Thursday, July 30, 2015

Three Tips for a Killer Setting by Tracy Holczer

Every August, we take a family trip to Grass Valley, California, a smallish town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The mountains are dry-hot in August and so we swim in the cool, clear water of the Yuba River, jumping off white-washed rocks and body surfing the "rapids." We hike the trails if we get up early enough, and kick up orange dust which coats our socks and doesn't come out. We eat the world's best pie from the Happy Apple Kitchen. Always Dutch apple with the crunchy cinnamon top.

Treat Street
But the real reason we go is for the Nevada County Fair. Nestled amongst the cedars and pines, it is the kind of county fair you read about in books. Animal shows, big trucks, Clydesdales and the Northern California famous Treat Street with every imaginable carnival delicacy that exists. Homemade corn dogs, funnel cakes, baked potatoes, tempura and Carmel apples just to name a few. Sure, we ride the zipper and the giant Ferris wheel and throw things for prizes, but mostly we eat all day because everywhere you go, it smells like popcorn.


The Zipper
All photos courtesy of the Nevada
County Fair Facebook page

To me, setting is a beloved character. The Nevada County Fair is part of my childhood. It's existence, and my attendance, helped inform part of who I am. Setting isn't just a collection of details, it's the stitching on a quilt that holds everything together. Setting is the creation of mood, the idea that life is going on all around the story, and it gives a sense of completeness.

Three Tips for a Killer Setting:

1. Use the weather. Weather isn't just rain, snow and sun. There is fog, thunder and lightening, hail, high winds or dead calm. Think about the ways in which the weather affects not only the character's mood, but the mood of the plants and animals around her/him. Or the parents, teachers, store clerks, etc. High winds are good for sailing and kiting, bad for spreading fires or beach days. Think of everything you can do with weather.

2. Restrain yourself. Only use details of setting that are relevant to the story as it pertains to the characters' inner or external arcs, or plot. My new story is set in an apartment complex, a place where people are always coming and going, change around every corner. And one of the main obstacles the character is dealing with is her unwillingness to move on, to change. She's clinging to the past.

3. Don't ignore Writing Instincts. I had no idea about the above connection until later drafts. I think setting is one of those things that will unfold naturally if you let yourself sit back inside your character and take a look around. What do they notice? Why? Chances are this is relevant to who they are and what challenges they face.

Make every word count!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Setting Enthusiasts Welcome by Jen Cervantes

Setting is perhaps my favorite subject. It’s also my absolute favorite part of writing which can be a blessing or a curse depending on how you look at it. I admit, I can spend pages developing setting and it’s usually the first thing I have to have in my mind when I begin a  new story. To me setting is another character in the book. A big, important character and NO I do not have favorites!

When I saw this topic, I went back through old manuscripts to find that I spend A LOT of time on setting as seen in the partial opening of a recent ms below:

The town of San Bosco sits on the edge of a river whose sparkling purple and green stones are so bright beneath the water they look like they’ve been dipped in melted crayon. On the other side of town is an arroyo whittled away by rain, wind, and time, so wide it looks as if the earth is yawning. Some people say they can even hear mysterious sighs coming from the steep gully once all the water is gone.

In town, there are narrow crooked alleys that often lead to dark places and dead ends. But the brightly painted houses practically smile at passersby and are stacked so close together you could lean out your window and touch your neighbor’s house without having to stretch. The cobblestone streets are uneven and make you feel a little off balance unless you’re from here and in that case you’d have strong ankles and walk with a lean.

Setting can be an important tool to
1. set the mood
2. develop characters
3. show time and place
4. foreshadow events

This list goes on which is why I am a self-professed setting enthusiast. It is so rich with possibility!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Um, Yeah...Setting. (July Theme) by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

So anyway...

I actually cheered out loud when I read Claudia's "heretical claim". I don't think really think much about setting when I'm writing, except to remember "Oh yeah! I need to do some setting stuff -- people like that!" I'm always surprised when someone says they get a sense of place from something I've written. When I teach, I tell writers to employ all of the 5 senses (plus memory) to add detail, and in thinking about this post, I did realize that I do write "setting" -- it comes from what my characters see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and remember. So while they may not pay attention to rolling green hills, rows of brownstones, or think much about how sunny it is, they do notice:

the girl in the red shirt who is trying to eat ice cream and go down the slide at the same time.

Or the fluffy gray cat darting between parked Mini Coopers on the street.

The lady with the ginormous white straw hat with a droopy flower who's sitting in the front row at church.

