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Jan's Master Class--SETTING

Posted: Sun Feb 01, 2009 5:20 pm
by glorybee
The setting of a story (or novel, or narrative poem) is two-fold: it is both the time period and the location of the action. While a longer work might have multiple settings, both in time and in place, it’s more likely that ultra-short fiction like that in the Writing Challenge will have only one setting.

I wrote quite a bit about setting in the class on atmosphere, because the setting greatly contributes to the atmosphere of your story. A story set in 1880s Dodge City will be quite different from a contemporary story set in London, even if they’re both romantic comedies.

It’s interesting that I’ve gotten to setting in my alphabetical list while the Writing Challenge is on a geographical theme. With that in mind, here are a few tips for making the setting of your piece work for you.

1. Be very familiar with your setting (again, I’m referring to both time period and place). You may have to do some research, but if you get it wrong, believe me, someone who knows will call you on it. Know enough about your location that you can describe it with accuracy, by appealing to several of your readers’ senses. Know enough about your time period that you give your readers the feeling of having stepped out of a time machine. Again, if you don’t already possess this knowledge, research, research, research. Learn to LOVE research.

If you’re writing about a historical time period, be very careful of anachronisms—items existing in time frames where they never actually existed. Don’t have a Biblical character drink from a glass of water. And I’m not sure what you’d call an item that shouldn’t exist in a particular place, but you should be careful of those, too. Don’t have your Australian character catching fireflies in a jar—I have it on good authority that there are no Aussie lightning bugs.

2. Establish the setting of your story early. I’ve read pieces that I assumed were contemporary until half-way through, when a horse-and-carriage trotted by. That’s not to say that you should start out by writing It was 1949 in Fargo, North Dakota, and Susan was listening to the radio. Use items on the scene, speech patterns, your narrative, and your characters’ behavior to show your reader where and when she is reading about. But unless you have some compelling reason to do so (a twist at the end, for example), make your setting obvious fairly soon.

3. Don’t do too much jumping around in time, or in place. As I mentioned in the introduction to this term, most very short stories will have only one setting. It’s quite possible to move around a bit—to have a flashback or flash forward, or to move your character from one place to another—but keep it simple and minimal. If you devote too many of your precious words to switching the scenery, you’ll have to give up either plot or characterization.

4. Don’t rely solely on descriptive prose to establish your setting. This is mostly personal preference, but I believe that most readers’ interest flags after a few sentences of pure, adjective-rich description. I’d far rather “get” the setting as it’s integrated into the story—by the actions and dialogue of the main characters.

Homework: Here’s a writing exercise that I’ve sometimes had my students try. You’ll need to have a single die for this one…go ahead and take one out of the Monopoly set. I’ll wait.

Got it? Okay, you’ll need to roll it 5 times, to randomize your assignment.

Roll #1 will give you the first character in your story.

1—a mysterious stranger
2—a toddler
3—a homeless man
4—a flustered mother
5—a computer geek
6—a preacher

Roll #2 will give you the second character in your story.

1—a hippie girl
2—a scientist
3—a waitress
4—a writer
5—a doctor
6—a bed and breakfast owner

Roll #3 will give you the place of your story

1—a desert oasis
2—the mall or market
3—down in the basement
4—on a plane
5—in a busy city
6—in a small house

Roll #4 will give you the time period of your story

1—Feb. 2, 2009
2—some time in the future
3—some time in the early 20th century
4—one dark and stormy night
5—1603 A.D.
6—the 1950s

And just for fun, roll #5 will give you an object that must feature prominently in your story.

1—a goblet
2—a scrap of fabric
3—a timepiece
4—a bell
5—a shoe
6—a kitten

Now that you’ve got the “dry bones” of your story—start writing! For this assignment, just the first paragraph or two will do. If you write the whole story, post it in General Submissions and give us a link!

Got a Challenge entry with a great setting? Post a link, and PLEASE tell us about the setting—why you chose it, and why it works.

Got anything else to add about setting? Let’s hear it! Oh, and don’t forget to put that die back with the Monopoly board.

I’ve also done this exercise by adding dice rolls for conflict. My students, reluctant writers all, kind of enjoy the challenge (once they’re done with their usual complaining). I’ve gotten some very interesting stories this way!

Posted: Mon Feb 02, 2009 12:24 pm
by GShuler
I am giving a link to a challenge entry before the lesson. The reason is because this entry needed two separate settings that had to tell a lot about the people, the environment and the urgent need without taking up a lot of words to get that accomplished. It is my entry of It Would Have Been Enough ... p?id=20540

Now, here is what the roll of the die did for me:

A homeless man
A writer
On a plane
Sometime in the future
A timepiece

The Cyberjet 330 jolted as it hit another air pocket. Bob shook his head in disgust. Thirty-five billion dollars spent to make the airways quiet didn’t do a thing for the comfort. So much for President Cruise’s 2012 Project Re-think. Money wasted… that’s all it was. Just total waste. Just because a jet could now take people from L.A. to D.C. in less than an hour was no reason to suddenly start flying homeless people across the country. He looked at his pocket watch. They had been in the air for thirty-nine minutes. What a waste.

