Q is for Quintessence

At Dicitionary.com, quintessence is defined as the pure and concentrated essence of a substance.  Your setting, as one of the basic elements of your story, should reflect its nature.

There has to be a basic reason why the story is set where it is.  You need a focus.  I’m guessing your plot already contains plenty of that, but how do you reiterate its importance (or maybe clue a reader in) through the environment?

In The Dark Tower, Roland and his ka-tet follow the Path of the Beam—the metaphysical energy lines that hold up the Dark Tower—toward the Tower’s location.  The author doesn’t give them a literal path to follow, at least not like the Yellow Brick Road.  What King does instead is pretty brilliant.  The environment itself points the way.  The grasses, leaves, and even the clouds exhibit a subtle pattern aiming directly at the Tower—once they see it, they can’t unsee it.

All things serve the Beam, don’t ya know. 

All things serve the Beam, don’t ya know.

Image: Michael Whelan / darktower.wikia.com

If they stray from this path, it’s pretty easy to find their way back again.  All they have to do is look for the pattern.  In this way, the setting itself becomes part of the story, urging the characters on.  It’s not just a backdrop; in fact, it’s the main purpose, the core, of their mission–to reach the Tower in End-World and repair the Beams before the universe crumbles.

To come alive and to cement its significance in your reader’s mind, your primary setting needs the most detail.  Why waste description and attention on something that isn’t relevant to the narrative?  You shouldn’t.

There’s an old axiom in video games—if it’s shiny, it must be important.  If a good game designer draws attention to the peripherals, they have to have some purpose.  Players don’t want to waste clicks on objects that have no meaning or aren’t useful.  Sometimes these shiny things can lead to a small side quest, but for the most part, that wastes time, unless you need something you can only get from following the diversion.

Like a migraine?

The same could happen in your narrative, but don’t spend too much time on it, or the pace of your story will come to a halt.  There’s a reason gamers call repetitive tasks grinding.  They build skills or points there, but sometimes you end up doing it just for the sake of doing it.  When a task takes too long and either a character doesn’t learn anything or it doesn’t add to the conflict, it’s a huge waste of time and effort.

The wheel turns round and round but it doesn’t go anywhere. 

Image:  Rwendland / Wikimedia Commons

As much as I love The Dark Tower, I think King did some major grinding in Book VI:  Song of Susannah.  The Wind through the Keyhole was a welcome diversion, though.  Roland knows how to tell a story, say true.

I’ve already mentioned how point of view will change the way you portray a location through a character’s eyes.  This technique lets you drop hints (be subtle).  The details they notice can become plot points as well as telegraph future developments in the story.  But your focus should remain on where your tale is going, and how the setting will help it get there.  Use this essential element to help it along.

P is for Politics

Okay, this is a boring subject for many (including me), but it will affect your characters deeply.  What sort of government does your setting have?  Is it a kingdom, with a ruler whose word is law, or does it operate more democratically?  In election years, people tend to think about how each candidate’s position will affect them directly.  If something doesn’t affect them, then it falls out of mind.

So make it affect them, sai. 

Image:  darktower.wikia.com/

If Roland Deschain tells you to do something, you’d be wise to do it!

Local politics may directly influence your setting, i.e. city council members who decide to let a huge corporation rip up a landmark to build something the town neither needs nor wants.  National or international events can affect it too.  Here’s another example of a direct effect.  Let’s say your town is located near a nuclear weapons storage facility.  That makes it a target.  No one likes to think about this, but what if there is a war and someone decides they want to take out that target?  If they do, of course, your population will die, but their efforts to prevent this from occurring could make a good conflict.

Or the rocket could miss them and set off another chain of events.  Maybe they could band together to defend the site and end the war.

Of course, your government will try to protect the target area.  It has to–that’s its job.  Most likely, it will have a military presence, and heavy restrictions will surround the missile sites.  Normal rules of engagement—checkpoints, gates, polite inquiry—may not apply.

Okay, okay, I get your point.

Image:  science.howstuffworks.com

Of course, your characters could run afoul of these regulations, either in defense of the target, or in pursuit of it, whichever side you decide to put them on.  That’s up to you.  Even more fun–have your government fall and no one is protecting it.  What could happen then?

