it. But if life happened to zap my house and blow apart my computer, I had digital copies scattered about and most importantly I had it on paper. After I finished tweaking the climax, I printed it out and added it to the stack of pages.

With grading behind me and with considerable trepidation, I sat down to read/edit what I expected to be a patchwork of inconsistency, gaps, plot holes, and sloppy scenes. To my astonishment, I found nothing loose or gaping in the plot. One character underwent a name change partway through. I fixed that, firmed up some variant spellings and stylistic things, and tightened sentences. I dithered for an hour over the last sentence and finally left it alone.

Is the result deathless prose? No.

Is this the great American novel? No.

Does it hold together, flow smoothly, and deliver a decent tale of the old West? I think so.

Did I meet my deadline after all? Yes, yes, yes!

In the past, I would have hidden these writing travails. I would have put on my professional mask and let you think this one rolled out as smoothly as the previous fiction I’ve done. But I think maybe, for those of you who struggle with words or scenes or subplots or character design, maybe sharing my battle will prove encouraging. I’m deeply grateful for the skills in craft that I’ve learned over the years. I do trust the process even when I feel unsure or scared that I’m writing a hot mess. I’m blessed to have whatever drop of story sense I possess. And I’m stubborn enough to keep trying, even when the path is less than smooth.

A MAN OF HONOR is the story of a gunman for hire, who travels around the New Mexico Territory somewhat like Paladin–protagonist of the old radio and TV western series, THIS GUN FOR HIRE. My protagonist helps folks with their troubles, but he’s a deeply broken man inside, grieving for a wife and child who were killed years before. He’s sworn vengeance, and he’s hunted his enemy for a very long time. But just when he crosses paths with the villain, he’s hindered by a young woman and a little boy who each desperately need his help. Will he sacrifice his honor and ignore their plight to pursue his revenge? Or will he do what’s right?

I’ll post a link to Amazon once the book goes live.

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Setting & Research

Research is necessary for any successful setting although it can also be a quagmire from which the unwary writer may never emerge. While it’s tempting to use only invented settings or to confine your stories to a few locations that you feel you know well, this type of restriction may not be what’s best for your story. Furthermore, research–despite its potential hazards–shouldn’t be avoided.

In this post, I want to divide setting research into two main areas: actual locations and imaginary locations. Let’s deal with them separately.

Actual locations can be split further into actual contemporary settings and actual historical settings. You may think a contemporary setting is easy and needs no fact checks, but never assume your knowledge is correct or sufficiently thorough. Check and recheck your details. Get them right, and don’t hesitate to visit a street, neighborhood, or district just to look it over with a fresh perspective. Think about how your protagonist or viewpoint character might perceive the area. What would this character notice?

Above all, avoid doing your research by watching television. What looks good enough to “work” for television isn’t necessarily accurate. Prop masters on motion-picture sets have been known to attach the blade from one type of sword to the hilt of a different kind of sword just because it “looks better” onscreen.

Don’t fear to ask questions. People love it when you show interest in where they live or what they do. They’re flattered and usually eager to help. Before the existence of the Internet, a writer friend of mine once set a novel on a remote chain of largely unpopulated islands. She needed to describe the sound of the surf as the tide came in, and she finally called a weather research station on the island, explained what she was doing and what she needed, and then gained the assistance of the staff as they opened windows and held the phone receiver outside so she could “listen.”

Historical settings are dangerous in that researching them can lead you down a rabbit hole to infinity. Sometimes writers avoid doing any actual writing because they feel they should research every detail first. Before you know it, you’ve missed a deadline or you’re revising your plot outline in some weird way to fit a setting quirk that you think needs including. I love history. I love researching. I love details. I love discoveries. I’ve written many novels with historical or quasi-historical settings. Once I skewed my plot to include a piece of research that I found too cool to ignore. Let’s just say that after an uncomfortable conversation with my literary agent where he took me to task for those unnecessary 17,000 words and I subsequently missed a week’s vacation while I deleted them, I have not repeated that mistake.

