Incorporating Setting – For the Visually Impaired

When I was a teen, at some point my mom turned the kitchen table ninety degrees. When I told her it looked great, she gave me a funny look and said, “I did that a week ago, honey.”

Hi, my name’s Mary and I’m visually impaired (though my eyesight with contacts is 20/20). But how can this be? Mary, you say, writers are supposed to observe everything.

Truth is, I’ve found a trick to help me catch up with everybody. And it came in immensely useful with my manuscript my agent is currently submitting to editors. It’s called… well. I don’t have a fancy name. But it’s a great system. I simply create a document with all things “setting” and I break it down into categories.

My manuscript on submission is set during the French Revolution, for instance, so for that one I created several fun categories. “Insults,” “fashion,” “indoor” and “outdoor setting.” There’s a nice little section on weaponry. And because my main character likes literature and philosophy, I have a fun part with quotes from her favorite French philosophers from the 18th century.

See, I’d heard of people making character profiles and plotting. But setting? I hadn’t heard of tricks for helping writers create setting. When I studied the time period, every time I came up with a great little tidbit, I’d add it to my document. That’s how watching shows like AMC’s Turn or the CW’s Reign or video games like Assassin’s Creed Unity gets to be research. How bringing a little notebook on family vacations changes everything.

Luckily, with my experience editing THE DOLLHOUSE ASYLUM, my editor taught me how to look for the perfect moments to incorporate these newly gleaned settings. When someone’s doing something useless—like nodding or shrugging. When dialogue goes on and on and the reader needs a visual queue. When we’re just entering a scene and need to be grounded before we go on reading. Author David Farland talks about how setting should be incorporated (at least!) on every page, usually much more than that. It takes practice, but it doesn’t take long before one can spot the places where setting falls naturally. It’s where show-don’t-tell fits in; it immerses the reader in the fictional world. And it’s not only fun but necessary.

Jordan Brown, an editor at Harper Collins, once said at an SCBWI conference, “Great novels are authentic. What makes them authentic? Specificity.” And then he supplied us with examples that were bursting with details that popped from the page.

This bit of advice really hit home for me. Sure, I could tell you I had a bad time brushing my teeth this morning, but if I talk about how the lettuce I removed caused my gums to bleed, and then how my molars clattered to the porcelain bowl—you’re automatically more intrigued. Details. Readers want details, and it’s our job as writers to provide them with specificity.

Admittedly, I don’t do a lot of this while drafting. My rough drafts are mere mechanics—who says what, what happens, how we get from point A to point B. But then? I go back and add these details and that’s when the magic happens.

I’m holding out for that moment with my current WIP. Pray for me.

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Family Vacay to Research Trip

Writers are hungry for moments to work alone–when the house is silent and free of gymnastics thumping/whining/laughter. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve learned that it’s possible to make progress on my manuscripts with the children underfoot. (This is truly remarkable for me as I’m so sensitive to sound!) While I may not crank out chapter after chapter, I’m always thinking, planning, and this spring break I believed I could do more. I figured out a mini trip for a much needed family vacation while conducting research. And while this isn’t a Mom Blog, I have a few mom (and dad!) friends who might benefit from an idea or two for balancing child fun/learning with your own artistic endeavors.

Purchase travel journals–not just for yourself, but for your kiddos, also. I bought mine first and it wasn’t until we were on the road that I remembered buying travel journals for my children a few years ago. They were a little young at the time, but they enjoyed jotting down details about rock formations and Four Corners. My eight year old did especially well this time around. She captured each highlight of our trip with bulleted points and an adjoining picture. When my kids were bored, I suggested they pull out their travel journals. When they saw me writing in mine, they weren’t nagging me for paper. And they learned so much more when writing down details about the hike or waterfall, boat ride or caverns.

Pay for the audio tour. I hate spending money (really–I hate it!) but I knew my oldest would thrive on a third-party teaching him all about our sight for one day–the Alamo. There were 32 stops, and he listened to each and every one. My daughter and I listened to most of them, but got a little turned around. When we found Davy Crockett’s wallet and portrait, she said, “I saw his vest in the other room.” So she was paying attention. Listened when I pointed out other artifacts. She’s a quiet girl, but fiercely clung to that experience.

Show them by example how to jot down details. I’m not a natural observer. When I hear people say writers are observant, I squirm. I have to focus, really focus, to notice my surroundings. I’m too obsessed with feelings or daydreaming about who-knows-what. So, toting a notebook and pen is my perfect solution. While sightseeing, I could scribble down the simplest details. Types of plants, artifacts, sounds (squawking? that would be my four-year-old!). And now when I need to remember what a place smells or feels like, I simply look at my notes. It also helps me be more present.

Hit up your significant other as a babysitter. I lucked out. My husband had no issue watching the youngest while the older kids and I toured the Alamo, or all three when my sister and I ran off for our ghost tour. This was key, as we needed this experience for our research. We had a blast listening to San Antonio’s darkest horrors, and analyzing our tour guide’s rather storybook-like character. We took pictures, chatted about story options, and jotted down everything we could remember afterwards.

