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.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Finding Story (Setting - July Theme - Sarah Dooley)

"Which comes to you first when you're writing a novel, the characters or the plot?" It seemed a simple question, posed by a fellow writer in a critique group. I mulled it over, trying to discern what it was about a book that came into my head first. Was it the characters -- my beloved, unique Livvie from LIVVIE OWEN LIVED HERE; courageous Ember from BODY OF WATER; serious Sasha from FREE VERSE? Or was it the plot -- Livvie's quest to recapture her home; Ember's journey through life at the campground; Sasha's poetry as a way to deal with her missing cousin?

When I really stopped to think, though, none of those elements came into my head first.

With LIVVIE OWEN LIVED HERE, it was reflections in dusty windows of a town withering to nothing. It was fireball candy from the local gas station. It was leaning For Rent signs on unkempt lawns.

With BODY OF WATER, it was the smell of lake mud and campfires, the early-morning sound of somebody's tent door zipping open, the scatter of shadows across the grass as the wind blew in the storm clouds.

For FREE VERSE, it was birds past a window, light and shadow, gritty pathways giving way to sun-filled treetops, rivers that cut through thickets and roads that don't seem to go anywhere.

It was setting. It's always setting.

When I sit down to write something new, there's this ritual I have. In my head, I walk into a place, maybe one I've seen before. I look around, breathe in the scent, feel the temperature and texture of that place against my skin. I take a moment to remember all the times before that I've felt this essence. Having moved fifty times in thirty years, I don't call a single place home, but each of these collections of essence -- sight, sound, feel, taste, point in time -- carries with it a smudge of my upbringing and a piece of the writer I am.

Setting comes first. Once that comes, everything else finds its way onto the page.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

If You Love Your Book, Then Don't Let It Go - Linda Fausnet

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled Self-Publishing Means Never Having to Say Goodbye, in which I lamented how hard it was for me to let go of a novel that I knew would never be published, either traditionally or self-published. I loved the story, but it was for middle-graders who are notoriously absent on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. I knew it would be nearly impossible to market to that age group online, so I sadly shelved the book forever.

Until two weeks ago when I published it.

Then I wrote a blog article entitled Why It's Okay to Publish a Book That Probably Won't Sell. It's much easier for me to market my chick lit and romance books, and I'm fairly sure my middle-grade book likely won't sell a ton of books.

So what? I'm the boss, now. I own my publishing company, Wannabe Pride Publishing, and I went right ahead and greenlit this project. No, it's not going to zoom up the Amazon charts, but the book is dedicated to my son and it made my daughter and critique partner cry – in a good way. In a touching, happy ending kind of way.

The book, entitled The Joyville Sweat Sox, is about baseball. I'm passionate about the sport, and I think that really shines through in the story. It's about a young woman who is forced to coach a baseball team full of clueless kids as punishment for breaking her town's No Anger law. It's won't be easy to teach them the rules of the game without losing her temper…The coach, Konnie Mack (get it, baseball fans?) has had anger management issues ever since she lost her father a few years back. The villain in the story, Bobby Hearsay, stole Joyville's baseball team in the middle of the night and moved them to another town. It was the same year Konnie's dad died. She feels she was robbed of that last special summer of going to games with her father.

Konnie hates the idea of coaching kids who don't even know how to play the game. Gradually, she softens, realizing, "They aren't the one who took baseball away from me and my dad. They're the ones bringing it back." She instills in them the love of the game that she shared with her father. At the end, the judge who sentenced her for getting mad in the first place actually comes to her defense for getting angry. This time, she got mad and risked severe punishment by standing up for her little players. The judge tells her that he's proud of her, and that he saw a lot of her father in her that day.

Yeah. That part still makes me cry.

I tend to be overly sentimental when it comes to baseball. I can't watch Field of Dreams without completely falling apart… And that's why I wrote Joyville. I packed the tale with (hopefully) funny baseball references and lots and lots of heart and feel-good stuff.

It's really quite simple.

I like the book. I want to share the book with other people. I wanted a book that my kids could read and enjoy, and maybe some other kids would, too.

This will likely be my only foray into middle-grade territory. I'm currently working on a paranormal romance trilogy about ghosts from Gettysburg, and it's definitely NOT for kids. The first book I published was not for kids, and my next book is chick lit, which is okay for children, but won't interest them.

It's kind of cool to know that, for the rest of my life, I'll have a book out there for kids. You never know when someone will pick it up, read my words and smile, laugh, and maybe cry a little.

And that's the beauty of self-publishing. My book may only reach a handful of people, but I don’t have to say goodbye. 

-          Linda Fausnet

My book, THE JOYVILLE SWEAT SOX, is available here -

If you're a writer, I invite you to check out my writer support blog at and you can join my Writer's mailing list here -

Linda Fausnet
Linda's also hosting a giveaway: US / Canadian residents can use the form below to enter to win a signed physical copy of THE JOYVILLE SWEAT SOX!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Setting is Personal by Danette Vigilante

It might come as no surprise that my two books, The Trouble with Half a Moon and Saving Baby Doe, take place in a public housing project since I grew up in one. It feels a tiny bit like cheating, but I had my reasons.

Sometimes growing up in public housing marks you as somehow being “less than” by society. Outside of my neighborhood, this plagued me, but at home, amongst my friends and neighbors, none of that existed. I was surrounded by a village made up of good, hard working people who cared not only for their own families, but for their neighbors as well.