Early in my career, I was given an invaluable piece of advice. It was to plot first and write the rough draft, and then do the research. That’s because you will know exactly what you should check. Because I have written so many historicals, I have amended that approach to doing minimal upfront research to make sure my plot outline is plausible and feasible. Then I write the rough draft and then I double-check my facts. This way, I’m not sucked into any black holes of no return. I keep the information under control. I don’t waste time exploring the bucolic delights of Welsh sheep country when all I need are two Welsh character names.

Imaginary locations are not an automatic free pass from doing any fact checking at all. Even if you’re creating a wholly invented world in a futuristic fantasy, you must still be plausible. That means as you construct your story world with its terrain, climate, cultures, societies, economies, government, level of civilization, and everyday life you must make sure all the details fit feasibly together.

If you’re creating an imaginary small town located northwest of an actual metropolis, you still need to know the distance they are from each other, whether the metropolis will be utilized or referred to, plus the climate, the smells, sounds, cultures, and populace of your made-up community. I have lived in small communities adjacent to big cities. I know what it’s like to need a part for repairs or an item from a store and be told it’s not in stock and I’ll have to get it from Big Town. I know what it’s like to live a hundred miles or more from the nearest city and how neighbors shun any suggestion of visiting the city because “it’s a whole different world.” Or, “we don’t understand people that live way up there at that end of the state.” I also find that the inhabitants of some major cities can occasionally be as insular and provincial as the folks in small towns.

Remember that your invented community isn’t isolated and should relate to what part of what state it’s located in.

If you choose instead to situate your story in an actual place but you want to invent only a street or neighborhood, then you’re running the risk of confusing readers and being misunderstood. People tend to plunge into books, eager to get into a story, without bothering to notice that it’s set, for example, in 1920s Bombay, India, or 1960s Detroit. They miss all the cues. They don’t read the back cover blurb, and they hit some statement or behavior in the story that throws them, jolts them, or confuses them. They tend to conclude that you, dear writer, haven’t done your research and don’t know this setting at all.



Unnecessary and avoidable?


Even if you write a paragraph of explanation inserted on the first page that tells readers this is an invented district, chances are some won’t see it.

My advice is either to use entirely accurate information in an actual locale or move to an entirely invented place near an actual locale.

Whatever you do, don’t settle for generic vagueness in which the backdrop is as lively as motel-room decor and could take place anywhere, anytime, and for any reason.

And finally, writers are constantly told to write about what they know. That advice–while absolutely sound–doesn’t mean you can’t use a location you’ve never visited or or that you can’t invent a backdrop entirely. You know a place through learning about it, observing it, talking to others who’ve been to it, running a Google search for images, and going there. If you can’t be there physically, at least travel there in your imagination.

By imagination, I don’t mean you invent or ignore details about an actual setting. Instead, you should mull over your research, think through all the details you’ve gathered, ask questions, and dig deeper. Remember that as you write a manuscript you’ll be checking your setting during prep, during the writing, and during revision. Also, be aware that no matter how much work you do, how many questions of the locals you ask, and how hard you try, it’s possible you can still get some niggling detail wrong. In that case, you apologize, shrug it off, avoid reading the irate reader review on Amazon, and do better next time.

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Setting, Typical & Stereotypical

When does a setting become too typical? When is it overused to the point of being a stereotype? How should a writer fulfill the expectations of readers, supply the tropes that make a story’s locale fit its genre, and yet avoid cliche?

This balancing act is not easy. Meeting the challenge of being fresh–even original–while making readers happy can twist writers into knots of indecision.

Ultimately the solution comes down to an author’s intent, tone, and approach.


Are you aiming for a light, whimsical story that will hit a few key elements of location without going into marked detail?

Are you instead creating a serious drama?

Are you striving to supply a backdrop that’s never been used before, one that will startle or even astonish readers?


Serious? Light? Moody? Romantic? Creepy? Hilarious? Cynical? Suspenseful? Terrifying? What is it you want your setting to do for your story? Choose any of these suggestions or come up with your own, but be anything but dull, bland, or generic.


Choose your setting. Decide on your story opening. Pick the initial scene action. Introduce your characters. Draw on the physical senses to embrace where your story takes place.

These seem like obvious decisions, yet they can’t be neglected or tossed together haphazardly without thought. If the tone doesn’t jive with the intent, or the approach contradicts the tone–details and description will seem subsequently contrived or phony.

