Archive | April, 2015

Where are we, anyway? #5 -Location, location, location!!

29 Apr

Location is the third of the three major ingredients when you’re writing a work of fiction. Usually, it isn’t quite as important as plot and characters, but there are times when it is the most important. Think “Life of Pi” or “The Old Man and the Sea”. Or “Grapes of Wrath” for that matter. And what about “The High and the Mighty”? Any of those stories would lose their oomph if located somewhere other than the location depicted by the author.

Many stories are so universal in nature that they could take place almost anywhere or in any time frame, without raising any eyebrows. Others are so specific, they cannot be set other than where the characters and the plot demand. A few sentences of descriptive narrative here and there, using local buildings or street names or events, will go a long way to establish your credibility.

So, how does the author contrive a realistic setting in another century or location that may be too far in the past – or the future – to be visited. Of course – the web! Where else? One can find almost anything one needs or wants to know (along with a lot you might have happily lived forever without having it thrust in front of your face) so it’s essential to be able to discern the wheat from the chaff.

My personal preference for really in-detail knowledge is my local library. Geography books are invaluable for finding a good locale for your story, as are the larger, photo-laden coffee-table sized books of photos. What wonders you can find in these books! Or you could look for a biography of someone who lived in that area, which should bring some fine-tuning to your search.

Illustrated guide-books are another great source of information. Most of them include lots of glossy photos (the better to lure you in, my dears) and other dandy little snippets of information, mixed in with the historical bits. With a little bit of digging at the library you might also find journals or diaries written by people who actually lived in the years or places of most interest to you. It can also be enlightening to discover just how very mobile some of those people were before the days of mass transportation.

It’s really important to know the location during the era in which your book is set. For instance, my very favorite anachronism is Mackinac Island, Michigan. It’s a small island – only 8 miles around the perimeter – but there are NO cars allowed. (There are emergency services available which use engine-driven vehicles – it seems to me there were three of them the last time I investigated: EMT, an  ambulance and a firetruck. There are also earth-movers at the landfill, but that’s off-limits to civilians.) Otherwise, everything (people as well as freight) moves by foot, horse, or bicycle, although I do think perhaps golf carts are allowed on the two golf courses.) The local bank sports the only horse-driven access ATM in the world! I’m not making this up, either.

Suppose you wanted to set your book in the Antarctic. (Frankly, I can’t imagine why, but you know best.) I suspect it would be difficult to visit there, but it’s frequently in the news, so there are probably multiple sources you could use for search and discovery.

Of course, if you’re creating your very own ‘alternate universe’ maybe you don’t really need to know about such things. However, if you make it all up to begin with, just please be sure you don’t constantly change the important factors such as magnetic pull or weather to suit your story, without having already established such changeability as normal.

In addition to being accurate about the details of your location, you must also be accurate as to the social morés of the era you are depicting. There are lots of ways an unsuspecting author can insert foot into mouth. Try not to let it be you!

Questions?  Comments?  Write to me –


Write a Book – #4 Just what is plot, anyway?

15 Apr

To prepare yourself for doing something constructive for your completed manuscript – and you WILL do something with it, will you not? – here are several easy exercises that will also help you develop your story. This column will be mostly about fiction. Non-fiction will be next month’s installment of the Write a Book series.

Last month, we talked about creating characters. Now comes plot, perhaps the third most important element of your book. First and foremost, of course, is the writing. If it isn’t done well enough to engage the reader, keeping and holding his or her attention, characters and plot will be of little help to you.

Plot is a very misunderstood part of the work that goes into producing a book. But really, it’s quite simple. First of all, the plot determines exactly what kind of book you are writing. So, it’s very important for you to have a good grip on your plot, right from the beginning.

Almost every work of fiction falls into either of two categories: literary or genre.  Literary fiction is a catch-all category, that was once the only sort of fiction published. With the rise of genre fiction during the 20th Century, there is now a noticeable distinction between the two categories. True literary fiction is allowed to ignore any ‘rules’ established by the various genres. The main consideration is that it doesn’t really have to have a specific plot or even an ‘ending’.

Genre fiction is much more strict, although with the advent of e-books, there are a good many books with plot mish-moshes possible – and available. If you can think of it, someone has probably already written it! The mash-up that is, not your own story.

In a romance, the two main protagonists who have been sparring throughout the entire book, will have at least established their relationship as a ‘happy ever after’ or a ‘firmly committed to each other’ finish. In a mystery, the criminal must be either eliminated or brought to justice. Each genre has its own rules, and you ignore them at your peril. Quite simply, you won’t be published by any publisher who specializes in that genre.

So, now then – do you know when the action described in your story took place? It’s especially important to have any historical data be as accurate as possible. If you’re not doing that, then re-think your genre. Maybe it’s really alternate universe or fantasy, or maybe even steam-punk?

There is a wonderful resource book, titled What Happened When. I bought a used copy at a library book sale some years ago, and find it invaluable. Of course, you can also find such information on the web, but do be sure of the validity of the research before you quote it, or build your story around it. Some sites are not overly careful of the accuracy of their content. This book itemizes not only by year (from about 1000 AD to the present) but by categories of events: medicine, military, political, religion, music, etc.

Plot. What is plot? It’s what happens when and how and why, and usually to whom!  And then – what happens next?

There are a few rather simplistic definitions of this. For example, the long-time romance novel plot was: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl. In this case, the ‘get’ meant a marriage was on the very near horizon. In the last few years, however, that ‘get’ has found another meaning. The couple doesn’t necessarily have to be heading for a wedding, but they will definitely be making a commitment to each other. And no, in this case ‘wedding’ and ‘commitment’ are not synonyms.

In a mystery, someone does something they shouldn’t have done, but they will get caught, and they had better suffer punishment for their dirty deed.  And of course, the detective—whether professional or amateur—will seriously consider those three indicators of guilt: motive, means and opportunity.

I’m not overly sure about science fiction or fantasy, but I think perhaps the plot for these books depend almost entirely on the writer’s imagination. More so than the other genres, that is.

All that means is—there is more than one way to write a book. You won’t know what your best way is, until you try. You might make a list of things you mean to incorporate into your story, and then sit down to write it. In my mind, characters are more important than plot, because if you don’t know your characters all that well, they may well refuse to do what you think they should. If that happens, you could all too easily end up with an incomplete book taking up space in your computer or your desk drawer. It might take years for you to figure out the right solution, but I’ll bet you’d give in before your characters do!

If you want to be really sure of your plot, here’s that dandy exercise mentioned at the beginning of this post. First, explain the plot of your story in ONE sentence! Yes, one only. Next, enlarge that sentence to a paragraph, and then to a full page. By the time you have completed all three descriptions, you should have a pretty good idea of who’s who, and how they figure into the plot. Combine with the characters from the last blog, and away you go!

Happy writing!  If you have comments or questions, please write to me: