Transport Your Settings by Going Away
First - my apologies for not having this posted for April 24th as promised. I spent five of the last six weeks traveling to workshops and exploring "settings" and was remiss. Having said that....
A few years ago I began working on a middle grade fantasy which includes a scene of the protagonist observing his father planning a robbery of the British Museum. Having never been to England I was forced to rely on photos of the museum and floor plans. This was well before the ubiquitous nature of YouTube and Google Earth. Although the scene flowed well and had the appropriate amount of suspense, but something just didn't ring true.
I decided to extend my trip after a European writing retreat and take a look with my own eyes. What a difference that made. The museum isn't set on expansive grounds but is crammed into a crowded urban space off a narrow street. The central reading room is in the middle of what was once a courtyard. The entire interior space is covered by an enormous skylight. The scale can not even be imagined from a photograph and I was panting after I reached the restaurant at the top of the stairs. On the first floor to the left of the courtyard, I found the room I'd been looking for - the Egyptian Exhibit, the Rosetta Stone was not positioned as I had imagined it, and to the right was an unexpected bonus - enormous sculptures from the Abyssinian period just begging to be mentioned in the book. Can't you imagine those statues taking flight? As of this last visit, they may well be doing just that for my character. Another room contained ancient doorways at least three stories tall. And I also discovered that my parent isn't going to be able to break in without high tech tools or superpowers (he has both, by the way).
So what does this have to do with YOU?
You've heard the phrase: Write what you know. Let's add to that. Write what you can see, hear, touch, or otherwise study in depth .
Well, you say -- not everyone can max out credit cards and hide from bill collectors in the pursuit of an experience to enhance and inform their literary works (shh - you don't know where I am if asked :-)) But what you can do is take a mini-vacation from the Butt In Chair Stare At Blank White Page Ritual we all know and love to visit locations nearby....or visit locations far away in virtual mode. Even if you are creating a brand new "world" for your characters, you can use real places to ground your scenes. Philip Pullman uses Oxford college as a backdrop, for instance. Star Trek designs costumes for Vulcans show East Asian influences.
Here's a writing exercise: Write a short story (or novel) set at an exclusive European boarding school. The coed campus attracts some of the richest families in the world, each student speaks multiple languages and, like Harry Potter kids, sit for formal dinners, wear uniforms, and sit for annual exams which are grueling. Tuition is out of reach for most mere mortals.
1. First: write a short paragraph describing the campus setting. Where is the school located? By a lake? By a mountain? Is it secluded or near town? A single connected building (a castle) or a campus. What type of buildings do you see in your minds eye?
2. Next - describe your protagonist and antagonist. What uniforms do they wear? Do they live in dorms or "houses"? Are they in the same economic class? What does a room look like? Are there horses (magical or not)? How does one get to town (bike, train, private driver?)
Got it? How hard was that to do if you've never been to a boarding school campus? Were you relying on Harry Potter, or Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging to get a glimpse of boarding school? Hmmm. There must be a better way:
The best way to do research is to study an actual school. Take a look at Le Rosey which fascinates me as a concept and is probably one of the most exclusive high schools in the world. Set in Switzerland, it costs a jaw-dropping $106,000/year to attend and there are up to an additional $20,000 in incidentals. Students take classes in English and French, are bi and tri-lingual and sit for the IB. The place settings at dinner are emblazoned with the student's names. Students stand when an adult enters the room. Dorms are rumored to have cleaning service. Can't fly there, you say? Then use virtual resources. First start with the website which is full of information to attract parents and students:
Now dig deep and look at their own stated philosophy:
1. Only students who will later proceed to university are admitted.
2. Approximately one in three candidates is accepted.
3. So as to preserve its international character and linguistic mix Le Rosey operates a nationality quota system: no more than 10% of students from one country or group of countries with the same dominant language are admitted.
