Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Ground Me

I’ve critiqued novel manuscripts and found myself asking again and again, “Where are the characters?” Often writers have good dialogue and interesting problems, but I can’t place myself with the characters. There’s no sense of place or setting.

By contrast, I think back to the first novelist I fell in love with—Mary Stewart. She made me see the flowers glow under the streetlights, hear the swish of the tires on pavement, taste what her character was eating. The locations were all very real. I’ve had similar experiences with fantasy authors whose writing made a place so tangible I wanted to visit places that didn’t even exist! Hogwarts anyone? We want our writing to feel that true.

One fellow writer explained it this way, “Don’t have your characters standing in front of a white board.” Specific details of what’s around the characters help ground the reader. But it’s not simply telling.

So, how do we add these details of setting in in a meaningful way?

Start the scene in a place. It can be simple or complex, familiar or strange.

“Before you agree to have Joseph come live with you,” Mrs. Stroud said, “there are one or two things you ought to understand.” She took out a state of Maine Department of Health and Human Services folder and laid it on the kitchen table.” – from Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter:

“I pushed the world’s oldest vacuum around the shaggy speckled carpet from the Stone Ages, taking care to make straight, even lines. The first time I vacuumed Larry’s trailer…” – Coyote Queen by Jessica Vitalis.

“In my fifteen years, I have stuck my arm in a vat of slithering eels, climbed all the major hills of San Francisco, and tiptoed over the graves of a hundred souls.” – Outrun the Moon, Stacey Lee.

“Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea.” – Etiquette & Espionage, by Gail Carriger.

Introduce when the scene is taking place. It may be stated out right or be more subtle. It may be prosaic or fantastic.

“Earth year 2041
“Lunar day 188
“Smack in the middle of the night
“Let’s get something straight, right off the bat: Everything the movies have ever taught you about space travel is garbage.” – Space Case, Stuart Gibbs

“It was 5:42 a.m. on May Day, 1983 in the West of England, and a sliver of the sun had edged above the ridge.” – The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, Garth Nix.

“When I left my office that beautiful spring day, I had no idea what was in store for me.” – Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls.

Mix setting in with conversation, and a reader won’t have to guess at where characters are. It doesn’t have to be complex.

            Straightening his basketball jersey, Aaron slipped into the gym behind his teammates.
            “Where were you?” Michael whispered.
            “Had to stay after in math class.” He rolled his eyes. “I thought I was going to miss practice.”

Think about how your character(s) react to the setting. That’s much more interesting than simply stating a fact. For example, a flat statement: It was a windy day. Including the character in a distancing way with saw, heard, watched, etc. isn’t an improvement: Lila looked out and saw it was a windy day. How does the wind affect Lila?

            Lila stepped out the front door of the apartment building. The wind tossed her long black hair around her face and she shivered.

See how there’s a bit more setting now? Plus, we have one small action. We’ve also learned two new things. It’s cold enough for her to shiver and we have a description of her hair. Combine such details with her dialogue and she’ll feel more real.

Whenever your character is outside or even checking the temperature on her phone, she’ll probably react to the weather in some way. A bright sunny day makes me feel cheerful, but a character might prefer cloudy days that remind him of home. A gardener might be grateful for the rain falling on the freshly planted garden—even if it means he gets wet dashing to the mailbox. A skier might be glad for predicted snow, while someone preparing for a long trip could be disappointed, and go dig out the tire chains. A house might be unappealing in a rainstorm but look like a picture for a postcard when surrounded by bright sunshine.

Details of weather and temperature can help with the overall mood of the story as well. I remember a writer talking about how her character’s story was set during a drought. The dry empty landscape helped emphasize the lack in the character’s personal life.

Don’t forget the indoors. Where does he live? Where does she sleep? Is it a messy bedroom that smells of unwashed clothing scattered on the floor, a shared bedroom with tape on the floor to separate the two sides, the musty basement bedroom with concrete walls and a window well that only allows a glimpse of the sky? Does her home feel welcoming or is it a place he escapes as quickly as possible? Does it smell like dogs or cats or good cooking or burnt food? Is it loud or quiet? The reader doesn’t need to know all this—especially all at once—but working bits in will make the setting more real.

Andy Maslen says, “Sense of place is the feeling your readers get as they read your novel that they have left their place behind and entered yours. It’s a transporting feeling that makes the world of the book they hold in their hands as real, if not more so, than their own.”

I hope you’ll dig in and ground your characters in their setting. I think you’ll find it helps your story bloom.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

What’s the Weather?

Recently in my WIP I realized I hadn’t paid much attention to the weather. The novel is set in the Seattle metro area in March and weather can be very variable. We joke about it raining all the time there—and it does rain a lot—but there are often lots of gray days and wonderful bursts of sunshine with fabulous blue skies.

