Unicorn Horns

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!

Quick Connection

Before the post: Ogre Enchanted will be out on October 16th–in six days! Hooray! I’m not touring this time, but I will be doing several events close to home. If you’re in the southern New York-Connecticut area, check them out here on the website by clicking on In Person. I would love to see you!

And this: Since the Myers-Briggs Personality Test has come up here more than once as a character-development tool, I was interested to hear a report on it on the radio. Here’s a link to the episode for anyone who’s interested: https://www.npr.org/2018/09/22/650019038/how-the-myers-briggs-personality-test-began-in-a-mothers-living-room-lab.

On August 9, 2018, Sunny Days wrote, I have a question about my novel. Most of the plot involves my MC trying to save a city from destruction. Because it’s so important to the plot, I’m trying to find a way to make the readers feel connected to the city, but I don’t have a lot of time to introduce it. Also, I can’t find a realistic way for the MC to care about the city. She’s lived there for two years, but she has no family members living there and her closest friend comes on the quest with her. However, the city symbolizes a safe haven for her. Does anyone have advice for making the readers feel for something they have only just been introduced to?

A back-and-forth followed:

Melissa Mead: Where did she live before she came to this city? You could contrast the old place with the new one: warm terracotta roofs versus gray slate, cheerful chatter versus shrieking trains, the smell of bakeries and stables versus a tannery…

Sunny Days: The city is themed around a medieval castle, but it’s placed in the Rocky Mountains. My MC grew up in a small town in Colorado.

Carley Ann: Maybe readers would fall in love with your city quickly if the people who live in that city were good people. You know, flawed, imperfect, but the kind of clever humans a reader would want to be with. The city could be like a haven of sorts?

Song4myKing: Being and symbolizing a safe haven is a pretty strong reason for the MC to care, and it could be for the reader as well. Details are important, I think, especially the pleasant, homey details that give a sense of connection. And don’t forget the people. Even if she has no family or super close friends in the city, there are sure to be other people she’s interacted with in the last two years. Even if she hasn’t thought about liking them until now, she’s sure to hate the very thought of the city being destroyed with them inside. If the reader can get just a few glimpses of ordinary life in the city, and meet a few of the people – ordinary, working people, that you’d see every day, but with little quirks that drive home that fact that these are individuals – they’ll care.

I know I’ve seen it done well, but I can’t think of a good example right now. I think it also helps to establish this setting before bringing in the threat. You probably can threaten it first if it works best that way, but when I’m introduced to something in a story that I know is possibly gonna end, I’m tempted to hold it at arm’s length and not get attached to it.

Samantha: Flash backs! Try writing a few scenes from the MC’s point of view that are laced with memories of her time in the city. They don’t have to express her love for the city, but they could instead express her viewing other people’s love for the city. For example she could have a memory of seeing a mother outside her house with her daughter and the daughter is running around skipping pebbles across the street and the mother is doing wash or some such everyday task. She could reflect on how much this city means to other people and how their lives are completely tied up in the city, even if it has no sentimental value to herself. Make the reader feel for the people of the city and fear their home being in danger. The people that live inside a house make it a home – the same thing goes for this city. When the reader realizes that there are actual characters inside the city they feel for them.

These are terrific!

A friend who has lived in New York City all his life is very uneasy in the subway, while the subway is one of the places I feel most at home, although some unpleasant things have happened to me down there, one of them completely gross. But the subway, despite delays, is usually the fastest way to get from x to y. When I was a kid it gave me independence. At ten, I was allowed to ride by myself. It took me and my friends to museums, to ice skating in the winter, to the beach in the summer. Because of the subway, the world was my oyster!

And I have a couple of powerfully good memories. One is of falling asleep on my ride home from work. I lived at the last stop, and when I woke up, the car I was in was empty, and my purse was no longer on my lap. There it lay, on the floor, five feet away, with everything inside: wallet, money, ID. If I had a credit card, it was there, too. Cell phones and the Internet were far in the future. Obviously, this was a long time ago. My husband and I were just starting out. Losing twenty dollars would have hurt! And the knowledge that I deserved the loss would have hurt, too.

