Tag Archives: New Mexico

Settings: Bland & Vivid

In wrapping up this series on setting in fiction writing, I’d like to demonstrate the difference strong, well-presented setting can make.

Writers who compose their settings with bland generalities and cliches, supply only vague information, avoid specific details, and omit a viewpoint character’s physical senses and awareness of the location are shortchanging their readers.

Vivid settings come alive because of specific details, descriptive passages that employ dominant impressions, and the utilization of a character’s physical senses where and when appropriate.

Consider the following:

Bland:  Sitting at a small table in her sister’s new kitchen, Jane sipped her coffee while she pondered how to ask Sheila a question about their father’s finances.

Vivid:  New kitchen? What a laugh. Jane sat down gingerly on an old chair that creaked under her ninety-eight pounds. None of the chairs matched at a rickety little table with peeling paint. Who used peeling paint in a kitchen? It looked unsanitary, like chickens had roosted on it for thirty years in a barn, and it probably had lead paint. Sheila was so proud of her cabinets–bought cheap at a thrift store–like that was something to brag about. They didn’t match either and could be infested with bug eggs just waiting to hatch out. Jane eyed her coffee–served in a tawdry souvenir mug with a faded map of Florida emblazoned on the side. Her first sip scalded her mouth, making her gasp and bang her mug too hard on the table. A flake of green paint floated down from beneath the table, landing on her foot. Why did Sheila buy such bitter blends? Why did she overbrew the coffee until it was so scorched and hot that drinking it was an ordeal? If she couldn’t afford decent mugs, why didn’t she go to Target and buy an inexpensive box of them like normal people instead of rooting through filthy thrift shops for the garbage castoffs of society? Now she wanted Jane to admire her kitchen when it looked like something even hippies in the past century would have thrown away. Jane was here to discuss their father’s financial ruin before it was too late to save the money, but Sheila refused to listen. She kept chattering about how the bargains of scratch-and-dent appliances had enabled her to buy a behemoth cast-iron sink off Craigslist that probably cost even more than it weighed.

*

One sentence versus a too-lengthy, dense paragraph. Hmmm, does that mean vivid has to be long and overblown?

Not at all! I would take the “vivid” paragraph and break it apart into small pieces that can be dropped into the dialogue between Jane and Sheila. If the sisters are talking at cross-purposes–critical Jane wanting to discuss Dad and romantic, creative Sheila wanting to evade the topic–then the details can be sprinkled throughout where appropriate.

Let’s try another comparison.

Bland:   Jimmy hurried anxiously along the school hallway, afraid he’d be late for class.

Vivid:  Intent on breaking through the locker gridlock so he wouldn’t collect another tardy slip, Jimmy juked around knots of girls giggling together, collided with a scrawny seventh-grader with big glasses and a cowlick, and trampled the foot of Arnie Bixmaster, a looming football bruiser with shoulders as broad as the doorway to algebra class.

*

Even as we imagine the trouble Jimmy’s about to be in when Arnie the giant–maybe nicknamed The Beastmaster–turns on him, can’t you hear the noise of hundreds of voices punctuated by slams of steel locker doors? If the “vivid” sentence evokes memories of your schooldays, it’s done its job.

Sometimes settings fail to do their part when they are simply a vague cliche. Lazy writers tend to rely on old, worn standbys without realizing that whatever made them work originally has long since faded from overuse. Writers also tend to fall into the vagueness trap when they haven’t visited a setting, or done their research by talking to people who have.

*

Bland:  Esme Jones had always dreamed of visiting Paris in the spring. She walked along the city streets, drinking in the sights, and spent her afternoons at the Louvre, gazing at the wonderful art hanging there. She planned to eat at sidewalk cafes, and practice her high school French on the locals.

Vivid:  Esme Jones was lost. Instead of taking the Metro from her hotel to the Louvre, she’d decided to walk. Her phone had no signal, and her GPS wasn’t working. Rain pelted down, blurring the tall apartment buildings and narrow, unevenly paved streets into a gray smear. The flower markets had shut, with rolled-down awnings, leaving only a few trampled blossoms of pink and yellow lying on the sidewalk, which meant she couldn’t even take any pictures for her Instagram feed. What a rotten, miserable day. April in Paris was a lie! All it did was rain, and she was sick of it. Pedestrians had vanished, driven indoors by the weather. She had no idea of where she was or how to get back to her hotel. Telling herself to stay calm, she cut along what she thought was an alley leading back to a larger street. Instead it grew narrower and more crooked before opening to a tiny square surrounded by looming old buildings of brick and stone jammed right up to the sidewalk. It was a dead end, but she found herself pausing just to look. Ornate iron fencing surrounded a gnarled almond tree. Its delicate pink blossoms shimmered in the rain, and Esme inhaled the fragrance. At each corner of the fence stood rusting urns of white flowers she didn’t recognize. The blooms spilled over the sides, cascading to the ground. A worn statue of a cherub peered out from beneath a shrub, its rounded face dotted with lichen. As she clutched the cold iron spindles to stare at this enchanted little garden, Esme forgot about how wet and chilled she was. The rain suddenly stopped, leaving the air damp and still. She caught the scent of freshly baked bread. There must be a bistro nearby where she could ask directions. But maybe first she’d eat some thick, hearty bourguignon.

