Friday, February 9, 2018

Discovering My Setting

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

Today, as we continue our Grow An Author series, I'm moving from characters, which has been my focus for the past three weeks, to the setting of my story. Like characters, I depend heavily on discovery writing to determine the look and feel of the stage my story will play out on.

If you're playing catch-up and want to read more about how and why I consider myself a discovery writer, check out these links:

Discovery writing, as we've established, is the process of sitting down to write with little or no plan for your manuscript.

Sometimes when a story idea presents itself to me, it will come with a handful of ready-made set pieces. I just finished a manuscript about an ice road trucker and when that idea came to me, it arrived in my head as this Frozen-meets-Mad-Max-Fury-Road epic fantasy. I knew, from the outset, that I'd need a big rig capable of trucking ice roads. Everything else about the setting grew from this one idea.

While I spent a considerable amount of time developing my setting through discovery writing, I knew that everything I created had to support the idea of this massive set piece and its driver. The entire story came about because I wondered, "What would it be like to be a female ice road trucker and what if the ice road itself was magic?"

The book I'm working on now is different. The idea came to me as a character and a problem. The solving of that problem becomes my hero's goal, but I'm still left with a world of possibilities when it comes to place and time. Where and when is this hero's journey going to play out?

One of the things that must be decided early on is whether or not you're going to set your story in a place that exists or has existed at some point. If so, you're going to need to do some research into the location and the era. If you're creating your own setting, you have a little more freedom to discover details along the way.
In my case, because my story idea requires royalty and kingdoms and people groups at war with one another, I decided to start by modeling the world my hero lives in after Europe in the middle ages. 

I've never written a medieval-inspired fantasy, so before I sat down to write, I googled pictures of medieval villages and taverns, castles and cathedrals. I found concept art that appealed to me and I saved the links so I could pull them up again when necessary. I dug out some of my favorite YA fantasies and I purchased a few new ones. I immersed myself in comparable settings for a couple weeks so that when I sat down to discover my own world, I'd have no shortage of words and images in my head. 

It's important that the fantasy world I create is mine and mine alone, so my goal is not to steal other ideas, but to glean inspiration from them. Books, movies, artwork, theater, music--anything that feeds your creative soul is good for this. Take ideas, concepts, questions, and images from outside yourself and thoughtfully change them: update, switch, darken, enlarge, age, embellish, combine, or destroy and rebuild. The goal is to make them your own.

When at last I sit down to write, I don't discovery write my setting separately from my hero and the cast of characters who surround her. As mentioned in previous posts, I select a possible opening scene and I continue forward. Moving from one scene to the next, I discover my characters and my setting simultaneously. 

This is vital to my process because I believe wholeheartedly that readers experience storyworlds through characters. If you can move your cast to a different storyworld and nothing changes, you've missed a crucial element. By discovering these big foundational pieces of my story simultaneously, the world and the characters become inseparable from one another. The writing will not be perfect, but that's not the point. I'm writing to understand my characters and the world they inhabit. I'm writing to understand how they work together.

In these early scenes, here's what I'm hoping to discover about my setting:
What genre am I writing? Just like with character choice, the genre I'm writing will come with certain expectations. An urban fantasy will likely require a human location, a location where paranormal characters exist separately, and a way to move between worlds/realms. A cozy mystery might indicate a small town or village with a quiet exterior and some drama brewing beneath the surface.

Since I'm writing a medieval fantasy, readers will expect horses and carts, they'll expect taverns and castles and soldiers. They might expect magic and dragons and journeys through dark forests. They'll expect kings and a court. And while I am under no obligation to include any of those things, the genre itself is a great place to start when deciding what a setting might look like. 

What are the locations that are most crucial to the story? If 90% of my story happens in a city, I need to devote most of my story building time to developing the city. I don't need to understand or waste time exploring the countryside. One of the tragedies of world building is that we often mistake rabbit trails for writing. We do not need to know everything about every corner of a story world. We need to spend our creative energy on the locations that will be featured heavily in the story.

What does my hero's home say about her? Does she have a dependable place to lay her head down at night? Is food easy to come by? Is she wealthy, well-loved, poor, despised? Does she take pride in her surroundings? Is she connected to them?

Do you see how it is impossible to separate story from character? One informs the other.

What does this world look like year-round? In my ice road trucker fantasy, the world has two seasons and both of them are winter. The differences between one winter and the other are subtle and the freezing cold touches everything. In the medieval fantasy I'm working on, the seasons will be more traditional with winter, summer, spring and fall playing a role in both peace and wartime, in harvest and the general wellness of the people. 

How are technology, religion, and magic viewed in the world you're building? If you're writing contemporary fiction, this may or may not matter, but as I like the weird stuff, this is always something I have to consider as I construct my people groups and the culture they make up. Does science play a role in your story? What about religion? Are the peoples in your world monotheistic or polytheistic? Is magic something you plan to include? What does your magic system look like? It should have rules and while you don't need to flesh all of these things out right away, these early sessions give you an idea of what your storyworld could look like.

In each of the categories listed above, we have the opportunity to make the setting of a book truly ours. By pinning down unique details specific to our storyworlds, we can set our books apart from other comparable titles. 

I'd be lying if I said I ONLY discovery write my storyworld. That's not true at all. But it's where I start. It's where the ideas come from. After a few discovery writing sessions, I go back through these early scenes and I allow myself to pick the world apart and edit a bit. I take the ideas that I dumped onto the page and I stew on them, consider whether or not they should stay or go. I adjust, adjust, adjust until I feel like I have the beginnings of a world for my characters to move around in. When I'm satisfied, I jump back into discovery writing and go again. It's a process, but it allows me to be creative and it works for me.

Today, I've given you five things I look for as I'm discovery writing my early chapters, but there are so many more. 

What do you consider a priority when it comes to setting, location, and story worlds in general?


  1. Wow, so interesting! I love seeing the differences between how you and Jill build your worlds.

    I've noticed a similar thing with historical fiction. My idea for The Lost Girl of Astor Street was "Veronica Mars meets Downton Abbey" so I could have set it loads of different places and eras. But Within These Lines was much more specific since my idea was an Italian American girl who was in love with a Japanese American boy when the JAs were taken away to concentration camps.

    It's always been so interesting to me how different stories require a different crafting process.

    1. Totally agree. So much is determined or heavily influenced by the idea itself.

  2. This is really interesting--I've been working on discovering my storyworld for this series that I've been working on for years, actually. The hardest part is that I have all these things that I've worked into the world that genuinely matter to the story--but then I forget to work them in. (Whoops.)

    1. I say just keep going! If they reallu matter, you can work them into subsequent drafts.

  3. Storyworlds are hard, especially if you've got several different continents in which each land is different with land characteristics (One is wild and lawless/mountainous and heavily forested), human characteristics (blonde hair/blue eyes being the prominent physical feature), and culture (think Nordic clothing, mannerisms, ships, etc.). It's fun to have that ability to have various fantasy cultures in my story, but it's all the harder for having to come up with not only the plot/subplots but entire civilizations that I have to be consistent with.

    1. It IS hard! I don't create my world first for that very reason. I focus on plot and let the world grow organically from there.