Even earlier, when I was thirteen, I took an art class a subway ride away from home, and I always returned during rush hour, when the subway cars were so crowded you couldn’t raise your hand from your side to scratch your nose. In such a car, I managed to drop my carton of forty-eight crayons, the maximum back then–

–and strangers contorted themselves to get down to the floor to help me pick them up. In my memory, which may be flawed, not a crayon was missing at the end.

I treasure these memories of “the kindness of strangers,” and they overshadow the bad ones, which are inconsequential in comparison. They connect me, not to all of New York City, but to the subway.

We can use these sort of events to create our MC’s love for a place, and we can do it in a hurry. The two main criteria are:

∙ my MC’s character–what she needs and what’s important to her;

∙ that the event has an emotional impact.

We can ask ourselves what our character needs most, what she’s desperate for. We can make a list! Here are a few ideas that might go on it:

∙ friendship;

∙ someone who listens;

∙ money;

∙ a doctor;

∙ a snake;

∙ a can of tuna fish;

∙ to catch a break.

A reminder: we let our minds go free when we make lists. Nothing is stupid.

Now we can list occurrences that might, at least temporarily, meet her need. Suppose she needs to catch a break, here are three things that might go on the list:

∙ She runs for a bus, which she really has no hope of getting to in time, and the driver waits for her.

∙ She finds a twenty dollar bill in a park, and no one is around to claim it.

∙ Without her knowledge, her backpack has come more than half unzipped. Her prized letter of recommendation is about to fall out when a stranger warns her. Minus the letter of recommendation, this has happened to me more than once in one of my favorite cities, New York City.

I recommend continuing until we have, say, ten bullet points to choose among. In my opinion, we can expand two of them in our story. More, and the reader will feel we’re stacking the deck.

Last, we have to connect the events with the place, to make it feel good for her, and this, too, goes to her character and the way she frames the world. If, for instance, she understands her life as being controlled by fate, she may think that the bus driver who waited for her would have waited in any city, because he was destined to, or that he waited because today is her lucky day. In that case, we have to direct her attention to the fact that this good thing and one other did happen here, and her fate may be bound up with the city. We can make a list about how to do that, using her fatalistic world view. Just saying, sky writing would be on my list.

To summarize, to create an attachment to a place quickly and economically, we should know–or make up–the needs of our MC and then create events that satisfy those needs. Naturally, the satisfaction takes place in a small way–we don’t want to solve our story’s main conflict. After that, we have to make sure the events are linked in her mind with the location, in this case a city, where they occurred.

The key is emotion. Events that trigger feeling rise to a level of importance beyond the ordinary. Of course, this works for ill as well as good. We’re not likely to think fondly of the place where something bad happened. And it works for people as well as places. We’re inclined to like the bus driver who waited for us without knowing anything else about him. First impressions are powerful and fast.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Think of a memory, or more than one, in your life that ties you in a good way to a place: a house, a park, a street, a store, a whole city. Imagine a character for whom the occurrence would be meaningful, but in a different way and for a different reason from the way if affected you. Write the scene when it happens.

∙ Go back, using the above, and write a scene from your character’s earlier life that demonstrates why the occurrence means so much to her.

∙ Pick a need from my list or yours of needs and write a scene in which that need is gratified. Include the way your MC understands what happened. Extra credit if a medieval castle is involved!

Have fun, and save what you write!

Where to put that plot?

I may add this as an occasional blog feature: short comments on style or other matters. Here’s a craft one I’ve thought about often–I always question the use of the word suddenly. Sometimes it’s perfect, but usually it’s unnecessary, and the word drains the surprise from whatever is about to occur, because it warns the reader. So I’d recommend being aware of it and using it only when nothing else will do.

Admittedly, however, I once told this prejudice to an editor, who laughed and said, “Writers!” So my opinion isn’t universally shared. I leave it to you.

Do you like this addition?

And for those of you who’ll be in the New York City area: I’ll be signing books from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm on Saturday, September 29th, at the Chappaqua Book Festival, where there may be many authors you love. I’ll have plenty of time to chat. Here’s a link to the event: http://www.ccbfestival.org/.

