Weathering the Weather

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A little good luck rain for my brother’s wedding 🙂

I know I just spent all of October talking about setting, but with the solstice coming up this week, the weather is heavy on my mind.  Struggling as I do with SAD, I’m acutely aware of how dark it is and how cold it is and how maddeningly close we are to inching our way back to the light.  (For context, daylight for today in Fairbanks Alaska is 3.6 hours total, and still shrinking.  An emphatic boo to that.)

When I wrote in October, I mostly concentrated on the physical setting, and weather definitely falls within that realm.  But today I’d like to elaborate more about the psychological and contextual aspects that they impart.  (You may recall from October’s Setting the Scene that there are four primary aspects of setting: chronological, psychological, physical, and contextual.)

So first off, what is weather?  Weather is the ever-changing state of the atmosphere that surrounds our fair planet.  Humidity, daylight, temperature, cloud coverage, pollution levels, wind speed, moon phase, and a host of other qualities are all aspects of weather.  As writers, we’ve got a lot of room to play here.

Books often start with a mention of the weather (the pollution in Sanderson’s Mistborn; the sunlight and temperature in Orwell’s 1984; the humidity in Plath’s The Bell Jar).  (I’m not saying to do this; weather as an opener can get you an autoreject from agents, editors, and readers alike.  That said, some writers do it very well.)  Weather immediately tells us something about the world these characters live in and the kind of story this might be.  Weather has long been known to play a role symbolically and foreshadowingly.  (Yes, that’s a word, sh.)  This affects the context of your story.  So if a story starts with a dark and stormy night, expectations are already being set in place.  Likewise, mentions of pollution, strong winds, extreme heat, etc, can all be used to symbolize larger and/or parallel problems within the story.

It doesn’t just have to be opening lines, though.  Weather can, and ought to, be sprinkled throughout an entire story, because our atmosphere is ever present.  Even its absence can be telling, or its artificial masking.  Who doesn’t recognize the antiseptic smell of a hospital hall, the strangely perfumed stink of a public restroom?  Use weather in your stories to help readers understand where they are and what’s going on, and to foreshadow where things might be going.

Similarly, weather can be notched up another power rung and take on the role of abstract antagonist, either as a secondary antagonist along with some other opponent, or directly, as is common in man v. nature stories.  In books such as The Perfect Storm, 81 Days below Zero, and Endurance, each story pits its characters against merciless weather.  As humans with thoughts and emotions and motives, we often anthropomorphize these features onto entities that don’t.  When faced with the raw power of nature, it can be terrifying to realize that we are mere specks on the face of this earth, and the tornado picking up our car or the storm flooding the baby’s nursery or the cold slowly stealing the movement from our limbs doesn’t give a used fig about us.  There’s no bargaining, no begging, no convincing.  It simply is.

Weather can be akin to a character, so large and powerful that it shapes lives and landscapes.  But consider also the many small ways in which weather affects our daily lives, even in temperate climates.  It affects our health, our mood, and what sounds good to eat.  Sure, we can become hypothermic in a spring rain or suffocate for want of oxygen in a closed room, but mostly we just want an ice cream when it’s hot, or steal an older sibling’s sweater when the house is cold, or become embarrassed when the wind messes up our hair on the way to the party, or when a storm kicks up and we’re the only dork who forgot an umbrella.  Weather can be huge and scary, but it can also be small and annoying, perfect and inspiring, cozy and comforting.  No matter where you are, weather is there, and it’s shaping your day.

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Hmmm… Yep, it’s still dark.

Which brings me back to my original impetus for this post.  I live in a nicely warmed box all winter, and day to day life is usually pretty tame.  I have to bundle up to go outside, but mostly I stay in and bake and do laundry and other adult things.  But I long for the kiss of dawn, for sun I can feel like baby’s breath warm on my skin.  I daydream about putting in more windows.  I scroll through pictures of blindingly green-and-gold summer.  And in the middle of a cloudless day, those scant hours when the sun hangs low in the sky, I pause at the windows to stare through the skeletal boughs of aspen toward that southern horizon, forgetting my chores for just a little while.  I ache for sunlight, and more than metaphorically.  I have to take vitamin D tablets so that my bones and muscles don’t turn to jelly.  I have to spend time in front of my happy light each day or I’m weepy and tired before the kids even get home from school.  And this is just short-term stuff.  A whole slew of physical and mental ailments can creep in over time, courtesy of the endless night.

