Friday, May 28, 2021

The Best Place To Be

By Charlotte Bennardo 

 Photo courtesy of Pexels

Sometimes writers use settings of places they've never been; they do research, check out pictures, and some even make a special trip to see the place. In my book Blonde OPS, the setting was Rome, Italy. Since I'd never been there and I needed to get a feel for certain streets and buildings, I used Google Earth to virtually 'walk' me down the roads. (Very cool.) In my middle grade series, Evolution Revolution, I used the setting I knew best- my backyard. Some may think I took the easy way out, using a familiar setting, but it was the one that worked best with my story. The series centers around a squirrel. Yes, there are squirrels in every state, in almost every country around the world, but I had my main character, a squirrel who lived in the pin oak tree in my backyard, right there. Every day I could look out my window and see how he behaved in his own environment. Authors research to find out little tidbits that make their characters and settings come alive. With the squirrel living in my backyard, I didn't have to do much. In fact, I kind of experimented with him. (I have no idea if the squirrel was male or female, but I made my character a Jack.) Watching him, I could see what times he came down from the tree. Did he meet up with other squirrels? How did he feel about the cats in the window, watching him come and go? How did he react to the neighbor's noisy cars? Would he invite a girlfriend over?

It may sound boring- that my squirrel spent a lot of time in the backyard, not really traveling too far since I saw him daily, but when the setting is small, every detail is important. In fact, I wasn't observing the setting, I was living in it. My squirrel would sit in the branches, chittering madly when my kids played in the sandbox below and he wanted to come down. He sat on the patio table, eating the seeds, nuts, and in winter, the bananas which froze that I put out for him. After the leaves fell in autumn, I'd see his nest, way up high. Walking around my yard, I saw little holes where he buried nuts (and I'd find them in the spring when they sprouted into saplings in my gardens, flower pots, and lawn). It was almost like living in a bio-dome. When the tree had to be trimmed, the arborist knocked down his nest (no, he wasn't in it). But he disappeared, and never returned. My story follows a squirrel who fights to save his 'setting' (the woods where he lives in an old oak tree) but ends up losing it because of man and machine. Maybe that was the inspiration for part of the plot of my book (the tree had to be trimmed because it was endangering house, pool, and driveway with cars). But I still felt bad. 

Illustration by Cathleen Daniels

So now the setting may look the same, with the exception of a new walkway, because the tree is still there and very healthy, but my yard feels empty without the nest and the squirrel. One little change can alter a setting and usually the change is not for the best. I think of my squirrel and hope he found another tree he liked as much, in a setting that didn't have the danger of tree trimmers...

Setting: Half the (Fun?) Is Getting There

You've heard the expression that "half the fun is getting there," but when writing for middle graders, for me, half the problem is getting there...wherever "there" happens to be.

I have two problems with setting: first, I'm more of a plot person. I want it to move move move. I want stuff to happen. It's hard for me to slow down enough to give the reader an idea of where we are. Generally, my agent and/or editor has to remind me to go back and spend a little more time setting the scene. Describe stuff.

And then, when I finally do establish a setting, I inevitably need for my middle grade characters to go somewhere else. And you know what's tough about that? They can't drive. 

It's so hard to get into interesting mischief when your mom has to drop you off for said mischief!

This means that I have to figure out whether my characters are going to walk, ride a bike, take public transportation (which means I have to set the book in a more urban area), call an Uber, or hotwire a car. (Speaking of "mischief"! That's an understatement!)

For my current WIP, I'm trying to take some deep breaths and enjoy the scenery. Wish me luck!

Ginger Rue's latest book, Wonder Women of Science, is co-authored with rocket scientist Tiera Fletcher, who is currently working with NASA on the Mars mission. The book profiles a dozen amazing women (besides Tiera!) who are blazing new trails in their respective STEM fields.



Tuesday, May 25, 2021

When it Feels Like Home (Holly Schindler)

I've lived in Missouri my entire life. I'm about the sixth generation of my family to call Missouri home. In an old census record, I found one of my ancestors said, when asked how long he'd lived here, a "long time." 

That's about right. 