An indirect effect could happen when politics or events cause repercussions in your little world, though nothing actually happens due to them.  After 9/11, the U.S. government became a wellspring of paranoia and many people traveling on completely legitimate business found themselves pulled out of security lines for all kinds of ridiculous reasons.  (Still do, in fact.)  Even in very small airports, far from the attack sites, you have security protocols.  Suppose your character runs afoul of them, while your villain breezes right through?  What if your villain set your protag up?

A similar scenario could take place no matter where your story is located–it doesn’t have to be post-9/11 United States.

Even the local stuff can have high stakes.  In Stephen King’s Under the Dome, selectman and all-around horrible guy Big Jim Rennie’s influence in Chester’s Mill spirals dangerously out of control when the dome slams down over the town and traps everyone.  Who in your story could or would take advantage if a situation enabling him/her presented itself?  Who would oppose them, and how?

Anyway, you get the idea, right?  Good, because I’m tired and I don’t want to finish this post.  So I will bid you a fond adieu.  Until tomorrow!

And tomorrow is Taco Tuesday, so we’ll ALL be in a better mood. 

Image:  animalgourmet.com

O is for Occasions

Have you ever thought about setting your story at a holiday or special event?  Such a time is rife for all kinds of disruption and conflict, things on which a story thrives.

Major holidays upset routine.  There are dinners to plan, gifts to buy, visitors to accommodate, and decorations to hang.  Most of us are stressed and overwhelmed at holidays, especially if we have to do the planning.  You can pretty much count on these for discord:

  • Christmas:  EVERYTHING is crazy
  • Someone’s wedding:  Also crazy (Sixteen Candles)
  • A graduation ceremony:  Rite of passage, the beginning or end of a huge conflict
  • Birthday:  A milestone one can either be a very good thing or a very bad thing
  • Fourth of July (or some other national holiday):  In a murder mystery, fireworks would make good cover for gunshots; I’m just sayin’.  Roland Deschain, our favorite gunslinger, already pulled this off in The Dark Tower: Wizard and Glass.

Even at fourteen, I was kicking ass and taking names, sai.

Image:  Jae Lee / Marvel Comics / darktowercompendium.com

In addition, various settings could have different holidays.  England doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday in November); despite recent trends to accommodate expats, that’s a strictly American holiday.  Guy Fawkes Day (November 5), a UK tradition, is not observed in the U.S.  If your characters travel to another country, bank and business shutdowns could keep them from obtaining crucial information or services.

Incidentally, never go to Primark on Oxford Street in London on a bank holiday.  Just don’t do it.  On my way over to Piccadilly Street, I nipped in the front for two seconds and it took me fifteen minutes to fight my way out again.


Image:  telegraph.co.uk

Where these events happen holds additional importance.   Say your character’s family celebrates Christmas, but this year, they’re not at home.  Did something happen?  Or has the family gone on holiday?  What can the new setting do to unsettle the characters?  Think about Home Alone.  Remember all the problems Kevin’s mother had getting back to him after they landed in Paris?

If you want to blow things wide open, do it at a holiday or on vacation.  Imagine your characters in a strange place–a hotel in a city with which they are unfamiliar, a misdirected flight to the middle of nowhere, or as Stephen King did in The Langoliers, a whole other dimension in space-time.

Why is it so quiet in here, Margaret? And what’s that munching sound?

Image:  Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport / joeydevilla.com

 Now, whatever you’ve got brewing beneath the surface can erupt.  (I know; I always go for the dramatic and / or horrible option, but hey–that’s how I roll.)  Buried resentments?  Bring ‘em on.  A secret that would destroy everything they’ve ever dreamed?  Go for it!  Or, if you insist on being positive (groan), perhaps they have to tell someone something fabulous, but all the crazy stuff happening in the new setting keeps them from it.

Messing with your characters’ heads can be fun, muwahahaha.  So if you want to shake things up a bit, a special occasion is just the thing.

N is for Names

Once you’ve come up with your setting(s), you must decide what to call it (them).  In this post, I discussed some aspects of The Lord of the Rings place names that bring to mind their characteristics. The Shire, for example, is a peaceful place.  Our hobbits are farmers and shepherds, akin to rural village folk in the world of Men.

