W is for Weather

Think about the film Fargo and the series based on it.  It’s set in North Dakota, where winter is long and dreary and snowy.  People go about their days regardless of the snow; they’re used to it.  But it does affect how they look, act, and what they wear.

It’s the height of Minnesota fashion, dontcha know.  Uff da!

Image:  imdb.com

Climate can provide transitions.  In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a tornado whisks Dorothy away from a dreary grey farm to a colorful fantasy land.  If your story is set on the coast of Cornwall, the weather will affect the population’s business interests.  A wild storm can wreck fishing boats, destroy buildings, and wash characters into the sea to a watery grave.

The weather can even affect the way people act.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics did a study on how climate affects crime rates.  Some types of crime rise in the warmer months, and others peak during autumn.  Anyone who’s lived through a heat wave knows how crabby scorching summer days can make you feel.

I’d love to rape and pillage with you today, Leif, but it’s too damn hot.  Let me sleeeeeep….

Image:  tv.com

If your story includes a crime, climactic events can hinder or help the perpetrator or your protagonist as he tries to solve it or even becomes the victim.  Someone fleeing in the snow leaves footprints.  An ongoing blizzard erases them.  Rain washes away evidence, or exposes it.  An attempt to pursue someone across the desert becomes a struggle for survival.  Phone lines go down in an ice storm and cell towers become unusable.

Stephen King used a storm in two interesting ways.  In Storm of the Century, a TV miniseries penned by King, a dangerous blizzard traps the residents of Little Tall Island.  An odd, supernatural stranger named Andre Linoge makes them a proposition they quite literally can’t refuse.  The storm blocks any egress from the island, so there is no one to help them or interfere with Linoge’s agenda.

The Wind through the Keyhole is the eighth Dark Tower novel.  It takes place after the events in Wizard and Glass (Book IV) but before The Wolves of the Calla (Book V).  A huge and powerful storm called a starkblast swoops down on the ka-tet and they must shelter in an abandoned building.

While they hunker down, Roland tells them about an event following the death of his mother, in which he and his friend Jamie were sent to deal with a skin-man (a werewolf in Mid-World).  While recounting this story, he gives them another, one he told the traumatized survivor of this monster, a story about another little boy that may, in Mid-World, be either legend or true.

Maerlyn and starkblasts and magic; oh my!

Image:  Platinum Fmd and Rex Bonomelli  / cemeterydance.com

Both stories use weather as a means of confinement.   In Storm of the Century, it takes on an extra element of destruction—it almost seems as though Linoge is an extension of the storm itself.  He arrives with it, he takes what he wants (much as a tornado eats everything in its path), and leaves with it.  The starkblast in Wind through the Keyhole also leaves massive damage in its wake, but it functions mostly as a reason for Roland to spin his tales.  King did not publish it until 2012, eight years after the series had ostensibly concluded with Book VIII.  It allowed him to shoehorn a couple more Mid-World stories in, and it nicely settles the psychological dust following the emotionally harrowing memories of Wizard and Glass.

Besides plot points, you can use the changes in weather to reflect the mood of your story.  A brassy, hot summer can feel either playful or desperate, depending on what’s going on.  Spring and autumn tend to produce unsettled weather—warm and bright one day, dark and chilly the next.  The quality of late afternoon sunlight shifts in autumn.  One can feel the clamp of darkness looming.  Shorter days feel like the end of something.  If your characters are facing the conclusion of their personal business, it might make sense to set the story in autumn.

Harvest festivals might be a bit clichéd if their business is to dress as Michael Myers and chop the neighbors into little pieces.

Harvest festivals might be a bit clichéd if their business is to dress as Michael Myers and chop the neighbors into little pieces.

Image:  moviepilot.com

Or you could contrast it to unsettle them and the readers.  Imagine two characters, Alec and Henry, in a relationship.  Alec abandons Henry right at the start of tourist season, leaving Henry to manage their seaside restaurant on the pier alone.  In happier times, the approach of summer excited Henry, a shiny coin of promise both for their economic stability and their social life.

Now, the summer is stark, hot, ugly, and unpleasant.  The heat and sun don’t invigorate Henry; all he wants is to crawl into bed in the clapboard beach house he shared with Alec and cry until his eyes fall out.  But he has to run the restaurant—without that income, he would have to sell the beach house and move far from the coast he loves.  In this way, the mood of the setting conflicts with the character’s mood.  Your reader can feel Henry’s irritation and frustration with the season he formerly loved.

