The Importance of Setting

In some fiction genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and westerns, setting is so important it is considered a character. In mysteries and romance stories, it serves to contribute to the discovery or misdirection of clues, to enhance plot and mood, and to elevate what could be banal or mundane into something fascinating. In horror and thrillers, it evokes spine-tingling atmosphere and can raise the stakes in cat-and-mouse suspense.

What setting should never be is generic, interchangeable, and dull. Plunking your plot and characters into a blah, ho-hum backdrop is shortchanging your readers and sabotaging the full potential of your material. Does this mean you have to set your story in Barbados instead of Backyard, USA? Not at all. A skilled, experienced writer can make just about anywhere interest someone, but it takes work, attention to detail, and knowledge to bring it to life.

Setting in creating fiction is a technique important enough to justify a series of posts devoted to it. I’ll be bringing you those posts soon.

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New Publication

Announcing the publication of my latest fiction endeavor, a western novella called JUSTICE AT PERCHA CREEK under the pseudonym Lewis Kern.

It’s set in the 1880s New Mexico Territory and features a young woman who takes a huge risk to gain a new life and the deputy sheriff assigned to catch her. I’ve thrown in some outlaws, silver mines, and shoot-’em-up action as well.

Scottiegirl_JUSTICE AT PERCHA CREEK

Available now on the Kindle platform through Amazon.

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A Christmas Visitor

How busy are we all at this time of year? I can think back to Christmases past through a haze of idealized memory. It seems that in the past my life was simpler.  I juggled book deadlines and my job; my shopping was done by October; my house was decorated by December 1. How did I do that?

It’s so different now. Company is coming (ticktock, the ticking clock, the looming deadline), I am still scrambling to finish tidying, no baking has been done, a few gifts are still unwrapped–chiefly to aggravate the dogs since they keep peeking and nosing among the presents under the tree to see if there’s anything for them (not yet, ha ha)–and I’m trying to throw together a plot synopsis while uploading a new book to Kindle.

Has life become more hectic? Am I slower? When am I going to remember to pay the end-of-the-month bills? Has anyone seen the dog’s prescription that I had refilled, brought home, set down, and haven’t seen in the house since?

Granted, most of us are chin deep in similar holiday scrambles. I am hardly unique. But in the midst of all this excitement, a visitor turned up yesterday morning. I heard him in the attic right before breakfast, that dreaded scratch scratch scratch, that furtive thumpity-thump in the ceiling above my bedroom.

NOOOOOOOO!

I threw a coat on over my nightgown and raced outside to gallop around the house and check the soffit vents. All fine.

Then my visitor hit the trap left in the attic last summer because, you know, just in case.

He fought. He rattled. He crashed. He banged. He thumped. That live trap jitterbugged on the floored space in the attic for the rest of the day. I rechecked the house perimeter more carefully, looking for signs of entry. None visible.

While revising my book ending–yet again, but long story–in the afternoon, I could hear the distant crashing and thump of my caged, frantic visitor. I was afraid to look. I was furious at the prospect of shifting a sizable pile of stuff in the garage just to lower the attic steps. Not when I’m supposed to be putting out clean towels and making fudge! Bing’s mellow tones and Dean’s dulcet crooning couldn’t quite cover the thuds and rattling noises that seemed loudest above the kitchen.

Instead of thinking about the next line of dialogue I needed to get just right, I found myself wondering, how did it get in? what if it’s not a squirrel this time? could it be a rat? a raccoon? why isn’t it hibernating? could it be rabid? what else will get in if the house isn’t as secure as I thought? why now? where is the handyman and why isn’t he answering his text messages?

In the evening, the sounds ceased. Poor frightened creature, I thought. Gone to sleep, exhausted by the struggle to escape. Dratted, naughty, awful varmint. Why my attic? Why?

I left my vehicle parked in the driveway and moved the stuff in the garage so the attic steps could be lowered. All remained quiet until 11 p.m. and then the thuds and crashing resumed.