They might screw up their noses when they walk into the playground bathroom;

or wish they could drink in the bright blue-green ocean water -- and then spit and sputter when they do.

The beat of the old-school songs playing at the block party pumps through their bodies, and they giggle at Uncle Gary in his shorts and socks with sandals when he jumps up, yelling "That's my JAM!", and waves his hands in the air like he really, really doesn't care.

So, I suppose I get to setting through my characters. Does it work? I think so, for the most part. But yeah, sometimes I have to go back and add a few rolling green hills in revision.

That's how it goes.

Saturday, July 25, 2015


I’ve published books with both real settings (New York / Queens; Peculiar, Missouri; Fair Grove, Missouri; my hometown of Springfield, Missouri, Lake of the Woods, Minnesota) and fictional cities (“Willow Springs” Missouri). Even in my real settings, though, I take plenty of liberties—especially in my YA, FERAL, in which I completely fictionalized the town of Peculiar, Missouri. (I just had to use that name!)

While many authors gravitate toward setting their books in regions or cities that they’re familiar with, I’ve discovered some definite advantages to placing my work in fictional cities:

1.      You don’t get mired in research. As I said, many authors prefer to write about locations they’re already familiar with—but if it’s a new-to-you location, or if you’re writing about a different time period, you can get lost in learning the details—which streets intersected, which businesses were present, names of schools, etc. It can take some serious time away from actually getting your writing on the page.

2.      Your town becomes a character. If you aren’t relying on what already is, you have to craft your town or location just as you would a main character. This can help add a new, often metaphorical dimension to your novel as well.

3.      Your reader isn’t pulled out of the story. If you pick a real location, you’re bound to have readers who live in (or are well-versed with) the area where your book takes place. Bloggers and reviewers always mention the spots in which my own fictional world deviates from the real world when I pick actual cities for my novels. But if your location is fictional, your readers will be immersed in the story only, and won’t be comparing your own setting to the city they know.

How about you? What’s your preference as a reader or a writer? Fictional locations or real ones?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Best of Smack-Dab-in-the-Classroom: Fan Fiction, by Dia Calhoun

"Fan Fiction" is one of my favorite posts from two years ago. As kids have more time in summer, I decided to post this blog again in the hopes of inspiring them to write.

In middle school I was not only a voracious reader, I also a wrote fan fiction before there was a name for it. I loved the Little House on the Prairie books. But alas, there were only nine in the series. After devouring them all many times, I wanted to stay in that world. So I made up stories starring me as Laura. I didn’t just “retell” Wilder’s stories, I made up new ones.

A few year later, my imagination intrigued b Star Trek, I made up stories around that series, too. Sometimes I was the captain. Sometimes the science officer—a female Vulcan.

I firmly believe that my imaginative extrapolations of existing stories was part of what led me to becoming an author—of original stories! believe that kids today should be encouraged to do the same—write stories based on books they love.

But there is so much concern today about “plagiarism.” But consider music. Music has a long history of composers who wrote variations on the themes of other composers. This from Wikipedia:

“Many classical and later composers have written compositions in the form of variations on a theme by another composer . . . .Many of these works are called simply "Variations on a Theme of/by ...". Other works, which often involve substantial development or transformation of the base material, may have more fanciful titles such as Caprice, Fantasy, Paraphrase, Reminiscences, Rhapsody, etc.”

Fan fiction is not plagiarism. It is a point of departure for imagination and creative exercise. If this is made clear to kids, it is a wonderful way to get them started writing stories—especially kids who might not otherwise. If they can write a story based on one they’re already excited about, half the battle is won.

And who knows where that might lead? I would be honored if some kid started on the road to being an author by writing about Eckhart from my book After the River the Sun, or Eva from Eva of the Farm. Honored if my work could do for someone else what Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work did for me.

You can learn more about Dia Calhoun at

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

When is Setting Important? by Laurie Calkhoven

Claudia’s post earlier this month led me to think about when describing setting is important and when it isn’t. My WIP is set in a generic suburban neighborhood with a creek for frog hunting, a cranky neighbor, an overgrown yard, and a school bus stop. I rely on readers to add color from their own neighborhoods, their own cranky neighbors. Didn’t we all have a Mrs. Crabapple down the street growing up?

The way we describe setting can tell us a lot about character and emotions, and those are the details I pull in when necessary.

In my historical fiction describing setting was more important. My readers haven’t lived in colonial Boston, Gettysburg during the battle, or World War II Paris. They can’t add color from their own experiences. Traveling to the places I wrote about helped me find the details that can brought the setting to life, but even more vital were the details I learned by reading primary sources. In that way I knew that the place to go for penny candy in 1863 Gettysburg was Petey Williams’ store, and that when Owen Robinson cranked out ice cream at his confectionary, it cost ten cents.