The word shire is of British origin; it’s an old term denoting a division of land and is still attached to some county names that also bear the name of their principal city, such as Lincolnshire and Yorkshire (England), Aberdeenshire (Scotland), Pembrokeshire (Wales),etc.  It calls to mind a pastoral country setting or village.

We like it here and we don’t need to go on no stinkin’ quests.

We like it here and we don’t need to go on no stinkin’ quests.

Image:  filmhash.com

Look at some other place names in LOTR and some of the impressions they bring to mind.  Say them out loud—the sounds evoke their essence (Tolkien was a linguist).

  • Lothlorien:  mysterious and ethereal, like the Lady Galadriel herself
  • Mordor:  dark and dangerous; this word gives you an uneasy feeling
  • Gondor:  majestic and strong (“For Gondor!”)
  • Weathertop (aka Amon Sul):  desolate, barren, windy
  • Caradhras:  cruel, jagged (this one really sounds like a mountain peak, which it is)
  • Rivendell:  reclusive, natural (the elves call it Imladris in their own language; both words mean “deep valley of the cleft”)

Ralston, Illinois, my city in Rose’s Hostage, sounds solid and industrial, which gives you a picture in your mind of the city (well, in mine, anyway).  It’s a no-nonsense name.  There is a Ralston, Nebraska (it’s a small place), but I actually chose the name from the hot cereal.  To me, it felt like a strong, working-class name that would reflect the majority of its Midwestern population.  I could imagine the people who built the city eating this for breakfast.

Yes, we know it tastes like the box, but it sticks to your ribs!

Image:  hotralston.com

Think about the origin of the words you choose.  Will they reflect the geography, like Rivendell?  What impression would you have of a town called Valley Falls (Oregon)?  How about one called Bloody Corners (Ohio)?

Place names can refer to more than just a town or city.  Though houses with names tend to be large estates, often smaller dwellings have them too.  In the Harry Potter books, the Weasley family home is called The Burrows.  What does that tell you about the people who live there?  What adjectives does it bring to mind?

Cozy, warm, comfortable, home.

Image:  harrypotterandthedeathlyhallowsfilms.wikia.com

Try this exercise next time you have trouble picking a name for something in your setting.  Make a list of several descriptive words relating to it.  Then try to come up with a word that makes you feel them when you say it.  It can be a real or a made-up word.  You’ll know when you pick the right one.

Listed here are some of the places in The Dark Tower.

  • All-World: A parallel universe with its own customs, languages, and geography.    It’s divided into three areas (roughly):
    • In-World, where Roland is from (the barony of New Caanan, city of Gilead)
    • Mid-World, where the story begins and into which the three gunslinger apprentices are drawn
    • End-World, where the Dark Tower is
  • Calla Bryn Sturgis :  This town and the Callas around it are villages in the Borderlands of Mid-World, very close to the beginning of End-World
  • Thunderclap:  an awful lot like Mordor; this is the desolate land from where the Wolves ride  to take children from Calla Bryn Sturgis
  • Keystone Earth: A version of Earth that isn’t quite the one we live in; it’s one of several multiverses the ka-tet can travel to by going todash (oh, just read the books already!)
  • Can’-Ka No Rey: The field of roses around the Dark Tower itself

Roland standing in Can’-Ka No Rey.  Note the cloud following the path of the Beam.

Image: Michael Whelan / darktower.wikia.com

That’s not my favorite picture of Roland.  It looks too much like Clint Eastwood (the original inspiration for the character).  But it’s a great picture of the Tower and the roses.

Writing these posts and sticking The Dark Tower in them has made me wish I could think of something this complex.  I may have to sit down and give it a try.  I’m sure I can think up some dandy names for stuff, even if it never gets off the ground.  Why don’t you try it too?

M is for Mythical

Is your story set in a mythical place?  If you’ve chosen an already well-chronicled one, such as Valhalla, your task will be easy.

Like all imaginary settings, myths demand a solid backstory, especially ones you’ve constructed for your narrative.  You can’t just say “Oh, we’re now in the Realm of the Unicorn,” and give your reader nothing to go on.  You will need to ground them in this new and strange world.  Though it might be utterly complete in your imagination, your readers will have no idea what you’re talking about unless you tell them.

Fantasy stories set in other worlds tend to start with a map, usually located at the front of the book.  Readers can refer to it as they travel through the story.  Here’s one from The Dark Tower.