On July 18, 2018, Laura R wrote, I have a fanfiction that, while not my current WIP, is on the back burner to be turned into an original story. I agree that we can see what is the essential part of the story. If the essential part relies on something from the original author’s work, can that “something” be changed? For example, my fanfiction is based on a long, ongoing guild roleplay from World of Warcraft. One of game’s villains was the Lich King in the frozen Northlands. I still plan on keeping the undead, but I changed their location to a dessert (once actually a sea bay) and their leader to a dracolich that’s seeking to gain a corporeal, draconic form again. Many of the characters’ “classes” (what their attacks and weapon and armor types are based on) are really basic to fantasy settings, so I can drop the game-based specific attacks (or attack names) and use my own.

And then there’s your actual plot. If you change the setting, does your plot have to change? Does it become shorter because you no longer have to deal with part of the author’s original world? Does it become longer because you have created your own world?

In my reply, I said that I’d address the setting part of Laura R’s question.

Recently, I received a group email from my MFA alums, alerting people to an adjunct job opening at a university in New York City, teaching a class about place in literature, and the exploration was to be conducted through original student writing.

I don’t have time to take on a college-level class so I didn’t apply. From teaching one once, I learned that I spent four hours a week in the classroom and thirty more preparing and going over student work. Even my summer workshop for kids, which lasts only six weeks and is a labor of love, devours a surprising amount of time. Regardless, however, I thought about how I would teach such a class.

And I realized right away that fantasy, because of world-building, focuses more on place (setting) than other genres. I don’t mean setting isn’t always important, and isn’t sometimes essential–think of mystery series that are set in certain cities or parts of the world in which location becomes almost a character.

But for fantasy, consider The Wizard of Oz! Though I’ve read the book, I know the movie better, so that’s what I’m thinking of (and I just refreshed my memory with the plot summary on Wikipedia). What would be left without Oz and, by contrast, the colorless version of Kansas?

Without Oz or Kansas, we could have a girl who doesn’t appreciate her life. We could blow up that life in a way that doesn’t involve a twister, and we could have her travel somewhere and feel surprisingly homesick, so that the rest of the adventure is an attempt, that succeeds in the end, to get home. Of course, there’s also Toto, who sets everything in motion by biting Almira Gulch and being in danger of being euthanized, so we can imagine a different inciting incident involving a pet.

That’s bare bones. There’s much more.

Dorothy is deluded about herself (that she didn’t like her life at home), and so are other characters: the lion, who wrongly thinks he’s cowardly, the tin man, who wrongly thinks he’s unfeeling, and the straw man, who wrongly thinks he’s stupid–in a universe (setting) that accommodates these sorts of creatures. Not to mention the people of Emerald City (setting), who are deceived by their glasses into thinking that everything is green!

So we’d have to include fantastical creatures in our world, although not necessarily the same kinds, and self-delusion, since ridding the characters of them is part of the plot.

There’s the wizard himself, who deludes everyone but isn’t deluded himself. We’d need a revered but remote charismatic figure, whose unmasking figures into the story.

Then we have the good and evil witches and the enslaved flying monkeys, who are all part of this world (setting). For the new plot, they don’t have to be witches, but we need figures who represent good and evil, and we need minions of evil. The villain has to try to do our MC in, and our symbol of virtue has to save her, because, alas, Dorothy doesn’t get her own self out of Oz–or really do much to better her situation, although she is brave when she throws water on the scarecrow and accidentally melts the witch. I would say for that one, we want in our plot a villain with a secret and weird Achilles’ heel.

For all the time I’ve watched The Wizard of Oz, I’ve never noticed that the threat of Toto being put to sleep is never resolved. So if we’re following The Wizard of Oz we have to leave a major plot thread hanging!

I have to conclude, though I went into this exploration unsure, that plot–a detailed, step-by-step plot–at least in the case of The Wizard of Oz–is organically interwoven with setting.

