Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Location, location, location!

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 17•16

locationAs a follow-up to the workshop I taught last weekend at the Willamette Writers Conference, here are tips and hacks for creating a fictional world that resonates and causes things to happen:

  • The spirit and traditions of a place are not just inert background or the canvas to showcase emotions; it is part of the humans at the center of the story.
  • Plan for a setting that multi-tasks: shapes the characters, causes things to happen, creates tension, forms a cauldron, etc.
  • Choose settings that naturally lend themselves to sensory details. “it smelled like jail…sore knees and loose assholes.” ― David Benioff, City of Thieves
  • Setting can be a catalyst for events and character growth as in Gone with the Wind.
  • Setting can be a metaphor for themes or concepts.
  • Use settings that mold characters.Atticus Finch and Tom Robbins
  • Put setting in motion.
  • Weave in imagery.
  • Write from deep point of view. Filtering a scene through a character’s emotions and perceptions can profoundly influence what the reader “sees.”
  • Scene by scene, ask what the viewpoint character sees, hears, tastes, smells, and touches in that particular scene.
  • Setting should help create the inescapable cauldron of fiction. Small town? Large family? Neighborhood? Mountain village?
  • Use archetypes since they’re part of readers’ conditioning & unconscious.
  • The key to using place to support the story structure is setting should force decisions.
  • Your choice of location can never be random. Write stories set in places that the protagonist finds meaningful and/or challenging. This can mean that your protagonist finds it difficult to return home, feels at odds with the place he grew up in, has outgrown the values of the place,  is a fish out of water.
  • Create a story world (and main conflict) that will showcase Indiana Jones and artifactyour protagonist’s main personality traits. For example, swashbuckling, bold, brazen, and adventurous Indiana Jones is perfect for searching out ancient ruins and treasures.
  • First impressions can be powerful. Use them via a character’s viewpoint and use them to also characterize.
  • Setting helps create the ‘rules’ of the world. An underclass citizenry is ruled by and serves the Capital, toiling in poverty and hardship.Animals talk to humans, are warriors, leaders, and sages.The German Army has seized Leningrad, the Russians are resisting, so they are under siege.And hungry.
  • Environments should create suspense…and surprises.velociraptor
  • Create a world of unease, asking yourself how you can make your protagonist uncomfortable, anxious, off balance by using setting.
  • Don’t dump/lump in details all at once—build throughout, tweaking the tension as you go along.
  • Draw contrasts.
  • Work hard at spatial arrangements
  • Use weather to heighten difficulties.
  • Look for the perfect details that are arresting, quirky, telling.
  • Try to use details that can change over the course of the story such as a garden that hibernates, blossoms, then fades. A family estate that deteriorates or prospers over time.
  • Use photos, lots of photos, for reference and inspiration. The internet is your friend: Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, SnapShot, Google Images
  • Jot down concrete nouns and associations.
  • Create maps and sketch action scenes.
  • Create mind maps about the place.
  • Don’t explain the obvious or the normal. Contemporary readers are sophisticated and don’t need every nook and cranny explored unless the writer has a specific purpose in mind.
  • Use both wide-angle lens and close-ups just as with a camera.


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