This morning, I went trolling the internet looking for inspiration for today’s post. I could write again about going wide but I’d like to hold off on that while I collect some data. (Although I will add a note near the bottom of today’s post about my impressions two weeks after starting the process of putting three series out wide at the same time.) So I needed and idea and The Passive Voice gave me one. I swear, if you guys aren’t reading TPV, you should.
When I first started letting Sarah read my writing, she came back with two basic comments. The first I’ve talked about before. I had a tendency to edit the life out of my prose. Call it my journalism genes. Having come from a long line of reporters and editors, I followed the basic “who, what, when, where, why and how” formula and too often took out anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. I’ve spent years fighting that tendency and, I hope, have gotten better about it.
But what she really got me on was something that made me take a long, hard look at my writing. She said I didn’t give enough setting detail. Because of that, I didn’t let my readers become immersed in the scene. I needed to add things like what was on the desktop when the main character sat there. Let him or her play with a pen or stare at a photo, etc. Was the room cluttered (and in what way) or was it pristine to the point of resembling those rooms where there are plastic runners on the floor and covers on the furniture.
She was right. I did need to add more “stuff” to the setting.
But setting goes beyond the immediate room or location where the scene occurs. It is the entire building, street, town and world. When you write science fiction or fantasy, getting the setting “right” can be both easier and harder than when you write another genre. After all, you aren’t limited to how things look here and now. Your imagination sets the limits. But your world and universe have to have rules and you, as the author, have to follow those rules. If you break them, you need to give the reader warning and that breaking of the rules must make sense–as well as push the plot along.
The real problem with setting comes when you write a story set in the real world, especially something set around the current time. Say you’re like me and you write stories set in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. You’d better confirm that street name is exactly what you say it is because someone will catch your mistake and let you know about it. Hopefully, they do so in an email or PM. If your luck is like mine, they will do so in a review.
So how do you avoid making mistakes like this?
The internet is your friend if you can’t make it to the setting in real life. You can pull up maps. You can search for businesses and take virtual tours. You can read local newspapers and join local neighborhood groups. Shopping areas and malls often have virtual tours as well. So you can “stroll” through the mall and imagine what it would be like to shop.
Google maps and Google Earth are your friends as well. Google Earth lets you see a satellite image of an area. That image can give you an idea of neighborhood layout, topography, relation of a neighborhood or park to major roadways, etc. Google Maps, with their street view option can let you virtually drive from Point A to Point B. Heck, you can get drive times at different times of day going different routes and learn which routes have tolls along the way.
All minor details but those minor details help bring a scene to life. That especially true if you work into those details your character reacting or interacting with them.
For example, one of the major east-west roadways in the DFW area is Interstate 30. It was built in 1957. Over the years, it’s been expanded, widened and renamed. It’s been known at I-30, “the Turnpike” and now the Tom Landry Freeway. Years ago, when you drove over parts of it, you had to stop and take a toll ticket and then, when you exited or came to the end of the “toll road” you stopped at another toll shack and paid. It might be a dime or a quarter or a dollar or more depending on how long you were on the road and how many axels your vehicle had and what it weighed. Now if you drive down the Landry Freeway you have the option of toll or no toll. There are managed toll lanes. Have a toll tag? Great. That means you’ll pay less than you will if you don’t have one. Of course, as anyone who has ever driven managed toll lanes in the DFW area knows, that only depends on if –and when–the managing toll authority for the area sends you the bill if you don’t have a toll tag.
And that can lend another level of “setting”–and potentially conflict–to your story. Taken from personal life here, my son came home from college and drove from our home to see a friend on the other side of the metroplex. Part of the drive was over toll roads. Most of these roads were in Dallas County. At that time, we didn’t have a toll tag on the car. He told us where he went and said he’d pay the toll when we got the bill (they send the bill to whoever the car is registered to, thanks to cameras located along the roadway. So you’d better hope that person buying your car registered the change in title.) We got the bill almost two years after he made the trip. For a bit, we couldn’t remember going down the roads listed on the bill, much less at the times the car registered on the system. Fortunately, before I called to raise holy hell, it came back to me and I paid the less than $10.
But consider how you could use something like that in a book. Parent catches kid going where they shouldn’t. Not by following them or using a “where’s my phone” sort of app but because they checked their toll tag activity. Crooks have been caught by checking tolls charged against their plates or toll tags. It is easy to forget about those eyes in the sky along the roadways. You tend to sail by them, something you couldn’t do when you had to stop and get toll tickets and then stop and pay the toll. Driving through those wooden arms they used to pull down until the toll was paid tends to call attention to you, not to mention do nasty things to windshields and possible other parts of your car.
All this is a roundabout way of reminding you to take advantage of the tools that are out there. Google Maps and Google Earth are free and can be invaluable resources. Same for virtual tours.
But also remember that settings can be more than just “setting the stage”. The setting can become part of the story as well. It can be a motivator or an instigator. Use your setting to your advantage.
That said, don’t get so into creating your setting that you lose track of the plot and characterization. I was in a critique group years ago where one member wrote beautiful settings. You could see yourself in the scene. Sights and smells came to life on the page. But that was all. I can tell you even now some of those settings but I couldn’t name a character or relate a plotline.
In other words, setting is just one part of the whole. Don’t ignore it but don’t get lost in it either.
Now, a quick note on going wide. I want to thank everyone for your support. I’ve done no promotion of the releases except for blogging about it and echoing the blogs on social media. For one thing, I was focused on getting the books up and setting up my newsletter, etc. Now that I’ve reached the first level of goals, I can sit back and take a breath and consider what I’ve accomplished so far.
It’s been approximately two weeks since I began uploading novels to go wide. Most of the non-Amazon storefronts are being done through Draft2Digital. So far, Apple, Kobo and BN are the quickest to go live. Scribd is one of the slowest. Library lending services are the slowest, or at least appear to be.
Sales are better than I expected. I will lose a little money this month in page reads. However, I have sold almost as much on the non-Amazon outlets in two weeks as I have on Amazon all month. We’ll have to wait and see what happens next month when there won’t be the constant influx of “new” titles. But I’m satisfied and then some so far. It will really be interesting to see what happens when I do my first promotion push in August.
Final bit and then I’m off for more coffee before getting to work. I linked my newsletter sign-up page above but I want to do so again. Those who signup will receive a link for a free download of Wolf’s Prey, a prequel short story set in the Nocturnal Lives universe. You will also receive a free short story/novella set in the Honor & Duty universe later this summer/early fall. So what are you waiting for. Click here to sign up.