As much fun as some of those details are, it's important to include setting details that bring our characters to life. So when Michael walks through a Paris train station, what he notices are not the French people bustling to train platforms and about to embark on adventures, but the Nazi soldiers and the threat they represent.

For more about setting, I can highly recommend Janni Lee Simner’s FINDING YOUR SENSE OF PLACE:

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Changing our Setting (July Theme) by Kristin Levine

I recently changed my own "setting" when I sold my house last week.  I got divorced a few years ago and the house equity needed to be divided, and even more importantly, I needed a fresh start. 
Dreading packing everything up by myself, I invited a bunch of friends over for a "packing party."  I gathered boxes, bought tape, and made lists, figuring we probably wouldn't get that much done, but maybe we'd get a few things packed.
Then my friends showed up.  One took over the grill and made fajitas for everyone.  Another took all the leftover food from my cabinets and arranged it into an attractive snack plate.  Another brought crab dip.  Even my realtor showed up with a cake.
Everyone else grabbed tape and Sharpies and got to work.  In one evening, my friends packed about 70% of the house. 
I was shocked that something I'd been dreading ended up being so much fun.  And I felt so touched and supported that my friends were so willing to help me transition to a new phase in my life.  Instead of feeling sad about my "change in setting," I started to feel excited.
Then came my first evening in the new place.  My kids were with their dad in California, visiting relatives, and again I was feeling a little scared, apprehensive and alone. 
Until a friend showed up with champagne.  And cake, which we ate with forks, directly from the box.  (Clearly, I have the best friends ever!)  Before we had finished eating, a new neighbor came by with cookies.
And I suddenly remembered why I love writing for middle-grade.  When you're twelve years old, the whole world stretches in front of you.  New settings.  New beginnings.  New friends.  New possibilities. 
Maybe it's not just for twelve-year-olds.  Maybe a change in setting can open up new worlds and possibilities for a forty-one year-old too...

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Heretical Claim re Setting (July theme) by Claudia Mills

Here's my heretical claim and perhaps humiliating confession re setting: Setting doesn't always have to be important to a book, and it's almost never important to mine.

Whew! There, I've said it!

These days I write mainly school stories for third and fourth grade readers: Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; Annika Riz, Math Whiz; Izzy Barr, Running Star in the Franklin School Friends series; and my forthcoming Nora Notebooks series launching this September with The Trouble with Ants.

The setting of my books is just. . . school, and a school setting that I hope will be universally recognizable to anyone who has ever been a student, teacher, or classroom visitor. Because a book has to take place somewhere, my books "take place" in Colorado; I live here, so I can toss in a few mentions of mountains with confidence. But there is nothing specific to Colorado about Franklin Elementary School and Plainfield Elementary School. If I took out the occasional reference to mountains and substituted the occasional reference to palm trees or cornfields, nothing of significance would change about my stories at all.

Writer friends who have heard me say this rush to reassure me that my books DO create wonderful settings, they do, they do! They tell me they can so see Mrs. Molina's third grade classroom, where she presides strictly and sternly until exuberant, always enthusiastic principal Mr. Boone comes bounding in to rouse the kids for the school-wide reading contest, or PTA carnival with its dunking tank, or spelling bee.

That is kind of them. Writers are so often kind to other writers.

But I think what they really mean is that my books have memorable characters, who invite the reader into a memorable world. Does that memorable world count as a setting?

I'm not sure it does. But maybe I'm wrong.

In Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ, we do get to see the Word Wall in Mrs. Molina's room, where Simon competes with Kelsey to write the most and hardest words ever. We see the kids huddling for spelling practice, trying to be the first team to claim the coveted bean bag chairs. We see the teams crowding into the gym for the main event, carrying the large pads on which teams will write each correctly spelled word to display. And we see the winning team feasting on Mr. Boone's famous honey pie at the pie buffet.

So I have physical details. I'm not saying I don't have physical details, that my characters somehow float above the material world as disembodied spirits. Franklin School is a place. But it's a place that comes alive for readers, if it does, chiefly because of the characters who inhabit it and what they say and do in that space.

Perhaps I'm interpreting setting too narrowly as geographical/regional? Perhaps setting can just be a distinctively delightful classroom in Every School, USA? I still think I'm right that setting is the least important feature of my books. But setting is so widely held to be the most important element of a book that I wouldn't mind being convinced that I'm mistaken.