Tuesday Thoughts

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.

Until later!

Image by Noupload from Pixabay

16 comments

  1. One thing I found very useful for writing historical settings was to search for $CITY$ and a year, or sometimes $PROVINCENAME$ and year. So Budapest 1910 produced a very good map of the city, with street names, that I could enlarge as needed. Ditto other places. Since names do change, (I could be about 99.99% sure there would not be a Karl Marx Boulevard in Budapest in 1910, for example), things like that are/were very helpful. You might have to go to places like Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, or other sources for higher quality scans. A number of academic libraries are now making things available, although sometimes they do ask for a small donation or fee to help cover scanning and maintaining things.

    US General Land Office survey maps are hit and miss as far as on-line availability, although the State of Texas has lots and lots of historic maps on line.

    1. I could be about 99.99% sure there would not be a Karl Marx Boulevard in Budapest in 1910, for example

      Ooh, that reminds me of the other option– deliberate made up names.

      Have a little note in the front that says to avoid harassing people who have nothing to do with the book, some street names or even existences have been changed.

      “It’s not lack of research, it’s being considerate!”

      1. Even in modern day, street names change sometimes every block. So you need to check stuff like that. I remember driving in South Jersey maybe 25 years ago. It was the first time I’d been back since I was a kid. I was driving in from Philly to see family friends. They gave me directions and I learned their definition of highway differed from mine and the name/number/description of said highway changed with every little town I went through. Fortunately, I remembered town names from when I’d been there before and from stories my Mom and her father used to tell me. So I knew when I was getting close.

        But let me tell you, as a Texas girl, I don’t think of a “cottage” as being a two-story home sitting on about an acre and a half. Nor do I think of holly bushes as being trees as tall as the frigging “cottage”. Oh, and a highway isn’t a two lane road with no shoulder and speed limits that don’t reach 50 mph in a lot of areas.

        1. What did you think of the New Jersey jug ears? I was flummoxed when I had to deal with those when delivering Oldest Child to Tom’s River. No left turn lane? They’re weird.

          And afterwards, getting a bill in the mail from the state of New Jersey for a toll road that I didn’t remember driving on! All the toll booths were gone and it was all eyes in the sky and bills in the mail.

          That doesn’t just let one character check on another character’s movements. It leads to bigger issues.

          My neighbor Denny told me this story. He’s methodical about recordkeeping and saves receipts in DTG order. Some years back, he got a bill from the city of Philadelphia claiming he owed parking fees for a given date and time. He never goes near Philly. He checked his receipts and saw that he, his wife, and that car were in Harrisburg at that exact time and date. He spend weeks arguing with the city of Philadelphia over the false charge. The city refused to admit fault and threatened him.

          Denny told them he’d get the state attorney general involved.

          The city swiftly claimed administrative error and backed down. Soon thereafter, it was revealed that the city was charging all kinds of people for parking who were never near Philly as a revenue generator! Most just paid up because the amounts were small and they didn’t bother checking!

          So: criminal malfeasance with fines and tolls on the part of the city as a plot device. Who got that money?

          1. Sounds familiar–sort of. Years ago, I was driving in downtown Dallas. A city bus decided it wanted where I was. Crumpled the front fender of my Mustang GT. I don’t think I need to say it did nothing to the bus. Fast-forward a month or so when I get a letter in the mail from the city. They want me to pay $200 (iirc) for damage to the bus. I went ballistic. After I calmed down, I responded–in writing–the I’d be glad to pay their measly $200 if they paid my close to $1000 repair and repainting bill. Then I enclosed the estimates, the insurance report, etc. Didn’t hear from them again. But I had to wonder how many others just paid because they were scared of being taken to court by the city or didn’t think they could afford an attorney, etc.

    2. All excellent sources. The post TPV linked to had a few others, including fire insurance maps for the 1800s. All you have to do is be patient and hunt for what you want–and not get lost falling down the internet rabbit hole (something that’s happened to me more than once).

  2. 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.

    PSA, register that it was sold. I can’t remember the exact form for it, but it’s usually right below the paperwork that you NEED to file to make sure you don’t get stuck with any legal liability.

    And yes, you probably will have to send their papers back to said government when they come after you.

    1. Absolutely. And keep your receipts, even if they are electronic, of when you reloaded your toll tag and check your toll tag activity because the cameras aren’t infallible.

      1. When we got married, we updated who owned which toll-tag. Hers had been previously in her folk’s name.

        Problem is, I apparently got one of the digits in the plate swapped with a letter, and didn’t notice. We were getting billed correctly for our toll lane use, so clearly it was working.

        What I didn’t realize, was, her mom was getting bills for it too, under the car’s correct plates.

        For about two years, both of us were getting billed for the same car, and didn’t realize it…

  3. Newspaper archives, too – I found the on-line files for the Straits Times, and the Brisbane Courier for the wartime years in doing my last book. And also a map intended (IIRC) for taxi drivers in late 1930s Singapore, which was no end useful for visualizing that place. All kinds of little gems to sprinkle through the narrative…

  4. There’s one toll authority in the Austin area that likes to wait until the bill is six months overdue before sending it, and then charging exorbitant late fees.

    1. Sounds like some of them in this part of the state. Worse in some ways is that Tarrant County contracted with a different company than Dallas did. So you can get sticker shock when the bill comes if you’re used to driving Dallas toll roads. It is much more expensive in the western part of the Metroplex.

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