Friday, July 16, 2010

Creating the Breakout Setting

Contest winners, an interview, and an Author Blog Hop can be found at the bottom of this post. But first, a few words about setting.


Yes, that's what I thought, too. But reading Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel, Chapter 4 (Time and Place) has completely upended my ideas about writing setting. Now, I already knew that the best stories, especially dystopias, have a setting that contains the essential conflict: the world is literally warring with the protagonist or holds disparate elements battling with each other. I also knew that evoking description without info dumps and endless wordy pontifications on the beauty of architecture was essential, although difficult to craft in practice.

But Maass goes much further, talking about setting as a character that interacts with your MC, evokes a time as well as a place, and encapsulates societal trends and the movement of history.

Enclosing Spaces: Architecture as Psychology
Being an engineer, I've always thought of architecture primarily as stresses and strains and concrete - with a few artsy touches thrown in. Maass talks about architecture as the art of enclosing space with material to create a feeling in people. Likewise, the setting in your novel is the art of enclosing the space of your world with words to create an environment that interacts with your characters. Seeing the space through your character's eyes elucidates what it means to them, and what's more, how their relationship with it changes as they go through their character arc. The surroundings may not change, but how your character sees it will: what was once harsh, may now be welcoming; what was once home, may now be foreign. I spend a lot of time thinking about my character's evolution in a story, but I had neglected to think explicitly how that changed their relationship with the larger surroundings.

The SpaceTime Continuum
As any quantum physicist or Star Trek afficiando will tell you, time is space and space is time. There is no here without a when. It was a revelation to me that this is true of setting as well: your story doesn't just take place in a physical location, but in a transitive time with a history and a future. Movement from the past to future is happening right under your character's feet. Having a thorough sense of your character's world is essential for placing them in it, whether it occurs in the past or future or present day NYC. Evoking how that time-space location impacts your character, in detail, will make it come alive in the reader's mind.

Trendy Hair and Period Dress
Having authentic details, whether of the past or future, is important, but doesn't substitute for a deeper understanding of what those things mean. Why was big hair important in the 80's? What did it evoke in the characters? More importantly, what were the social/political mores of the day, of your character's social class and their place in the world? It always comes back to seeing the world through your protagonist's eyes, but in a thorough way that brings out the social milieu of the period that you are writing. Their world is defined by your character's thoughts and reactions to it.

So, it's much more than a kitchen and a chair. In fact, maybe the setting needs to move out of the kitchen, to more accurately reflect the true power behind the scene. Maass gives me a lot to chew on, and I'm only on Chapter 4! You really need to read this book.

On to the fun parts ....

INTERVIEW: The lovely Sherrie Peterson has graciously posted an interview of me on her blog Write About Now. I talk about writing love scenes, navy tidbits, and share an old picture of me with Chuck Yeager's experimental aircraft, the X1E.

MEET AN AUTHOR: On Monday, I will be participating in the MEET AN AUTHOR Blog Hop. 
The purpose of the hop is to meet "new to you" authors and discover great new reads. Follow as many authors as you can. Leave a comment and introduce yourself! We're all happy to chat and get to know our readers. You're the reason we write!

Authors: If you have a book for sale, or under contract, you can participate by joining the Hop. Follow the Meet An Author host (Cali Cheer Mom) along with any of the wonderfully talented authors that will be on the list. On Monday, create a post about the hop. Include the Blog Hop button, and write something about you, your writing, your book, whatever. You will need to enter your name and blog url into the Linky tool on Cali Cheer Mom's site. This allows readers to hop from blog to blog. If you'd like to share the Linky list in a post on your blog, just follow the link and grab the code.

Readers: Come back on Monday to check out the fun! Use the Linky list to hop along from author-to-author and discover some great new reads!

And now ....

CONTEST WINNERS! Thank you to everyone who entered! By random drawing the winners are ...

Prize #1: 20 page critique from my editor CJ: Sharon K. Mayhew
Prize #2: 20 page critique from me: Ali Cross
Prize #3: A book of your choice: Adam Heine

I will be contacting you shortly with further instructions!

See you Monday for the Author Blog Hop!


  1. Great post, Susan. I'll have to return to digest it properly. Good luck with the hop!!

  2. Susan, that was a really interesting point. Maass has so many great suggestions for improving writing. I used one of his prompts from The Fire in Fiction while working last night.

    Your engineering comments reminded me of a trailer I saw yesterday for the movie Inception. The whole concept of dream architecture really intrigued my writer's mind.


  3. Yes, I want to do this. Monday I can announce the winner of my current I Want to Buy Your Book contest, and mention this contest and do other stuff. It will all work! I'll be back to figure it out! I loved your interview, I left a comment over there too!

  4. @MaryC Sounds the The Fire in Fiction is another good resource. And I was entralled by the Inception trailer! Very cool.

    @KarenG Yay! I'll look forward to hopping over then!

  5. Wonderful post, Susan! Setting is so important! Having correct details is manditory in historical fiction...

    OMGoodness, I'm so excited that I won CJ's critique! Thank you both for hosting the contest.

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  7. [sorry for the above deletion--I just wanted to edit something!]

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I remember when I started my current manuscript, I was feeling incredibly unsure about the pop cultural references I was using, as I was coming off reading a book that managed to not place itself in time (well, it was a generally modern tale, yet made no references, for example, to technology like cell phones or email when the characters called or wrote each other, so pinpointing a decade in the last century is challenging--and, perhaps irrelevant to that particular story). In light of that timeless quality, I doubted, then, whether I ought to date my story so specifically...and yet, time (and the transcendence of which) is a major theme, so the references came to feel absolutely necessary. If I still had a shred of doubt left, your post has just banished it :)

  8. @monkey A good friend (and excellent writer, see Ink's comment here) once said that Voice is having confidence in your writing. I think that is true of your story in general - not that we don't all have doubts along the way, but you need to understand why your setting is there so you can have that confidence with your story. I'm glad my post could help you along your way with that. I'm sure it will be extraordinary, just from what I've seen so far of the "monkey screeches" (LOL) on your blog! :)


Erudite comments from thoughtful readers