Share stories as you go. Two of my three children are so up-tight, they could pick a fight with a mushroom (which is baffling to me, since my husband I are pretty even keel). At one point, while tromping across Texas terrain on our way to see a waterfall, they were so at each other’s throats, I wondered how I’d ever get them to be peaceable. I prayed to know how to help them, and it wasn’t until the way back that I tried something that I doubted would work: I told them about how their dad and I met. My husband helped me along, and the kids were glued to every word. He told them how his roommates betted him a Martinelli’s that he wouldn’t be able to kiss me on our second date. (Luckily, I rejected him; and passersby said our story was “scandalous!”) We’d pause, and the kids (even the four-year-old!) would beg, “What happened next?” forgetting to fight the entire way back to the car. (See? The Lord supplies us with answers.) We also played an audio book in the car. The four-year-0ld whined at first, but he eventually got over it and he had his electronics, snacks, and journal. This was a great way to keep arguing at bay as there are five of us in a five-seater car.

Download a plant identifier app. Or any learning app that you’re naturally interested in. I love plants, so whenever we had a spare moment and my kids started to whine about anything–their thirst! the tightness of their underwear!–I’d have them take a picture of a plant and we’d learn the species together. This worked especially well for the older two. It also helped my oldest pass off a scout requirement.

That’s all for now. Many of my friends tell me their children are excellent travelers, so they probably already do this or something better. But, coming from a mom who hates road trips or leaving the house, it was an excellent learning experience. Here’s hoping our trips get better and better!

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I Got an Agent and Here’s How

I’ve written a post like this before–I was repped by a lovely agent a few years ago. But, alas, she left agenting to pursue another path. I had the opportunity to work with her colleague, but decided I wanted to finish my next manuscript before approaching agents so I could work with someone who really wanted my work.

It happened. A few days ago.

But, boy, was I slow finishing this manuscript. It’s historical fic set during the French Revolution. Daunting? Oh, yes. The time period is amazing and terrifying and there’s so much to learn. Did you know that executioners were actually gentlemen, often with musical endeavors? Not the creepy robed toothless guys we think about…

So I wrote a story–realized it was the wrong story and started again. Years happened since the release of THE DOLLHOUSE ASYLUM. But I’m a mom and this story took research and I think competition in the writerly world is more competitive than ever before.

I started querying this version last summer. An agent read it and we met at a conference. She pulled me aside and told me what absolutely worked for her and what absolutely didn’t. I listened and applied each and every word.

When I finished editing months later, I queried again. I got compliments here and there, but no one wanted to take the plunge to work with me. It just didn’t *click* for either of us. I participated in #PitMad, got a couple of requests, but it wasn’t until #Pit2Pub that the magic happened. From a few publishers, I got favorites. And then an agent favorited, too. I sent everything off.

It was only a week later that I received an offer of publication from one of those publishers. I sort of thought it was spam–I didn’t believe it at first. But, with a little research knew it was more than legit. I went ahead and notified the remaining agents and publishers. A few bowed out, saying they were happy for me, but didn’t have time to read soon.

I gave everyone a week (which wasn’t long enough). When a week rolled by, I hadn’t heard from two agents and one of the publishers–who asked for a little time. So I extended my deadline. It was only a matter of days that I heard from the agent who favorited my #Pit2Pub tweet–she had a few questions. But it was about other projects. Did she not like my current one? Then she wanted to set up a call to “discuss” and I had absolutely no clue if she liked it or not. I set up the meeting for ASAP, because I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO KNOW and when she called–

–everything *clicked.* More than I thought possible. She told me she loved my story and loved the mix of history, edge, and faith-based message. I thanked her, remembering how I wondered if anyone *would* like it since it’s a different sort of combo.  She assured me it was exactly what she was looking for. She also told me she loved my executioner.


We talked, and it was the first time in my life where I talked to a literary agent (I’ve talked to a few) and KNEW we would be good together.

When she asked if I wanted to work with her,  I said the other agent who had my full hadn’t responded to my emails so, “Let’s do this!” She giggled and said, “Let’s do this,” too.

So, I’ve fasted and prayed and gone to the temple; and fasted and prayed and gone to the temple. And worked, worked, worked. Served, served, served. Research, research, research. I was really tempted to throw in the towel the week before, feeling like everything  was bogging me down. Yet nothing was actually  amiss, I just *felt* like giving up. Do you know that cartoon where the guy’s mining a tunnel and just before the end, gives up?

minecraft logic

I felt like that. But I didn’t stop, didn’t give up, and I remember telling my husband at that time that I felt like the adversary was really going after me because I was close. I am thankful for the scriptures and my Heavenly Father, because he helped me see what was going on. And I am thankful that I’ve found the most AMAZING agent who is this perfect combination of professionalism, fun, and sweetness. I told my sister, “She’s a great listener, and not afraid to interrupt!” That’s what I want–someone to listen and take me to the next level. We’ll do great things together! I know it. We’ll be subbing to publishers soon.

Her name? Vanessa K. Eccles of Golden Wheat Literary. She is my favorite.

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