Does this mean I lived in a perfect world? Not at all and when I began writing, I knew I needed to show what living in public housing is really like. The truth? It’s absolutely no different than living in any other neighborhood— including the “bad” and the good.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Setting (July theme) by Bob Krech

When I came back to the US from teaching overseas, I took a teaching job in a school district that sent all new teachers for seminars in teaching reading, writing, and math. In the seminar on teaching writing we were given an assignment to write about a memory of a childhood place and to try to utilize our five senses. We began with a web on the five senses, jotting notes along each strand.

I chose to write about the summer I was ten. I spent two weeks that summer staying with my grandparents and uncles in an apartment a half block from the Hudson River in what was then a very gritty, urban Jersey City. This is what 10 year-old suburban me's senses encountered.

See: block after block of apartment houses and stores, dirty streets, cars, trucks, the Hudson River, boats, little old grandmothers shopping and cleaning
Hear: ice cream trucks' music and bells, factory lunch whistle, police sirens, delivery trucks rumbling
Touch: dried, splintery wood from the docks on the Hudson River, rough stone and brick stoops, smooth Spaldeens for stickball, Jerry Geckle banging my head on pavement
Smell: Sabrett hot dogs from push cart on corner, Colgate's factory soap and perfume smell
Taste: Sabrett hot dogs with mustard, onion, relish, and sauerkraut! Cold, tangy, lemon ice from the push cart. (Jerry banged my head on the pavement because I threw a lemon ice at him. This was after he hit me with one first. I have witnesses!)

These notes were the very simple basis of my first paid, published story. Just jotting those notes, which were the framework of the setting, also turned out to be the catalyst for the story. Setting can be that strong of a force in writing and often a great place to actually start your story.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Interview with THE BOOK OF DARES FOR LOST FRIENDS Author Jane Kelley

Posted by Tamera Wissinger

It’s release day for Smack Dab in the Middle blogger Jane Kelley’s THE BOOK OF DARES FOR LOST FRIENDS, a story that has been welcomed with excellent reviews. Congratulations, Jane! We're lucky to have Jane with us today to answer a few questions about her newest release. 

photo by Keith Weber
Jane's Goodreads Bio:

Jane Kelley lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and her daughter. She was the 2013 Thurber House Children's Writer in Residence. Jane says, “I grew up in Wisconsin, near a forest that was my refuge and a source of inspiration. I still love to be in nature, whether I’m exploring Vermont or an untamed corner of our city park. No wonder I wrote my first book about a girl who finds herself by getting lost in the woods.”

Description of THE BOOK OF DARES FOR LOST FRIENDS from Feilwel & Friends:

Val and Lanora have been friends forever. Val expects their relationship to stay the same. But after they start middle school, Lanora decides to reinvent herself. Her parents have split up, and she wants to rise above that. Unfortunately Lanora's choices lead her into trouble. Val hates watching her friend lose her way. She wants to rescue Lanora, but how? Val doesn't know what to do until a stray cat leads her to a strange boy who lives in an even stranger bookshop. Together they embark on a quest. Will they be able to save a lost friend? Will they get lost themselves? Or will they find a way to help each other become who they want to be . . . .

Jane Kelley has created a nuanced, universal story about friendship and that delicate time of adolescence when there is much to lose and much more to find.

Kirkus Reviews Starred Review Excerpt:

...In this meticulously designed tale, Kelley takes an ordinary, realistic situation—upon entering middleschool, a girl decides to start fresh and jettisons her longtime best friend, who is unwilling to let matters rest—and imbues it with layers of poignancy and enchantment...

Interview with Jane Kelley, author of THE BOOK OF DARES FOR LOST FRIENDS:

Can you talk about how the idea for THE BOOK OF DARES FOR LOST FRIENDS came to you? Did you know right away that this was the book that you wanted to write, or did you discover it as you wrote? How did your stories evolve?

This book changed quite drastically. In fact, the only elements that remain from early drafts are the fire escape (as I wrote in my blog post) and a mysterious black cat. I had to keep Mau––or my own cat would have been mad at me. But all the other characters went through many changes until, after several drafts, one scene clicked into place. Halfway through the book, Val dares to force her way into a fancy office building to confront her lost friend’s father. That realistic quest had fairy tale elements; those glittering glass office towers reminded me of castles. After I got that scene right, I knew I could make the rest work.  

Was THE BOOK OF DARES FOR LOST FRIENDS always for middle grade readers or not? Why did you choose middle grade?  

It was always for middle grade. One of the reasons I love writing for this age group is that they are transitioning from innocence to awareness. My main characters remember when they did believe in fairy tales, but they are trying to be more adult. They must find new sources for comfort and courage.

What is the best part of writing stories for middle grade readers? Are there any drawbacks?

I like that I can still dip back into magic––even if the one talking about spells is a younger sibling. I don’t think there is a drawback. I think these readers can handle complexities of character and thought. And I’m happy that I, as author, can solve at least some of their problems at the novel’s end.

Is there one question you wish you could answer about writing, your book, or the author's life, but have never been asked? Here's your chance to Q &A yourself.  

Actually I do have something I want to say. When I was young, my favorite book was called UNDERSTOOD BETSEY. Clearly I thought that no one understood me! But one of the most amazing things I find about being a writer is that I can encourage understanding. I can actually put a reader in a character’s shoes. I can whisper the character’s thoughts in the reader’s ear. I can (hopefully) describe emotions well enough so that the reader feels the fears and the joys of another person. That is a very good thing.


Thank you, Jane! Congratulations, again, on today’s release of THE BOOK OF DARES FOR LOST FRIENDS, available today from Feilwel & Friends. Best wishes to you and your new book. If you’d like to know more about Jane and her books, visit her Website or her Goodreads author page.