The charm for me in discovering both my plot and my setting, is the way the two, plus character, act on the others. The setting that we create suggests directions for our story, and our plot suggests the setting that will best accommodate it.

Having said that, however, we could take the bare-bones plot that I described near the beginning of the post and create a new setting for it and follow the twists and turns that the new setting takes us to. Fairy tales, fables, and myths, with their simple story lines, can be plunked into lots of settings. Same for any plot archetype.

As for whether our new plot will be shorter or longer than its prototype–could be either one, depending on what we do and the complexity of the setting we create.

One more thing. This is on the subject of converting fanfiction into original work. I’m not an attorney or an expert in copyright, so I’d use a practical rule of thumb. Turn the tables and imagine that we wrote the work that someone else is basing a new story on. If we feel infringed–if we recognize our own creation in the new fiction and feel that our story has been stolen–then the writer hasn’t gone far enough to make the work her own. Naturally, if the story we’re basing our new plot on is already in the public domain, we’re home free. We want to be original because of course we do, but we don’t have to worry about how much of the earlier elements we’re using.

Here are three prompts:

∙ You probably saw this coming: Use as much as you possibly can of the detailed Wizard of Oz plot summary in a setting of your own devising–could be a fairy-tale kingdom, some part of the contemporary world, a dystopian future, an actual period in the past, or anything else.

∙ Use as much as you can of The Wizard of Oz plot in a masked ball.

∙ Pick a traditional story–fairy tale, myth, fable, tall tale–and put it in a high-tech setting. Let the setting influence what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Setting Wake Up

On August 15, 2014, carpelibris wrote, Anyone have the opposite problem: livening up a story that takes place on a single, rather ordinary location?

Let’s break this into two pieces, the ordinariness and the unmoving-ness of the setting and start with the first.

Pick the most boring, most blah place in your life that you can go to right now. Your assignment, as soon as I tell you to, is to take yourself there.

Right now I’m in my most boring space, a Metro North train rattling toward New York City, where I often write the blog. I’m not talking about my fellow passengers, who often aren’t dull at all, sometimes unfortunately, but the train itself: gray speckled linoleum, tan-gray walls, seats in tan-gray molded plastic with blue upholstery. The intention, I suppose, is to offend no one. The emergency exit signs are always the same, same smudged window, same handicapped and priority seating signs. Soundwise, the same automated station announcements.

But there’s this ad on the wall from Grub Hub (an online restaurant delivery service), which horrifies me: “Say hello to ordering food online, and say goodbye to saying hello into a phone.” As if that were a good thing. I like to talk to people! This would not make me happy! But it isn’t boring.

When you go to your height-of-ordinary place, write a short description of its uninteresting features. Then hunt for at least one unboring thing, maybe a discovery that surprises you. Look, listen, sniff, touch. Take your time, and when you’re finished, come back.

Go there now.

Music to accompany time passing. Imagine a beat that represents the ticking of an analog clock.

Welcome back!

Did you discover anything? My guess is you did. Whether or not you did, you can use other factors to liven up the environment. Your character can have history in this place. One night, on my ride home, my train ran into a tree that had fallen across the tracks. No one was hurt, and I was in the second car, but I walked forward to see improbable branches and part of an actual tree trunk filling half the car.

In our story, our MC can have been injured, and there can have been fatalities. She can remember that the accident took place during a spring storm. A nest of cardinals were in the tree, and she heard silence right after the collision and then the chirping of frightened nestlings. Whenever she’s in the train at night she’s on edge.

People perceive settings differently depending on their personalities. So do our characters. For a bookworm in a library, the walls don’t exist. For a reluctant reader, who’s come for literacy tutoring, the walls may be closing in. The emotion of the character will affect how she sees her environment. We can use that perspective to create interest.

And it’s fun to show the differences in perception. Two friends, Owen and Maya, are describing the local park to Owen’s cousin, Erin, who’s visiting. Maya talks about the tennis courts, the carousel, the picnic tables where people play chess in the summer. Owen goes on and on about the café and its fifty ice cream flavors. Erin doesn’t care about any of it. What she wants to know is if kids skateboard there, and if they’re any good.