Finally crammed it in at the end.  

Image:  ka-tetofgeek.blogspot.com

The blogger at the image link makes a case for not including one; in his view, it’s more fun to visualize the alternate universe yourself as a reader.  But I think it’s okay—in fact, I like it.  Most maps don’t include interiors or structures; they just show rough topography and location.  Quite a few fantasy maps are amazing to look at.  Plus, even if you only have a crudely drawn one for your own purposes, a map helps you keep track while you’re writing.

Though not recommended for most novels, a prologue can inform readers.   Many people who saw Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film adaptations had not read the books.  Instead of waiting until later to reveal the origins of the Ring, they started with a prologue and set up its history at the beginning.  From the prologue, we learned the following about the story’s setting:

  1. We’re in a place called Middle Earth.
  2. A lot of different folk live here, like dwarves and elves and hobbits and wizards and humans.
  3. There’s magic here.  Like real, true, scary-ass magic.
  4. This place looks dangerous AF.

Be careful you don’t front-load a ton of exposition.  A book is different than a film; what a director can accomplish in just a few well-planned shots of a peaceful, pastoral place like the Shire can easily take you through an entire chapter.  And if you take your time getting to the story, you might lose your readers.

It’s a good thing they didn’t start with the Silmarillion. 

Image:  theharperprojectfiles.wordpress.com  

Better yet, just show them.  Take a cue from Tolkien and have your character do something (like planning a birthday party, perhaps?) and weave your exposition in as the story unfolds.  This is so much easier if you set your story in the regular world, but if you’re taking him somewhere else, like I did in Tunerville, you’ll still have to figure out how the other place looks, as well as how he’s going to get there.

A mythical setting, well written, can be as wild as you want it to be, but the reader MUST be able to suspend disbelief to enter fully into your story.  That means the rules must make sense within the confines of that world.

Some fiction uses real-life rules (like actual physics) and some uses made-up ones, but the writer still needs to follow them throughout the entire story or the reader is going to stop and say, “Wait a minute….didn’t Farquat already close the temporal loop by slamming Bulstrat’s head in the vault door in Chapter Seven?  Cheat!”

Consistency is key.  You can do an about-face on your characters, but it has to follow your rules.  It’s fine for them to find out the rules as the story progresses—you as the writer must know them ahead of time.  In order for the reader to suspend disbelief, the rules have to make sense, even if the rules deal with frog monsters on Pluto.  Everything has to make sense in that particular world.  You can’t have a frog monster suddenly rise from a frozen lake where you’ve already established that bat monsters live without a setup that fits within those rules.

So remember, kids, when writing a mythological setting:

  • Know your setting well enough so that you can show your readers.
  • Don’t give them too much exposition to start (let them explore along with your protagonist).
  • All the things that happen there have to make sense according to the rules of that world.

Now get to mything!

L is for Locals

Who else lives in your protagonist’s world? Are the locals insular, or more open?  Small towns can be either welcoming or suspicious; large cities seem cold and indifferent.  Would your story be more effective if you set these common tropes on their ear?

“Weeelll, I reckon it looks pretty happy here, but this whole town’s actually full of serial killers.  Welcome to Mayberry!”

Image:  Entertainment Weekly / pinterest.com

What problems do these people face?  They could deal with crime, gangs (you can have gangs in small places.  They’re not just a big-city problem.), and corruption—all internal issues that create great conflict.

People form groups.  What groups exist in your place, and how do they get along?  Grudges, resentments, and longings can provide fuel for a ton of conflicts.   Think about Stephen King’s book Needful Things.  The small town of Castle Rock, Maine (fictional) sees a new shop open—one that carries an assortment of one-of-a-kind, must-have objects.  To obtain their hearts’ desires, the townspeople who venture in are persuaded by Mr. Gaunt (who may or may not be human) to play pranks on other townspeople.  This feeds a constantly escalating war of getting even that eventually progresses to actual, bloody conflict, warfare, and murder.

A nice place to live.  Sure it is.  

