Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Setting: That's how I roll, yo.

I'm in the process of outlining the next story in the queue, and while I was working on one particular step, I thought it might be fun to blog about it. Those of you who write might find it helpful, and plenty of you will probably see it as another aspect of my writing that reveals me as a stark raving lunatic.

Anywho, I think it goes without saying that setting is an important part of a story. Obviously some more than others, but setting isn't something to be overlooked.

Now, most of my books qualify as contemporary, and for some of them, the home of one or more characters becomes a frequent setting. (No, not just in the bedroom) When I wrote The Distance Between Us in 2009, I realized early on that most of the story would occur in the house. So, I wanted to make sure I had a good, solid visual of the house, especially to avoid continuity errors (putting a bedroom at the end of the hall, then making it the first door on the left; saying the living room was carpeted, then referring to the hardwood floors, etc). I already "cast" most of my characters -- that is, find a photo that gives me a face to go with the name -- so, I thought to myself, why not "cast" the house?

I went to a real estate website and started doing searches in the general area where the story was set. After all, you're not going to have a 4-story colonial on a sprawling plantation in the middle of downtown Seattle, right? After a few searches, one house jumped out at me. It was perfect. So, I saved the pictures to a folder for easy reference.

The more I looked at the house, though, the more it "became" their house. One image was of the balcony and its panoramic view of Seattle. Another showed the expansive kitchen. Hardwood floors in the hallway that would probably creak just so underfoot. The home gym upstairs. Just by looking at the house and its various characteristics, I started seeing possible scenes, even bits and pieces of my characters' personalities. The home gym scene, all of the scenes out on the balcony, even the scene with Ethan and Sabrina playing basketball in the driveway, were a direct result of the photos of the house I "bought" for Ethan and Rhett.

The thing is, a home has personality. As an example, here are two different bedrooms (these are from my parents' house, which they recently sold):
Take a character and put her in one of those rooms. What kind of taste does she have when it comes to decorating? Does she prefer simplicity or a little ornamentation? Antique or modern? Is this an oasis from the rest of the world, or just a place to sleep and change clothes before taking the world by storm again? When I start putting my characters into a room, it adds another dimension to her. Apply this to an entire house -- including the exterior, the location, everything -- and I defy you not to learn something about your character in the process.

It's a fun exercise, if nothing else, and it could prove helpful, so I highly recommend trying it, which is why I've shared it.

A word of caution, though: don't overdo it. Much like it's a common mistake to try to wedge every last fragment of research into historical fiction, there's the potential here to try to describe every nook and cranny, the color of every bedspread, etc. The pictures are to give you, the author, a visual. Your reader will not see it exactly the way you do, no matter how much you describe it, and you don't want your story getting bogged down by unnecessary detail. Describe what's important, let the reader fill in the rest. You'd be surprised just how much you can convey using the "a little bit goes a long way" approach. In fact, I only described a few things about the house in The Distance Between Us, but 6 months after she read it, Libbie was able to -- completely on a whim -- grab a napkin and a pen and accurately sketch out the floor plan of the house, right down to the balcony and the granite counter tops. So, be careful. You only need so much.

Is this another form of madness? My OCD finding another way to work itself into my writing? Maybe. But quite honestly, it's useful, it's fun, and it's added some interesting depth to my stories, so hey...if being this crazy is wrong, I don't want to be right.