In a minute, go back to your boring place. When you get there, think about a few of your characters, three, say. What’s the first thing each one would notice? What’s the last thing? If it’s far from the cleanest spot on earth, who would be uncomfortable? Who oblivious? Same with the noise level. Use all your characters’ senses. Would each of them find the boring place boring?

Now go take a look and return.

If all else fails and our real-life dull setting stays dull, we are writing fiction; we can liven it up. Let’s suppose that our story is stuck in an ordinary dining room: oak table, eight chairs, a breakfront where the good china is kept, and a side table, pale blue walls, windows onto a small backward.

Although we could put a shrunken head on the second shelf of the breakfront and make the family dog be a werewolf who’s gotten stuck in wolf form, we don’t want to add anything that will derail our plot, so we won’t go that far. But there probably is a mood that we can heighten with the kind of artwork on the walls, the photographs on the mantel (once we give the room a fireplace). Temperature conveys mood to me, so we can fool around with that. A chilly house may depress Maya. A room that’s too warm may make Owen sleepy and Erin fidgety. Inviting cooking smells will have their own effect; burnt smells or the aroma of disinfectant a different effect. And the Bob Dylan CD that Owen’s father has put on may please some and annoy others.

Suppose our entire story has to take place in this dining room, what to do? I also discuss this topic in my post of August 29, 2012, so you may want to take a look. Be sure to check out the prompts, because they expand on what goes before. And here are some fresh thoughts:

• Concentrate on character, especially on the relationships among our characters. The setting may fall away entirely, because it’s always the same, but our characters are constantly butting against each other, forming and breaking alliances.

• Bring in fresh characters, so there’s newness.

• Visit other places in flashbacks, in the imaginations of our characters, in their dialogue.

• Connect to other places by phone, text, email, even television, if we can put a TV in our setting. Depending on genre, telepathy with people in other places might be possible, or communing with spirits, or even creating the illusion of another location.

Here are four prompts!

• Describe the dining room or any humdrum setting from the POV of Owen, Maya, and Erin. Through the descriptions, give the reader insight into each personality.

• The world outside this dining room is unsafe. You decide how and why. Our three MCs have found sanctuary there and have been together for three hours when someone appears in the window, begging piteously to be let in. Write the story.

• The house this dining room is in was built by Owen’s ancestor in 1735. Something that happened (you decide what) in the dining room in 1745 reverberates through the centuries to this day. Write the original event, a scene one hundred years later, a scene shortly after World War II, and the final, contemporary scene.

• Reverse the order in the last prompt. Show the contemporary scene first and work backward. Write it so that the reader understands the meaning of the scene in present time only when she reads the earliest one.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Setting Set Up

On January 14, 2010, Gail Zuniga posted this comment:  I’m wondering when you are writing a novel do you have to describe where it takes place in the first chapter or can you drop little hints here and there and later on go into detail of what the town or city looks like?

In general I like the hints approach.  I worry that loading down a first chapter with description will prevent a reader from getting engaged in the story.  But there are many exceptions.  You may want to start with description to create atmosphere or to set a mood.  Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt starts this way.  The entire book turns on a first descriptive chapter, and I love it.  The first chapter of Hawaii by James Michener (not for children) is devoted to the geological development of the island.  Many readers adore this chapter, but I never managed to drag myself all the way through it, although I enjoyed the rest of the book when I read it decades ago.

A setting may be intrinsically fascinating, and knowing it may be critical to reader understanding.  For example, suppose your story starts in a tunnel that’s inhabited by giant spiders whose webs are works of art and a bunch of eco-tourists is entering the tunnel, then you may want to go into some depth (no pun intended) about the tunnel and the webs, and I’d guess the reader will be happy.  I certainly wouldn’t toss a book for going on about spider art.