Image:  thetruthinsidethelie.blogspot.com

The joke here–and it’s on the town–is that all this is staged for Gaunt’s entertainment.  King writes this character as though he is somewhat magical, but the reason all his manipulation works is because he knows what makes these people tick.  He knows their fears, their desires, and exactly where to pluck the strings of their intertwined relationships to make the most discordant music.  The horror does not lie in his ability to make Cora Rusk think she’s wearing Elvis Presley’s actual sunglasses, but in that he knows exactly what buttons to push.

Imagine if he weren’t a kind of Loki figure but actually lived in the town for years and knew everybody.  Imagine the sort of damage he could do.

The locals in your story will have their own cliques, feuds, and loyalties.  Their community goals will vary depending on how you choose to portray the setting, of course; a small town fighting a huge factory farming conglomerate for the preservation of their family acres is different from laconic city dwellers who have far too many things competing for their attention already.

“I’m against gentrification—ah screw it.  Gimme a decaf soy macchiato latte with avocado sprinkles.”

Image:  elephantjournal.com

The Dark Tower:  The Wolves of the Calla puts Roland and company in the tiny village of Calla Bryn Sturgis (WARNING:  spoilers at the link).  Here, once every twenty-some years, creatures called Wolves come from the dark land of Thunderclap and steal one of each of the town’s numerous sets of twin children.  As the ka-tet approaches, the town desperately reaches out to them for help.  Because gunslingers have a code that obligates them to assist people in genuine need without recompense, they do so.

And party a little bit while they’re at it.

Image:  Bernie Wrightson / darktowercompendium.com

Both readers and Roland’s New York apprentices finally get a real look at what it’s like to live in Mid-World.  We get that in Wizard and Glass, and they do peripherally, but only because Roland is telling them a story about it.

Calla Bryn Sturgis is different from Hambry in Mejis, though some of the customs are familiar to the gunslinger (the Rice Song that Roland dances to in the picture above is something he learned in Gilead, where he grew up).  Their dialect varies, too (“What would ye visit on us, ye chary gunstruck man?”) and lacks the Spanish influence so heavy in Mejis.  There are no vaqueros—they raise rice, not horses—and Roland expresses surprise at seeing one sombrero so far away.

It’s too easy to write villagers the same way over a series, but King manages to give them enough regional differences to keep the story fresh.  If your characters will travel far and encounter various populations, you would do well to follow his lead.

Yeah, we don’t all quaff mead and jump over bonfires on Harvest Night.  Sheesh.

Image:  “The Wine Of Saint Martins Day.”  Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) / Wikimedia Commons

You can use a concordance to keep it straight.  A concordance is a list of principal words or topics in a book, usually something scholarly or important like a linguistics text or a bible.  You can make one for your book.  I have concordances for both Tunerville and Rose’s Hostage, and they cover some of these topics:

  • The layout and demographics of my settings (Martinsburg, MO and Ralston, IL respectively)
  • Important locations in the story of which I want to keep track
  • Services and amenities (law enforcement; parks and rec in RH)
  • Characters
  • World rules (for Tunerville, which visits several non-corporeal locations)

Have some fun with your locals.  Make them scary.  Make them silly.  You might find twists and turns in your story you never imagined—let them take you there.

K is for Keeping

Is your story set in a prison or some other kind of internment situation?  Such a setting will have its own rules, separate from those with which your protagonist may be familiar.  The authorities in charge could have consistent guidelines or very arbitrary ones.  And the inmates or captives will have their own social codes.

Examples of a confined setting include:

  • Prisoner-of-war camp (The Bridge over the River Kwai)
  • Prison itself (The Green Mile, Orange is the New Black)
  • Kidnapping situation– isolated dwelling or hideout (Misery, Rose’s Hostage)
  • Illness or injury that restricts the protagonist’s movements (The Bone Collector, Rear Window)
  • Voluntary confinement, such as a group of teenagers at a lock-in, or a situation like the scientists who lived in Biosphere 2 for a time (a speculative story could have them in a spaceship)
Danger, Will Robinson!  Rogue lemons in Biome Three!

Danger, Will Robinson! Rogue lemons in Biome Three!

Photo:  Elizabeth West / Biosphere 2

You could also create a confinement situation with an event that suddenly traps people, as in Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome.  In the book, a huge clear dome comes down over a small town.  The residents can’t get out and no one can get in.  Personality clashes and secret (and not-so-secret) agendas bubble to the surface and add to the danger the captives face.