Pardon, mademoiselle!” called out a brisk feminine voice.

Esme turned and saw a middle-aged woman in a white belted raincoat and beret walking toward her. Beautifully made up, with dark hair cut in a stylish bob, the woman was slender and very chic. She carried a marketing basket filled with radishes, carrots, and several tiny parcels wrapped in paper and tied with string. A white West Highland Terrier in a bright blue raincoat trotted on its lead beside her.

*

Leaving Paris behind, let’s try a different location:

Bland:  Mineet parked the car at the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico and got out to look at the dunes. It wasn’t what she’d expected.

Vivid:  As soon as Mineet exited her rental Escalade at the White Sands National Monument, she was blinded by intense noon sunlight reflecting off dunes as white as sugar. Even her polarized Ray Bans couldn’t quite handle the glare. She squinted, her eyes watering, and lifted her hands to shield her face. After a few seconds, she managed to open her eyes to a slit, enough to see miles of sand stretching beneath a cobalt-blue New Mexico sky. She crouched to scoop some into an emptied Sonic styrofoam cup because Karthik had asked for a souvenir. The sand was cool to the touch, not at all burning hot like she expected. Completely reflective, she thought in surprise and took off her sandals to dig in her bare brown toes.

*

But what if you’re not writing about trendy kitchens or Paris or New Mexican deserts? What if you’re writing instead about a planet no one has ever been to, a world that exists only in your imagination? No need to worry about cliches there, right? After all, you can’t research if there’s no one to ask about it. So you’ll just make it up, and enjoy yourself.

Even so, details should be specific, vivid, and plausible.

Bland:  Carl Farstrider climbed a hill to survey the valley where his shuttle had landed. It was a broad valley, with a dry river bed. With sunshine and patience, the colonists he’d brought here would do quite well. Satisfied, he opened his communicator. “Farstrider to ship,” he said. “I’ve found where we’ll establish our first settlement.”

Vivid:  Carl Farstrider followed an old trail that zigzagged up the tallest hill overlooking the valley. His surveyor’s map had marked it as being the broadest, flattest of the numerous valleys and mountain ranges covering the upper hemisphere of Ceti Tau VII. There were traces of indigenous building sites–abandoned now–dotted along the upper reaches of the valley, and other indications of past inhabitants such as this trail, but Farstrider wasn’t concerned. Whoever or whatever had once lived here had gone long ago. The colonists waiting aboard his ship now orbiting the planet would probably enjoy such quaint archeological details of an extinct race. Farstrider considered that a few antique artifacts usually gave a place charm. He’d use that angle in his next promotional recruitment campaign.

The wind picked up, blowing harder now with a bite of cold, and he turned his face into it, liking its freshness after months of stale, recycled ship’s air. Clouds obscured a weak G-Class sun, but although it wasn’t robust like Terra’s Sol, it was within the parameters of life support. Putting his binocs to his face, Farstrider scanned the deep canal bisecting the valley floor. No water ran there now, and along this end the canal walls had been dressed with cut stone, cleverly fitted together with no visible mortar. According to his data, an aquifer was located about fourteen klicks northward, at the upper end of the valley. Tomorrow drilling would commence, tapping that essential water supply and pulling it to ground surface. It could flow along this canal and then be held in a large reservoir he planned to build at the south end of the valley.

Once that was done, Farstrider could leave the eighty-seven colonists here to establish the first settlement of a planned forty such communities. Ceti Tau VII was going to be successful, all right, and profitable. That would help him recoup the losses he’d taken with the disastrous Cirenterra colony halfway across the galaxy. He didn’t plan to repeat the mistakes he’d made there. Nope, Ceti Tau VII would prosper, starting with Settlement I right here in Farstrider Valley. No more massacres. No more starved colonists. No more nightmares to haunt him.

 

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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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Time Out!

Once upon a time, I found writing as much a refuge as a joy. Whenever the world became too much for me, I dived into my story world where I — even if my characters weren’t — felt safe and isolated from whatever was raging around me.