Above all, meeting reader expectations may supersede everything else. It’s possible to be original and fail to convince readers the setting is plausible. Too fresh or too different from the norm may contradict audience belief because in certain stories in certain genres, readers want certain elements.

Because we’re approaching Halloween weekend as I type this, I’m going to borrow examples from the classic tale of terror, Dracula by Bram Stoker.

The first image that springs to my mind is Bran Castle in Transylvania.

[Bran Castle]

Although this real castle belonged to Vlad the Impaler, who lived in the 15th century and got his name from impaling his enemies on iron stakes, and although Mr. Stoker drew on Vlad to some degree for inspiration in creating his character Count Dracula, this castle was not the actual setting for the novel. Only through the efforts of Romanian tourism did Bran Castle come to be known as Dracula’s castle. Prior to COVID, you could tour Bran Castle and even spend the night there.

But is this really what Bram Stoker had in mind?

Let’s back up a bit to the novel itself. Stoker described a “ruin of a castle in the Carpathian Mountains.” He mentioned great round arches, immense iron-studded doors, rattling chains, massive bolts clanking, and long passageways.

Well, okay. Those are specific details. They seem plausible enough, if a bit threadbare. However, let’s remember that Stoker came first. Then Hollywood jumped in with visual images that were so effective they became imitated again and again.

[This is Orava Castle in Slovakia, used as the setting for Count Orlok in the 1922 silent film, Nosferatu.]
[This depiction of Count Orlok shows him standing beneath a huge round arch of a doorway, true to Stoker’s description.]

[Dracula’s castle from the Spanish version of the 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi.]

Here, Hollywood created the rugged mountains and a creepy mass of towering stone walls that should make any viewer think, let’s not go in there. Time to turn back.

[Again, from 1931’s Dracula. The set is well designed to convey ruin, decay, arched spaces, and immensity. Note the crumbling stone staircase newel and the tree growing through the window.]

Universal Studios really nailed (pun intended) the sets. So much so that even in 1992, when Dracula was remade yet again, the setting didn’t truly change. Starting in 1958, Hammer Studios put Christopher Lee in the role but kept the usual setting.

[Christopher Lee up to no good before Peter Cushing as Van Helsing manages to stake his heart.]

[Van Helsing at work in a Hammer classic film.]

[The castle from the 1992 version of Dracula. Back again to the same old standard.]

What can be done that’s different? Well, there’s the 1979 comedic parody, Love at First Bite, starring George Hamilton and Susan St. James, that has the count kicked out of his castle by a communist Romanian government. Homeless, he’s forced to travel to New York City where no one’s afraid of him and disco dancing is all the rage. It’s a funny film because the count is a fish out of water. To the extent of the tone and approach the filmmakers wanted, it succeeds. But is it the Dracula most audiences think of or long to see? Not quite.

[George Hamilton in the 1979 Love at First Bite.]
[Mandatory Credit: Photo by Daily Mail/Shutterstock (897295a) Film: Dracula (1979) Starring Frank Langella As Dracula Film: Dracula (1979) Starring Frank Langella As Dracula]

Both of these 1979 films took Dracula to new settings. But unlike Love at First Bite, the Frank Langella version stayed in the 19th century and kept the count in cemeteries and old stone crypts.

In 2004, the film Van Helsing kept a similar look to the backdrop but relied on special effects and monstrous creatures.

So what’s the answer? When in doubt, study the actual setting. Find the reality and use that as a foundation. To repeat Stoker’s description from the novel: “a ruin of a castle in the Carpathian mountains.”

I ran a Google search for those mountains, which span across Romania, Poland, and the Ukraine. I also looked up ruined castles in that region. Here’s what turned up:

[A Carpathian castle ruin.]

Hmm. Looks like the set designers all the way back to the 1920s did their research. Looks like Mr. Stoker did also. So the commonalities are therefore typical of the setting. They are true to the story. They are plausible. They are authentically creepy. They are what readers–or film goers–expect. At some point, a writer must decide whether to buck a tradition this powerful or accept it and use it. If the latter, offer your audience originality elsewhere in the story to compensate.

Even better, create a new predator character of your own instead of clinging to old Dracula’s cape.