You have these bits of weather that you live with, too, whether it’s staying parked in front of the AC from May through August, or constantly fighting black mold off your windowsills and out of your carpets, or wearing a mask at work to keep particulates out of your lungs, or never forgetting a rain jacket when you go out, because if you do you will always, always regret it.  Weather is more than what it feels like or what it smells like.  Weather changes our thoughts, changes our actions.  Weather changes the game.

Think about where your story takes place.  What’s the weather like?  How will this affect the character’s wardrobe?  The activities for the day?  How do they live with their weather?  What problems can the weather cause for your character?  What havoc can the heavens rain down on your MC’s plans?  What difficulties can arise in the plot?

Set fog around your fleet of warships.  Let an arctic vortex freeze your plucky heroine in her tracks.  Dawn the day of the funeral bright and glorious.  Hail on weddings.

Weather is magnificent, merciless, and inescapable.  Weather determines what we wear, how we travel, even the foods we eat and the pastimes we engage in.  Making sure that it affects your characters in these ways too will add an immersive new layer of reality to your work.

Happy writing!

Sample Settings: Historical

bents-fortGreetings, earthlings! In this post, we wrap up our month long focus on settings with this final batch of sample settings.  So let’s hop in our time machine and head back to a few historical settings.  I only have three for you this week, but I’ve got a few ideas for future ones on the back burner (including pestering my mom! just like the good ol’ days!).

Historical Settings:

Bent’s Fort Trading Post, La Junta CA, circa 1840

English Camp Formal Garden, San Juan Island WA, circa 1870

Moran Mansion Library and Music Room, Rosario, Orcas Island WA, circa 1910

PS- You may have noticed that I haven’t posted the jail setting yet.  And that is because my notes were, in fact, not in the car.  They’re… somewhere else.  This is the plight of having a zillion spiralbound notebooks.  The hunt continues!

Sample Settings: Urban

patsy-s-original-candiesHey, y’all!  Here is your second week of sample settings!

As mentioned last time, this week’s settings are urban, meaning there are tons of people and buildings about.  (Last week’s settings were rural, whereas next week’s will be historical.  And then on to this month’s stupid comic! Ho!)

Urban Settings:

Amtrack Train Car in Transit, WA USA to BC CAN

Patsy’s Candy Factory, Colorado Springs CO

BP Energy Center western door, Anchorage AK

I also really want to put up my notes on a jail admission lobby in Colorado, buuuuuut… they’re out in the car and it’s late and it’s cold and I don’t want to go outside.  *hunkers down in blanket fort* That just means that you lucky readers will get a super-exciting-special midweek update at some point!  Lucky, lucky you!

In the interest of not spamming my fantastic followers’ inboxes, I’ll just update this post instead of doing a new one.  So be sure to check back Wednesday-ish. Until then, happy writing!

Sample Settings: Rural

Hello, friends! As promised in last week’s post, Setting the Scene, I’ve posted some sample settings of places that I visited this summer and fall.  This week, I’ve put up the rural locations.  Next week, I’ll post urban ones, and the following week will showcase historical settings.  I plan to add more settings as the whimsy takes me, and am glad to add any that you fine readers are willing to send my way. (nudge, nudge)

When recording these places, I typically jotted down just a few background notes to be filled in a little more later, and then really concentrated on using all my senses to get a ‘feel’ for the location.  As I mentioned last week, the physical stimulus is only one aspect of a setting, but it is the one that we humans pick up on most easily.  Having a really solid physical setting will help to set your reader in the location right along with your characters.

And just for definition’s sake, I defined ‘rural’ as a place having more trees than humans.  (Shut up, desert and ocean. You know what I mean.)

 

Rural Settings:

Pond during storm, Elbert CO

Lakeside woods at night, Silver Lake CA

Discovery Bay beach, Port Hadlock, WA

Cranberry patch, Fairbanks AK

Setting the Scene

img_0754Where are you?  Seriously- right now, where are you?  Have you really thought about that?

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my boys’ dark bedroom, typing while they fall asleep (because the little devils won’t do it without supervision).  The room is near blackness except for this bright screen blasting my face.  My hands are brightly illuminated, pale against the black keyboard, and the shiny spines of scores of picture books lining my kids’ wall glint in the blue light.  The boys are quiet by now, probably asleep, and the fish tank is gurgling away- the tinkle of water from the waterfall filter, the whirrr of the air pump, the occasional blip of water as that crazy pleco tries to jump clear of the water like a miniature whale.  (Seriously, why does he do that?)  The room is cool, a little damp from the rain outside, and has that musty, dusty smell of little boys who don’t clean their room unless I’m dangling Minecraft and a candy bar over their heads.