A prison setting is fairly easy to research if you want it to lean toward realism.  For the sequel to Rose’s Hostage (working title An Unsettled Calm), I got in touch with someone at a nearby federal facility regarding day-to-day life in the big house.

It ain’t no Club Fed, baby.

Image:  prisonhandbook.com

A work camp for tetrahedron-shaped aliens on Planet Eos in the star system Dogmaticus IV can squirt directly out of your brain, complete with a squadron of tentacled guards against a green sky.  Or whatever turns you on.

If you decide on a prison or captivity setting, at some point your protagonist or one of his inmates will likely attempt to escape.  Since most prisoners don’t manage this by themselves, either your setting will have to have an inherent weakness or your escapee will need help.

Or a conveniently timed miracle.

Image:  stephenking.wikia.com

Remember your infrastructure.  Both the soft and hard versions matter in a prison.  First, Farquat needs to figure out how he (it) can breach the perimeter and flee the work camp (a drainpipe a la Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption; going over the wall).

And what organizational systems run this place?  Where can you erode them so Farquat can con the guards or enlist its fellow inmates to help?  Once it’s out, can it commandeer a prison shuttlecraft, hijack a nearby freighter, and fly away from Dogmaticus IV, or will it have to stow away on a maintenance vehicle?

In Stephen King’s novel Misery, Paul Sheldon can’t leave Annie Wilkes’s house because his legs are injured so badly he can’t walk.  When it dawns on him that Annie is actually holding him hostage (and she’s completely batshit insane), he also realizes she’s confined him chemically.  He’s hooked on the painkillers she gives him.  Paul has to engage in mental combat with her to even survive.

Roland Deschain could break him out, but alas; there is no Dark Tower crossover here.  Sorry, Paul; you’re on your own!

Image:   darktower.wikia.com

In your place of keeping, try a few different points of view.  One continuous, unchanging setting can get monotonous, but no two characters will see it the same way.  What is maddening to one may seem cozy to another.  Experiment and see what comes up.  The only wasted writing is the effort you don’t make.

J is for Journey

Will your characters travel?  If they do, will they go far, like Frodo and the Fellowship or Roland Deschain’s ka-tet, or will a short car ride suffice?

♪  We’re on a road to nowhere….  ♪

♪ We’re on a road to nowhere…. ♪

Image:  the odysseyonline.com /seeanywhereinaday.wordpress.com

Like scenes, every setting should have a purpose.  Your characters could travel through the desert.  There isn’t much to see, and it gets boring after a while.  Would they fight?  What if they break down?  Now they’re stuck in the middle of nowhere without any water.  What kind of conflict can you get out of this situation?  How will it drive the story forward?

Geek Alert!!!

The entire plotline in The Lord of the Rings revolves around the quest to destroy an object of great power before it falls into the wrong hands.  To do that, Frodo and Sam have to travel through some pretty inhospitable terrain, and they encounter many hazards along the way.  It’s almost a Middle Earth travelogue.

However, each place they go is significant to the story.  For example, right away they encounter Tom Bombadil and quickly get in trouble in the Barrow Downs, where he must rescue them.  This may seem like a digression, but during their time with Tom and his wife Goldberry, they get a glimpse of the vast and uncontrollable forces controlling the world outside the Shire, into which they are about to venture.

Oh piss off, Tom. 

Oh piss off, Tom.

Image:  lotr.wikia.com

The terrain they travel through parallels the quest.  The hobbits begin their journey in the Shire, a pastoral landscape of small villages and simple folk.  As they draw closer to Mordor, the terrain changes.   It reflects not only the external events but the internal ones as well:

  • The Shire:  the innocence and peace of Middle Earth and of the hobbits, which they gradually lose as they go
  • Isengard:  Orthanc, one of the Two Towers, is kinda creepy, like a preview of Barad-dûr
  • Rivendell:  the last outpost before the Fellowship ventures into danger
  • Amon Hen:  where Boromir’s desire for the Ring leads him to betray Frodo and die.
Hey, that's not a spoiler.  He's played by Sean Bean.  You know he's gonna die.

Hey, that’s not a spoiler. He’s played by Sean Bean. You know he’s gonna die.