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Bland versus Vivid Settings

Bland settings occur when writers do the following:

-write in generalities

-avoid specific details

-supply only vague information

-forget to use a viewpoint character’s physical senses.

Vivid settings are achieved when writers do this:

-utilize specifics

-feature dominant impressions in passages of description

-employ physical senses where and when appropriate.

Now, let’s consider some examples.

Bland: Jane sipped her coffee while she pondered how to ask her sister a question. She wished her sis made a better brew. She wished she’d hadn’t accepted her sister’s invitation to stay here. They weren’t getting anywhere in deciding what to do about their father.

Do you see the problems with this paragraph? While it shows Jane doing an activity and worrying about her situation, the general vagueness creates a dull, uninteresting effect. There’s nothing here to excite a reader, nothing to intrigue or compel a reader to continue.

Let’s revise Jane and bring her to life.

Vivid: Jane’s first sip of the coffee scalded her mouth. Too hot and far too bitter. She spit it back into her cup and banged the mug too hard on the worn kitchen table without worrying about denting the top. Why did Erika buy such cheap blends? Why did she over brew the coffee until it was so scorched that drinking it became an ordeal? Since Jane’s arrival for this ghastly visit at her sister’s shabby apartment, Jane had offered twice now to make the coffee, even to buy hand-ground Hawaiian Kona beans, but Erika was such a skinflint and control freak. She refused to let Jane buy organic, quality groceries despite Jane’s offer of asking only for a fifty percent reimbursement. As for Dad–the whole point of this sisterly reunion–Erika insisted they needed to put him in senior care, but so far Jane couldn’t persuade her to wheedle him into signing a power of attorney. With that vital document, they could seize control of his finances and have a chance of saving some of their inheritance.

Okay. The original four insipid sentences have expanded into a much longer paragraph. I’m not sure I care for Jane. She’s rude, critical, aggressive, bossy, scornful, and impatient. If I were reading this, my sympathies might slant toward Erika, especially as Jane’s introspection continues to find fault with her. As a reader, I might have no interest in this scenario of adult siblings dealing with an aging, possibly incompetent parent. On the other hand, I now have a dominant impression of Jane. I now grasp the bare bones of the situation. I’m not certain whether Erika’s lack of cooperation over the power of attorney indicates a basic misunderstanding or an attempt to protect dear old dad from the more aggressive Jane; however, I see the inherent conflict in this situation.

Let’s look at another example.

Bland: Jimmy, late for class, hurried down the school hallway.

We’ve all been in this situation at some time or the other, yet this sentence offers nothing else. Have classes already started? Is the hallway ominously empty? Jimmy’s in a hurry, but I don’t know his state of mind. Maybe he’s anxious. Maybe being late wasn’t his fault. Or maybe he’s habitually never on time. What class is he late for? How old is he? What, in this meager sentence, can make a reader care?

Vivid: Late again! Jimmy slammed shut his locker and hurried for algebra class upstairs in the old annex building. This time if the hall proctor caught him before the second class bell rang, it meant detention in the basement study hall and death at home. Jimmy juked around the knots of girls giggling together, collided with a scrawny seventh-grader with thick glasses and a cowlick, and trampled the gleaming new sneaker of Arnie Bixmaster, football bruiser and overlord of the senior class. “Sorry,” Jimmy squeaked and tried to push past this wall of brawn, but Arnie’s paw thudded into Jimmy’s chest, nearly caving it in.

In this revamped example, we still don’t know why Jimmy is late or why he’s not allowing himself ample time to make it to algebra class. However, the setting is now populated. Anyone reading this will understand the stakes. We’ve all scurried to class through crowded high school hallways. Although this example doesn’t mention squeaking sneakers on tile floors or that smell old school buildings all seem to have, enough memories from the details mentioned will conjure up sufficient sense of place. Even more importantly, will Arnie allow him to go by or beat him to a pulp?

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Setting and Atmosphere

For this one, let’s take a page–pun intended, ha ha–from Edgar Allen Poe.