I remember watching Winter's Bone several years ago--the book was written by an Ozarkian, and the movie was also filmed in southwest Missouri (my corner of the state). Anyway, one of the last scenes has the main characters outside. I forget exactly what they were doing (maybe hanging laundry?), but what got me were the sounds of the birds. 

It sounded like home. 

It was just different--you don't hear our birds in other films. You hear coastal birds. Those birds were singing the songs I wake up to in the morning. And it gave me goose bumps.

I often set my own work in Missouri, or the Ozarks. Often, the cities are fictional. But my aim is to always include details that will give people familiar with the area the same feeling I got at the end of Winter's Bone--that feeling of home. Those can be external details--weather, geography, types of businesses. But I also think that some character types--as well as mannerisms or speech patterns--can help provide a sense of place. So can food--dishes particular to a specific region. Dress. Lifestyle--what people do on the weekends, how they get to school, how they get around their town. All those things create a vibrant sense of location. 

Yet, setting (backgrounds, etc.) can help bring a sense of vibrancy to a story. And the characters' lifestyles and behaviors can also help make a story's place become more vibrant as well.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Smack Dab OUT of Imagination by Dia Calhoun

     Last month, I described how to write a ransom note when your creative project has been kidnapped. This month, my imagination has not been kidnapped, but is sleeping in a deep cave.
    "Wake up!” I call. “ Spring is halfway through. The world is greening. This is no time to be sleeping! Come out and dance with me. Let’s make something beautiful.”
    Snoring rumbles from deep inside the cave.
    I call for reinforcements. Send in vats of coffee…the best, Peet’s Italian Roast, the beans freshly ground. Who could resist? The scent makes me swoon.
    Not a sound from the cave.
    "I don't have time for this!" I shout. "I have important projects waiting." Determined, I turn on a fire hose. A blast of cold water should do it. I flood the cave.
    Exhausted by this effort, I curl beside the cave entrance and pull a coat over me. Maybe in sleep, I can speak to my imagination in the language it knows best. In dreams I have no control over what happens next. 
    Sometimes letting go is the best way to contact your imagination.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Setting, Not My Decision

I have five middle grade novels, each story taking place in a completely different setting. Where did these settings originate? One might think that, as the author, they all came from the same place: my imagination. But in thinking about "setting" for this blog post, I wondered if that's really the way I would describe it. 

The settings of my five books are: the neighborhood of an any-town-USA-type place in summertime, a school setting at the beginning of a new school year, sleepaway summer camp, the Okefenokee Swamp in the 1930's, and finally, rural Florida at the start of summer vacation. At first glace, it might look like these places don't have anything in common, but they actually all share something very important. The setting of each book is the only place each of my main character's story could take place. 

As I contemplated the origins of my settings for this post, I realized that my characters are the ones who choose the time and the place of their stories. Even as the author, I don't have the freedom to just put them anywhere. Each main character shows up in my imagination, and then, who they are, the stories they have to tell, and where those stories happen "fleshes out" more and more as I, first jot down notes, and then eventually write a first draft. 

I would describe the way this happens as one of those "magical" components of creating stories that become books. Not magical in the sense of it happening without any work, because it takes lots of work to get the setting right, with just enough authentic detail so that it rings true for the reader. But magical in the sense, that, it's a hard to explain exactly how my character lets me know where her story happens. But I like it that way. The "magic" in the creative process, the parts I'm not really able to explain, are my very favorite parts of writing.


Happy Reading & Writing,

Nancy J. Cavanaugh 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Setting the Scene as its own Character

I’ve been drawn to stories all my life, but it wasn’t until I became an author that I truly learned one of the main aspects of why I heavily favored some over others - in both books, TV and film. 

A strong setting means the setting itself is indeed its own character. 

In ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS, Karana is left behind on an island. While the thought of one island throughout one novel may seem repetitive, Scott O’Dell is a master of developing that island - every corner, rock, wave crash, beach, wildlife and her home. It becomes a character in and of itself that the reader keeps wanting to return to. 

THE SCORPIO RACES also takes place on an island. It is so rich with detail, characters, town and water horses that Maggie Stiefvater has built that island into its entirely own character. The reader can smell the sea salt waves and wet sand, the iced November Cakes and horses. 