It is a tiny space, maybe eight by twelve feet, but it is the space I exist within.  But setting is more than just a place.  It’s also my era, my culture, my upbringing.  It’s the government of my nation and the sounds my language makes and the endless minutia I take for granted.  Without my setting, with all its many facets, I have no context.  I am adrift.

As a real person, I can’t ever be really without a setting.  I will always have a location, a time, a social environment.  Yet, I often find myself (especially in short stories) writing characters who exist in a great Nothing- they are talking heads, having conversations and moving from Blank A to Blank B, which is to say, not really moving at all.  Seriously, if there’s no starting point and no ending point, it’s really hard to convey movement.

So let’s just be blunt: setting is super mega important.  Even if you try to make a story without one (although I’m not sure why you would), bits and pieces will find their way in, and your readers will either a) be frustrated and confused because they can’t figure out where the heck they are, or b) make something up and then be confused and frustrated with you when they’re wrong.  Humans don’t exist without setting.  Nothing exists without setting.  So make sure your stories don’t either.

When I’m getting set to write a new novel (like, oh, saaaaay… next month?), one of the first things I do after deciding what the story is and who the main cast is, is to work out a setting.  Like most other things in your first draft, it will evolve.  But it’s important to lay some groundwork.

The elements of setting can be roughly divided into four (or more or less, depending on specificity) categories: chronological, psychological, physical, and contextual.  Every single element of a setting falls into one or more of these categories.  Does your scene take place as night is falling?  That’s chronological.  Does it take place on a mountain?  That’s a physical element.  Also, if it’s raining, that’s another physical element, and if it’s been raining for weeks, that passage time is another chronological element.  But if that rain is flooding everything in the valley and hoards of desperate refugees are roaring up the mountainside, then you’ve also got contextual and psychological elements in there as well.

Try to have at least one element from each category in every scene of your book.  This gives your setting depth and vividness; any single element would make a very flat scene.  And while your characters might not know the history of a particular street corner, they would certainly (barring specific disabilities) know what it looks like, smells like, etc.  Never skimp on the sensory details; these more than anything else will ground your readers right there with your characters in these lovely settings you’re writing.

When writing places that already exist, do your research!  Don’t put the gas station on the wrong side of the street or make a winter in Brazil subzero (unless there’s magic at play!).  You’ll get called out on it, ya lazy loser.  Know what the world is like and let it sing its own truth.

Making a new world from scratch for your characters to live in?  Here are a few things that I like to consider:

Where is it?  Does your story take place in a particular neighborhood?  In another country?  On another planet?  In a different universe entirely?

What are the resources and the geography of the place?  What problems might this create for the people living there?  What resources would it naturally supply?  How do these things affect the cultures that grow up in these places?

When is it?  What time of day is the scene?  What season (weather) is the story?  Is this the current day?  A long long time ago?  The distant future?  Or does it exist on a different timescale altogether?

What is the history?  What was this place like a decade ago?  A century ago?  What triumphs and disasters went into shaping the current situation?  What about your character’s personal history?  Do they see the baker’s shop on the corner and think about their first kiss?  Or their first assassination?  Just as history shapes nations, personal history shapes people.

What is the culture?  What are the values of the people who live there (truth, or wealth, or safety, or having the prettiest pomsky possible)?  (Easy conflict comes from any variances in these values between groups and individuals.  Maybe your character doesn’t want to cheat to win the pomsky competition, but his family’s pressuring him.)  Once you know what people there value the most, work out from there to build a culture.  We could spend a whole blog post talking about creating cultures (and maybe we will some day!), but just for now, remember that cultures are organic things that evolve naturally from the values and the resources of a group of people.

Obviously, there is much much more to setting than we’re able to get to in one blog post, but hopefully this is enough to get you started!  As further resources, the next few weeks I’ll post sample settings that I gathered over the summer.  Until then, happy writing!

Reblog: 7 Tips for Using Hands-On Research

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I think I’m losing my touch.  I can’t seem to shock my husband quite like I used to, at least when it comes to internet searches.  I had the above Firefox page up when he walked up behind me.  His eyes flared in brief surprise, and then he said, “Oh.  It’s NaNo.”  It wasn’t even a question.  (And I kind of love how I’m searching all this scary stuff and the ad gods decided, “Yeah, you need to read the Bible, lady.  Like now.”)

I’m a big proponent of research.  Love me some research!  Knowing the right smells and feels and words can make the difference between a believable, immersive world, and a flat, boring one.  And while internet research is amazingly easy these days (as well as being super distracting), nothing beats hands-on, boots-on-the-ground research- and it’s mega-fun too!

