Writing Elements: Setting

Setting

Where and when you set your story helps determine whether the audience will relate and how much world building and/or research you’ll need to do.

For starters, you need to determine what types of settings you’ll need. Make a list of all the settings your character is likely to visit, including the most mundane places. A home is as important, if not more so, than the location where the crucial plot unfolds. Or perhaps the most important location is the place your character visits the most and isn’t their actual home but feels more like a home (if that makes sense).

Now, the next step greatly depends on what type of story you’re writing. For example, if you’ve decided to set your story in a futuristic sci-fi world or a fantasy land, the audience will need plenty of descriptions for these places. Although, the audience will probably have associations for those two genres, so unless they’re wildly different from the audience’s perceptions, you could get away with a limited amount of description.

However, if you’re setting the story on Earth in a real location, or even a made up name for a generic city or town or whatever else, the audience can conjure up certain associations with those types of places. For example, a city might conjure up skyscrapers and branded shops/coffee shops and launderettes, whereas a village might conjure up local shops with one or two big brands and plenty of churches and pubs.

Historical fiction will definitely require research to know and understand what specific places were like and how they functioned. I’d definitely recommend visiting historical sites if you can, or visiting libraries/museums that could show you what the place used to look like. It also depends what time period you’re setting your story in, and where in the world. For example, if you set your story in Pompeii, I would highly recommend a visit to the place, if you can. If not, watch a documentary or search the internet for photos of what it might’ve looked like. Or perhaps you’ve decided to set your story in the 1920s in Australia. Again, if you can’t visit the actual place, look on the internet for resources.

But why is setting important?

Like I mentioned above, audiences have associations with certain places. But it also can say a lot about a character. For example, if a character spent more time at a cafe than at home, you might question what’s wrong with their home or home life. Equally, a home says a lot about a person, such as a messy environment might belong to a messy person. Or, to make your story interesting, your character might be an incredibly organised person at work but have the messiest home.

Additionally, setting can say a lot about status and class. For example, a poor person is hardly likely to live in a mansion and a rich person is hardly likely to live on the streets, unless some odd situation happens to flip their status/class. What they own and what’s important to them in their home is very telling of a character. A childhood teddy bear sitting on a bed or an old rocking chair passed down through the generations tell you something about the character.

A good example is to watch any TV show or movie you want and to see how they design rooms in their homes. Every object serves a purpose: to tell you something about the character. The same should apply when describing your setting. We don’t necessarily need to know about the lake if it’s not important, but please do tell us about that jacket that belonged to that special person a few years back. Or another brilliant example: Harry Potter. The way J.K. Rowling describes Diagon Alley, Hogwarts or The Burrow are very telling of the characters that inhibit this world and lets us in on this magical world we’ve recently discovered with Harry Potter.

Equally, where in the world they live or come from says a lot about them too. The nature vs. nurture argument is still widely debated today. For example, someone born in America will have a different upbringing and different values from someone who was born in India. Additionally, if someone is from an Italian family and were born there but moved when they were young to Spain, they would have a different upbringing from their family. They would learn a lot about their country’s history, but perhaps not more than that. Or they might be taught certain values at school but their family might teach them different values.

Setting is sometimes overlooked for more important elements in the writing process, but setting is just as important as the other writing elements… if done right. If done wrong, it can feel like info dumping and the audience will get bored. But if done right, even if there are long paragraphs describing the setting, the audience won’t mind so long as it has importance to the plot or the character is doing something in relation to the setting.

Finding the right balance is crucial.

It might be a struggle at first, but once you find that balance, you’ll realise how important setting is to your character and plot.

What are your favourite settings?

Writing Elements: Planning

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So you have an idea or two for a story, maybe even a setting and some characters, but now what?

Planning!

Depending on what type of writer you are*, this will either fill you with joy or dread. But trust me, even if it’s just a brief description of what will happen in each chapter, a plan is definitely something you should do. It helps keep you on track when you’ve gone off on an elaborate side story and you’re wondering what the main story is supposed to be… or a similar scenario.

*NaNoWriMo has three types of writer: a pantser (basically no planning), plantser (some planning) or a planner (all the planning).

Every person has their own way of planning, but just in case you don’t have a method yet, here’s a few ways you can try.

Firstly, decide whether to prefer to plan in a notebook, with separate sheets of paper scattered around (or flashcards) or on your electronic device, whether its your phone, laptop or tablet. It depends whether you prefer the physical sensation of writing things down or the accessibility of typing everywhere and knowing it can be backed up easier. It depends whether you prefer physically making your notebooks or sheets of paper colourful and decorative, or you prefer being able to edit your mistakes easily on your devices knowing you can move sections as you need.