Tonight, as I have finally clawed my way to the keyboard for a few stolen moments of expression, I can’t help but wonder when did it become so hard to preserve my writing time?

It’s always been a challenge. I learned it would be early in my writing career. I discovered that I had to protect my creative time zealously because no one else in the world had any interest in doing so.

Fair enough. We make time for the things we truly want to do.

Even so, writers have to struggle to buffer themselves from distractions, disasters, and dilemmas in order to create their best scenes, chapters, and stories. I have friends who warn their children not to burst into their writing office unless “someone is bleeding.” Some of my family members/friends absolutely refuse to be trained to leave me alone when I’m working. As a result, I either vanish completely or pitch wall-eyed fits of temper.

Again, that’s a normal part of the writing life.

What’s far from fair and normal is when a writer must exhaust herself just to hold the distractions at bay. There is a clamor and a buzz in our world that grows ever more strident. Thoreau’s pond can be found temporarily for a weekend in some lakeside cabin, but otherwise we are expected to be available to distractions and obligations 24/7.

I don’t know about you, but I need a lot of processing time. My writer’s senses are wide open to the world. I’m constantly observing, constantly noticing details, and constantly being intrigued by all sorts of tidbits of information. My reception scoop is large, and I hesitate to narrow it because I never know when I’m going to stumble across something marvelous that will spark an idea.

The downside of this is that I need a chance to sift and sort through what’s coming at me. Yet lately, that processing function never seems to happen. It’s overwhelmed, and I feel as though my writer’s circuits have been fried by the overload.

Do you?

Presently, thanks to eye surgery last week, I am spending time at home. I can’t drive, can’t read, and am able to work at the computer for limited bursts of time regulated by a kitchen timer. Writing with one eye shut is tiring.

Even relatively painless outpatient surgery is still an assault on one’s body, and recovery time is needed. Yet I was at work the next day, feeling feeble and exhausted yet soldiering on at the day job because things needed doing.

Was I crazy? Yes! I needed to take care of myself, and hang the rest. The fact that it took me so long to acknowledge this is indicative of how much momentum propels me from day to day.

However, thanks to the current situation, I catch glimpses of down time. As I sit, timing how long to wait between eye drops of mysterious stuff in small bottles bearing unpronounceable names, I have only my thoughts for company. And within these fifteen-minute spans, I remember what it was like when I did nothing but float inside my imagination.

It’s taken me almost ten days to slow down, but I’m starting to remember what my writing world once was. Back when I had time to write, to think, to imagine, to dream. When I wasn’t scrambling so hard among so many responsibilities and obligations. Am I whining? Yes, I think I am.

What’s to be done?

First of all, amputate tasks and to-do lists.

However, that’s easier said than done. I have another surgery next week. My plan was to clear the week so that I can truly rest. Yet already I’m scheduled for a marketing meeting via phone. There are backlist e-books to proofread and a mountain of tasks piling up as fast as dirty laundry. I was raised to finish what I start, to get my work DONE. I’m a completer, and it bugs me to have unfinished projects hanging over me.

(That quality is helpful to a novelist because it drives me to finish book manuscripts. Still … some things have to wait. And because the list never ends, stronger solutions have to be found.)

Second of all, create bubbles of calm.

As I push the clamor away a little just to recuperate, I’m taken back to another time and place, a time when I could lop off too many obligations quickly. Maybe I had fewer demands back then or maybe I was more ruthless in slicing off the encroaching tendrils of too much busyness.

At the moment, I want a broadsword, an ax, and a dagger to STAB botherations away. I want a giant in front of me, roaring for peace and quiet with such a terrifying voice that the whole crowd falls silent. I want to duck into Mr. Baggins’s hobbit hole and enjoy a cup of tea without feeling rushed or guilty.

I want to listen to my own thoughts, to see if I can recall the few frail, half-forgotten ideas that keep trying to break to the surface and sunshine yet are trampled too often by the rush, rush, rush of my world.

Is this you, as well?

Then all I can say is, hang on, my writing friends. Hang on and be fierce toward anything or anyone trying to trample you. Don’t sync your emails and don’t feel guilty when you turn off your smartphones for the evening or leave dishes piled in the sink or the checkbook unbalanced.

Think of a moment in your past when you were supremely content and blissfully happy. Close your eyes and conjure up where you were and what you were doing. Experience again that emotion of calm delight in yourself or your world. Bathe in the memory. Give yourself ten minutes to go back to that time and place.

If you can’t remember it or can’t find it, then try again. And again. Eventually it will come to you. It doesn’t have to be a profound experience or an insightful one. It doesn’t have to be fancy.