Does that change how you saw the school? Does the idea that no more than 10% of the students can come from the same country suddenly evoke a different texture to the campus and to the characters in the story? Does it increase the opportunities for tension and conflict?
Still can't picture it - then go to YouTube and take a flyover, then find student videos to get a flavor of their activities and personalities:
Or were you imagining something more like the Harry Potter campus? Let's look at Taft in Connecticut where most of the Gothic classroom buildings are interconnected, there are buttressed ceilings in the dining room, and although the students don't wear uniforms, the stone stairs in the main hall lead up to the boys dorms/houses on upper floors. The fields are big enough for Quidditch.
Sticking close to home:
I put those examples first because - let's face it - they're exotic. But when reading through manuscripts I've noted a number of people who are writing YA who:
1. don't know any current teenagers
2. don't hang out in a mall (perfect for eavesdropping)
3. haven't set foot in a high school since they, themselves, graduated.
4. write from distant memory rather than from fresh ones.
Or - the story includes an animal but the author didn't go to the zoo to observe the behavior. There's a train, but the author hasn't been on Amtrak and can't relay to the reader the gentle sway or the quiet clackety-clack of the car as it rushes along the railroad racks.
Here's your assignment - should you choose to accept it:
Find a place nearby that is similar to a setting in your book - and go visit. Sit and observe. Touch the trees and flowers if permitted to record the textures and aromas in your virtual brain toolkit. Take a sketchpad and make notes of everything - the people that pass by, the weather, the way the sun shines. Now write about it. You many not use it all, but get into the setting and make it one of your "characters." Let it live and breathe life into your narrative.
If your setting is far flung and you can't go there - find websites, read about it, mine Youtube for clues. Then go to Google and "walk" the streets to get a sense of a human eye view of the environment. The bakeries and small shops. The cobblestone streets. (Caveat: The latter can only go where a car can go, so it's not a panacea for research). Of course, by sitting in your chair you'll miss a few details, like the amazingly awful toilet aromas in the Paris subways in contrast to the crowded but more aromatically neutral ones in London. But that's okay. Not everything in fiction has to be true. That's why they call it "fiction." But your experiences and depth of research can inform a work of fiction in a way a casual writer will not. It's what made Philip Pullman's work come alive, and Lord of the Rings.
Read this excerpt from A Separate Peace by John Knowles written in 1959:
Like all old, good schools, Devon did not stand isolated behind walls and gates but emerged naturally from the town which had produced it. So there was no sudden moment of encounter as I approached it; the houses along Gilman Street began to look more defensive, which meant that I was near the school, and then more exhausted, which meant that I was in it.
It was early afternoon and the grounds and buildings were deserted, since everyone was at sports. There was nothing to distract me as I made my way across a wide yard, called the Far Common, and up to a building as red brick and balanced as the other major buildings, but with a large cupola and a bell and a clock and Latin over the doorway — the First Academy Building.
In through swinging doors I reached a marble foyer, and stopped at the foot of a long white marble flight of stairs. Although they were old stairs, the worn moons in the middle of each step were not very deep. The marble must be unusually hard. That seemed very likely, only too likely, although with all my thought about these stairs this exceptional hardness had not occurred to me. It was surprising that I had overlooked that, that crucial fact.
Here's the school and the building he was describing - a campus I visited in New Hampshire just this past week, where the white marble staircase leading up from the main foyer to the Assembly hall still bore the worn moons in the middle of each step. And where I happened upon the author himself, in an amazing bit of serendipity:
What can you use as a setting that will surprise your readers and breathe life into your story? Got caves in your state? A castle or fort? Is there a river you can walk or a forest? How about a bakery where you can assault your senses? A local mall where you can sip a drink and observe people? When's the last time you went to a concert. Surprisingly, Michael Buble is old-school but his crowds are filled with screaming hormonal teenager girls.
Get out of your chair and find your setting, but if you can't, then virtual travel is the next best thing.
Next entry: May 24th. "Kiss him, or your reader won't want to kiss him either."