This morning, my visitor continued to fight and struggle, bouncing the trap around. The handyman showed up on time. We lowered the attic steps. I switched on the light. He climbed up there cautiously.

And brought down a fat sassy squirrel, with beautiful fur and a luxurious tail. We were both immensely relieved that it wasn’t a rat.

Still, how did this big healthy guy get in? We circled the house carefully. No signs of entry. The handyman prowled the attic and found nothing.

The squirrel, beady-eyed and wild to get away, refused to talk before he was hauled to the park much too close to home and released near trees and a pond. He’ll be back by dinnertime, I’m sure.

Maybe he teleported in, and is really an alien scout from the planet Peanutica VII. If so, how soon till he returns and how many cousins and siblings will he bring with him?

I’m reminded of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Trapdoor,” where mysterious sounds suddenly start up in the protagonist’s attic. Let’s just say it’s a creepy little story and the protagonist doesn’t fare well in the end. I wonder if it was inspired by uninvited visitors to Bradbury’s attic. Hmmm.

Meanwhile, the trap is set once more. Just in case. (Call me Trapper Deb.) Let the aliens come! I will defend my territory.

Come Christmas Eve, I won’t be lying awake listening for the sound of reindeer on the roof, but for thumps and crashes in the attic.

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Evil vs. Hope

Several years ago, I participated in a book signing at a Hastings bookstore in some far corner of my state, and while I was waiting for the session to start I found myself chatting with a store janitor cleaning the aisles. When this man found out I was there to autograph copies of my latest fantasy novel, he mentioned the Harry Potter series. J. K. Rowling’s stories were then new and wildly popular, and this man was unsure about them. The popularity of the books worried him. He wasn’t sure about their themes of magic and sorcery. He was concerned about children reading the stories and how those stories might influence young minds to turn to the darker side of human nature. Most of all, he feared the villain he’d heard about.

My answer to him was as follows:  If you don’t write about evil in a story, how can you dramatize good overcoming it?

It made him think in a new direction. He went back to sweeping and I resumed signing books. My answer was a valid one because fiction needs a villain to test the hero and force the hero to change and/or grow; however, the janitor’s concerns should be taken seriously and not brushed aside. In the years since, they have stayed with me.

This morning I was reading an article called “Why We Need Utopian Fiction Now More Than Ever” by Eleanor Tremeer. It’s about the growing desirability for utopian themes to return to science fiction. As our real world careens through a climate of uncertainty and anarchy, it needs hope.

The author raises a good point; however, science fiction has a long history of reflecting the current times and whatever fears the population has. For example, the Cold War and its constant threat of nuclear attack generated numerous stories about mutant monsters such as Godzilla rampaging against a helpless population. Our current glut of dystopian settings mirrors concerns about climate change and societal unrest.

Even so, I confess that I’m ready for some optimism in my fiction. I find myself worrying about the present state of so-called children’s fiction where it seems that anything goes. Do middle-grade children need to read dark, edgy stories that feature violence and disturbing anti-social behavior? If I stand on my answer to the janitor, yes. Books need evil in them, providing it’s overcome.

But if it’s allowed to prevail, what are we doing?

As I pick up book after book in the kids section at my local bookstore, I find myself sharing that janitor’s concerns. In children’s fiction, we need to take care. I’m not recommending that we censor books unilaterally, but shouldn’t we be asking ourselves: What does this story have to say? How will this affect a child reader? Will this provoke a child to ask questions? Will this influence a child to be more sensitive to the feelings of others? Will this inspire a child to be braver, more honest, and emotionally receptive? Will this frighten a child? Will this teach a child that lying is okay? Will this desensitize a child? Or will this make a child think, so that in the future the child can make connections and understand bigger, more challenging themes or issues in part because of having read this book?

Such issues used to be called the responsibility of authors toward child readers. Publishers, librarians, and teachers were gate-keepers that steered young readers to stories they might be ready for and away from stories that were perhaps too intense or confusing for them at their particular age. It went hand-in-glove with broadcasting’s prime-time regulations for television content, stipulating that certain programs could not be aired until 9 p.m. when children were in bed. There was a general agreement that children were to be protected–not just by their parents, but by all adults. At the same time, middle-class American society permitted any adult to reprimand a child for improper behavior anywhere at any time.

