Monday, January 5, 2009

A2A Presents How I Write

Tip of the Day: My computer's in the shop and my thumb drives are saving my (writing) life. Have you made a New Year's Resolution to keep up with your backups? And if you're doing January Fast Draft with us, stop by the comments and share your word counts and other JFD experiences.

Today I'm unveiling a new Author2Author feature we call "How I Write." During a "How I Write" week, the five of us agree on a writing topic and we each blog about how we approach it. This week the topic is Setting. Let us know what you think of our newest feature!

So ... how do I write Setting? Well, I'm one of those "on the ground" people. I have a hard time writing about places I've never been. I mean, sure, every book has settings where the author has never been, and I've written lots of scenes that take place somewhere unfamiliar to me, like the basement of an abandoned house or an icy rooftop. But for the location of an entire book, I need familiarity.

My first novel took place in California and even though I've actually been to California and seen it with my own eyes, I still had problems. What kind of trees grow in people's yards? Do they have squirrels? I was losing sleep over the squirrel question. Finally I emailed a librarian in Central California and asked. (I got a prompt answer too. Librarians rock!)

After this experience, I decided that my next novel would take place in my home state of New York, where I don't have to worry about what kinds of trees there are. I don't even have to think about it. It's not just trees, of course. How long do summer storms last, for example? Something like that is crucial to plot. What does hail sound like? Here's a piece of something I'm working on that really draws on the local scene:

Eddie ran into the living room. Migs and T.J. were already staring out the picture window at the hail. It hit Eddie’s father’s car in the driveway with loud pocka pocka noises; it fell against the window like gravel. Eddie followed Migs’s gaze up to the ridge, where his father had recently installed expensive hail netting. They couldn’t see the gauzy nets from here to know whether the hail was being caught by them. Eddie took in the view of the cultivated land around the hills. Most farms couldn’t afford netting, and small, doll-like figures spread all over the vineyards and orchards, heaving tarps over stakes.

I actually had to do a little research to find out what vineyard and orchard farmers do when it hails, but as an Upstate New Yorker, at least I knew it was something to be researched and written about.

Now if I were writing about a moon colony, I probably wouldn't feel this lack of confidence. I could make things up as I went along. But you know, I understand people actually live in Central California. I couldn't screw up the details and it caused me a lot of stress. But someday maybe I'll have the confidence as a writer to write about Mexico or London or India. Still, when writers say they have to travel abroad to complete their novels ... yeah, I totally get it.

What about you? Do you have to have that everyday familiarity with a place in order to write about it, or are you able to overlook the details and fill them in later?

-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages


amuse me said...

I've got a notebook in my bag that goes everywhere with me. If I'm sitting in a coffee shop, let's say, I'll record sights, sounds, smells, whatever is of interest. It has helped a bunch.

This looks like a great series to learn from your experiences.

Emily Marshall said...

Excellent Kate. I've used fictional settings for all (except one) of my books. But I base them on places I've been, so there's alittle more freedom to play with the setting. It's more fun and easier to get a visual.

DeenaML said...

Oh yes, every one of my novels so far has taken place in upstate New York! Sheesh!

Lisa Schroeder said...

Yeah, I find it hard to write about places I haven't been too. One of the things I love about verse is I don't necessarily have to give a lot of details. Crucial ones, yes, and they better be right. But so far, I've played it pretty safe, keeping my stories set around places I'm familiar with.

Christina Farley said...

Setting has always be a critical part of my writing. In fact, often the setting is what inspires me to write what I write.

My current novel- at 10,000 words today!!!!- is set in Florida. It will be my first novel set in the US.

Being overseas for the last 10 years has actually made me a little nervous about writing something set in the States. But it's going just fine and Florida has so much richness to it to add to the flavor of the novel.