Category Archives: The Setting

It’s the Time of the Season: How Weather Affects Our Stories

I can remember a lazy afternoon a few years back in my old apartment; I had just finished watching The Sex and the City movie (part I) when I did something I don’t normally do—clicked on the DVD’s bonus features. For whatever reason, I decided to watch the entire movie again while listening to the director’s, Michael Patrick King, commentary. What really struck me was his use of the changing seasons to move the plot along. I’ll paraphrase here, and you don’t have to be a regular SATC viewer to understand the point.

In the beginning, when Mr. Big leaves Carrie on the proverbial altar it is autumn. I remember the characters discussing a September wedding. Simultaneously, we discover that Steve committed adultery, and while it’s obvious that he is deeply sorry, Miranda stubbornly refuses to make amends and begins to plan her new life as a single woman.

Throughout the cold, blistery winter that follows it is clear that Carrie has fallen into a deep depression. The director even shows how she dyes her black—as if to reflect her emotional state. Miranda too, seems to be barely pulling by, and the tensions lead to a big blow out between the two women on Valentine’s Day.

Then spring comes. Carrie has pulled herself up from her own fiery depths and changes her hair back to its normal, lighter color. Miranda and Steve make plans to meet on the Brooklyn Bridge to attempt reconciliation. I can remember the scene where Carrie and Miranda are walking through Central Park—spring has exploded. The trees are full of plump blossoms, petals float through air, and the grass is green with the vitality. Carrie and Miranda have a new way about them—the fog has lifted. The hard times are over.

When I look back at my life, I see that my wildest, craziest memories were during summer. My darkest periods were during winter. My sense of hope was strongest during spring, and my most prevalent transitioning periods were during autumn.

So I got to thinking…how does the use of the four seasons enhance or reflect plot, setting, and characterization in fiction? As a literature major in college I learned that the seasons often stand as metaphors for the following concepts:

The Four Seasons. From questgarden.com

Spring: Conception

Summer: Life

Autumn: Old Age

Winter: Death

That being said, how can we utilize this in our writing?

Spring: This is classically a season of new beginnings, of hope. Perhaps, for one of your characters it is the end of a depressing period (like old Carrie Bradshaw’s). It is a good time for decision making—a good time to fall in love. The mood of spring is renewed energy. What kinds of situations might your characters go through in the springtime? Spring may also be the perfect season for a happy ending—sort of like a restored sense of faith that all is well.

Then again, it might be fun to try and contrast the growing beauty of a spring setting with a struggling character, or an overblown conflict.

Summer: The season of heated romances, vacations, and an overall sense of freedom. While we’re all adults now and often work through summers, but the notion of June through August being a carefree period will never completely fade—it’s morphed into our psyches and it will certainly come across in literature. This is a great season to use if your main characters are teenagers or college students. Summer is an archetypal time for experimenting, doing crazy things, falling in love, and finding ourselves.

On the other hand, summer can come with a good dose of dread. I always think of The Secret Life of Bees where Lily Owens fears what will come with summer’s end, as she may be forced to leave the home of the Boatwright sisters. The truth is, we all wonder how things will change when summer is over Hey, even Don Henley wonders. “Boys of Summer” anyone?

Autumn: This is a beautiful, but often melancholy season. It’s a time where we cling to the past, (again, shut up Don Henley!) or a more favorable time. Vacation is over; reality has returned. In that way, it is a very practical season. Perhaps in a work of a fiction autumn is where certain events unfold that will lead to a period of mourning. A character grows ill, and his deteriorating body juxtaposes the changing, falling leaves.

On brighter, happier note, autumn is a great time to “turn over a new leaf,” and in some cases, it takes on characteristics of spring in the sense that something new is beginning such as, school, college, etc. Plus, you could always milk that whole concept of the harvest.

Winter: For anyone suffering from SAD, this one is obvious. Winter is a phase of harder times. It’s more difficult for the weak, weary, hungry, and war torn. It is fitting to portray a character going through a depressive state in winter (after all, he can always rise up come spring). Perhaps a character who has been jilted, become unemployed, lost a family member, or finalized a divorce could suffer a tormenting winter. He could be on a post-holiday crisis, a period of uncertainly, stagnancy, and hopelessness. Having a winter season in the background for something like this will always be fitting.