Oh, be nice and give poor Henry a rebound, at least.

Oh, be nice and give poor Henry a rebound, at least.

Image:  artur84 / freedigitalphotos.net

As I mentioned in the T post, incorporating changes in climate marks the passage of time.  These are only some of the ways you can use weather in your setting to color your story.  Experiment a little and see if it makes a difference.

V is for Victuals

Food!  What do the people in your setting eat?  Is food readily available, or will they have to scrabble for it?  Gathering food means the expenditure of time and energy.  Most daily activities will revolve around getting it, eating it, and preparing it for storage.

If you have a contemporary, modern, first-world setting and your characters have enough money to live, this won’t be a problem.  But what if they don’t?  Where will they find food?  In a setting with few resources, your characters will suffer.  You could make them look in some of these places, each with its own challenges for your character to overcome.

  • Food banks (if there is enough food)
  • Soup kitchens (for a hot meal—they might have to listen to a sermon first. If your protag is an atheist, you could make this interesting either with an interior monologue or a confrontation.)
  • Dumpster diving (finding an unlocked dumpster is hard; fighting rats; humiliation)
  • Asking friends or family to help out (humiliation; what if they won’t?)
  • Food stamps or other government programs (long application process; in a dystopian story, it could even be a dangerous one)
Or they could find out what they’re eating….

Or they could find out what they’re eating….  #soylentgreen

Image:  heavymetal.com

In The Dark Tower, our intrepid ka-tet is fortunate that they can hunt for most of their journey when they’re not near a settled area.  Deer and other animals roam in the woods of Mid-World.  Roland, an old hand at living off the land, fashions something Eddie likes to call “gunslinger burritos” for them to eat, from whatever is available.

However, in The Drawing of the Three, there’s not much sustenance except the carnivorous lobstrosities that tumble out of the waves of the Western Sea at night.   Of course, it should be especially gratifying for Roland to kill them—after all, they did eat his trigger finger.

Dad-a-chuck, dad-a-chee; you look pretty tasty to me!


Image:  Phil Hale / darktower.wikia.com

Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet is a great young adult story where a character learns how to survive after an unexpected accident strands him in the wilderness with only a small hatchet and a vague idea of woodcraft.  Brian must find shelter and feed himself from the land until a rescue comes.  This extremely popular character appears in five novels written by Paulsen.

Since we all need food to live, acquiring it can become a major conflict in your story.  Suzanne Collins sets her Hunger Games series in a ruined version of North America, where starving teens from twelve districts compete to the death to win food and supplies for their areas.  Both the Japanese novel Battle Royale and Stephen King’s The Running Man did this very well previously, though the premises were military research and entertainment for the masses (the ultimate reality show!), respectively.

Film versions:  a dark and emotional adaptation vs. a Hollywood-ized pile of silly

Film versions:  a dark and emotional adaptation vs. a Hollywood-ized pile of silly

Image:  fanpop.com  / pastemagazine.com

Besides getting food in their faces, what kind of food will your characters eat?  People living in a small agricultural community can raise much of their food.  Vegetables, cattle, sheep, and goats may grace their menu.  If they live in a seaside area, they may fish for a living.

Historical fiction demands more research.  People ate differently in medieval times, for instance.   Also, their socioeconomic status made a difference.

Rich folk

  • Meat (game)
  • Imported fish
  • Puddings and desserts (Elizabethan gingerbread would surprise the hell out of you)
  • Cereals and breads, mainly wheat
  • Lots and lots of ale

Poor folk

  • Also cereals and breads, though less refined with cheaper grains like barley and oats
  • Salt pork
  • Beans
  • Eggs, if they were lucky enough to have chickens
  • Whatever they could find, sometimes

Preservation was hit or miss—smoking, pickling, salting, and brining were common ways to keep one’s food from spoiling before it could be eaten or to help it travel well.

Victorians lived before food purity laws, so their victuals were often contaminated with all sorts of things.  Flour could be adulterated with plaster, milk with chalk, and lead was freaking everywhere.  You could not know what might be in your food; unless you grew everything from scratch yourself (not likely, especially in the city), it was a total crapshoot.

Pardon good sir; I believe I have deduced that your food is absolutely inedible.  Might I lie down and die now?  I thank you. 