Secondly, you at least need to have a protagonist, an antagonist and a setting. Having a plot is obviously the most important, but a character and setting is equally as important. I’ll go into further detail about characters and setting in separate blog posts, but without all three, your plan might struggle. Although, this is where the spontaneous writers would say they can figure it out as they go along.

Thirdly, the actual planning. Again, as I mentioned, planning is individual to each person. However, a few things you can plan are the character story arc, chapter outlines, potential new characters, world building and any potential research you might need to do. Or if you’re struggling with your ideas, you can decide what type of stories you want to tell by thinking about what stories you like to read and watch, or by the stories/people that intrigue you. Perhaps it’s a friend who always seems to have the wildest stories, or a stranger you met once but felt something towards them.

How much detail, time and effort you put into planning is up to you, just like what story you’ll tell and how. But planning isn’t as boring or scary as it seems. If anything, it can help get your ideas out, including characters and settings. Additionally, when and where you decide to plan is also up to individual choice. Perhaps you like working at a coffee shop, or perhaps you prefer finding a comfy spot to plan in.

How do you plan your stories, if you do?

Writing Elements: Research

Research

Regardless of when you do it, every writer does some sort of research for their stories.

Perhaps you need more information before you can begin writing, or perhaps you’re at a pivotal part of your story and you’ve realised you need to do some research. No matter the reason why or when you decide to do it, research is a vital step in writing.

What research you do depends entirely on what you’re writing about. For example, if you’re writing about a life experience you’ve not been through, you’ll need to do extensive research. The same applies with genre fiction. If you’re writing a historical novel, you’ll need to research about the time period you’re writing in so you have some level of accuracy.

It doesn’t matter what medium you use to conduct your research. It’d be crazy for me to write down every piece of research you could do because it probably won’t apply to you. Plus, it’d take me countless hours to write it all down and I’d still miss something. So instead, I’ll list the various mediums you can use for research purposes.

1. The Internet

The most obvious answer and the richest resource you have.

However, it’s also the murkiest resource since you have to sift through all the links and web pages to find what you want, and even if you finally stumble on what you’ve been searching for, you then have the hassle of figuring out whether it’s a reliable source or not.

Figuring out how to use Google efficiently isn’t that time consuming, and chances are you’ve probably already learnt at some point. But in the instance that you haven’t, Hubspot has a helpful guide for you to check out. Learning little tips and tricks can save you some time.

Telling you to use the Internet can encompass literally anything, so let me break it down further.

1a. Websites

If you’re searching for specific information, websites can be very helpful with that. However, you should check when it was last updated because sometimes the information can be outdated. Additionally, check any sources they reference to see if they’re real. If the website is hard to navigate around, skim over the information to see if it’s worth staying on the website. But generally, I’d advise leaving since they’ll be other websites that will probably have the same information and laid out better.

1b. Blogs

If you can, check out blogs that have the specific information you’re searching for. For example, I’ve seen a medical specific Tumblr account that goes into details about different medical issues. The people running these accounts tend to be experts at what they know, so definitely consult them if you can. But like the websites, be weary because anyone can tell you anything.

1c. Social Media

It seems obvious, but social media can be a massive help. You can ask questions to specific people who have gone through a specific life experience, or perhaps they have ancestors who went through what you’re writing about. Just be weary what people tell you by fact checking or asking for proof. Evidence and facts are good, but anyone can claim anything.

2. Books

As a writer, you should be reading books for research. However, whether the books are fictional or not is up to you.

Research can be simply read books in your chosen genre to see how they wrote it and adapt that to your writing. Or read a book you’d never normally pick up so you can see how other books are written and to expand your perspective, especially in a world where you tend to live in your own social media bubble.

With non fictional books, the information might be outdated, but it generally lasts because it’s been curated by experts. Additionally, a book can be used without worrying about battery life and can be brought around anywhere with you, depending how heavy it is. Besides, it’s good to get away from technology for a while. It’s very dependent on how you feel towards books.

3. Documentaries

A great resource, depending on the perspective shown. If the narrator is biased in any regard, it won’t be a truthful account. Take Morgan Spurlock’s documentary. It was supposed to criticise the fast food industry and instead was a smear campaign against McDonald’s. Check before you watch as to whether this is entirely truthful, and if not, look at the people it’s offended for why it did. Granted, sometimes people will find any reason to complain, so check the complaints are legit.