Winter is also a hibernation period. Maybe  a mad-scientist type character works on his experiment like crazy during the winter, all holed up in his study only to reveal his masterpiece when the weather begins to turn. Which by the way I believe was the exact scenario in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I do remember a lot of vivid winter imagery in that novel.

This is not to say that a writer MUST make use of the seasons to accurately reflect plot, setting, and characterization. Sometimes it will happen naturally—I’ve noticed that a lot of what I described above indirectly occurs in my own novel. However, I do think seasonal consideration should be applied. As writers we can certainly mindful of this technique. What’s happening in the background at any given time is important. And hey, so is weather. Otherwise we wouldn’t talk about it so much!

Do the four seasons play a role in your writing?

Advertisements

13 Comments

Filed under Books and Literature, Characters, Description, Plot & Structure, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Setting, The Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Far Out: Writing fiction set in different decades

I’ve always been fascinated by decades past, particularly those before my birth.  My novel spans the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I’ve written short stories set in similar periods. It’s not easy to capture the ‘vibe’ of another decade, because it goes beyond saying, “My story is set in the seventies so I’ll have my characters watch The Brady Bunch.”  Dropping popular celebrity names, fashion styles, or any peppering of timely—and obvious—pop culture references will not do the setting’s vibe justice.

When I first began to research my novel’s era, I was biting off more than I could chew. Countless hours were spent memorizing hairdos, current events, slang terms, and more. None of which, might I add, turned out to be successful in creating my story’s (totally far out) vibe. In movies and television shows these elements may be important due to their visual natures, but it doesn’t work the same way in literature. Though some well-placed epoch-relevant allusions work well, there is no need to constantly remind the reader what decade it is. The groove should take care of itself.

Nicolas Raymond → in Objects

So taking a step back and re-analyzing the situation, I found that taking a broad, academic approach to researching a different decade works wonders. Take any ten year period and think about the big picture. What were people’s hopes and fears at the time? What philosophies surrounded the era? This is what I mean by vibe.

Two great books have aided my process:

Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and The Making of Eighties America  by Phillip Jenkins

Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now–Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything by David Sirota

Both books gave a comprehensive overview of the 1970’s and 1980’s, respectively. Just having a sense of the overall climate of the two decades gave me tremendous insight.

In the meantime, I’ve developed some strategies to live by when researching the glory days:

  1. Peruse books, magazines, and newspapers from the era. I got lucky when my father-in-law came across boxes of old Newsweek compilation books in his garage. The books were categorized by year.  From obscure cigarette brands to long-forgotten car models, vintage kitchen equipment, and not to mention, the big stories of the day, these books greatly contributed to my setting’s ‘vibe.’
  2. Watch television shows, movies, and music videos (if applicable, otherwise, listen to the music) of the era. Also, read books written during the era. Particularly with film and television, this helps with the visuals. The semi-faded backgrounds, the slower day-to-day pace, the humor, and of course, the ‘look and feel’ of the decade. Translate this into the writer’s mind, and somehow, magically, it ends up on the page. I’ve made a point to watch movies like Saturday Night Fever, The Breakfast Club, and other pop culture classics circa…well, fill in the blank. Nick at Nite can be helpful, as can old episodes of Saturday Night Live.
  3. Watch television shows, movies, music videos, and read books that portray a different era. Get some ideas on how it’s been done. Which ones are believable? That 70s show, Happy Days, Mad Men, and The Wonder Years come to mind. As do films such as Dazed and Confused, Rock Star, The Sandlot, Forrest Gump and A League of Their Own.Some great fiction that depict the days of yore? Try Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, Jodi Picoult’s Second Glance (Told in parts during the 1930s—what a feat!), and of course, many more.

My main point in this: the details do matter, but so does the bigger backdrop. Establishing setting (either time or place) on details alone just won’t do the trick. The vibe is crucial, even in its most subtle forms. Without the vibe, the story’s just stuck in some timeless purgatory.

