Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 8 of 8)

Don't underestimate the importance of place and time. I call them the grounding factors. Two questions we don't want readers to need to ask are (1) Where is this taking place? (2) What's the time period?

Suppose I have a story in which a young woman wants to make a favorable impression on a sailor on leave whom she invited for dinner. She picks tomatoes and carrots from her victory garden before she stares at her ration book to see if she has enough points for a roast.

I haven't specifically given you time or place, but you've probably sensed this is World War II (victory garden and ration book). The other implication is that it's in a city or a town.

Good writing implies more about setting than it tells.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 7 of 8)

Don't be afraid of using ordinary settings. A family farm near Anadarko, Oklahoma, or the city square in Marietta, Georgia? By setting your book in non-exotic places you write about the kind of people and occupations readers easily understand. We submerge readers into reality so we can take them into suspenseful happenings.

When we have ordinary people doing ordinary things,
we provide a sense of reality
and prepare them to accept the extraordinary turn of the story.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 6 of 8)

If we choose the right background, the setting itself can become an element of suspense. What if she is to meet someone at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. after dark? What about being the only person waiting for a MARTA train in Atlanta and a man comes down the escalator? He stares, right hand in a coat pocket, and steps toward her.

The background itself can add suspense.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 5 of 8)

Background information doesn't intrude. Unskilled writers feel they have to give a litany of details to show their scenes are authentic. We make scenes believable by a sentence or two at a time.

Years ago I wrote a novel set in Kenya in 1950 and the major characters drive from Nairobi toward Lake Victoria. The heroine avoids talking to the hero and stares out the window. I inserted one sentence to enable readers to sense the authentic setting: "Kikuyu women toiled up steep, red paths, bending forward under the heavy loads of firewood strapped on to their backs."

That's all. A few pages later, I slipped in a one-sentence description of a tea plantation, which she pointed out to him to cut off personal conversation.

Good writers don't stop the action to provide background.
The setting becomes part of the story.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 4 of 8)

On Amazon, I read a review of a famous literary novel that said the author must have been reading a roadmap when he wrote one particular chapter. For 20 pages the author details the places he stopped to eat breakfast, have morning coffee, and so on. None of it, apparently, was germane to the plot.

Some writers become enamored with travel information and seem to think it's important. Here's the question they need to ask: Will readers care? Or another question someone suggested is this: If you delete the information, would readers miss it?

A writer friend said, "I don't give any background unless it has some direct bearing on the story. Otherwise readers might ask, 'Why did she put that in the book?'"

Don't clog your prose
with long passages about background or travel.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 3 of 8)

If we make our story take place in a famous place such as Zurich or Athens, we want to be accurate. We also want to give details that most readers won't know. For instance, we might have the hero racing down Station Road in London, trying to elude his abductors. He rushes into the Betford Betting Shop. (I looked up the name and location on the Web.) One or two sentences will give readers not only a sense of place, but many of them haven't heard of a betting shop. That adds to your story.

We don't need vast details about famous cities.
If we insert little-known information, we add value to our story.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 2 of 8)

"I had planned to set the novel in Venice because I've been there," she said, "but it seems that every fifth novelist sets stories there."

To which I answered, "So what?"

Just because hundreds of others have used New York City or Paris doesn't mean we can't feature those locations. We need to get the facts straight first. Beyond that, we invoke our special perceptions. If I wrote about Paris, I'd certainly mention the beautifully planted rows of plane trees (what we Americans call sycamores) and I'd certainly want to include Chartres Cathedral. My particular insight would make the location "mine" because of my voice and style.

Don't be afraid to use geographic settings
because many other writers use that locale.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 1 of 8)

Background is important, especially in fiction. It gives the sense of readers being there. But we need to be careful.

My friend Julie Garmon, who writes for Guideposts, said the editors hate stories that begin with a weather report. I'd go so far as to say that most readers don't want a weather report anywhere in the article or book unless it pertains to what's happening.

Here's lesson number one: Don't fake the background. I read a novel in which a man took a direct flight from San Francisco to Minneapolis. One of my friends informed him, "You can't get a direct flight."

Minor detail? Perhaps, but there are always readers who know. By contrast, an editor wrote my agent, "I've never been to Africa, but Murphey makes the setting real." (He didn't offer a contract, but I appreciated his comment.)

I read a bio in which a man, in 1934, chewed Bazooka Bubble Gum. Bazooka was a World War II weapon and the gum came out of that era. The author meant Fleers. It was a minor detail but it caused me to distrust the writer's integrity on important facts.

If readers can't trust us on minor things,
how can they know we're correct on important things?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What an Acquisitions Editor Seeks

(By Nick Harrison, acquisitions editor at Harvest House)

I enjoy writing about writing—and talking about it. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy writer’s conferences. They’re a great way to fellowship with other writers.

One often overlooked aspect of a conference is the networking benefit. I’ll let you in on a trade secret. Once I know authors—usually those I’ve met at a conference—I feel more at home in evaluating their book proposals.

Sometimes I’ll meet aspiring authors at a conference, and despite their present lack of ability or focus, if I find myself meeting with a kindred spirit, I’m more likely to want to help them than if the aspiring writers are cold or unwelcoming. It’s just human nature.

Sometimes I’ll pursue the moodier writers if the writing is really good, and sometimes I’ll tell kindred-spirited authors that there’s no way I can help them, but not often.

The best author/editor combination is when editors “get” what authors are trying to accomplish with their writing and when the authors understand the importance of finding not just any editor, but the right editor.

In a recent issue of Publisher’s Weekly, they printed lengthy tributes to two deceased members of the publishing industry—one a well-respected editor and the other a noted agent. In both cases, I was struck by the tributes from those writers who worked with them.

They spoke endearingly of the deep friendship they shared, and, of course, gratitude for the help those friendships had in advancing their careers.

Almost all of the writers I edit, I also count as friends.

So in reality I’m not just out to acquire books, I’m also out to acquire writing friends. Friends who love to talk about writing and who hunger for the same kind of success I hunger for.

Really, such relationships are rare, but worth the search. I should know; one of those friendships for me has turned out to be Cec Murphey whom I met years ago at Mount Hermon.

All that to say that you really do need to attend at least one writer’s conference a year if you want to succeed. That’s the way you’ll eventually meet that rare editor who will light up with recognition when he or she meets you—a kindred spirit!

--Nick Harrison, Harvest House