Why does weather matter?

It will affect my character. And not just what she is wearing. Recently, the area had unexpected snow. Schools may either be delayed or be closed—both are usually causes for celebration for kids.

Dripping rainy days can feel depressing. Maybe if your character is depressed, the weather isn’t helping. Conversely, bright sunshine can be cheering.

Thunder and lightning doesn’t happen often in western Washington, but if your story is set somewhere else, it might. And even rain can be different from place to place. In Kansas it often comes down in torrents. And the wind is definitely stronger there.

Back to attire.

Many Seattle area residents wear waterproof jackets with hoods instead of worrying about umbrellas. People may wear rubber boots—in fact, I remember seeing some pretty cute little kid ones. (And at the nudist park in Issaquah that might be all some are wearing!) I never did wear rubber boots, so the hems of my jeans often were damp. And sometimes muddy. Each of these weather-related clothing experiences offers a chance for sensory details to use for your character.

When the sun comes out Seattleites often break out shorts, sandals, and sunglasses.

How else can weather affect my story?

In midMarch we had plum and cherry trees that bloomed with white and pink blossoms. Yellow forsythia, dark pink quince, and many different colored camellias come to mind for bushes. Flowering bulbs might be crocus, daffodils, tulips, and/or hyacinths. Your character may or may not notice these but for many of us those splashes of color are a welcome sign of spring.

And don’t forget sunrise and sunset times. Right now where I live (another degree north of Seattle) we’re getting about 11 hours of daylight, but late December and early January it’s barely over 8 hours. Ughh!

What else happens in spring?

Birds return or are more active as they build nests and lay eggs. Chirp, cheep, caw are very common sounds my character might hear. And the honking of migrating Canadian geese flying north.

If your character lives in a rural area, they might hear the baaing of new lambs, the bawling of calves, or the bleating of kids. One of my favorite sounds of spring in the Seattle metro area was  the Pacific tree frogs croaking.

The slug eggs hatch and the older slugs that have been buried in leaves and detritus come out and leave sparkling slime trails. Slugs live in and near forest vegetation, so an apartment dweller in Seattle is not going to step out their door and see one, but someone who lives amongst cedars and firs will. And there’s more than one type of slug. Banana slug, anyone?

What are you smelling?

This can be weather related too.

Spring brings all kinds of scents to our noses. Scotch broom is pretty in spring but I hate the smell and it is an allergy trigger. And many trees are releasing pollen, too. Does your character have allergies?

When the ground is very dry and it rains, there’s a special earthy scent called petrichor. Sometimes people say, “it smells like rain.” Scientists say we recognize the ozone in the air and expect rain to follow. Some may recognize that snow is likely due to olfactory experiences as well.

How much of this information do I use?

Probably not all of it. It also depends on your character and their situations. But if your character goes outside, it’s important to use some details to ground your reader. And how do you know what will benefit your story if you don’t have any sense of these specifics yourself?

One word of caution–work the facts in in bits and pieces instead of writing big chunks of description.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Dialogue Heavy

Have you ever been told your writing is “dialogue heavy?” What does that mean? Is it just that the characters are talking too much? Maybe. But often it means there’s very little sense of setting, sensory details, and action. The dialogue is in a vacuum and the reader can’t tell where the characters are or what they are doing. They may not even know when there are.

I recently was at an evening high school volleyball game for a friend’s daughter. My friend and I talked, but some of what she said was drowned out by the teens or crowd cheering. And we were distracted by the game. We yelled, “good job” or “go Bulldogs,” and my friend knew all the team members, so encouraged them by name. We stopped talking to applaud when “our” team won a volley against the other team. We moaned when “our” team served into the net or missed blocking a spike.

What else did I notice at the game? The smell of homemade rolls baking. Leftover from earlier that day? I don’t know. But I wanted a homemade roll slathered in butter. The older couple in front of us had brought seat pads—I wished I had too as those wooden bleachers are hard. A member of the teen cheer team walked by carrying a sign that read, “If you’re not cheering, go sit with your mother.” That made me laugh.

Was our talk just filler? No. We actually discussed something very emotional and important. And, yes, we had everyday talk that wouldn’t be important in a novel.

Did I have any thoughts during the game and conversation? Definitely! Some were mundane but others would show my character, and/or my thoughts about other people—both useful for showing thoughts in a novel.

“Details are what helps your reader see and feel the story, as if they are the character,” says Lauryn Trimmer. Read her article “My Characters Talk Too Much.”

So, check out your dialogue and make sure you are including a sense of setting and time of day, sensory details, action, and thought. Your readers will appreciate feeling grounded.