Let’s Talk about Place!

Describing the setting of any of my works is my own private hell.  I have a movie in my head and I can see where my people are and what’s going on there.  The most important part is the characters so why do I need to describe where they are.  After all, my readers are “watching” the same movie, aren’t they?

Yes, you’ve got it.  Unless everyone woke up this morning with telepathy and no one told me, there’s a hitch in my theory.  Psst, the secret is, no one else is seeing the movie and without some basic structure I’ve left people hanging in a grey void.  Trust me, they don’t like it out there.  I’ve tried dragging some of them out and paid the price.  So many tiny bits of story that have characters shaking their heads, saying no, this doesn’t float for us.

But how do I find the happy medium?  I don’t want to get so caught up in description that I lose the point, the plot, the people…hell, my readers.  (Don’t worry, I’ve expanded into a painful minimalism there.  I don’t run the risk of being the next Tolkien.)  Not to disparage him of course.  I enjoy his work immensely.  It’s just not my style and I’m sure mine would not have been his…

Okay, I wandered off in a tangent as I do when writing these things.  Where were my notes, otherwise known as the first draft?  I still struggle with making sure that some of my vision of place comes through.  When I write stories based on Earth, it’s okay to say “it took place in Grenada in 1892” because people can image search Grenada and think, oh okay, I get some of it now.  Then I only need to describe the house, the people, a small world.  With the Mars trilogy, it’s a big world.  Not just the one that Nadine lived in but also Sven.  The one where people like Anna had a place and Karl, a history, before we met them.  Yeah, it got big and thinking about trying to do that again is scary as hell.  So, if you have a little bit of world building fear or maybe setting paranoia, read on and I’ll do my best to give you some ideas to chew over.

Remember when I said that you needed to make sure the character was real before you started writing them?  The place is the same and everyone is going to do it slightly differently.  Maybe you’ve decided to skip the character building until you have a place to put them in.  That’s totally fine and I’ve known others who followed that path.

An Expensive Retreat started out as a short story and then several short stories, all taking place in the same town with the same struggles.  I even draw a map for myself, so far the only one I created.  It was really poorly done and I don’t think anyone ever needs to see it.  After all, it was only for me.  I drew bad pictures of houses while I wrote the novel, imagined streets, tried to smell what they would.  I tried to go to Mars in my imagination.  And then in the second novel, I sent myself back to Earth.  But not an Earth I recognize, another foreign place that I had to build to some extent.

Use your senses.  It was hot on Mars, a dry heat that seeps through your clothes, your skin and warms your very bones.  I’ve felt heat like that sometimes although I’m definitely a northern climate kind of person.  I used it though.  I’ve stood on the sidewalks of big cities and had to breathe in the dank air, the humidity and the smell of people, of things long abandoned and food lost to memory.  I’ve taken in the worst of those and I gave them to Sven, to Nadine to experience.  They made my world real.  The whistle of endless wind on Mars, an echo of that from the east coast.  The taste of dry bread and crisp apples, my own experiences too.  The hardest one for me was touch.  The feeling of fabric against her face when Nadine rests her head against Sven’s shoulder.  Those sorts of things could be replicated.  But I am not my characters.  I’m not going to react to them in the same way.

So, figure out what it smells like in your place.  Eat the food and listen to the birds or the flying cars or the carnivorous slugs.  What colours are things?  Does everyone share the same sensory experience or does that change?  The world is yours to build, to create, even in the current world, to offer.  Make sure your people fit.

I write things down because it makes it easier for me.  Whether you describe something on paper, digitally or inside of a memory, just make sure it’s real.

Advertisements

The Relief of Hearing ‘No’

 