Image:  George P. Landow / thevictorianweb.com

Depending on the period about which you are writing, your characters may not be as lucky as we are today to have clean food and water.  And cooking would not have been easy–up until the 1950s in some areas, wood stoves were a thing, and before that, cooking was done on the fire.

The time of day people eat also varies, as well as how they conduct the business of eating.  Let’s use supper as an example.  A gunslinger burrito beside the campfire might hit the spot if you’ve been tramping through Mid-World all day, and you might not stay awake long enough to crave dessert afterward.  You’ll probably want to set up camp before it gets too dark to see, so you can gather wood for your fire.

If your protagonists are vacationing in Spain, however, they likely won’t eat until much later.  The typically massive Spanish lunch does not happen until after 2:00 p.m., and tapas with your evening drinks may not even be available at many restaurants until 8:30 or 9:00 pm!

Worth waiting for, IMO, if it’s anything like this place.

Worth waiting for, IMO, if it’s anything like this place.

Image:  Elizabeth West / Camino – King’s Cross, London

Disclaimer:  Sadly, I have not been to Spain, but I hope to go someday.  In the meantime, Camino was a good introduction to tapas, which is something I had not tried before.

Rituals surrounding food vary as well.  In countries like Spain and Italy, food is an event—you don’t shovel a meal in and then leave when you go to a restaurant.  Watch some episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations sometime and you’ll see that eating can be much more than mere sustenance.  It’s also a way for people to connect with each other.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  Food customs of your setting can either help your protagonists or hinder them.  A story need not revolve around food, but meals can bring your characters together.

U is for Utopia

This will be a short post because I cleaned the house, car, myself, and made made salmon with avocado salsa for supper.  I am quite tired.

A utopia is an imaginary place where society has achieved perfection.  Speculative fiction, particularly science fiction, is loaded with these.  Some interesting story elements come out of utopias.

Think of Earth in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  That’s utopic.  Socially, politically, and morally, it has achieved a state where the populace wants for nothing.  Captain Picard says, “A lot has changed in three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of ‘things’. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions.” (TNG: “The Neutral Zone“)

Everything is perfect, except when the damn replicator loses it.

Image:  memory-alpha.wikia.com

What sort of conflict would characters have if everything were perfect?  You might have to catapult your protagonist out of this ideal world and into one where developments have not achieved such smooth workings.  Or, as with several episodes of Star Trek, the conflicts could be internal.  Even people who live in a utopia still have feelings, desires, and problems.  And because humans can’t exist for long without getting pissy with someone, there will be plenty of those.

You could create conflict by threatening the utopia from the outside.  In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo agrees to take the One Ring to Mordor because he knows that if he doesn’t, even his tiny, peaceful, unimportant corner of Middle Earth will become a festering wasteland.

And indeed, in the book it nearly does.

And indeed, in the book it nearly does.

Image:  the Scouring of the Shire / theonering.net

Or, try breaking down the utopia somehow from within.  A saboteur, a weakness that somehow grows unnoticed until one small negligent act blows it wide open–possibilities are endless.  Another way to do this is show what seems to be a utopia but is really a ­­dystopiaTHX 1138, a science fiction film starring Robert Duvall and directed by a young George Lucas, is a great example of a complete dystopia (and is actually a good film).

Another thing you can do is have your utopia attempt to help a dystopia and everything goes horribly wrong.  There really is no limit to what people will do when they’re desperate or really, really bored.

You must avoid making the inhabitants of a utopic society either too intellectual or too childlike.  No one is completely one or the other; to do so will render your characters unbelievable or silly.  The same goes for the setting.  In the Star Trek: TNG episode “Justice,” the Enterprise approaches a planet populated by very innocent and open people (hilariously so), also has a catch.  If you commit any infraction while within a randomly designated punishment zone, no matter how unintended, the penalty is…death!

Whoever designed these costumes was really pushing it --it’s a wonder the censors didn’t kill them.

Whoever designed these costumes was really pushing it –it’s a wonder the censors didn’t kill them.

Image:  sttngfashion.tumblr.com

So no utopia will ever be too perfect.  Any world, especially one inhabited by intelligent beings, will always have flaws.

Read more about utopian and dystopian fiction here.

T is for Time

Time will affect where or when your characters can act.  If they need to travel during the course of the story, they will need ample time to get there.  Frodo could not go to Mount Doom in a few days; the Quest of the Ring had to take place over many weeks.

