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.


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