Have you ever written in an era other than this one? Did you go back even further (in other words, a ‘real’ historical novel)? What was your experience like? How do you capture ‘the vibe?’

 

 

 

 

 

14 Comments

Filed under Breaking Through, The Setting, The Writing Life, Writing Tips

I’d like to say a few words on setting (plus, a great link)

Since my long-awaited wedding is this Saturday, and my honeymoon in Tennessee will immediately follow, you can imagine how up-to-my-ears I am with last minute details, and of course, last minute stress!

That being said, I’d like to say a few words on setting. As writers, I’m sure you heard that sometimes the setting “becomes a character” in a poem, story, or novel. Next week, I will be in a new setting of my own–The Great Smoky Mountains. I’m a Jersey girl, so talk about new surroundings! In literature, as in life, the ‘backdrop’ to our stories are worth more value than we give it credit for. We tend to focus on plot and characters, but often overlook the setting, and in some ways, take it for granted.

Even though it’s true that those other elements I spoke of–characters, plot, tension, conflict–do drive the story forward, the story itself would be completely different in another setting. Especially since a well-rounded setting includes  both time and place; an entire novel’s values, morals, and lifestyles could very well depend on the setting.

I came across a great article from Writer’s Digest this afternoon:

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/adriana-trigiani?et_mid=571494&rid=3058805

Enjoy the advice from author Adriana Trigiani, while I continue to plan for my wedding–and my new (yet temporary setting) 🙂

12 Comments

Filed under The Setting

Ideas for Writing: Five plot-centered prompts to get started!

Be kind, please. I’ve never actually done something like this before. Well, OK, that’s not 100% accurate. Once in a grad class, a professor asked us each to create our own writing prompts. Then he read them (anonymously, thank goodness) out loud and we all picked one for a free writing exercise. He didn’t withhold his opinions, however, on which prompts were worthy and which ones were crappy. I remember when he read mine, he raised his eyebrows and blinked three times in row, a facial expression that could only be construed as: Whoa, this one’s out there. I still believe very much in my prompt! In fact, I included it below–see if you can figure out which one received the ‘look.’

Anyhow, these are some original writing prompt ideas. In this segment, they relate to the plot points of a novel, story, poem, etc. If you’ve seen any of them before, it’s pure coincidence. As far as I’m concerned, they all come from my intrinsic writing brain:

1. A woman is standing at her kitchen sink washing dishes, when she notices, from out the window, a solitary, red (or any color, really) balloon floating in the vast sky. This reminds her of a significant childhood experience. Write about it.  OR A solitary, red balloon is floating in the vast sky. Tell the story of how it got there.

2. Four teenage friends are trying to get into (any concert) back in (any year). Write about their adventure.
For example, it’s 1978, and four high school sophomores from New Jersey are just dying to get access into CBGB’s. How does the night unravel? This may or may not require some research.

3. An old man from the World War II era is taking a long train ride to visit his grandson. When a  strange woman takes a seat across the aisle from him, he is suddenly taken by a distant memory–the day he lost his virginity to a prostitute while in the service. This also may require research.

4. A little boy (or girl) gets separated from his mother at a carnival, and witnesses something that terrifies him. Tell the story from the child’s point-of-view.

5.  A young man sees a young woman in a movie theater, and swears he knows her from someplace. He barely watches the film, because he is trying in vain to figure out why she seems so familiar. After the credits, he follows her outside and approaches her. Who is she? What happens?

This is a fun exercise because it not only gives my readers potential ideas, but it gives me ideas too. Any of these prompts can twist and turn in directions a writer never expected. That’s really the beauty of it all, isn’t it?

Anyone else want to contribute? Pen your own writing prompt below!

3 Comments

Filed under Characters, Inspiration, Plot & Structure, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Setting, The Writing Life, Top Ten Lists, Writing Tips

Visions

As an intrinsic writer, my ability to conjure images is plentiful. Since I was a kid, while reading books I’d envision places that I’ve never seen before. Sure, sometimes a character’s mentioning of “Grandma’s house,” would place me in my own grandmother’s home. More often though, I’d see a whole place. New houses, new schools, new neighborhoods, new towns, new cities, etc. Sometimes I’ll revisit these places that live in my mind’s eye; in other words, two totally separate novels by two totally separate authors will wind up in the same setting.