In his fiction, he demonstrated the effectiveness of imagery, atmosphere, and even the weather on a story’s impact. Poe focused on themes of despair, decay, rot, death, and madness. He did not confuse his readers, therefore, by tossing in a charming little cottage backdrop with bunnies cavorting amidst its flowers. Instead, he set his tales in crumbling palaces, isolated old houses, and prisons. These are the intrinsic settings for gloom and disaster. His characters prowl secret passages by night–not the happy sunshine of day. They lurk in underground crypts and break their hearts among coffins and tombs. No one in a Poe story is going to trill song. The ravens may gather like ominous omens silhouetted against a darkening sky, but bluebirds of happiness will not twitter. The lashing wind of a winter’s gale can batter a house. Within, there will be insufficient candlelight and no cheer burning merrily on the hearth.

Consider the tropes of your chosen genre. Think about the plot you’ve outlined. Plan the tone and mood of your story with as much attention as you’ve organized your plot events. Let setting contribute to that mood through active participation in those tropes, whatever they may be.

For example, let’s examine the mood and location of a romantic story. Both should enhance the tone you’re trying to evoke.

In the 1952 John Ford film, The Quiet Man, Sean sees Mary Kate for the very first time as she’s leading a flock of sheep across a verdant Irish pasture with the sun shining on her red hair. He’s instantly attracted by her beauty and wants to get acquainted. If I recall correctly, in the 1933 short story by Maurice Walsh that the film’s based on, the author depicts Sean in church, sitting behind Mary Kate and being struck by how the hair on the back of her neck swirls in delicate tendrils. One version works best for a movie while the other version takes advantage of viewpoint in prose. Both approaches are incredibly romantic. They convey the same plot event, and they are both using setting to enhance this man’s first attraction for the woman he’ll court and eventually marry.

On the other hand, if your story is a gritty thriller, using the lush natural beauty of Ireland as a backdrop and having your protagonist stop in the middle of dangerous action to notice a woman’s fiery hair will only make him appear stupid or super lousy at his job. Of course, he can notice her hair if he has her under surveillance and its bright color makes it easier for him to follow her. But in that situation, he’s going to focus on the hue rather than how a tendril curls on the back of her neck.

If you’re writing comedy, you can use a dungeon as contrast, but it will be a place your characters want to avoid or escape as soon as physically possible. The setting then becomes a locale for mishaps, pratfalls, exaggerated terror of axes and spears, or playing cat-and-mouse chases up and down dark staircases. The photo below comes from the 1948 comedy-horror film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. As you can see, the two comics are trapped on a rickety staircase between Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. The set’s image shows rot and decay, but the lighting is bright, and the staging is not scary.

Comedy, however, will not in a serious way depict a dark torture pit beneath a rotting castle with the viewpoint character suffering dramatic, grim, joint-breaking, moment-by-moment sessions on the medieval rack. Comedy will instead gloss over the nightmare suffering and focus on other story elements, much as the Pit of Despair is handled in the 1987 film, The Princess Bride.

Contrast the comedic use of underground chambers with a serious one as depicted in the 1955 thriller, Night of the Hunter, where two children are hiding in the cellar from the psychotic that’s murdered their mother. Here, the darkness and the earthy baskets of stored potatoes serve as inadequate concealment for these frightened children.

It’s always a matter of appropriately choosing the details on which to focus. How well you employ them to conjure up atmosphere that will support your plot rather than detract from it will determine how useful your setting can be.

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Setting and Character

The locale of a story should affect character design in how that character interacts with the setting or how this individual has been shaped by the place.

Setting isn’t separate from your other story elements. It’s not just a piece of scenery relegated to the background. Instead, it should be an inherent part of the situation and plot problem. After all, if your characters seem oblivious to their location, why did you choose it? Why not let it instead work for you and the needs of your story?

By all of this, I don’t mean you have to inject a raging typhoon into your plot scenario, but if–for example–you strand your characters in a life raft bobbing on the Pacific Ocean, what individual impact does that setting have on each of them?

Is your protagonist comfortable with the backdrop you’ve chosen? Is this person an intrinsic part of the locale? Does the hero know the lay of the land or the city streets? Is he or she prepared to handle things? Can this individual stay calm and competent in dealing with trouble? Will it be possible to maneuver without becoming lost? If so, then you as the writer will be plotting externally. Complications and story problems will be generated by other characters with whom the hero is in conflict.

