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Category: writing advice

Settings

The other day a friend asked me how I come up with the physical settings for my books and scenes — the locations, the houses, and so on.  And as it happened I’d just been working some of that out for my newest book, which has barely begun. For me, settings are very important, even if they’re only imaginary. So I thought I’d share my process here.

In this case, I wanted to find the country house in which the heroine lived as a child. There will only be one scene set there (I think, though that might change) and that’s in the prologue (which is what I’m writing now.) But by the time I’ve finished it, there might not be many setting  details left in the scene. So why research it?

The setting feeds into the heroine’s backstory, the places she loved and hated as a child—it’s part of who she is. So many of my own childhood memories are inextricably linked to the places where we lived; the tree in which I sat, meaning to read, but instead dreaming among the leaves;  The pine-trees under which a friend and I built forts of piled-up fragrant dry pine-needles; the rock-pools I explored in summer, peering into tiny perfect complicated worlds; the attic window I gazed out of in Scotland, looking out over the rooftops.

I wanted to find those kinds of places for my heroine — not necessarily because I’d use them in the book, but because it would help me know more about her and what makes her tick. And particular settings rather than generic ones throw up particular and individual aspects of a character’s personality. And sometimes the spark events that help shape her as a person.

I usually start by deciding on a county, and then narrow in on the map. Often in a series, I like to site my people’s country houses not too far from each other so they can get together for Christmas etc. without too much trouble. But in this case, she won’t ever be going back to that house (probably), so her childhood home could be anywhere.

I chose Hampshire because as I was poring over a 19th century map of the counties of England (borders change over time so a historical map is necessary) I looked at Hampshire and the phrase from My Fair Lady popped into my brain — “In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire hurricanes hardly ever happen.”  So I chose Hampshire. <g>

Then I did an image search for stately homes in Hampshire. And I scrolled through the various pics until one jumped out at me, and my subconscious said — that’s it. Then I explored that place and if several features jumped out at me I’d grab them for my imaginary heroine’s imaginary childhood home. 

It doesn’t even have to be one house — this is not history I’m writing, but fiction set in historical times, so I’m free to assemble features from several houses.

When I was collecting images for The Perfect Kiss, for instance, this photo jumped out at me of an old stone staircase with hollows worn by generations of feet climbing it. It also had a lovely gothic feel, which suited the story, so it became a part of the story– a few lines only, but it added to the atmosphere in my mind, which was its main purpose.

The stairs also had meaning for me, because in one of the many places I lived as a child, I attended a very old school that had stone steps with dips worn in them by generations of children. They fascinated me. I was very aware of stepping into the hollows made by the feet of generations of children before me.  So I used that ancient staircase in my story, but the house they were in was quite a different one — though also quite gothic.

This process, believe it or not, helps me to understand more about my character. For instance the minute I saw the image above,  of a walled garden, I thought — this is where she hides out, reads her books, dreams her dreams. I hadn’t planned it — the image sparked the thought. And those feelings she has about the garden will feed in later to the part of the book that’s set in London.

There’s a turret — I love turrets. So then I wonder, maybe the house has a turret room in which she has her bedroom. Or maybe the turret is haunted. Or maybe she wants to go there but it’s in disrepair and she’s forbidden to go there, and so the question arises, will she go there? And what will be the consequence of that? And until I saw the turret on the house, none of that even occurred to me.

Even so, the images you see in this post will not be the same as the place in my story. In my story the house is a little bit shabby and run-down, the garden wilder and more tangled, the turret might be taller and quite crooked. My heroine, you see, is a little bit lonely and neglected, and she escapes into the garden and the hidden corners of the house in a way she couldn’t if everything was efficient and well run. It’s all to do with creating the atmosphere I want — I’m a big believer in “landscape as metaphor.”

So that’s a little bit about how I explore settings for my books. If you found this interesting and you’d like to read more about this process, here’s a blog I wrote a few years ago on the Word Wenches.

 

Writing No-no's

There’s a lot of writing advice around that is bad — well-intentioned, but misleading. It usually results from people simply repeating what they’ve heard, and turning it into “a rule” that they then share with (or impose on) other new writers.

For instance how often have I seen new writers warned off this kind of thing:

Her eyes dropped to the floor.