“So, what’s your opinion about the White House bringing homeless people from all over for a top level advisory meeting?”

Bob looked at the newspaper reporter and gave a disgruntled huff. “I was just thinkin’ what a total waste of money all this is.”

“Waste?” The reporter truly seemed surprised. “Don’t you appreciate the all-expenses-paid trip? I mean, you get new clothes, the best food, and even…”

“Total waste.” If there had been a place to do it tactfully, Bob would have spat to make his point. “Do you realize what the cost of this would have done in actual benefits? The president could have paid my living expenses in a modest apartment for a year.”

He looked at his watch again. Another five minutes had passed. They were almost ready to land in Washington D.C. to tell the President of the United States what to do about homeless people. If the homeless knew what to do, would they still be homeless? What a waste.

Posted: Mon Feb 02, 2009 2:18 pm
by Allison
I'll post my story later, but for those who (like me) aren't sure where a die is off the top of your head, here is an online one! Not quite as fun as physically rolling a die, but it gets the job done. :)

Posted: Mon Feb 02, 2009 2:29 pm
by Symphonic
Great! An excuse to put off writing the “Canada” story! The dice were kind to me–-the hippie girl in 1603 would have been a lot harder. How’s this?

Ted backed out of the grocery, grasping a paper bag with one hand and his daughter’s smaller hand with the other. He paused on the sidewalk, trying to remember if he’d gotten everything they needed. Hmm... milk, bread, eggs, cereal, and some of those of newfangled TV dinners with the rubbery meat... Hopefully that would tide them over until Barbara got back from her sister’s.

A souped-up Chevy convertible went by too fast, blaring some song he’d heard on the radio–something about “rocking around the clock.” It seemed appropriate. Lately, he spent all his hours rocking... or playing tea party... or being a horsey. Karen missed her mother, he understood that. But how could he keep a three-year-old entertained all day? And how could he possibly meet his next deadline? His editor called four times a day, screaming for the next installment.

“Daddy, Daddy!” cried Karen, pulling free. “A kitty! A little kitty!”

Ted looked down and saw a dirty scrap of fur pulling itself onto the curb. It didn’t even look like a kitten, except for its bright yellow eyes. Karen reached out two pudgy hands and grasped it. The kitten managed a small, tired “mew,” then accepted the situation.

“Daddy, Daddy, I love her! Can I have her? Please?”

Ted smiled gently, and started to say “no.” It was the reasonable answer. Except...

... Karen petting the kitten... chasing the kitten... feeding the kitten... playing ball with the kitten...

Ted’s smile broadened into a grin.

“Of course you can have her, Sweetie. Of course you can.”[/i]

I’m so glad we’re discussing “setting” this time, because this quarter of the Writing Challenge is proving difficult for me. Plot is much easier (and much more interesting) for me than setting, so when I trim to get down to 750 words, the descriptive details get jettisoned first. In future entries, I’m going to try to focus on details about the country/region more than on the plot (though this is counterintuitive for me).

I’m not sure that I can cite one of my Challenge entries that did a very good job of establishing the setting, but I know one that failed miserably:

Modest Attainments ... p?id=27038

It was very hard for me when this fell into the abyss, because I cared about it a lot. But I understood why it did. One of the judging criteria is a “satisfying ending,” and I probably scored a “0" on that. Worse, I didn’t convey the setting very well... and in this case, the location and time period were absolutely essential.

It takes place in London just before the start of World War I. This is a comfortable, upper-middle-class family, surrounded by all the “modest attainments” of a civilization that has lasted a very long time and seems immutable. It is also a family that holds fashionable, post-Victorian ideas about faith. They believe in the goodness of mankind, etc., but God has become a nebulous symbol. They celebrate Christmas without believing in the “reason for the season.” And they don’t realize that World War I will soon change everything.

I can tell from the comments I received that I didn’t make the setting clear. It's possible only one reviewer realized that the setting was Great Britain (thank you, Jan!!). In retrospect, I wonder if I should have mentioned a particular date, or the chimes of Big Ben, or something. But I don’t know if subtle clues about the time period would have helped, unless I could have worked in some reference to the “recent sinking of the Titanic”!

Back to Canada! (Sigh...)

Carol S.

Posted: Mon Feb 02, 2009 5:27 pm
by glorybee
Gerald, I agree that you needed the two different settings in your linked story (which is a beautiful, beautiful story). My suggestion that Challenge entries should have only one setting was more of a guildeline than a hard-and-fast rule.