As I gradually transform from reader to a reader/writer, this notion grows stronger. Unless I have particular setting in mind (i.e. my most recent short story) my mental backdrops are glimpses of the unknown. Where are these places? Do they exist? Do I dare attempt to be new-agey, and suggest that they are abodes from a previous life?

One could argue that it’s based on a writer’s description, but that can’t be 100% percent correct. Now that I write like a fiend, I understand that regardless of how important sketching may be, there is still a story to tell. All good stories balance the touchstones–characterization, plot, themes, etc.–there is only so much room for description. The writers plant an idea, that’s all. The rest comes from the clandestine capacity for fantasy of the intrinsic reader.

These places…or people or things…creep into my mind throughout the day. It always gives me a warming feeling. If my current environment feels threatening in the least, I can escape. I’ve always been naturally drawn to books, but it wasn’t until I started writing that I’ve understood why. Words and books exert the mind. A novel has far fewer limitations than do film or television.

But we know this. The ability to create our own settings only helps to prove it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Characters, Description, Inspiration, The Setting, The Writing Life, Writing Process

On Location

I haven’t posted in a few days. I went down to Cape May, NJ–one of my most cherished places–with my husband-to-be, my sister, her boyfriend, and a friend for New Year’s Eve. I was excited to head down the GSP to be in my favorite place regardless, but what made this trip even more uncanny for me was the fact that a short story I’m currently writing actually takes place in Cape May. So, in a sense I was doing research…on location. So excited to say that.

It wasn’t real research. I wasn’t scouring libraries and town halls for archives, or arranging interviews with the historical society down there, it was more about sniffing out the environment. The story is not a commentary on CM’s history; it’s just a story that happens to be set there.

It worked, I felt the pulse of my story penetrating through my mind while I was visiting. We went to the bar where the main action occurs, and I tried to memorize as many details as I could. I mocked myself a little, thinking: a real intrinsic type would have brought a notebook to record every subtle element that presents itself.

Here’s what I recall:
-Low ceilings
-Wall-length, front windows that open up during summer, letting the sea-salty air from the ocean across Beach Avenue waft through into the dining area
-J-shaped black top bar
-Chalkboard-style surfboards displaying dinner specials written in blue, pink, and green chalk
-Gingerbread trimming on outside
-Two story building, neighboring a second bar–looks like apartments above venues.
-Pool table, stage for band, small dance floor
-Semi-dank mini hallway leading to semi-dank restrooms
-Overall dim atmosphere, mostly neon lighting
-Bungalow-y themed, makes one recall Bob Marley

Not bad for having written nothing down. Of course I’ve been to the place numerous times, but my desire to memorize both macro and micro details suggests a further emergence of my ‘intrinsic abilities.’

Understanding place or setting in a given story is particularly crucial in fiction. A good way to determine whether setting has been effectively established is to consider how different the story would be set someplace else. Would it be the same tale? Could it be the same tale?

My novel is set on the “Jersey side” of the George Washington Bridge. No particular town, just based on those that make-up that general area. A few weeks back I visited a friend in Fairview, NJ (right next to Cliffside Park, NJ) and I felt like I was in the setting of my novel. The sardine-style housing, the view of NYC, the busy traffic, and overall sense of edginess that embodies the vicinity…I felt thoroughly relieved that I had somehow, nailed it. Sure, I’m from northern Jersey myself, but not quite the setting of my book. It gave me confidence that such a place exists, and that my readers will be able to feel the place that holds all the drama, energy, conflict, and functioning of the story.

Note in point: Let your setting breathe. When one thinks of memories, childhood, etc. he/she always conjures a place first. I get random, aimless visions of places in my mind constantly. I’ve never seen them before, but I know them. Many of my stories start that way.

Setting can be a great place to start. Just saying…

2 Comments

Filed under Description, The Setting