Having grown up in that era, I enjoyed a childhood with a bubble around it. I was protected yet given considerable freedom to play and roam just about anywhere in my community. My mother knew that the elderly lady down the street would phone her if I was doing something I shouldn’t. And I knew that if I ran into trouble I couldn’t handle, I could seek help from an adult. The single warning criteria repeatedly stressed was never to get into a car with someone I didn’t know.

That is not our world today. It is not the world that children grow up in now. The bubble has been shattered. Chide a misbehaving child in public, and you run the risk of having her parent attack you like a ferocious she-wolf. Helicopter parents guard and hover over their children, who rarely set foot outdoors and seem managed constantly. Stranger Danger is the lesson kids are taught, and they are so shielded from adults that all grownups are perceived to be a) monsters or b) totally without authority or relevance.

I find it odd that despite so much parental protection, no one seems to be watching the content of children’s books. They are troubling due to their tone, the behavior of the characters, the rudeness and profanity that now sprinkle the pages, the inability of a child protagonist to stand alone, thus gaining self-reliance and independence, and–most alarming of all–their lack of conclusive endings where evil is met, confronted, and defeated.

When stories don’t dramatize the termination of villainy, they are themselves, in their cumulative effect, villainous.

Which brings me back to Tremeer’s point about our current need for hope in fiction. When you do not feature a true villain that can be confronted, outwitted, and defeated, you are serving defeatism.

You are writing a pessimistic story that leaves nowhere for readers to go. You are saying, this is a bad situation and it can’t be fixed. It will go on and on without end, without resolution. Just survive it as best you can.

That’s not the approach to fiction that I know or love or believe in. It’s not the approach to life that I want to have. It’s not what I want to see spoon-fed to children as entertainment.

Do you?

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Book Announcements

A bit of news to share …

After a considerable delay, THE SALUKAN GAMBIT, the sixth title in my SPACEHAWKS science-fiction adventure series previously published in paperback by Ace Books several years ago, is finally uploaded to Amazon and should be live in Kindle format in a day or so. It ties in closely to #2 in the series, CODE NAME PEREGRINE. I am considering using THE SALUKAN GAMBIT as a potential launching point for resuming the series with new adventures, but that project is still in the planning stages at this time.

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Also, my current new work in progress now has a completed rough draft. Woo hoo! I am editing it now, and will provide more specific information about it as it nears publication point. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, my summer’s writing plans went somewhat awry, so I’m especially pleased to be making progress on this project. It is entirely new material, and after spending such a long span of time bringing up my backlist to digital e-book format, something new is a welcome change that’s given my imagination a boost.

I hope each of you is likewise having success in whatever you’re working on, whether a long story or a short one, a screenplay or a novel.

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Testing Character

As I mentioned in my previous post a few days ago, I’m working now on the ending to my current manuscript. I’m not rushing it because a) my life is filled with distractions/interruptions and I want to get this portion of the story right; and b) I want to make sure I’m testing my protagonist sufficiently and appropriately in these last few pages.

“Test” seems to be an unwelcome word to many of us. It kicks our memories back to schooldays, when teachers put us through the wringer of pop quizzes and frightful exams.

At the time, we suffered through hours of study or wished–too late–that we had cracked our books more than we did. If we were sufficiently prepared, then we felt confident. Otherwise, test days transformed us into bundles of nerves.

But what are tests for?

To enable cruel teachers to torture us? To determine whether we’ve memorized the names of all the county seats in our home state? To make us sweat?

Answer:  They’re a gauge of whether and how much we’ve grown or altered.

To be tested academically means we’re forced or enticed to study and prepare. Doing so  broadens our knowledge, insight, and perception on the selected topic. That preparation forces us to change from having little or no knowledge to possessing increased knowledge.

To be tested physically means we train our bodies to learn tasks and/or skills or to become stronger and more fit. We practice. We stress our muscles. We perform cardio workouts. We gradually improve our body’s state of fitness or we learn to perform certain movements easily, gracefully, and efficiently.

There are other tests, of course, but I needn’t define them all. The point is that tests of any kind are designed to force us to change.

Late Thursday afternoons are when my university’s ROTC units practice marching. This week, I saw cadets in casual student attire standing at attention. By next week, as I leave work, I suppose I’ll see them marching in unison. At some point, they’ll be wearing uniforms while they practice their drills. Every week, I’ll see a more visible change in these young men and women.

So we get it. We don’t like tests, but we recognize their purpose and usefulness. In fiction, a story’s real point is to test your protagonist.

How? And why?

Let’s examine how first:

1. The test for your focal character begins with a problem for him or her to solve. Something has changed in this individual’s life or world. It’s something that directly impinges on your protagonist, something that is immediate and impossible to ignore.

2. As soon as your protagonist attempts to solve this problem or deal with this situation, an antagonist must step in to oppose those efforts. It’s up to you the writer to figure out a plausible motivation for that opposition. Just keep in mind that opposition needs to be strong and direct, and it should grow stronger and more direct as the story progresses.

3. The story problem or situation can be purely a physical one, or it can be a complex one involving emotional or psychological issues within the protagonist.

–If physical, such as wildfires are raging toward the protagonist’s home and community, and she must try to save her family, pets, livestock, and possessions before everything she owns is lost forever, then the plot is purely an external, surface one. There is no deep soul-searching required. How much will she risk? How important is her property to her? How long will she fight to save her house or barn? Etc.

–If internal, such as the protagonist feeling consumed with guilt over having betrayed a friend by sleeping with his wife, then the external plot conflict should move the protagonist toward confronting that guilt, getting the issue out into the open, and solving it once and for all through confession, apology, atonement, or a fight.

As for why we need to test our protagonist:

1. A story about a character that remains static, is never tested, never grows, never changes is not a classically designed story at all, but merely a vignette. A few authors possess the talent and insight to present such a protagonist in an interesting way, but it’s merely a frozen depiction. Is that enough to enthrall today’s jaded and impatient readers the way it did in the mid-twentieth century, the early twentieth century, or even the nineteenth century?

2. We test our protagonist because classic story design is about creating an arc of change within this focal character. We are showing readers an example that change in behavior, or attitude, or knowledge, or situation is possible. Therefore, we are offering hope and optimism to readers held in the webs of an increasingly stressful and complicated world.

In the controversial (for its day) 1950s film, THE YOUNG LIONS, Marlon Brando portrays a young German who believes that Hitler offers him the hope of change and possibility. He feels that with Hitler in charge of his country, he will no longer be forced to work in the same career as his father, or live his life in the same small village where he grew up. He is eager to break the bonds of an almost feudal system, to reach for all the potential he feels he has. The film follows him as he enlists in the army and then becomes gradually disillusioned, horrified, and rebellious through witnessing the atrocities of a Nazi regime. This character is tested again and again by plot events, conflict, and stress into changing his ideas until he is willing not only to disagree with his orders but to defy them.

3. We test our protagonist because without stress or pressure or opposition or intense trouble, it is human nature generally to resist change. We might desire a certain status or item, but if achieving it takes too much effort we aren’t likely to bother. For example, I desire to be slimmer, but that means changing what I eat and sustaining a regular exercise program. Am I willing to give up chocolate milkshakes and cheeseburgers? I am not. Therefore, my weight remains where it is.

People have good intentions all the time, but they are like rivers that follow the path of least resistance. Therefore, we test and pressure our protagonists because a) they aren’t real people and we can force them to undergo whatever we design; and b) we use how they handle conflict to show readers that change is possible.