On the other hand, if your protagonist is a fish out of water, then that person’s unfamiliarity with the setting can inject additional danger, misunderstandings, or even comedy into your story beyond what oppositional characters will bring. It enables you to present setting details to readers as your hero discovers them. This process of ongoing discovery and observation can allow you to avoid awkward information dumps that might otherwise stall story progress.

As an example, let’s consider the vintage film, Crocodile Dundee. It begins in the Australian outback, where civilization is basic and the setting is full of natural dangers. Dundee is an intrinsic part of the setting. He’s comfortable with poisonous snakes and vicious crocodiles. He knows how to survive in the brush. The girl, however, is a fish out of water. She’s in physical danger constantly because she doesn’t know the pitfalls to watch for and avoid. Halfway through the film, however, the setting shifts to New York City. Now the girl is comfortable with her urban setting, but Dundee becomes the fish out of water. His bewilderment and subsequent solutions inject comedy into the story. I might add that he adapts very quickly to his new environment–thus characterizing himself further.

Let’s also think about how a character is shaped by the place where she grew up. Let’s say she was kept isolated from others, home schooled, and lived on a remote sheep ranch in New Zealand. Those factors will affect in turn her personality, behavior, and reactions. She may be very self-reliant, independent, and resourceful. She may feel uneasy in social situations, avoid parties or crowds of people, and be a difficult co-worker. Conversely, she may move to the other extreme by seeking city life and parties. She may be a profligate spender to compensate for all the things she thinks she missed while growing up.

Children of military parents learn they’ll be uprooted every year or two. They aren’t going to form deep, close-knit friendships at school, but they may become gregarious and socialized enough to make friends anywhere. They can become highly adaptable people, or they may hate the constant moving and never feel like they belong.

If a character currently lives in a harsh desert climate, then does he ignore his environment by planting a lush lawn similar to what he knew in a different part of the world and irrigating it? Does he run an air conditioner lavishly? Or does he work with his setting by staying indoors during the hottest part of the day, never driving anywhere without a thermos of water, closing the house during the day and opening all the windows at night when the air is cooler, and foregoing a lawn? Such details alone don’t make a story, but if–for example–the plot deals with a runaway senior citizen suffering from dementia who has wandered into the brush away from all roads, then a desert-savvy protagonist will know to start the search at dawn, to find tracks in the sand and follow them, to carry plenty of water and a weapon in case he encounters rabid wildlife, and that he must find Granny before the intense noonday heat gives her sunstroke or she becomes dangerously dehydrated. The search alone is pitting man against the adversity of nature. Adversity alone doesn’t make a compelling novel. But if you add the brother that typically ignores desert conditions as stated above but who insists on joining the search, now your story can run on the conflict between brothers as one grimly notes how time is running out while the other complains constantly, slows down the hunt by doing the wrong things, and drinks all the water in their canteens.


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Setting and Plot

If you’re thinking you can plunk your action scene in any old gritty dark alley in Generic City, USA, then you’re shortchanging the dramatic potential of your story. For one thing, there are no generic cities in America–or anywhere else in the world. (I would love to plunge into the character of European cities, for example, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the US.) Each major metropolis has its own unique vibe, character, and tempo whether it’s a planned retirement community in Miami, where the condos are sleek, modern, too manicured to look real, and the inhabitants wear Bermuda shorts and sweaters tied around their necks, or winding narrow streets and back ways in Baltimore, or avenues of abandoned old mansions in Detroit. Yes, there are elements common to nearly all large cities, but the atmospheres of New York City, Ft. Worth, and St. Louis are far from identical. What could be more divergent than New Orleans, El Paso, and San Diego? Are you dodging the selection of a big city because you don’t want to do the research? If so, why choose a location you don’t know?

Let’s move on to the dark alley as a scene locale:

While not all real alleys are dark–or even gloomy–writers of many genres find them to be practical places for various sorts of nefarious activities and/or danger. If you haven’t ventured into an alley lately, try it. Even in broad daylight, an alley can have a decidedly creepy, abandoned, utilitarian vibe that makes you feel surreptitious, as though you shouldn’t be there. Darkness, naturally, adds to dramatic tension and helps build suspense. After all, darkness hinders the physical sense of sight, which humans depend on. Darkness triggers primitive survival instincts. Darkness offers crime the opportunity to flourish. Therefore, alleys–both creepy and dark–are infinitely useful to fiction writers.