4. Exhibitions/Museums

Museums tend to be free, so you can gather as much information as you want. The staff will be knowledgeable about what’s in the museum, especially the tour guides, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re experts. With plenty of resources around, curated by historians and archeologists, it’s a very visual research method, and some have interactive elements to make it more fun and engaging (usually aimed at kids).

You usually have to pay for exhibitions, but depending what you’re searching for, it’s better to go. The information and objects tend to be very specific and detailed with a large focus on it, rather than competing against the rest of history or the museum. For example, if you wanted an extensive knowledge about the Celts and you can’t easily go to Ireland or Scotland, a temporary exhibition about them might be exactly what you need. It’s worth checking. Just be aware of the price, because they can be quite pricey.

5. Places/People

If you can, visiting historic sites or talking to historians/archeologists can be a huge bonus.

Historians and archeologists can provide details about what they know. They’ve done tons of research themselves about their chosen field/s so you can usually ask them questions about it.

Historic sites are a great resource to see how they would’ve lived. The sites might also have interactive elements to give you a taste of what life was like back then, including actors and actresses who perform like they would’ve. It really gives you a physical sense of life in particular periods and how far we’ve come since then. However, these places might not be easy to get to and might be expensive to get into. But it’s definitely worth it if you want a sense of what life was like.

There are probably other methods I’ve missed, but here are a few to get you started.

What methods do you use for your research?

Writing Elements: Inspiration

Inspiration

How fickle inspiration is, and yet every person on the planet relies on it like we rely on a new day starting. We know a new day will start, but we can’t always guarantee we’ll live to see another day. Inspiration is much the same way: we know inspiration will hit, but we can’t guarantee it’ll stay with us. It arrives with a flourish, leaves an impact, then departs with as much of a flourish as it arrived with, leaving you bewildered as to what just happened and whether you’ll ever get that rush again (you will).

But how do you find inspiration?

It’s a very good question. Unfortunately, it varies person by person. Some people are inspired easily (like me) while others struggle. It’s like a game of hide and seek. For some people, they seek inspiration and can find it easily, whereas others keep seeking it but it refuses to emerge, deciding instead to keep you searching and searching until you give up. Then it might pop out and apologise for being so stubborn.

Inspiration can hit whenever, wherever. In fact, more likely than not, it’ll hit at the worst times possible. For example, it could happen while you’re in the middle of an important conversation and inspiration suddenly hits. Or inspiration can hit in the most mundane moments. For example, you could just be showering like normal and inspiration could hit.

But say inspiration decides not to pay you a visit and you want to spark inspiration yourself, there are several ways to do so.

The first is actually an example I just used: do mundane tasks. Honestly, it works. The more mundane the task, the better. You’ll be focused on the task at hand, but because it lacks any fun or creativity, it gives your brain a chance to think creatively without overdoing it. For example, if you’re washing up, you’re not going to be thinking strenuously about washing up, therefore your brain can think while you’re doing so to make the task more enjoyable.

The second is to engage with creativity. It sounds obvious, but watch TV shows, read books, go to theatre shows. Whatever is deemed creative, interact with it in whatever way you can. Perhaps you’re behind on your favourite TV show and you need to catch up. Do it. You never know what might spark inspiration. Perhaps a friend has offered to watch a film together and although it might not be one you’d usually watch, it again might spark inspiration. Try several different mediums and see which work best for inspiring you.

If the previous two have failed, the third is to go out of your way and try something new. I don’t necessarily mean hop on an airplane and fly to the first country you can think of. Although, if that’s what works for you, by all means, do it. I mean try a new hobby or walk a new route home. Maybe meet up with a friend you haven’t for a while or suggest visiting new locations with loved ones. You never know what life will throw at you and sometimes it’s exactly that that’ll spark inspiration. Trust me, life can get weird sometimes, almost to the point that you can’t quite believe it’s happened to you.

The final tip I can offer is to go out with a notebook and observe the world around you. Listen to strangers’ conversations (although try not to be too obvious about it). Bring a notebook out with you, or even write it on your phone’s notes, about what you can see around you. Maybe jot down a sentence or two of the first thing you’ve thought of. Read the lines from a menu and conjure something up. Engaging with the world is a lot more fun than it might seem.

If all else fails, you can use writing prompts. They exist for a reason, and that’s to help kickstart inspiration. Some of my best writing has been with the help of writing posts.

What helps inspire you when you’re struggling?