/nerd rant Yes, I know the damn eagles could have flown him there, but that’s not what Gandalf chose to do, for reasons of secrecy and surety.  Sauron would have noticed eagles immediately and probably recaptured the Ring; he didn’t notice tiny Frodo and Sam until it was too late.  Basically, Gandalf snuck up on Sauron the same way Bilbo snuck up on Smaug.  /nerd rant over

The events in Rose’s Hostage happen over the course of a couple of months and wrap up the end of an investigation.  They cover several locations:  a crime scene, a hideout, several private homes, motels, and a couple of hospitals, to name a few.  Secret Book begins during the protagonists’ childhoods and spans decades.  There is ample time to visit multiple settings.

But a narrative need not take years to do this.  The entirety of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway takes place in a single day.  Clarissa Dalloway goes about her party preparations, she revisits past events and places in her mind, and so do other characters–particularly Septimus Smith, in a dichotomy of madness.  In London, we visit Bond Street, Regent’s Park, and briefly, Greenwich.  Big Ben marks the passage of time throughout the narrative as the day wears on.

I love walking down Bond Street to Piccadilly, though I can barely afford to breathe the air.   

I love walking down Bond Street to Piccadilly, though I can barely afford to breathe the air.

Image:  Google Street View

Time will inform all your characters’ decisions.  Your detective may only have a few hours to find a buried hostage before she suffocates.  Her actions will make use of every bit of that time.  Or your languid Gilded Age heir may take years to make an important decision, his procrastination allowing the progression of other events to eventually become his ruin.

You will need to account for time between happenings, and it should make sense to your reader.  Popular fiction, particularly in television shows, often fudges elapsed time for dramatic effect.  For example, real-life crime labs have notoriously large backlogs, but somehow the hero always gets DNA results in just a few hours.  In real life, it can take months or even years.

Maybe your protagonists can make use of time or manipulate it to get where they want to go.  The Doctor can set his TARDIS for anywhen and anywhere.  Of course, she’s a fickle thing and doesn’t always go where she’s sent, but that’s just part of her charm.

Silly thing’s gone round the bend again! Hold on!

Silly thing’s gone round the bend again! Hold on!

Image:  themindrobber.co.uk

Time, as the Doctor knows, is less a linear thing than we surmise.  In your story, you can make it behave as you will–you can slow it down, speed it up, or even stop it.  It can even offer assistance when you’re writing.  Imagine you’ve walked into your setting with time suddenly halted right in the middle of the action.  What catches your attention?

In The Dark Tower, our intrepid ka-tet can travel to different versions of Earth, as I mentioned elsewhere, but they find to their chagrin that time isn’t as precise as they assume it is.  Nor is time exactly what it should be in Mid-World, either; for instance, Roland has been on his way to the Dark Tower for much, much longer than they think.

Not too shabby for an old fellow.


Image:  Ned Dameron / darktowercompendium.com

Some novels have chapter headings that list the date, time, and place in which a scene occurs.  Thriller authors do this a lot.  Here’s one from James Rollins’ book Ice Hunt:

Ice Hunt chapter heading

(I’m reading this book now in between Dark Tower VI and VII.  It’s pretty cool.  I’m almost halfway through and I’m starting to get antsy–if I don’t find out soon what’s on Level 4 of Ice Station Grendel, I’m going to scream!)

In Rose’s Hostage, the action takes place over the course of July in the summer of [????], about a month.  I did have to put chapter headings in, like Friday, July 25.  But I only put the date so you could see roughly where you were.  What Rollins did fits a military-themed sci-fi thriller quite well–it would have been overkill for my book.

You can also show the passage of time by incorporating it into your narrative.  This is what I like to do.  As you move through chapters, mention the weather–it’s raining; it’s cold; now it’s warmer but the flowers haven’t come out yet.  Have your characters put on their coats, scarves, and boots or take them off.  Play with it a little bit.  I’m sure you’ll find what works best for your story.

S is for Sound

A lot of writers tend to describe things visually—but consider your other senses.  Next to sight, the first thing many people will notice about a place is how it sounds.

Is it loud?  Is it quiet?  If you dropped a blind character in the middle of it, what distinctive noises would he hear that could tell him where he is?

