Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

July, and…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 04•23

The year is half over.

People are shooting off fireworks on this Fourth eve. Such resonant booms on a full moon night. And quicker, higher explosions some distance away. More gunshotty types closer. It’s the Buck Moon, and it’s still  not risen above the firs. It’s also a super moon because of its proximity to earth.

Fireworks, even when they wake us {make that me} at 1 a.m., are so miraculous, arent they? Sometimes I try to squint to the long past at the those first Chineses inventors, the early fireworks manufacturers.  Well, actually according to this great Smithsonian article on the history of fireworks, they came about accidently with overheated bamboo sticks in a fire. Thus an explosion. And who knew that Henry VII had them at his wedding in 1486?

But back to July fourth. Such brilliance was afoot back then in the Colonies, wasn’t there? And a brilliant madness.  Lots of sacrifice, but oh, the optimism. Oh, the beautiful, truly historic dream.

My fellow writers and world citizens out there; it’s been a tumultious few years we’ve just wobbled or limped through. Some of us still don’t feel as balanced as we did five or ten years ago. But alot of us are finding our footing, looking ahead, digging in.

The way I see it, no matter where you live, the planet and future generations need us.

Which brings us back to writing. Because doesn’t digging in mean writing?  Writer friends, how does the writing go?

Because if ever there was a time for telling stories, it is NOW.

And let’s all gaze up at the sky and search for the miraculous, shall we?

Are your fiction characters frustrated?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 24•23


~ Nancy Kress

If you want to watch a film {make that rom-com} where frustration is woven into the storyline again and again, you can’t go wrong with When Harry Met Sally. 



Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 02•23

The child raised on folklore…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 08•23

Fairytales are more than moral lessons and time capsules for cultural commentary, they are natural law.  The child raised on folklore will quickly learn the rules of  crossroads and lakes, mirrors and mushroom rings. They’ll never eat or drink of a strange harvest or insult an old woman or fritter away their name as if there was no power in it. They’ll never underestimate the youngest son or touch anyone’s hairbrush or rosebush or bed without asking, and their steps through the woods will be light and unpresumptious. Little ones who seek out fairytales are taught to be shrewd and courteous citizens of the seen world, just in case the unseen world bleeds over. ST Gibson

From F. Scott Fitzgerald

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 05•23


Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 01•23


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 03•23

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 11•23

Setting Details Catagorize

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 08•23

I’ve been sitting  in my armchair with my laptop and a cup of Earl Grey watching the sunrise decorate the horizon through Douglas firs. I know the colors I’m looking at have a scientific basis–when  the sun is low at sunrise and sunset, sunlight needs to travel farther through more of the atmoshphere than during the day, especially midday. This means that sunlight is refracted and reflected and blue and green are typically filtered out because they have short wavelengths. It’s called scattering and at sunrise, molecules disperse more blue light. This means yellow, red, and orange–longer wavelengths–can paint the sky because they’re not filtered out. Here’s an explanation for this phenomenon.

Mostly, though,  I’m pondering how to describe various hues. What to call the delicate pink-apricot-violet palette that’s so fleeting and lovely?

In my previous post I mentioned that setting details categorize fiction. For example, setting in horror will play a huge role because horror needs to terrify the reader. It needs to permeate to create tension, mood, and atmosphere. Along with other story ingredients, it’s used to ratchet up dread in the reader. Setting can foreshadow dangers ahead. That’s why the genre is replete with lonely manors and castles, gloomy alleys and shadowy, creepy forests, crumbling old houses, cemeteries, abandoned amusement parks, mental instituions, swamps, basements, and the vastness of space.

Setting can be as sinister and dangerous as the dystopian, post-pandemic world including the clickers in The Last of Us. {I nominate for one of the most iconic, unstoppable, and dangerous monsters that have come down the proverbial pike in a long time.} I cannot exaggerate the threat that pervades the series. And I’m fascinated that the story is based on a popular video game. I’ve been telling writers how the media landscape is changing, and this adaptation is a good example of this.

And let’s not forget moonless nights, blizzards ala Stephen King’s Misery,  thunderstorms, and natural disasters. Cause and effect is at play because roads wash out, forests can be a maze of confusing trails and deadends, and spooky caves {aren’t they all?} can seemito go on forever.

Often setting is the main obstacle in a story. Dystopian fiction uses this a lot along with horror. It’s likely the calvary will not be coming.

Another reason setting plays such an oversized role in horror is that it’s often necessary to isolate or even imprison the protagonist as the crisis reaches a feverish pitch. Because help is not on the way. Instead, feed your readers dark encounters, gasp-out-loud twists, seemingly hopeless odds.

For more on this topic, I’ve written about Dean Koontz’s use of setting to create a spooky, doomed atmosphere in his Jane Hawke series here

I’m going to switch genres now although horror is so useful for illustrating my points. My dad is 92 and lives in a remote region of northern Wisconsin. And he’s an avid reader. I’m one of his suppliers. Books, that is. In this role I’m always looking for suspense series that are similar to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, along with biographies and fascinating nonfiction.