Image: buffsisters.wordpress.com

  • Rohan:  the wild and windy land near Gondor where defiant allies dwell (Rohirrim!)
  • Gondor:  Minas Tirith, the White City, lies right at the edge of the desolation of Mordor and suffers from its proximity
  • Mordor:  rugged, bleak and horrible, where dark things thrive and the Ring is ever powerful

Fangorn Forest represents the power of nature to overcome the machinations of men—we’ve all seen what happens when structures are abandoned.  Grass grows, trees sprout, and water wears away stone.  Tolkien imbues the setting itself with sentience.  And it’s pissed.

“My business is with Isengard tonight, with rock and stone.”

“My business is with Isengard tonight, with rock and stone.”

 Image:  fanpop.com

As they get closer, the landscapes become larger and more forbidding.  Frightening stuff for little hobbits who never before got as far as Bree.


In The Dark Tower, gunslinger Roland’s ka-tet must travel long and far to reach the linchpin of a dying world, in an attempt to repair the damage that is tearing it apart.  Eddie, Jake, and Susannah are drawn into Mid-World (one section of All-World) by Roland.  They become his apprentices and soon share his obsession with reaching the Dark Tower.

King incorporates many elements of the everyday Earth the three apprentice gunslingers are familiar with, which further emphasizes that Mid-World is not just another universe but one of several parallel universes linked alongside it.  The remnants of a civilization similar to the United States litter the landscape.  Vast swaths of it were irradiated in an ancient nuclear war, leaving fantastic mutations in both beast and man.

Just ask Jake.

Image:  Michael Whelan / stephenking.com

The ka-tet must find their own sustenance as they travel along the path of the Beam, one of the energy lines leading to the Dark Tower.  They encounter much danger along the way.  In the village of Calla Bryn Sturgis (read this as an adult and all the familiar names just jump out at you), they even meet a character who made early King fans scream, “SO THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM!”

Everything here serves a purpose as well.  The events at Calla Bryn Sturgis play a huge part in the quest for the Tower; why I cannot tell you (read the damn books!).  Each digression carries its own meaning.

  • On the beach, Roland draws his companions and they begin to painfully form their group.
  • In Mejis, we see into Roland’s tragic past and begin to understand the dark machinations of the Crimson King.
  • Through a thinny into Topeka, Kansas, on an Earth ravaged by the superflu (yes, it’s the same world as The Stand), our intrepid explorers encounter King’s perennial villain (OMG READ THE BOOKS).

See how far you can go with this? You don’t have to get this elaborate, of course.  Your characters may never move from one spot.  They might be like the characters in Bug and stay put in one motel room for nearly the entire story.

I’m itchy.

Image:  spindlemagazine.com

For a very long quest, you’ll need to establish quite a few settings.  A map, authentic or imagined, can help you picture your geography and topography.  Even if your characters don’t stay long in any one place, you should give each one real thought.

I is for Infrastructure

From Google:  in·fra·struc·ture



  1. the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, and power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.

Think of your setting as a real, physical place.  Imagine your character is thinking of living there.  What did you think about the last time you moved?  What kinds of things do you want to know about your potential new home?  What would he need to consider before moving?

  • Layout–can you easily find your way around?
I love you, London, but your streets are like a plate of spaghetti. 

I love you, London, but your streets are like a plate of spaghetti.

Image:  stanfords.co.uk

  • Types of housing
  • Utilities–costs, what’s available (in rural areas, you might have to arrange for propane delivery)
  • Schools–primary and secondary, university campuses
  • Transportation–are there other ways to get round instead of driving? Buses, etc.
  • Parking–is there a place to put his car?
  • Employment–factories, etc.
  • Ports, shipyards, and other maritime facilities, if the story is set by the sea

A large place may have public transport.  If it has trains, it will need tracks, tunnels, stations, etc.  If a river runs through it, it needs bridges.  These things can either help or limit your protagonist.  Use them!   He’ll have a harder time traversing a city whose infrastructure has crumbled after a disaster/epidemic/invasion.  Alternatively, keep the city intact but throw a disruption his way.  Look what happens to London when the tube goes down.

Bloody hell; I’m going to miss Game of Thrones. 

Bloody hell; I’m going to miss Game of Thrones.

Image:  London Evening Standard, standard.co.uk

Imagine him trying to get through that mess for a very urgent reason!