My memory of being completely happy, peaceful, and satisfied is a vivid one. I was perhaps eleven years old and spending the summer at my grandparents’ cattle ranch in New Mexico. My cousins and I liked to play in the sandy draw some distance behind the house, out in the pasture. The sand was coarse and gravely, but it still made a good site for digging and tunneling.

It was a summer morning. The sky was dark blue and cloudless, and the sun wasn’t yet hot. I was on my stomach, crawling beneath a barbed wire fence to reach the sand. Partway under, I stopped and rolled over on my back to stare at that intensely blue sky. I was barefooted and carefree. I was lying in dirt. I hadn’t a care in the world. No one wanted me to do anything. I could just … be.

It was perhaps my first true awareness of happiness. I don’t think I’ve ever felt it quite that intensely since despite a lifetime of other wonderful experiences.

Yet I still believe that I can find it again, even if I’m not eleven and without a single care. If nothing else, I have the memory. I just have to remember to push the world aside and go there. It’s a place to breathe.

And if I can breathe, then I can find the strength to fend off too many to-do lists so that writing — and dreaming — can enjoy the quiet space they deserve.

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TIME TRAP #2: SHOWDOWN

Announcement:  the second installment in the TIME TRAP series by my old pseudonym Sean Dalton is now live on Kindle. Am I proud? You betcha! As proud as the day the book was first published by Ace Books and appeared on a bookstore shelf.

Under the Sean Dalton name, I wrote six TIME TRAP novels altogether.  This second book is a Western, set in 1887 New Mexico. It’s called SHOWDOWN. Once again, the protagonist Noel Kedran finds himself reluctantly involved in the problems of people who could affect the future. The showdown comes between Noel and his evil twin Leon, who’s as determined to destroy the future as Noel is to save it.

Two medieval knights fights against stormy sky background.

Twenty years ago, when I first wrote SHOWDOWN, I was heavily influenced by my love for the southern New Mexico desert near the U.S./Mexico border. I drew on the dialect and colorful expressions of my grandfather, who began working as a cowboy on the famous Ladder Ranch when he was a teenager. He grew up in the wild days of WWI, Pancho Villa raids, and Prohibition. Later, my grandfather acquired his own ranch and spent his life as a cattleman. I didn’t want to set the book in the early 20th century, however. I wanted to deal with a far more dangerous era, before NM statehood, before the Apaches were confined to reservations.

The six TIME TRAP books were written during a two-year span, with deadlines falling every four months. That’s not much time to plot, research, write a rough draft, and polish. Each volume is only 70,000 words, designed to be fast-paced and filled with adventure.

Presently, I’m rather slow getting the old backlist converted into electronic editions, but to paraphrase Mr. Spock in one of the better STAR TREK television episodes (“City on the Edge of Forever”), I’m dealing with “stone knives and bearskins.” The TIME TRAP novels were written originally on an elderly IBM computer with dual floppy disk drives and only 64K of operating memory, exactly enough to boot the machine when I switched it on. At the time, I couldn’t afford a new computer and so I worked daily with the prospect of the motherboard failing at any minute. Despite my IT consultant’s dire warnings, the motherboard held up just fine.

Now, because I have no electronic version of the manuscript, creating an e-book involves cutting the spine off a physical copy (something someone else has to do for me as I can’t bring myself to decapitate my own novel), running the loose pages through a scanner, converting the gobbleygook result into first Acrobat and then a Word document, carefully proofing the sometimes bizarre errors created by the scan, and then formatting the whole thing for uploading to a Kindle version.

Yeah, there are people I could hire to take care of all this for me. But I’m a novelist of the old school. It’s my baby. My name–in this case, my pseudonym–is on the cover, and I aim to make sure it gets all the care and attention I can give it. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect. I’m haunted by the prospect of having overlooked some word with the letter “h” converted by the scanner into the letter “b.” Or vice versa. So I pull favors, and borrow access to scanners, and pull more favors, and thus far I’ve been assisted by a wonderful group of friends willing to share their technical expertise.

My goal is to get #3 up much more quickly than SHOWDOWN, and then to proceed until all of TIME TRAP is up. After that, I’ll tackle the other Sean Dalton series, one that’s pure space opera all the way. This project has to be accomplished between new books and additional obligations, but slowly and surely it’s getting done.

One other thing … please accept my apologies for the irregular posts lately. I’m in my sixth week of coping with walking pneumonia. It’s proving to be much harder to shake off than I expected, but I’m getting there! As the misery abates, my brain fog is clearing. Probably due to breathing better.

Meanwhile, I hope all of you found something to be thankful for on Thanksgiving Day. I had my father with me, and SHOWDOWN was finally proofed and ready to upload. What more could a writer ask for?

Other than a new book contract, perhaps?  🙂

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