4. We also test our protagonists to make heroes of them–at least we do in commercial and genre fiction. We are entertaining readers by showing a transformation, and readers participate vicariously in that experience. Thematically, transformation is extremely popular with audiences of all ages. Fairy tales explore transformation of many kinds. Small children tie bath towels around their necks for superhero capes. Fathers take their children to movies in the STAR WARS franchise to show them the mythology surrounding the Force. Little girls grow up planning their weddings, when–at least for a day–they become a princess like Cinderella, conveyed in a limo, wearing a fabulous gown, and destined to dazzle the eyes of Prince Charming waiting at the altar.

5. Finally, we test our protagonist to prove to readers that he or she can take all the hits the story problem is going to dish out, cope with them, and survive. We show readers that the protagonist deserves to achieve the story goal, deserves to solve the story problem, deserves to win, deserves recognition and reward because the protagonist has taken the test and passed it. Giving a character what he or she deserves is meting out poetic justice.

When so much of real life can seem unfair, reading a story where matters work out as they should and heroes are rewarded while villains are punished is very comforting indeed.

And comforting, rewarding, just, optimistic, transformative, fair, and affirmative stories sell.

 

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Writing Days

Summer is winding to a close. The hot days that press down on the prairie like a sizzling iron have eased to moderate temperatures, thanks to the hurricanes pounding the coasts. My brain is starting to wake up and revive from the stupor that three-digit temperatures always induce in me. (My roses feel the same way, perking up and putting on their fall flush of blooms.) Autumn in the prairie cauldron is a short-lived season, one to be seized with joy and gratitude because finally we feel revived and able to get a few things done.

Like write.

Yeah, I know that the sun is mellowing into the golden radiance that late September and October bring, the kind of light that lures me outdoors despite my best nose-to-the-grindstone intentions.

I know that it’s time to clean up the yard, clear off the patio, put away the lawn chairs, wash the windows, treat the grass, buy pumpkins and pansies, plant tulip bulbs, tarp the AC compressor and cast iron patio table, decorate for Halloween, contemplate how many Christmas trees I might put up in November, find my flannel shirts and–more importantly–my socks, and generally get ready for winter, but I need to write.

So many distractions swirling like the north wind that will soon have brown, red, and golden leaves skipping across the lawn–and yet, I need to write.

I am this close to writing the climax of my current work in progress. It was supposed to be one of two books completed this summer. Alas, that objective was not reached. My sights have lowered to the all-important task of getting this one manuscript finished. I can do it. I just have to ignore the beckoning autumn weather, park myself in my writing chair, and type those final scenes.

Back in the days when every summer was a race against the ticking clock of looming publisher deadlines, involving the writing of long, large-cast, complicated novels before my return to the university campus, I typed like a madwoman. The final days of rough drafting were crazy, nearly round-the-clock sessions of writing, eating, writing, crashing to sleep, and rising to write more. I refuse to count the number of years I spent on that particular work treadmill, and how I pushed myself to meet the challenge again and again.

This manuscript is not that complicated. There is no deadline, except the one I’ve set. I have savored the luxury of taking my time. It doesn’t mean I’m writing better. It doesn’t mean this light adventure has any depth. But I’m writing, and for this year–this summer–that is enough.

Here’s a quote from Louis L’Amour that I like: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”

We can let ourselves freeze up from doubt, anxiety, and uncertainty. We might be facing the kind of story we’ve never done before. We might feel we don’t know what we’re doing. We might feel we’re too rusty, too untrained, or insufficiently talented to write what is filling our heart and imagination. As creative people, we can invent a dozen reasons why we shouldn’t try.

But as L’Amour says, turn on the faucet. Sit at your keyboard and type. Make your protagonist talk to someone, even if it’s the nosy little girl next door that has nothing to do with your plot outline. Type anyway, until your story sense takes over and the real scene starts to flow. You can always cut out the little girl later. Or, you might decide to keep her.

Roll with it.

Write.

Enjoy the fall weather after your writing session for the day. Whatever your daily page quota happens to be, meet it, even if some pages are too weak or inane to keep. And during the days when buying pansies beckons, reduce your page quota–if your deadline will allow–so you don’t feel guilty and you don’t miss the fun.

And, for as long as you need to write, do it.

 

 

 

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