The term hard infrastructure refers to facilities, roads, bridges, train/bus stations, power grids, forts, etc.  School, health care, and financial systems, as well as law enforcement and emergency services, are called soft infrastructure.  Political systems fall into that category too.  So you will need to consider how your city will run.

Anyone who has played video games like Sim City will understand what goes into urban planning.  Even if you haven’t, you already know how things work where you live now.  Drawing a map may help you get started.  Here’s a rough one I made of Martinsburg, the town in which I set Tunerville.

Martinsburg map

Image of the inside of Elizabeth West’s head

Okay, that’s really rough, but you get the idea.  Once you have the basics, you can extrapolate from there.  If you’re working on a larger scale, such as with counties, states, or countries, you can add things like energy sources (oil or gas pipelines, etc.) and conflicts in the soft infrastructure, such as wars, that provide backstory.

So your protagonist now has an apartment with covered parking for his car (lucky him).  He works in the shipyard loading containers onto big-ass boats and attends night classes at the local university.  What you’ll do with him next is up to you.  Throw some aliens at him!  A failed relationship!  A sharknado!



Image:  Syfy / cheatsheet.com

Time to stop now.  Tomorrow we’ll talk about journeys.  Expect more Dark Tower and Lord of the Rings nerdiness.  I’ll see you then.

H is for History

Entire books deal with writing historical fiction, but I’ll try to be brief here.  If you choose to set your story in the past, you will have to research not only your setting but a completely different culture.  You can’t have someone saying, “I feel ya, bro,” or wearing a backward baseball cap in Elizabethan England.

“Bitches be like, I hope he break up with her so I can be his queen, yo.”  Hmm, yeah, he probably would have posted this. 

“Bitches be like, I hope he break up with her so I can be his queen, yo.”  Hmm, yeah, he probably would have posted this.

Image:  Wikimedia Commons

The culture and background of your main character will dictate what sort of dwelling he lives in, what implements or tools he uses daily (anything more complex than a snuff box), and where/how he goes anywhere.

I’d go a bit more in depth than just watching films or reading Wikipedia.  Travel guides, blogs, and books can help.  Look in the children’s or young adult sections of the library for non-fiction books on your chosen country or time period.  There are lots of books about life in ancient Egypt or medieval Europe, and you might even find something unusual.  Google the crap out of it.

If your protagonist is a woman, she will have limits placed on her activity in certain places and times.  Women in the United States did not win the vote until 1920.  She couldn’t whip out a credit card until 1974, because no bank would issue it to her without a husband’s okay.  Before the early 1970s, women could not wear trousers in the workplace (I can remember this fight).  If she is a woman of color, these restrictions may be even more draconian.  Despite this protectionism and sexism, women accomplished many things.

Damn right.

“Thou art damn right.” — Ada Lovelace 

Image: Wikipedia

Pretend you’re going on a trip back in time (essentially, you are!) and gather as much information as you can.  Ask yourself questions like these:

  • What did people wear?
  • What did they eat?
  • How would I have to behave to pass as one of them?
  • What buildings or structures existed then?
  • How about infrastructure?
  • Transportation?
  • Was the weather different? (it probably was)
  • What objects would my character own?

You could even incorporate a dramatic event such as a fire, an earthquake (the 1811-12 New Madrid Quakes; the Boston Molasses Disaster or the London Beer Flood) into your story.

You might even want to imagine a past event as though it had turned out differently (alternate history).  Example:  It Happened Here, a British independent film made in 1964 that imagines post-WWII Britain under Nazi occupation.  You might find it on YouTube (hurry, before they pull it).  As you will see in the film, post-WWII Britain is very different in this scenario.  Alternate events will absolutely change your setting.



It’s unnecessary to use all your information—remember, you don’t need to include huge amounts of exposition—but carefully chosen details will bring the historical setting to life.  To keep that to a minimum, use things you know your audience will recognize, along with interesting obscure details.

But Elizabeth, you ask, how will I know which details to include?  Easy.  Your setting is a character, right?  So think about the same attributes and characteristics you would for the people in your story who live in that time period.  And have fun with it!  When else are you going to get a chance to time travel?

Could be fun; could be scary.  We’ll find out when we get there. 

Could be fun; could be scary.  We’ll find out when we get there.

Image: Ned Dameron / stephenking.com