I recently wrote a book that was supposed to complete my science fiction trilogy (*note: It has become a series more than a trilogy. This group of three books is focused on the same main characters.)  It was the first time that I’ve written a book without a reader for at least part of it.  No one has read this book to date.  As I began to edit and prepare for publication, this fact began to bother me more and more.  I had sent it out to people to read and generally the feedback was along the lines of “it’s good but I just haven’t had time and I’ll get to it next week for sure.”  Now, that’s completely fine.  We’re not all reading addicts and we all have busy lives.  My fear grew though as the same reasons happened repeatedly.  Was there something wrong with the book?
Last night, one of my readers was finally honest about the manuscript.  They said no, it wasn’t working.  They weren’t taken in by the story, not like they had been with the first two.  Now, let me point out that I’ve completely written the book by now and edited a major part of it.  But instead of feeling overwhelmed and devastated, I actually felt relief.  Okay, it wasn’t working.  I immediately began to think about how I’d written it and how to go about doing it better.  My only regret is that I didn’t catch this sooner.
I think some of my early fear and now relief is tied to how I wrote it.  Looking back on the piece, I was very focused on tying up all those loose strings.  Maybe I spent too much time telling and not enough time showing, a common fault in writing.  But the characters are still speaking with me and together, hopefully, we’ll figure out how to change this so the story can come back to life for my readers.
So, more than ever, if you are a beta/early reader for a writer, take a lot of pride in that trust.  Some writers absolutely need that feedback and it’s an essential part of the process.  And please always be honest.  You can say hard truths in kind ways.  But saying nothing doesn’t help.
As you can tell, there will now be a delay in the publication of the third book in the Pure Red Sand Series.  But you can still find the first two and catch up with Nadine and Sven while I try and make sure their stories come to a better end.
This post goes out to my beta reader for the third book.  They are very much appreciated.

Q & A with the Author

A few weeks ago I asked my readers if they had questions they wanted to ask about my world on Mars (from the novels Pure Red Sand: An Expensive Retreat and Uncomfortable Truths) or about writing in general. I promised to answer everything. So while I had few questions, I hope you might enjoy the answers.

A little background first. The Pure Red Sand world is very loosely based on a series of short stories that I wrote while in high school. There are few similarities between them and the books I have completed but they were definitely the spark.

  1. How difficult was it to build the world for your characters?

I’m more of a character driver writer than a place oriented one. I knew my characters to some degree from the stories. I looked around from their perspective and described where they were living. As the story developed, I found myself writing and imagining more and more of it. I think they grew at the same time, piece by piece as my people expanded into the community. I just have to remember to tell my readers what it looks like because sometimes I forget that they can’t see what I do.

  1. How early did you know this was going to be a trilogy instead of one book? Was it fully conceived as a trilogy from the start?

I can’t remember if the stories were supposed to be a trilogy or not. I’m not fond of sad endings so I suppose when Sven went back to Earth, there had to be a second one. They continue to show up in the background in some of the other stories I wrote later but it’s a very different world than I created at the end of the novel trilogy. A roundabout answer but I can’t remember if the stories were conceived as a trilogy but since they are, it made sense to have the books follow the same general framework.

  1. Who was your favourite minor character and why?

I found this a hard question to answer. I think I can narrow it down to two. Karl in a lot of ways. I identified with his slow process leading to a revealing moment when achievement or failure happened. He’s a supportive person and I see elements of myself in him (not intentional). Robin to a lesser degree but she’s already demanded her own book. I don’t like Louise but I’m intrigued by her decisions, about her continuing impact on the story. She was never meant to be more than a couple of lines in the first book. Instead she grew and became real in a sense. They’re not perfect but no real people are either.

  1. Why are there no cats on Mars?

I can think of two reasons for this but I’m not sure which is more accurate. The first is that human life was so cheap there. It’s hard to see animals thriving. The other option might be purely logistical. In the first chapter of book 3, Nadine and Anna talk about shipping from Earth to Mars and Anna complains that it takes six months for anything bigger than a loaf of bread. I imagine she’s exaggerating but when food is scarce and everything is hard to come by, maybe it wasn’t practical. Or it could just be the weather.

  1. Given the ongoing discoveries by the Mars Rover, how do you see our views on Mars changing?

I don’t know that they will change in their essence. I think we’re all hoping to set foot on that planet in the future. We learn new things about it all the time. I was excited about the discovery of water there too. Who knows, maybe I haven’t discovered my own version of humidity collectors out there yet. Nothing that has been discovered makes my world any more or less likely to exist. So I’m following it like everyone else. Mars is a very cool planet, fictionally or in reality.

  1. What drew you to write about Mars?

I don’t really have a good answer for that. I didn’t want to write in a historical period at the time because I was reluctant to get tied down by facts. Building my world on Mars let me imagine everything. That’s been both wonderful and terrible.

  1. If your books were turned into a major motion picture, who would play the main characters?

This is such a hard question to answer. I have the vaguest notion of what people look like. I’m more intimate with the inside of their heads. But I did my best and I have come up with two names that sort of have characteristics of my leads. I think Angel Coulby looks a little like Nadine and Alex Pettyfer looks a little like Sven. Neither is exact but I’m not sure you would ever find a real person like the ones in your head.

 

 

That’s all I have. I hope you’ve enjoyed the questions and answers and that you drop back to visit the blog again. If you want clarification or more detail on anything you’ve read on the blog, comment or send me a message on the facebook page. All the best!