I am not taking dark alleys away from you. Instead, for this post, I want you to reason through an impulse to use a dark alley. We’ll take it one step at a time:

Why is this alley dark? Is it just because alleys are always dark and spooky? Or is it because Vinny the Villain is laying a trap and has shot out all the mercury vapor lights on the backs of the buildings? Aha, it’s a trap. Okay, good. Now we understand that Vinny is luring someone there. Why? For revenge? For a shakedown? For a kidnapping?

More importantly, who is Vinny after? The protagonist, perhaps? Is Vinny planning to ambush Henry Hero? What if Vinny is instead after Lucy Love, the light of Henry’s life?

What, specifically, is Vinny’s objective here, and what else besides breaking the lights has he done in preparation for his trap? Are henchmen or minions scattered around to put the odds in Vinny’s favor? Will Vinny be helped or hindered by the darkness? Will the confrontation go as planned? What if it doesn’t?

Such questions as these are designed to guide you through plotting in a logical and cohesive way. They serve to help you shape plot and visualize what your characters might encounter as they move into confrontations with each other. By mulling over questions like these, liking some of them and discarding others, you’re systematically planning your story instead of just jumping impulsively from one character action to another.

I have some additional questions:

Firstly, why this particular alley? A big city has many, so why choose this one? Did Vinny select it because of its proximity to the location where Henry Hero is expected to be? Or does he like it because it’s a dead end and Henry can be trapped into a shootout? Maybe, instead, this alley cuts through an area and provides a shortcut? No, wait. If Vinny is planning an ambush, then a shortcut doesn’t fit story needs. On the other hand, if Vinny is planning a shakedown instead of an assassination, then maybe an alley that goes somewhere is best for his purposes.

Plotting, you see, is always about making choices and weighing options that are in line with each other. Plotting is not really about plunking your characters into a bland, one-size-fits-all location and forcing them into haphazard confrontation.

Let’s ask some more questions:

What else is present in this metropolitan alley? Remember that alleys in Smalltown are different from those in Metropolis. Some alleys in Smalltown will be unpaved, muddy, full of broken glass. In Metropolis, some are designed to give people parking spaces off the street. Others are for the use of delivery or garbage trucks, so these byways are often filled with litter and feature Dumpsters and recycling receptacles, loading docks, ramps, and utility doors.

Do homeless people shelter in this alley? If so, what types of detritus, cardboard-box sleeping quarters, and trash are scattered around? Are there narrow side yards containing guard dogs that will snarl, bite, and bark? Are there security cameras? What does this alley look and smell like? Are there rats?

Okay, maybe my questions are starting to overwhelm you. You’re thinking I go way overboard with too many questions and details. But my alley is coming to life. It’s becoming vivid in my imagination. How’s your generic one doing?

Maybe you don’t want to deal with Vinny the Villain at all. Maybe you just need a corpse found in a dark alley so you can insert a crime scene into your story. No problem! Let’s consider this body and where it’s been dumped.

How did it end up in this alley? Was the victim killed here, or was the victim murdered elsewhere and brought to this place? If the latter, how was the body transported? What forensic evidence will be left? Were there any witnesses? If you’re writing about Smalltown and it’s a graveled alley where the trash cans are kept at the back of people’s yards, does anyone’s dog bark? Is the killer seen by a teenage girl sneaking into her house long after curfew? If your story is in Metropolis, is the killer observed by a homeless man? And if that scenario has worn too thin for you, is the killer seen by a well-dressed couple out walking after going to the theater? After all, in NYC’s Broadway district, that’s when cabs are hard to get. In San Diego, the couple might be walking because it’s a beautiful evening and they want to watch the moon shining over the bay.

Why was this particular alley chosen as a dumping point for the body, as opposed to any other alley in the community? Please don’t tell me it was just random, and the villain didn’t plan anything. Because if so, then why wasn’t the murder planned? And if not planned, what are the consequences for the killer who now must weigh options or else be caught immediately?

The more you think through the details involved in where your story action takes place, the more specific and non-generic you’ll be. The more specific you are, the more believable your setting becomes. And the more vivid and plausible your setting, the more your story comes alive.

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