And I loved the way you used little details (the speed of the plane, for example) to establish that your "homework" piece was in the future. Well done!

Posted: Mon Feb 02, 2009 5:28 pm
by glorybee
Allison, thanks for the rolling die! Can't wait to read your story...

Posted: Mon Feb 02, 2009 5:37 pm
by glorybee
Carol, I really liked "Modest Attainments", and I also agree that this quarter is hard to get a handle on. You don't want your entry to sound like a travelogue or a high school report, but it's definitely got to be something truly representative of the country.

I know that in my Australia piece, I never even mentioned the country by name, but it's a story that couldn't have happened anywhere else. Maybe something like that is the secret? (I dunno...)

Oh, and I liked how you established the '50s with little hints strewn through your story--and how you "showed" us that the dad was a writer--and your kitten, just because I like kittens!

Posted: Tue Feb 03, 2009 1:18 am
by swfdoc1
Ok, this is really weird, I went to the dice rolling website and got remarkably similar results to Carol, although I don’t know whether you used a real die or not. Carol, I guess you got toddler, writer, in a busy city, 1950’s, a kitten. I got toddler, writer, in a small house, 1950’s, a kitten. So I guess the difference between you and me is my rolls ended with 666! :shock:

Anyway, in order to take a completely different approach and because I can’t put too much effort into this because . . . well because I can’t get the song “Oh, Canada” out of my head . . . here’s my not worthy of Carol’s and Gerald’s contributions, aka “And now for something completely different,” aka a silly bit of drivel:

Chuck Davenport was drenched in sweat. That really wasn’t the worst think that had happened to him in the last seven weeks. But today, it was like a torture. <i>The heat, the humidity, the insects. I can’t take much more.</i>

But even now, when he managed to push down the ever threatening insanity, the excitement came bubbling right back to the surface. <i>This has to light a fire under my career. I might even be famous! People won’t make fun of me for writing for the Enquirer anymore.</i>

The transatlantic flight had been exciting, yet arduous. At least the paper had allowed him the luxury of flight rather than making him suffer the steamship crossing. The airlines were now promising “jet” aircraft by 1960, but that was still more than a half decade away.

Then had come more flights from Europe to Africa. After that came the long inland trek, first following maps, then following rumors. And the rumors had been true!

After he arrived, he had spent the last week in this tiny tree house. That thought was all it took. Chuck was on the brink again. <i>I have to get out of here. I have all I need for my story. I can’t take it much longer. The heat, the mosquitoes, the screaming animals at night.</i>

Just then, Chuck heard voices in the jungle below. He stopped scratching and walked to the bamboo-stalk railing of the tree house and peered into the jungle. At first, he could only catch fleeting glimpses of flesh as the trio made its way toward him out of the jungle. But soon, he could see each of them plainly. As always, they were clad only in skimpy animal skins.

Just as his thoughts had taken him back to the brink of insanity, so the sight of the trio crossing the clearing returned him to visions of fame. He indulged his fantasies one last time as they clamored up the tree—he never understood how they did that—and poked their heads, one by one, through the hole in the tree house platform.

With his hosts returned, the tree house felt different. It still had no walls. Its roof was still tightly—but not tightly enough—woven oil palm branches. Its tree limb floor still made a corduroy road seem smooth. But now it was a home.

Chuck looked at each of them in turn. He would miss them all. But he knew he would miss Boy even more than he would miss Tarzan or Jane. He had developed a real fondness for the mop-headed imp. Perhaps because he had had a hard time communicating with Tarzan and Jane, Chuck had developed a natural affection for Boy and had spent large amounts of time with him.

Knowing that he would leave—that he had to leave for the sake of his sanity—tomorrow, Chuck serrupticiously watched Boy. He was playing with his serval kitten. Chuck never understood how Boy managed to follow his parents as they climbed into the tree house, let alone how he did it with his kitten tucked under one arm. But Boy always managed.

Chuck walked over to where they played and sat down cross-legged on the uncomfortable floor as he had so many times in the past week. He ruffled Boy’s hair and he stroked the kitten’s fur.

<i>If only I could just enjoy these moments, instead of letting the heat and the bugs and the noises torture me. But I do have to file this story with my editor. After all, it will make me famous.</i>

Affection. Torture. The allure of fame.

In the morning, Chuck left. Seven weeks later, he filed his report. He did become famous. But he never enjoyed it. His dreams were haunted with images of Tarzan and Jane. But especially with images of Boy and his serval kitten.