No, no, the ‘expert’ instructs  gleefully. If you write this your reader will imagine eyeballs popping out of someone’s head and landing on the floor. You should write:

She lowered her gaze to the floor.

Nonsense, say I. It’s a metaphor. No reader with half a brain is going to think her eyes dropped out of her skull and landed on the floor — because clearly this happens all the time in real life! 

It’s just like saying “She flew to the window” or “He froze” or “He approached the door with leaden footsteps.”

They’re all metaphors! She didn’t literally fly — she hurried; he didn’t literally freeze, he went abruptly still; and his feet weren’t made of lead, it’s a metaphor to show how reluctant he was to approach the door.

So when you’re given writing advice — mine included— think about it, and decide for yourself whether to adopt it or not.

Writing Retreat

I’ve recently returned from my annual writing retreat — that’s a time away (in our case almost a week) with a group of writer friends, working. We’re all multi-published writers, but even so there’s an emphasis on professional development as well as producing words on the page.

This is our tenth anniversary as a writing retreat (I reported on the first one here  and over the years we’ve refined the process into one that works for us. Here’s the post I wrote while I was away on our 10th retreat.

I’ve had enquiries from time to time asking for more detail about how we run ours, so here’s my view of things.

Location
The first retreat, and all but one of our retreats have been beside the sea. There’s something about the sea and the salt air, the interface of land and water and sky, the constantly changing view and the endless rhythmic pounding of the waves, hypnotic and soothing and inspiring — it feeds our muse.

Another requirement for us is a range of affordable and varied places to eat nearby. We can cook our own meals, but a lot of people prefer to grab take-aways — Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Greek etc — or eat out in a group.

A room of our own
From the very first retreat, we decided this was important, as each of us needed a private space to write in. That’s not actually true for all of us, we’ve discovered — some write in bed, some in cafes, but for some a table and a private space is vital, so that was a priority.

Planning
In the weeks leading up to the retreat we start to toss around ideas for professional development. From craft-of-writing exercises (because we can all do with refreshing and honing our craft) to “the state-of-publishing” discussions, to discussions of books or movies, and the sharing of good writing books — we brainstorm ideas, come up with a schedule, and assign people to lead each session.  The leader doesn’t have to be an expert — just do a little preparation and lead the discussion.

Schedule
On the first night together we grab fish and chips and champagne (it’s now a tradition), and we plan the week.

Mornings are the most creative time for most of us, so the majority of us stay in our rooms, writing until lunchtime. Some go out for breakfast, some make it in their room (we have cooking facilities), some go for an early morning swim or a dawn walk, but we don’t meet as a group until lunchtime. And if anyone wants to keep working, they skip the lunchtime meeting.

We bring our own lunch to the meeting room and the first professional development session takes place.

Then it’s back to our rooms for more writing — or in some cases, shopping, swimming, walks, naps, whatever. 

In the evening we meet again for dinner — sometimes we go out as a group, but mostly we bring take-away or home-cooked and there’s another professional development session. And after that there’s wine and chocolate and lots of fun.

Some sessions/discussions we’ve had — in no particular order:
*  The changing face of publishing — always something new to discuss there.
*  Contracts and business matters
*  Theme
*  Subtext 
*  E-publishing
*  Movie watching and discussion
*  Plotting — sharing and discussing individual methods
*  Book discussions — of fiction, and of non-fiction writing books
*  Story collage
*  Our processes — how we each approach writing, and deal with problems that arise
*  Brainstorming – we brainstorm plots, story problems, and titles
*  Dealing with revisions —the approaches vary considerably.
*  Keeping the magic alive
*  Paramedic, medical and midwifery advice for use in books
*  How to keep the muse fresh and bubbling
*  Writing the back cover blurb
*  Tips for writing faster/better
*  Dealing with perfectionism
*  Dealing with editors
*  Visibility
*  Learning Styles
*  Meditation and exercises for writing health
*  Promotion and publicity — what works what doesn’t, what we like/hate
*  Planning a series
*  To blog or not?
And much more . . . .

We came together as an experiment — at the first retreat half of us had never met — but now we’re all good friends. We’ve gone down different pathways in publishing and it’s a constant journey of discovery and rediscovery.
We’ve already booked for next year’s retreat. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.

PS — I would have included more photos, but for some reason WordPress won’t let me upload them, even though they’re all under 30kbs. sigh.