Television shows I’ve loved over the years also place setting as a character: GILMORE GIRLS is in Stars Hollow, a quirky small town of connected characters that play off of each other in humor and heart. It’s a town you want to visit, to live in - the hardware store turned diner owned by longtime resident Luke, the playful home of Loerlai and Rory filled with books and music and junk food. 

It’s all the details of the settings that build out the story and make it full and flourish. 

In my writing, I aim for the same. I am drawn to desolate or remote places, places one can find themselves despite rough conditions, the ways in which we find belonging and certainly - home. 

Friday, May 14, 2021

Sometimes "secret" settings are the best --by Jennifer Mitchell

 As a third grade teacher the end of April and the beginning of May start our state testing window.  After students test I like to do relaxing activities, this year I was looking for a book that they could get “lost” listening to after testing.  Last month, I blogged about books I enjoyed as an elementary student so I decided to pick one of those books.  Even though I was in fifth grade when my teacher read The Secret Garden to us, I thought it would be fun to read to my class.  I hadn’t read the book in years, but I knew as a child it painted vivid pictures in my mind as I listened to it.  So far the book has not disappointed the audience, they have been making guesses about where the moaning is coming from (they finally got an answer to that question a couple of days ago).  I also gave them a sheet of white paper to sketch what they thought the “secret garden” looked like when Mary finally found the key to open it.  I love the descriptions the story gives the reader and I love that it is a setting, that as readers, they have never encountered before.  I feel like this book opens up the imagination for readers that isn’t always present in current books.  I hope listening to this book will give them inspiration for their writing when they are creating a setting for their stories.  I also hope it encourages them to try books they might not ordinarily read.  

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Book Review: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM by Holly Goldberg Sloan


After reading COUNTING BY 7'S  a few years ago, I was excited to read this latest middle grade book from author Holly Goldberg Sloan. It was an absolute gem! And since we are focusing on "Alive Settings" doesn't get much better than an elephant living in the neighborhood.

My review for this book appears after the blurb below, just in time for Children's Book Week!

Here's the blurb from the publisher:

It's been almost a year since Sila's mother traveled halfway around the world to Turkey, hoping to secure the immigration paperwork that would allow her to return to her family in the United States.

The long separation is almost impossible for Sila to withstand. But things change when Sila accompanies her father (who is a mechanic) outside their Oregon town to fix a truck. There, behind an enormous stone wall, she meets a grandfatherly man who only months before won the state lottery. Their new alliance leads to the rescue of a circus elephant named Veda, and then to a friendship with an unusual boy named Mateo, proving that comfort and hope come in the most unlikely of places.

A moving story of family separation and the importance of the connection between animals and humans, this novel has the enormous heart and uplifting humor that readers have come to expect from the beloved author of Counting by 7s.

Here's my review:

Sloan has written a story of hope and patience, teaching us that when we reach out to others with love and kindness, we get back so much more than we ever expected. Animals have a great deal to teach us about the important things in life. This book  is a pure joy to read and hard to put down. It will stay with you for days afterwards. I can picture it on the big screen like THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. A five-star winner.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Escaping to Rome by Jody Feldman


The email, in part, asked me if I’d ever been to Rome.

I had, twice.

And would I consider writing a book set there.

To revisit that city, even in my imagination? YES!!!

But as I write this story, even with all the online resources, even with maps that let you virtually walk down any street, this is hard. It’s hard to remember the scents, the sounds, the sense of the uneven pavement beneath my feet.

And yet, there’s so much I remember in my heart. While I may not be able to completely recapture it all in the words I’m putting to the story, I can only hope it will be enough, at times, to transport you there.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Setting! By Debbie Poslosky


The dictionary states that “setting is the place or type of surroundings where something is positioned or where an event takes place.”  Way back when, when I  was in school, we were taught in our writing class that we needed a one sentence setting-just like the definition-nothing more.  And we would redo our setting until it met that standard.  However, as I grew I began to finally understand how books could touch me and change how I think, understand, respond, and grow as a human being, but most importantly grow into myself. 

The power of the written word has been debated, censored, and embraced throughout history.  And I found that the books or writings I was drawn to, had a well developed setting! Far more than one sentence, and that settings could change as the characters grow!   The word choices, the structures of the sentences helped me to truly visualize what I was reading so I could see it in my mind’s eye. 

When I taught 4th and 5th graders, movies were starting to come out about the books that were popular.  Our class would have a movie afternoon from time to time.  Always, the children wanted to watch those movies. Some students had already read the book, some had not or could not attempt to read it.  I was always firm about never watching a movie about a book until we read the book together as a class.  And the kids always taught me so much about their brains!  My top notch group of readers typically had already read the book and moaned about how they really didn’t want to have me read it aloud again!  But I hung tough.  A couple books that come to mind are Shiloh and Because of Winn-Dixie.

I found that even my “best” readers really never thought about the setting and how that impacted the characters.  By pointing out the details of a well-written setting that are often missed by students, they could begin thinking about why the author chose THIS setting for THIS book and why the story might not work in other settings, or even in their own lives.  And the process of perspective would begin.  Often I would have them close their eyes as I read the settings in the books and little by little the students began to see the power of setting as just one element of writing, reading, or telling a story!  It began to show up in the writing they were doing, too. 

We discussed that authors are very intentional about everything they write--every word, picture, title, etc.  Sometimes it is easy to notice, but oftentimes it is not, and that for me, is one of the most enjoyable parts of reading!  I, myself, got to put my own thinking into the story and try and predict or validate or change my thinking, and it was so powerful. 

At the end of each book the question was always: What did the author want us to learn from reading this book? And, how has reading this book changed or confirmed my thinking?”  Then I would let them watch the movie.  And my favorite part of that was listening to some of them discuss how they liked the way the author did better, or asking why did they take out that part? It was so good!  So, once again, I take my hat off to all of you authors who craft these amazing books and stories that reach hundreds of people and by doing so you help them grow and learn that, they too, may have these same issues and here is another way to figure it out. Setting. Important in books and important in life!

Saturday, May 8, 2021

CAHOKIA -- A Vivid Place -- by Jane Kelley

An enormous dirt mound and a circle of tall wooden poles are sandwiched between a building supply company and a trailer park.

Looking East into Cahokia

Looking West to a different kind of mound
This place has captured my imagination almost more than any other. 

Many people are unaware of it. If you drive on the highway that passes through the site in Southern Illinois, you might assume that mound is just another landfill. I've seen other massive hills that were just grass-covered garbage.

Few people have even heard of Cahokia, even though it is one of only 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States. Cahokia isn't even its original name. When French trappers came to the place in the 17th Century, they named it Cahokia after the tribe who lived there at the time. But the people who had built the place had abandoned it hundreds of years before then.  

Archaeologists, who often had to rush their work ahead of highway construction crews, have been able to learn a lot about Cahokia. People began moving there around 700 CE. By 1100 CE, the city was about 6 miles square. The population is thought to have been larger than London was at that time––14,000 people. They hunted, fished, grew corn, and devoted a lot of time to constructing over 120 mounds out of earth. Some of these mounds were for burial. The largest was not. 

Monks Mound is the largest human-made mound north of Mexico. It is 100 feet high. Its base (13.8 acres) is larger than that of the great pyramid in Egypt. And it was made by people digging dirt and carrying it  basket by basket by basket. To make all the mounds in Cahokia, people had to lug nearly 55 million cubic feet of dirt. 

An artist's rendering of how Cahokia looked.

The ring of tall, wooden poles west of Monks Mound was built to mark the places where the sun rose and set on the equinoxes and the solstices. In front of Monks Mound was a 40-acre plaza. This was a place for ceremonies and feasts. It had been carefully leveled so that people could play a game called Chunkey. 

Chunkey player made out of flint and clay found in Cahokia.
One player rolled a specially carved stone disc. Others threw spears to predict the spot the disc would stop rolling. This highly competitive sport continued to be played by tribes throughout North American hundreds of years after Cahokia was deserted. 

Yes. Deserted. For reasons no one knows anymore, the people, who labored so long to build this city, left it. No other tribes tell the story of what happened. We will never know for certain.

So why am I so fascinated by Cahokia? I do love mysteries. Everyone does. Our brains keep puzzling over questions we cannot answer. And there are many at Cahokia. Why did so many people come together to make this city? Was it a charismatic leader? Was it an astronomical phenomenon? Was it innovations in agriculture? Was it the game of Chunkey? And why did everyone leave after a few hundred years? Recent studies have disproved the theory that it was environmental disaster. There didn't seem to be any enemies. So then why? 

Cahokia fascinates me for another reason. It reminds me of the importance of context. The more I learned, the more intrigued I became. The mounds are far more remarkable when you know when and how they were made.

The people who built Cahokia may not have written anything down with words. And yet they left behind wooden poles, mounds of dirt, and carved stone discs. From those pieces, a civilization comes into view. Basket by basket by basket.

Many stories in other places remain hidden to us. Hopefully, just as in the case of Cahokia, we will stop destroying what we don't understand. There is so much to learn--if we dig.

Monday, May 3, 2021


The most alive setting I’ve encountered in my writing was in a short film script I wrote last semester. It was about an old man and a sea turtle and took place in one location: the beach. Having the story set in one location allowed me to focus on its interaction with my characters. I made a point to emphasize things like beach grass drooping when my protagonist was sad. The weather also became a crucial part of the story - something often overlooked as contributing to setting. I tend to be more character/dialogue focused, so this script was a great way to incorporate the setting more than I have in the past.

alive Alive ALIVE!

We turn our thoughts this (most alive!) month to Most Alive settings:

IRL: #lakelife ! We are new to living on a lake, and neither of us grew up visiting lakes. It's taken a few seasons for us to learn all the joys of lake living. The view alone is enough to make me feel alive. And kayaking, fishing, tubing, swimming, wildlife-watching, and fire-pit fellowship are everyday activities for us now. It's wonderful and inspiring!

Other places where I've been overcome by alive-feelings:

La Jolla, CA
Yosemite Valley, CA
Cape San Blas, FL
Badlands, SD
The Enchanted Highway, ND – I love North Dakota's stark beauty so much I used it as the (dystopian) geographical setting in my newest novel D-39: A Robodog's Journey. (Side note: the D-39 model robodog is made by a company named Dog Alive!)

When it comes to alive-settings in books, I can conjure quite a few! But here are my knee-jerk responses.

Classic children's literature:
Contemporary children's literature: Hogwarts
New (2021) middle grade novel: Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston

Isn't it interesting that all are FANTASY? The power of imagination, yes?

Wishing you all the alive-feelings today!
Irene Latham is a grateful creator of many novels, poetry collections, and picture books, including the coauthored Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship, which earned a Charlotte Huck Honor, and The Cat Man of Aleppo, which won a Caldecott Honor. Irene lives on a lake in rural Alabama.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Some Thoughts on Setting


On my book blog, Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, I often ask novelists how important setting is in their writing. And often they respond that setting is like another character. It affects the plot, the characters, the essence of the book.


Setting can be as broad as a country or a city, or as narrow as a house or a room. It can be a boarding school, or a haunted house, or a ship. If presented well, it sears itself into a reader’s mind.


Lately I’ve been playing around with the idea of writing a picture book or two. So I’ve been thinking a lot about illustrations and the role they play in a book’s setting. I was lucky to have a wonderful friend, Rob Lunsford, illustrate my middle grade novels.


So many of the books I read as a child had remarkable illustrations or cover art that shaped how I imagined the setting. Collaborations between writers and illustrators can be magical.


To root the reader in a particular setting, it’s important to get the details right. Especially if you’re presenting historical settings, as I’ve done in my books. I’ve visited the homes of the early presidents I write about, and have pored over guidebooks that include photos of each room and what furniture might have been there.


In addition, dialogue can help enhance the setting. I tend to use a lot of dialogue in my books, and I try to make the present-day characters speak in a totally different way from the historical figures. I’m currently starting the research for another middle grade novel, set in the early 1950s, and am reading novels from the period to get a sense of the slang kids would have used.


Whatever kind of reader or writer you are, there are so many ways to make a book’s setting come alive for you. Happy reading!


--Deborah Kalb