That said, here’s this week’s reblog, from Delilah S. Dalton via Writer’s Digest: 7 Tips for Using Hands-On Research to Enrich Your Writing.  Enjoy!

 

7 Tips for Using Hands-On Research to Enrich Your Writing

They say, “Write what you know,” which is why my next book is about killing monsters in 1800s Texas. Not that I’ve ever killed anything bigger than a wolf spider, but I know what it’s like to spend a long, painful day in the saddle. When you’re writing about a new world, your readers will have an easier time making the jump from reality to fantasy if you can use telling details to win their trust. And that means that you should travel to new places and seek experiences and local culture that will enrich your writing. The key? Using all your senses.


1. See the place.

Traveling allows you to soak up the visual backdrop of a new place. If you grew up in the country, it’ll be hard to write a big city since you’ve never looked up at a looming skyscraper. Visiting the place you’re writing about will inform you of what the people wear, what they hang on the walls, what sidewalk vendors sell, what colors the mountains are in the distance. I’m from Georgia, and I’ll never forget what it felt like to see the Alps for the first time, to climb the stairs of the Duomo in Milan, or to take a ferry to Santorini. Mountains are so much bigger than I’d imagined, and the Mediterranean is such a specific crystal blue. The mental photographs you’ll take while traveling will make your descriptions richer and more specific.

2. Taste the food.

Even if you’re not writing Game of Thrones-style banquet orgies, place-specific food still plays a big part in any story…

Ready to read some more? Pop over to Writer’s Digest for the full article!  Happy writing!

Immersive Writing

SensesMy current project is a rewrite of the second book of my epic-fantasy YA. I had high hopes for this one… and then got back my beta notes. Haha, suffice it to say that they were exactly the punch in the nose that I needed. This story was nowhere near ready. (And thanks again to my awesome beta readers for keeping me from embarrassing myself in public!)

One of the biggest complaints I got was that I had too many layers of psychic distance between the POV and the reader. (To read more about psychic distance, among other things, see my post Getting Your Ducks in a Row!) And those complaints were spot on. There was far too much “she felt” and “she heard” and “she thought” going on, and far too little feeling and hearing and experiencing.

As I set about righting this terrible wrong, I figured I could simply clip out the offending sentence intro. Unfortunately, my problems were deeper than that. Even after I axed every “she felt like” I could find, I still wasn’t getting deep enough into the characters’ heads.

So what was I missing?

As I dug further into the problem, it became clear that, although my characters were thinking and feeling and talking and doing, they weren’t sensing, at least not in a way the reader could pick up on. They were moving through the world, but not really in it. Rather, the imagery in the story came in large chunks plopped in at the opening of a scene or a lull in the conversation, like I’d paused the story to read from an encyclopedia about the geographic formations they were hiking through. And by and large, they were sights with the occasional sound- very few scents or feels, and almost never a taste.

After a lot of thought and reading and editing, I’ve come up with these four rules for imagery.

  1. Keep it short. Little snippets, sprinkled throughout the entire scene, are best. (To steal and modify one of my husband’s favorites: [Description] is like manure. Spread it around and it makes the grass grow. Lump it all together and it stinks.)
  2. Keep it active. Avoid freestanding imagery. Instead, incorporate your descriptions into the action. Really want to mention your character’s super-cool Metallica concert tee? Mention it when he’s putting it on. Or when his rival tears it in a fistfight. Use descriptive verbs- screaming, thrashing, cackling, ripping.
  3. Keep it realistic. Would you be thinking about the color of a flower as you’re running from a bear?  No. And neither would your character. Only mention the things she would actually notice in that moment.
  4. Keep it varied. Don’t use the same sense over and over again. We’re sensory creatures, constantly receiving input from our world, whether or not we’re consciously aware of it. So use all the senses. Let your character wake up smelling cinnamon, then walk on bare feet across the cold floorboards toward the clatter of dishes in the kitchen. Let your character see Mom pulling the cinnamon rolls out of the oven, and then finally, taste that first bite of warm, gooey sweetness.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we have more than those five senses. These others (temperature, balance, etc) often get lumped under “feeling”, but shouldn’t be overlooked. Is your character accelerating? He would notice that! Not sure what these other senses are? Behold!

Iconograph shared by infolicious (https://visual.ly/users/infolicious)

Iconograph shared by infolicious (https://visual.ly/users/infolicious)

But maybe not this one…

SpideySense

Anyway! Those are my new sensory rules! Do you have any others that you use? Like I said, I’m still working through a new draft, and I’d be glad of any tips you were willing to share. Let me know in the comments! Thanks, and happy writing!