Location. Location. Location

Ask anyone in retail the three most important factors contributing to success and they’ll give you a one word answer: location. The often parodied marketing professional’s mantra – location, location, location – is also paramount to the success of any well-written piece of fiction.

For writers, that word is setting. The setting of a novel grounds the reader in the story, putting them vicariously in a place and time other than the present, not only communicating the location, but creating the mood. It can be illustrated both directly and indirectly.

Finding a location for your story seems simple. Pick a place, any place. Real or imagined.  That is the direct setting. If the location is real and you have some time and frequent flyer miles, jet off to the proposed setting and take in the sites. Walk the streets, talk to the locals and sponge up the atmosphere. But for most writers, that type of hands-on research is not available. So, if first-hand experience isn’t a possibility, the Internet is a wonderful tool. Like your aunt’s weighty photo albums of her trip to the Grand Canyon, people love to share pictures of the places they’ve visited. There are no shortage of travel websites and blogs chronicling even the most hard-to-reach spots on the map. Another wonderful tool is Google Maps. Use street view to go on a virtual tour of a location. There is even a wonderful tool that allows mapping of distances on foot, bicycle or car so no matter the mode of transportation, even the time frames will be accurate.

Once the physical location is chosen, it’s time to add indirect attributes. These are the things included in a journal. The effect the place has not only on the eyes but on the senses. Be authentic. The setting is not simply a place or time. It’s a feeling whose details contribute to things like values and attitudes. Use sensory inputs to bring the location to life. What does it look like? How does it sound? What does it smell like? Does it have a taste? How does it feel, tactilely, to be there? Once these questions are answered , a framework for the indirect setting, upon which to build a feeling of the place, exists.

“I lie on the balcony in a hammock overlooking the sea. The moonlight reflects off the rolling waves, casting a shadow across the sand. A breeze rustles the palm trees as they swish and sway, swish and sway, their leaves dancing in the wind. Air rushes over me, my skirt fluttering around my ankles.”

The above passage not only grounds the reader in the tropical location, it makes them feel what it means to be there. By incorporating both direct and indirect components, the reader can readily imagine the setting. Getting the reader to inhabit the space in the same way as the character is the first step in providing an authentic and immersive experience. Once the reader is transported to the setting, they can experience the world the way the characters do.

When you choose the setting for your next piece of fiction, ask yourself some of the questions above. Once you have the answers, you’ll know you’ve fully explored your setting, embraced its nuances and are ready to take your reader on your journey.

Characters Wanted

Creating strong characters is complicated. The best characters are the ones we relate to. They remind us of someone we know or hope to be. They, often, take the form of the protagonist; the ones we root for to save the world, or at least themselves, from certain destruction. We forgive them their shortcomings and give them pep talks, in the hopes that, unlike us, they will learn from their mistakes and get their act together in time to make things right.

Sometimes those characters take the form of the antagonist. They remind us of those we steer clear of or who we work hard not to be. Those parts of ourselves we only show to our mirror (and sometimes not even then). These antagonists access the shadowy bits of our souls our parents or priests have warned us not to embrace. Those lies told or cookies stolen represent the most innocent or sinister of transgressions sure to put us on the Devil’s shortlist.

Regardless of which arc the character takes, writing strong characters requires a great deal of practice and attention to craft. A good character is never the one you sketch in, rubbing your pencil lightly over the surface of the plot and hoping they’ll find their way to the end. They are the ones we frame out, methodically developing their structure and then filling it in like plaster over a wire frame.

Their strength exists in the dynamic nature with which they navigate the plot, exploring the nuances of subplots, conflicts and any road furniture we may throw in their way. Even when they would rather not, they change. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes not, but they know that to do nothing would weaken them in our eyes.

While I’m a novel writer, I love a good book adaptation for the screen. Currently, one of the best, in my opinion, is The Walking Dead. Adapted from the post-apocalyptic graphic novel of the same name by Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead series exemplifies how strong characters can be built. The ensemble of main characters in the series is extraordinarily diverse. They are housewives and business people, civil servants and clergy, mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. The only thing they have in common is their desire to survive in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Some of the characters resist true change until the very end of their existence, which in itself tells us a great deal about them. For even the act of resisting requires a shift as plot, conflict and other characters exert forces upon them. These characters, like Morgan in the series, refuse to compromise their morals, values or individuality to the moment.

Others are in a constant state of flux, adapting to their environment on the fly, reaching deep withing themselves to find a new solution. That character is Carol, who transforms from a helpless, beaten wife to a calculating, killing machine in a relatively short period of time.

The pressure exerted on each of these characters throughout the story seems to have them on a collision course. Until now (Season 7), they have chosen to respond to conflict in different ways. Early on in the series, Carol realizes that in order to survive, she must leave her former self behind. No longer being a passive participant in her life. The opposite is true for Morgan, who believes that pacifism is his only chance at survival. However, at the current point in the plot both characters find themselves in exactly the same place. They must stare solidly at the choices they’ve made and decide whether they will serve them.

How can two dramatically different characters experience diverging story arcs and wind up in the same place? The answer lies in the strength of their characters. Kirkman (and his writing team) has succeeded in crafting characters with depth. Even the conflict (and believe me there’s lots of it), can not chip away enough of the plaster to reveal the wire frame upon which these characters have been built. When it comes to creating strong characters, the deeper the author goes in their development the stronger they are. Creating strong characters is complicated but, in this case, complicated is a good thing.

Who are your favorite characters and what makes them complicated?

Life at the Beach

In spite of Punxsutawny Phil’s dire prediction of more winter, we’re having gorgeous early spring weather in the Northeast. It inspired me to write this post.

If I can’t live at the beach, I’ll always be within a short drive. Its power draws me in and instantly recharges my soul. A day at the beach can do what hours of expensive therapy can’t (though I’ve never been the type to bare my soul to a stranger).

Maybe it’s the constant pounding of the surf, continually resetting your perception of the landscape and view of reality. Or maybe it’s the rhythmic rolling of the tide – in and out, in and out – lulling you into the belief that with the next wave the slate will be wiped clean. Maybe it’s the constant re-imagining of the sand so that the sins of the past and present are washed out to sea to be drowned and free you from their anchor.
Maybe it’s the feeling of being so close to something so powerful yet forgiving that one blast of water can knock you down while the next can spray you clean.

The ocean has the power to do all those things and more. Over the millennia, it has redefined vast expanses of land, carved great canyons through layers of seemingly impenetrable rock and changed the course of civilization. Yet in all its vastness and ability to make you feel inconsequential, water’s essence is its healing power. From your singular place on the beach, looking out onto the horizon, the beach sets the world open, presenting an eternity of possibilities.

On my writing desk at home sits a jar of sand and shells I brought back from a trip to Turks and Caicos. I had to navigate the tide in that inlet (pictured) peppered with especially sharp coral to reach a pristine pink sand beach only the most intrepid could enjoy. After exploring, I scooped up by prize and swam the gauntlet in reverse. I pop that jar open every now and then and swirl my fingers around in its silky grains to summon inspiration from all that sand has endured.

Each of us has a place we go, either physically or spiritually, to recharge. Mine will always be the beach.

Where is yours?