The next book I’m sending him is Storm Watch by CJ Box. This series features Joe Pickett, a game warden living and operating in the wilds of Wyoming. Notice how his opening paragraphs firmly introduce his job, but also foreshadows a sh**show coming on

Here are the opening paragraphs, showing how setting categorizes.

Late March in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains wasn’t yet spring by any means, but there were a growing number of days when spring could be dreamt of.  

            For Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett this was one of those days. This was a day that would both start and end with blood on the snow.

            At midday, he climbed out of the cab of his replacement  green Ford F-150 pickup and pulled on coveralls and a winter parka over his red uniform shirt and wool Filson vest. He’d had the foresight to layer up that morning  before leaving his house, and he was also wearing merino wool long johns and thick wool socks. He pulled knee-high nylon gators over his Sorel pack boots, then placed his hat crowndown on the dashboard and replaced it with a thick wool rancher’s cap with the earflaps down.

            On the open tailgate of his vehicle, he filled a light daypack with gear: water, snowshoes, camera, necropsy kit, extra ammo, ticket book, binoculars, sat phone. While he did so, he shot a glance at the storm cloud shrouding the mountains and muting  the sun. A significant ‘weather event had been predicted by the National Weather Service for southern Montana and northern Wyoming. Joe didn’t question it.  it felt like snow was coming , maybe a lot of it,  and he needed to find an injured elk cow and put her out of her misery before the storm roared down  from those mountains and engulfed him.

Blood on the snow. Twice.

Layers of winter outerwear

Necropsy kit

Storm cloud shrouding the mountains.

Throw another log on the fire. Those details creep into your veins don’t they? Here’s a preview of the storyline.

By the way, though as a writer I like to write about inky night skies, in reality, night skies are dark blue. The sky is always blue. Thanks for stopping by.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Building Storyland, 2

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 01•23

Place matters. With your opening words the setting signals readers that they’ve now entered storyland. Signals readers that a story— part wonder, part participation located in an ordinary or treasured or troubled realm⎼⎼is unfolding. It means readers will have a place to  land and settle in.

And setting helps categorize fiction–urbanfantasy, westerns,  Lovecraftian, dark fantasy, high fantasy, magical realism, gothic, horror, police procedural, cozy–the list is long.

Broadly defined, setting is the location of the plot and includes geography, region, townships and cities, neighborhood, buildings, and interiors. Setting also refers to the passage of time, tone and the atmosphere of the story. Place is often layered into every scene and flashback and includes climate, weather, lighting, season, month, day, and hour. Setting and its various moods permeates scenes–because not only the actions and characters’ emotions color fiction.

Your storyworld is not a mere backdrop for action; it can create physical obstacles and saturate fiction with tension, mood, and thematic connotations. And can scare the bejusus out of your readers.

When readers experience the setting via the viewpoint character they feel part of the story. Because readers need to connect to the place–or loathe it–along with your characters.

Writers have endless choices when it comes to creating a story world.

  • Real place or imagined place.
  • The present, past, future, or a combination.
  • City, small town, suburbia, rural areas, forests, deserts, jungles, mountain ranges, grizzly country, seaside village, space or distant planets, or parallel worlds.
  • Normal circumstances or highly abnormal circumstances. War, coup, peace, plenty, famine, drought, heat wave, a dystopian nightmare.
  • One main setting, multiple settings, road trip, quest. The ‘real’ world merged with a magical world.

11-year-old Ann Evans of Aberdare, south Wales, the world hula hoop marathon champion

Tip: Choose a setting that fascinates you or has personal connections.

If you’re going to set a novel in a real place, in a real time, your readers deserve ironclad accuracy. If the key scenes in your memoir take place in 1960, acquaint yourself with the main events of that year–the first televised presidential debated, the election of John F. Kennedy for example. Or Elvis leaving the army and the birth control pill was approved. Know the fashions, fads, culture. Did your family embrace TV dinners, salads,  hula hoops, and beehive hairstyles? Watch the Ed Sullivan Show?  Did your home have TV trays?

Will Scottish history be referenced as it in is Diana Gabaldon’s time traveling Outlander series? If your historical takes place in a drafty Scottish castle in the 1700s you’ll research Scotland’s turbulent history, including Cromwell’s invasion in 1650, the clans associated with the region, and how the fortifications worked. Learn about the Jacobite uprising, James the Pretender, births and deaths of royals, along with major battles. If your story takes place after 1746 and the Dress Act, readers will learn that after their defeat Culloden, Scots were reined in to avoid future uprisings and no longer allowed to wear Highland tartans. The law was repealed in 1782, but if your story takes place during the previous 35 years, animosities might still be running hot.  Historical fiction is but one genre where the conflict is rooted in the setting.

Your research will reveal what the laird and lady ate, what was involved in provisioning the household, and how the seasons affected the household. Stir in alliances, kinships, and trading partners. Add knights, bowmen, stewards, What about cooks, blacksmiths, carpenters, midwives, laundress, candle makers, and weavers?  Were the children educated? And what about fortifications?  How were goods delivered? Are there kitchen gardens, a distillery, a nearby woods for hunting? What about cattle? Tenant farmers, peasants, and crofters?

Not all your research will end up on the page, but that’s okay. Get it right.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart