Wednesday, June 17, 2009

How Well Do You Know Your Setting(s)?

It’s easy to get lost in your story: you can forget where your characters are, where your plot is going, and what your locations look like. You might take it for granted that you know your story inside out, and so well that you can write your novel in your sleep. But what happens when you suddenly wake up one morning and forget where the rooms are in your imaginary house? Are you willing to wait till editing to fix everything up? Are you willing to read your work over before writing again?

Save yourself the trouble of wasting time on re-reading your work. Here are a few tips that work for me, especially when I write historical fiction.

1.Have maps ready. Sketch your own maps. Do you have a handy atlas? Keep it with you if you have your characters running around the world (or even around your province).

You also want to have sketches of your locations, such as the rooms in your imaginary house or building; the roads in your imaginary village; or the locations of homes in your imaginary hamlet. Have extra copies so that if you lose or soil one with the endless sketches you make on it, then you don’t have to worry about drawing them up again.

2.Sketch clothes! Your setting is not just about location. Your settings actually affect how your characters dress, and your characters’ clothes can affect your settings. You can’t have big skirted characters in a crowded room without someone toppling something over. You also can’t have characters dressed in ten layers of velvet in the middle of summer (unless you’re trying to make a literary statement).

Remember, your characters are part of your setting, so don’t separate your novel into its elements. Life isn’t about people floating around in a world that isn’t affected by their actions.

3.Keep tabs on your characters: where do they come from? How do they dress? Now that you have your sketches, have mini-biographies of your characters. This will keep you from writing anything out of character. It will also give you a chance to know your characters better.

4.Give “environmental motivations” to your characters. Your characters could act in certain ways because of the weather, how they are seated in a certain place, where they are at a certain time, and who they are with.

When characters start acting independent of your setting, they become the proverbial (and much despised) cardboard cutouts. Avoid falling into this literary trap by keeping tabs on your characters and how they are affected by (and how they change) their environment.

5.Keep a journal handy. You’ll never know what new ideas will pop up when you’re away from your novel!

6.If you can afford it, keep a camera handy. You might find great settings when you’re out on the road. Snap them up.

7.Keep your research handy, and be flexible! You might realize further down the line that your characters are not set in stone, and your settings need to be changed. Don’t stick with your original plans if they’re going to ruin your plans for your story.

Be willing to change your maps, redirect your roads, or redraw your characters. Just document everything so that you don’t end up mixing your old and new settings.

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