Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Settings that Pop - by PK Hrezo (guest post)

A ginormous thank you to the Operation Awesome team for having me here today. Just so you know a little about me, I’ve been writing fiction for six years and recently debuted last November, and have a sequel due out next month. I wanted to take this opportunity to share a little about creating believable settings through research, and how to make your scenes POP!

My last two novels have relied heavily on research. Both of them being YA/NA time travel stories, my main characters travel back to actual historical events. It wasn’t like I could fudge the settings there. These events have been filmed, documented, and are widely known across the globe. Accuracy was vital to making these scenes pop.

Whether you use real life settings or create your own, our job as the author is to make the reader believe these places are real. We can do this through sensory techniques.

·       How does it look?
·       How does it sound?
·       How does it smell?
·       What does it feel like?

All are important questions to answer in each new setting. Mind you, overkill in any of these areas will have the opposite effect. So go with the general rule of “less is more.”

Okay, so right about now you’re saying, “Yeah, yeah I know this already.”

But the trick is not remembering to use these senses, it’s in describing them. And how do you describe somewhere you’ve never been?

Most of us have overactive imaginations, which is why we’re writers, but when it comes to writing real places, we need a bit of research as well.

Photo Credit: Fanpop
In my novel, Butterman (Time) Travel, Inc., I had to recreate the original Woodstock from 1969. I’m not old enough to have been there, and I didn’t know anyone who’d been there either, but I wanted to write my scenes like I had been there. I watched the Woodstock film documentary with a notepad and pen in hand, and opened my mind. (no drugs required btw ;))

I jotted down anything and everything that stood out to me. From clothes to hair to nature. Then I got more specific: heaviness of eyes, color of skin, pitch of voice. Any little detail. Mainly, the unique way I perceived and responded to these details, and I jotted all of it down.

I also described what I felt and saw while the artists performed. I experienced it like I was there and tapped into that writerly toolbox of creative expressions to give my descriptions an artistic flair—one only I can give because it’s unique only to me. Same as your perceptions are unique only to you. When I was finished with the film, I had a list of amazing images, similes, metaphors, etc.

Remember, the key is to jot these ideas like no one is watching or will ever read them, and that will help open your mind and creative side to be free, as well as chase off that pesky left-side of your brain that wants order and logic. That comes later, and left-side will get its chance when you’re structuring your novel and editing for grammar.

When it came time to write the actual Woodstock scenes, I had my notes handy and could feather in these unique details in order to bring the scenes to life. In turn, readers really connected with this part of the book. They experienced it too, and what a great feeling it is to know they felt what I felt. I still get more compliments on the Woodstock scenes than anything else.

Photo Credit: Titanic Recounts
In the sequel, Induction Day, I did the same with the Titanic scenes. For days I watched nothing but documentaries on Titanic, and of course, the actual James Cameron movie. I had my notepad handy and I noted everything I could that stood out to me, down to the embellishment on a hat, or jewel on a brooch, or brass gadgets on the ship’s bridge.

What brings a setting to life is not the general description, it’s the tiny details sprinkled throughout the scenes that stirs an image. Spoonfeeding the reader a laundry list of how something looks is just plain boring to read, and it separates the amateur novelist from the experienced one. If we bog down our scenes with too many details it becomes laborious reading, but just the right amount here and there is an artistic technique that conjures an image easily in the reader’s head, and they begin to notice things as if they ARE the main character.

Likewise, when an author has taken their setting for granted in the story it always shows. It feels generic and stiff. But when they take the time to flesh out a small detail now and then, using the “less is more mentality,” it makes all the difference.

You may not be writing about historical events or places, but every writer needs to experience their setting in a unique way that will allow them to bring it to life on the page. I’ve written fantasy worlds as well, so I know there are some imaginative places we just can’t see or get to, but we can experience them by closing our eyes and letting the world unfold before our mind’s eye, then jotting details down on paper in that artistic, writerly way that makes us an author. Or, spend the day watching fantasy films with a notebook and jot down little worldbuilding details that perk your senses. These can be tweaked later to your own style so they’re unique to your story.

I hope you’ve  found some of this helpful. I’d love to know your own tricks and tips for making settings pop. Please share in the comments, and thanks so much for stopping by! Thanks again to Operation Awesome for having me here today. It’s been a pleasure!

I’d love for you to join my email list for more tricks of the trade, special announcements, giveaways and sneak peeks.  http://eepurl.com/O0s5b

PK Hrezo is the author of the sassy sci-fi romance series, Butterman Travel, Inc. as well as a self-proclaimed chocoholic, guacoholic, and rockoholic. You can find her and her books on her website at http://down-the-rabbithole.com


JeffO said...

I've talked about how what I call 'stupid little truths' are a key in fiction and I think a lot of those 'stupid little details' are exactly what make setting pop. Congratulations and best of luck with your books!

PK HREZO said...

Exactly Jeff. We don't need to know everything about how a room looks--but give us some of those unique little details and we'll fill in the rest with our imaginations.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. And need to put this on a sticky:

What brings a setting to life is not the general description, it’s the tiny details sprinkled throughout the scenes that stirs an image.

I know to do this, but then get caught up and tangled in trying to describe all. the. things. which then overwhelms me and I think I can't write description.

PK HREZO said...

I've found that while writing the first draft it's easier not to worry about those so much anyway, but then going back for that first round of rewrites/edits, I really spend more time finding the perfect details to bring to the readers' attention. And really, it's more about the little details we ourselves notice when we're somewhere new. I mean, we don't walk into a room and notice every bit of furniture and lighting and paint color all at once. It's a gradual soaking in. :)

Jeri Baird said...

Setting is always a struggle for me. Thanks for the tips! I love the idea of watching a movie and jotting down the things I notice and the feelings I experience.

Looking forward to INDUCTION DAY!

PK HREZO said...

Thanks Jeri! I think settings are something that get easier with each new story. I pick up a lot of what not to dos by beta reading for unpubbed authors. ;)

Carrie-Anne said...

I was very turned off by some comment in a Goodreads review of a recent historical set in Germany. The reviewer claimed it was "obvious" the writer had never visited either Germany or that particular city, and gave all these show-off details about the city that were missing from the book. She claimed writers have no business writing about places they've never visited. Most writers don't have the time or money to travel to each and every single place they write about, either foreign or in their own nation. The next-best thing is careful research.

I love when the setting becomes like another character. One of the reasons I love writing about the Manhattan of days gone by is because it often feels like another character, so much is the city an integral part of the story and its setting.

PK HREZO said...

I love that too Carrie-Anne! Settings can totally be another character. Like Hogwarts, for ex, It's a big part of what made HP so beguiling.

That comment from GR is ignorant. Nothing would get written if writers had to go every place they wrote about. We can research. But maybe the way the author set up their scenes didn't work, and the reviewer didn't understand why it wasn't working, only that it wasn't believable. Or it could be they just wanted to brag about how much they knew. You just never know with GR. :)