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.