OK. I don’t have any examples of where I put forth a lot of effort to paint the scene with well crafted word pictures. But I do have two examples of where I deliberately used “gimmicks” (hopefully successfully) to induce the readers to subconsciously bring with them their own experience and/or data to paint the pictures for me in their minds that I would have painted for them had I had a larger word count. I think these gimmicks only worked (to the extent that they did) because of the very short fiction genre we are all working in. This is especially true of Across the Years (see next paragraph) which violated rule of thumb #3 big time.

Interestingly, they are my two highest placements so far (which is not saying much since I am just moving out of Beginners). The first is Across the Years: ... p?id=26783 It got Highly Commended in Beginners. The second is The Descendants: ... p?id=27257 It got First in Beginners.

Jan, I hope this is not counterproductive to your lesson. I’m sure you didn’t want to emphasize gimmicks. On the other hand, I was being as deliberate with all of this as I might have been with traditional techniques.

Posted: Tue Feb 03, 2009 2:26 am
by hwnj
The man sat on a large flat rock near a spring at the oasis, concentrating on precision drawings by the light of a half moon. He sprang to his feet and dropped his quill when a scream pierced the night. It had sounded like a woman's scream, but as he approached the figure on the other side of the spring, he thought he must have been mistaken, for though the form was femininely curved, it was clad in strange blue breeches and an odd tunic with lettering painted upon it. His greeting brought a puzzled frown to its face, so he tried both Greek and Latin.

It withdrew some contraption from the folds of its garments, fiddled with some dials, then spoke. Yes, it sounded like a woman's voice...

"Hello." Then sound came from the contraption.

Ah, Latin. He repeated his Latin greeting.

"Where am I? And when am I?" As the contraption squawked the message that he understood, she--it must be a she--scooped up a beautiful calico kitten that was twining around her ankles and draped her around her neck as though she were a scarf.

"I told little Gail never to touch any buttons on my prototype time machine, but I didn't hear her get up from her nap, and now look what she's done!" The woman fluttered her hands helplessly toward what appeared to be some sort of machine behind her.

"Madame, were I not a man who believes that many things beyond our present knowledge are possible, I would deem you utterly daft. But as I am a respected professor of mathematics, mechanics, and astronomy, Galileo, come to the desert to study the planets and stars without the intrusion of torch and lantern light, I beg you to gather your wits and show me these wondrous things."


The first setting that I seriously researched was for my "Reason for the Season" entry.
A Reason To Celebrate

The setting I was attempting was sixth century germania, with Christian missionaries trying to introduce Christ at the pagan Winter festival by assigning the key symbols new Christian parallels. I also drew in the compassion believers showed during plagues, which demonstrated their message far better than their words.

Posted: Tue Feb 03, 2009 12:23 pm
by glorybee
Steve, your Tarzan story may have been silly drivel, but I enjoyed it wholeheartedly. And it definitely did what the assignment had intended--established a setting by "showing, not telling".

As far as your "gimmicky" pieces--they worked, they were fine pieces of writing--and I'm all about breaking the "rules". You know, like Moses and the 10 Suggestions... :lol:

Posted: Tue Feb 03, 2009 12:30 pm
by glorybee
Wow, Holly--you got a fun roll of the dice! (I'm glad you got the kitten--you didn't keep rolling until you got a 6, did you?) Great job with the setting on your homework assignment, and you even gave us an aha! moment!

I remember "Reason to Celebrate" very well...excellent job with the setting, and I appreciate the amount of research that must have gone into it. I suspect I'm going to have to do that kind of research for some of the upcoming topics.


Posted: Wed Feb 04, 2009 12:08 pm
by yvonblake
I love research. I had fun looking up details for my novel set in Albany, NY, during the mid 1800's. A lot was happening then!

My dice rolled:

a mysterious stranger
a waitress
a basement
the 1950's
a goblet

Veronica's ponytail swayed back and forth as she approached the corner table of the Cruisin' On In Restaurant. She snapped her Juicy Fruit gum and looked at the man hunched over the menu. It was hard to see him in the semi-darkness. The glow from street level windows didn't reach this far into the smoked filled room.

The man lifted his head. He took a sip from his goblet and set it down with a thud. "I guess I ain't hungry. Give me a refill though," he growled. "Oh, if a lady with comes lookin' for Jake, let me know."

How's that? I'm not a mystery this was hard.


Posted: Wed Feb 04, 2009 12:19 pm
by glorybee
Super--not only did you establish a very intriguing setting, but you really drew me in--I really wanted to know what happens next!


Posted: Wed Feb 04, 2009 12:23 pm
by yvonblake
hee, too! I haven't thought any farther past that!


Posted: Thu Feb 05, 2009 7:34 pm
by Verna
I want to hear the rest of Vonnie's story!

And for an outstanding example of setting, I'd recommend Dee's entry which placed in EC today: ... p?id=27451

And I'm sorry teacher, but the dog ate my homework.