On December 7, 2021, Miss Maddox wrote, I’m having some trouble with setting. In one of my stories, I have a magical inn. In my head, the inn always seems really fantastical and fun, but when I try to write it down it just seems pretty normal and not very interesting. The same thing is happening with another magical location in another story, this one a house belonging to a family of witches. Does anyone have any tips for how to make the magical parts of these settings really stand out?
Two of you wrote back.
Belle Adora: Quirks! In many stories, the places that are fantastical and different feel that way because the author puts quirks into the story. For example… in The Harry Potter series, many things seem fantastical. mysterious, and exciting because of oddities. Some, like Hogwarts’ moving staircases, floating candles, and Forbidden Forest are obvious, but there are small things that change the way we see a place. Such as the Weaslys’ house, if we didn’t hear about their trouble with screaming garden gnomes and Mrs. Weasly’s clock that tells where everyone is and what state of danger they may be in, we would just assume they lived in a messy, yes quirky, but not magical home. In many of Gail’s books, the way she describes things causes the level of awe and fantasy to shoot up! I love the castle in Fairest – the courts full of singing courtiers, the birds chirping in the alcoves of ceilings, the way everything seems to be singing. And the elaborate colors all around. In Two Princesses the Fairy’s palace is perfect, it is nestled on a mountain in the clouds and everything there is simply better than it is in Bamarre. You could also make your people the quirky ones – maybe the innkeeper has a collection of unicorn tusks hidden that no character knows about, but the reader does, these are the reason the food tastes good in the inn, the beds are soft, and people continue to stay over.
Katie W.: Another way to think about this is that magical places give you an excuse to put in the really cool/ridiculous ideas that would never fit in anywhere else. If you’re the list-making person, you could go through your old lists, find the most ridiculous things you thought of, and put them in. If you want a ceiling made of moss and a floor made of clouds, go for it. Humor and detailed descriptions are your best friends here.
Belle Adora, Thanks for the shoutout to my books!
I’m recovering from a broken bone in my foot right now (the bone didn’t move away from where it belongs, so it isn’t bad). My foot aches, and I have to wear a hot and awkward boot outside. Katie W., I would love a cloud floor!
I suggest approaching this from two directions: plot and setting.
Let’s think, for example, about the unicorn horns and the innkeeper—what’s the story that goes with them? They’re brilliantly suggestive of plot. As usual, I’d list possibilities:
- The unicorns are still alive and defenseless.
- The unicorns are still alive and they’re angry. They want them back, and horns aren’t their only weapon.
- The innkeeper thinks they’re unicorn horns, but they’re really dragon’s teeth, which the dragon can control even when they aren’t in its mouth. It’s biding its time.
- The innkeeper is mistaken about being the only one to know he has the horns. A rival innkeeper knows too and has a plan to get them.
- The power of the horns isn’t only benign. The innkeeper, without realizing, is falling under their sway.
First prompt: Come up with three more possibilities.
What about the horns themselves?
- Each horn has a holder. If the horn that makes the bed soft, for instance, is put in the holder for the one that makes the food good, the inn’s bedding will grow green mold after a day or two.
- The horns are tiny, as were the unicorns.
- The horns are filled with a green vapor that makes people think they’re bears (or something else). If a horn breaks, the vapor spreads and casts its spell far and wide.
- When no one is around, the horns speak to each other in verse.
- The horns change color depending on who’s looking at them. To the innkeeper, they’re blue streaked with orange.
Second prompt: Come up with three more possibilities.
Surprise, in my opinion, is the secret ingredient that wakes up everything in a story, including setting, plot, and character. An innkeeper with unicorn horns is surprising, and we can keep the surprises coming. I use lists to get there, because my brain wriggles and writhes when it has to keep coming up with possibilities, and eventually it starts burping out interesting ideas.
Let’s move on to the witches’ house. Well, what would be in there? Ordinary stuff probably: beds, bureaus, kitchen table, chairs, etc. What can we do with those, and what else can we toss in?
- The witches grow hair in their flowerpots to practice hair raising.
- All their cooking pots are small because they want a break from cauldrons when they’re not working.
- Each pane of glass in their windows, to an outside onlooker, reveals a different interior.
- The pillows whisper spells in its witch’s ears all night.
- The kitchen utensils are sentient, and the knives have anger management problems.
The third prompt, of course, is to think of three more.
The approach here is that setting will be more significant and meaningful if it links to our plot. The setting elements that sing in Fairest would be less significant if this were a kingdom of bathtub merchants. When setting works with plot, both gain power.
One more prompt: Using at least one from each list above, including your own additions, write the story.
Have fun, and save what you write!