Of course the kind of story you’re writing has some bearing on how much setting you include.  If you’re working on a thriller or an adventure story, and you want action-action-action, you may need to keep setting to a minimum.  The reader gets only the details he needs.  If there’s a bicycle chase, the reader will probably need information about the bikes.  The villain on a lightweight racing bike will have an advantage over the hero on a mountain bike, unless a mountain is involved.  And you’ll probably want the reader to see the bikes – possibly shiny red for the racing bike and rusty green for the mountain bike.  The reader will need to know if the chase is in a city or on a rural dirt road, and maybe or maybe not that it starts in front of the courthouse.  Almost certainly the reader will not have to know that there aren’t many free parking spots along the street – unless that’s important.

Everything depends on everything else.  In a thriller or an adventure story, the author may decide to skimp on other elements in addition to setting.  Thoughts, depth of characterization, dialogue, relationships among characters, all may be streamlined for the sake of a fast pace.  I’m not making a judgment.  I like a story that gallops.  And other kinds of stories, too.

Sometimes setting is a tool for character development.  When the reader sees Kevin’s bedroom, for instance, she learns something about Kevin or his parents.  The route Kevin takes to school, if he has a choice, will be revealing.  Maybe he likes to pass a particular house because his old math teacher used to live there.  The author may want to linger at the front gate and show what Kevin cares about.

Setting can be an instrument of plot.  In my novel, Dave at Night, Dave is sent to an orphanage so forbidding that he is desperate to get away.

This is the beginning of Fairies and the Quest for Never land, which will be out in June:

    “Gwendolyn Jane Mary Darling Carlisle,” Grandma whispered, putting down her teacup with trembling fingers, “you are Wendy Darling returned to life.”
    For her seventh birthday, Gwendolyn had come to breakfast wearing a white dress trimmed with eyelet lace.
    “Fetch the scrapbook from my dressing table, dear,” Grandma said.  “I want to see.”

I never tell the reader whether breakfast is eaten in the dining room or the kitchen or what the room looks like or even what Gwendolyn or her grandmother eat.  I do happen to mention orange juice in passing, but that’s it.  However, later, I tell the reader about Gwendolyn’s street of row houses because the information is momentarily necessary in the story.  I provide much more detail about Fairy Haven on Never Land, both because the place is central to the plot, and also because it’s central to Gwendolyn herself.

Setting isn’t an issue only in the first chapter of a book.  Stories move.  We have to reveal setting continuously.

So how do you present setting to your reader?  As it comes along for the most part.  If you’re writing from a single viewpoint, whether in first person or third, you can show the reader the sights, sounds, and smells as your main character encounters them, even in a place he knows well.  It’s always handy when a main character is in a new place, though.  If Kevin starts a new school, he’ll be paying attention, and the description will come delightfully naturally.

Sometimes it’s hard to work in setting information.  Say Kevin visits his friend Julie, which he’s often done in the past.  They sit  in the living room where there’s a fish tank.  The fish are going to be part of the story, so the reader needs to know about them, because you don’t want fish erupting out of nowhere.  I don’t like it when writers convey information in an unnatural way.  I’m opposed to having Kevin say, “So, Julie, I see your dad is still keeping the fish tank.”  Kevin wouldn’t say that, because they both see the fish tank and know it’s Julie’s dad’s hobby.  But he might say, “I always think the fish are staring at me.”  Or you might describe the room in Kevin’s thoughts.  Since he’s been there before you need a hook, not much of a hook, something small, like, The room always looked heavy, as if its gravity could sink the house.  Two long sofas, five chairs, the fish tank, the cabinet full of china, the thick drapes.  If Kevin has a poetic mind he might think that even the air, with its dots of filtered sunlight, have weight.  And there, nestled in with the other details, is the fish tank.  This method is particularly effective if you don’t want the reader to linger on the fish.  Suppose you want the fish event, whatever it is, to be a surprise.  You’ve informed the reader that the tank is there, but you’ve emphasized something else, the somberness of the room.

Setting is a big topic, and this has been a long post.  If you have more questions on the subject, please post them.

Here’s a prompt:  Your main character has lost something.  She (or he) backtracks to search for it.  In the time since she was there, even if that was only five minutes before, the place she goes to has become haunted.  This place may not be a house or a graveyard.  Go!

Save what you write, and have fun!