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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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Eaten by Setting

Are you writing in a genre that requires considerable time and attention lavished on the setting? Fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, western, and historical fiction come immediately to mind. And although many thrillers rely heavily on action, their sometimes-exotic locales can require author research.

All that’s fine. In some stories, setting is so important it can be called a character.

When an author establishes a vivid sense of place or locale it enhances the reading experience. I love the research. I love inserting those sparkling jewels of information or detail that can make the setting come alive for me as well as my readers.

However, if unchecked, setting can swell into a monster that engulfs the writing project.

It can so absorb writer attention that the actual writing of story is forgotten or set aside in favor of digging out more research, more details, more obscure pieces of information, more maps, more, more, more!

It can mesmerize writers into abandoning their plot outline. Instead, they change portions of their story to accommodate a fabulous setting that simply has to be crammed into the plot — whether it belongs or not.

And it can grow out of proportion, taking prominence in a story instead of the characters and plot.

These are all danger signals that a careful writer should heed. You don’t have to kill the setting. You don’t have to cut it all away. Just make sure it’s part of the backdrop where it belongs, secondary to the plot action and protagonist.

Let’s compare setting to the morning glory vine. The flowers that bloom all summer, every morning, despite heat, drought, and blazing sun, are lovely. Most varieties come in some shade of blue or purple, or maybe white with blue streaks, and there aren’t many blue-blooming flowers that can handle the merciless prairie climate.

Two homes ago, I tried and tried to grow morning glories. Their seeds are notoriously challenging to start. You have to soak them in water overnight and use a nail file to nick a groove in their hard surfaces. I used to do all of that, and maybe would succeed in sprouting one feeble plant. I tried buying morning glory plants already started at the farmer’s market. I planted them in pots, envisioning them spilling in lush abundance over a stone wall bordering my patio. The vines were puny and feeble. They barely bloomed.

One home ago, I tried again with slightly better success. And then the potted vine managed to seed itself in the ground of my front flowerbed, and suddenly I was pulling morning glory sprouts everywhere.

I moved away to my present home, grateful to have escaped a vine that was threatening to grow larger and larger. Little did I know that the seeds evidently had fallen into my potted roses, and when I transplanted those roses into my flowerbeds, the morning glories took off. Then they took over. Now I feel like I’m constantly fighting the house-sized Crinoid monster from a Dr. Who episode. My rose bushes vanish during the summers, press-ganged into serving as structural support for a vine gone mad. Yes, morning glory blooms are lovely, but I would like to know if my antique rose, Souvenir de la Malmaison, is still alive under that throttling mat of vine and flower.

Last year, I tried to pull down the vines, only to discover that the mockingbirds had built nests within them. I couldn’t disturb their habitat or harm the baby birds, so I left things alone. Now the vines are even bigger and more vigorous. I live with a monster — beautiful, yes — but out of control.

My roses, the intended focal point of my backyard garden, have been engulfed, eclipsed, and visually eaten by a force of nature that just won’t go away.

The vine and its beauty have a place, but only if it behaves. The same principle applies to your setting. If it behaves, and stays where it belongs, and doesn’t seduce you or distract you from your responsibilities to your plot, characters, and pacing, then by all means make it as lovely or as gripping or as gruesome as you desire.

Just don’t let it get away from you.

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Research: Sinking or Soaking

When I was a college student, I was very fortunate to have two superb writing teachers, Jack Bickham and Robert L. Duncan. One of the wisest pieces of advice that Bob gave to me was regarding research.

At the time, I was working on a historical novel set in 1797 England. I was juggling plot, characters, and setting in a scramble to turn in my weekly assignments on time. (This was back in the Dark Ages of writing, before the invention of the Internet or personal computers, when writers shivered in garrets with snow falling on their quill pens.)

Bob told me, “Write the story first and then research it.”

It took a huge burden off my shoulders. I can still recall my sense of relief. Without the obligation to triple-check every detail as I was creating the rough draft, I could focus my attention on my characters and plot. The story went more smoothly, and once the draft was completed, I combed through it and looked up the information I needed.

Granted, at the time a lot of information simply wasn’t available to me because I lacked access to certain resource material. I was in greater danger of losing writing time to the sheer frustration of having to search and search and search. Today, writers have a wealth of material available right at their fingertips. It is indeed a different world.

However, thanks to the ease and convenience of using the Internet, writers have to be more careful than ever. While I find a small amount of early information gathering essential for idea development–picking up facts here and there while mulling over protagonist design and building the setting–it can be tempting to start intensive research during the planning stage.

Gathering a little, just to gain the atmosphere or the feel of what you have in mind, is letting the information soak.

The danger lies with overdoing preliminary research. Before you know it, you’ve been sucked into the whirlpool of too much information. You will sink.

Instead of weighing plot options, you’re weighing how many of these cool events or facts you can wedge into the storyline. Will this result in a better plot? No!

Another danger lies in researching as you go. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t look up something briefly or double-check the direction of the tide at 6 p.m. in Seattle if it has a direct bearing on your murder plot, but if you aren’t careful your rough draft will start to skew off course because you want to fit in a scene written around something you’ve learned.

Instead, stick with your outline. Let the fact-checking wait for draft #2. If you’ve made an error and have to rewrite a page or two to correct the goof, that’s easy to do.

But if you twist your story to fit the research, you may find yourself deleting 30,000 words from a 90,000-word manuscript–simply because you’ve written a set piece that doesn’t have anything to do with the actual story. That kind of cut is not only painful but a huge time waster as well.

As Bob explained to me, “Until you’ve written the rough draft, you won’t know exactly what you need to look up.”

Sage advice, indeed.

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