Is it a city?  Some things you might hear in a city include:

  • Traffic—lots of it, most of the time, even at night
    • The rumble of buses
    • Cars honking, engines revving and idling
    • Emergency sirens from ambulances, police units, and fire trucks
  • People talking, laughing and yelling (depending on where you are)
  • Music spilling from storefronts, bars, and restaurants
  • If you’re on a very crowded street, a rumble of footsteps
  • Trains
    • Wheels rumbling, clacking, and screeching as they slow and stop
    • Horns and whistles
    • The echoing voice of the PA announcements, if you’re in the station

What do you hear and what makes it different from any other city? In Europe, sirens have a distinctive two-tone sound that lets you know where you are the second you hear it.  Sadly, for reasons Britain phased out the two-tone siren and now London sounds just like any other big city.  Ah, the good old days.

If it has large parks, different parts of it near those spaces will be quieter.  If it has large sporting events, it might contain a stadium.  Crowd sounds, lots of honking, etc. after games let out, people laughing, beer bottles shattering, etc.  A smaller town will have some traffic noises at certain parts of the day, but unlike New York, it will quiet down when everyone has got to work or school.  Parts of London can be surprisingly quiet at night—but that can be true of any big city.

If the town has a river through it, you’ll hear boat horns, and if it is a port city, most likely seagulls.  This is not a given; I live smack in the bellybutton of the US and we have seagulls at the city landfill.

Thieving bastards.

Move to a more rural setting and you can have animal noises.  Cows pretty much sleep at night, unless a farmer is weaning calves, and then you get to listen to them bawl for hours because they’re separated from their babies.  Don’t ask me how I know this.

Sounds not only lend your setting atmosphere, but they can even contribute to the plot.  Todash is a state where you can travel between worlds in The Dark Tower.  It’s not a pleasant thing; unnerving chimes (kammen) herald your approach to this state.  One of the ways you can go todash is to, um, die.  When someone hears those chimes, shit’s about to get real.

Multi-verse travel?  Sounds like fun!  Let’s do it!  Oh wait….

Image:  darktower.wikia.com

The TARDIS in Doctor Who has its own sound; you can’t mistake it for anything else.  In this case, it functions as a character tag, a unique identifying device that only goes with that character (and yes, the TARDIS is a character).  You can use sound in the same way to distinguish your world.  Hear it in your head and then put it on the paper.  With practice and skill, your readers will hear it too.

R is for Real

You might have set your story in a real live place.  Maybe one you know well, which would make it easy, but suppose you chose one to which you’ve never been?

You would hardly be the first writer to do this.  Bram Stoker famously did it in Dracula, putting his character Jonathan Harker in mortal peril in the craggy Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania, a place he had never visited.  And he did it pretty well for a Victorian writer with no access to internet.

If you do use a real place, you will need to either go there (prohibitive, I know) or study it extensively.  Readers who live or have traveled to the location will know if you screw up and they will call you on it.  Resources you may use include the following.


Oh, the places you’ll go.  You’ve got Wikipedia, official websites, web atlases, travel sites, maps, and even databases.  I googled London, England location and found all those and more.


Get thee to the library, little writer, and find not only an internet connection but loads of books.  Yes, some of them may be outdated, but others will not be, and the reference librarian can be your new best friend.

Cross me, and you’ll never find the book you need.  Ha ha, just kidding! Welcome to the library! 

Cross me, and you’ll never find the book you need.  Ha ha, just kidding! Welcome to the library!

Image:  imagerymajestic/freedigitalphotos.net


Know anyone who’s lived or traveled to the place you’re writing about?  Talk to them!  If you’ve chosen an earlier decade in which to set your story, older folks who lived around there at the time can provide you with all sorts of details a Wikipedia article won’t mention.  I’ve managed to glean quite a few for Secret Book by hanging out in a Facebook group dedicated to old London photos and chatting up fellow travelers at the B&B I stayed at in Cardiff.

You can also use real places but change or alter them in some way.  Remember we talked about alternate history in another post?  Same thing here.

Geek Alert!!!

In The Dark Tower, Stephen King uses New York City as a lynchpin to illustrate how his multiverses work.

Eddie Dean, Susannah Dean (formerly Odetta Holmes), and Jake Chambers all come from New York, but each one is from a different time–1987, 1964, and 1977 respectively.  As we travel along the Path of the Beam with them, we realize their versions of New York are also different.

  • The “real world” (Keystone Earth), where the reader is, contains the Rose, the physical manifestation of the Tower on Earth. It resides in Keystone New York.
  • Eddie’s New York has Co-Op City, where he’s from, in Brooklyn; it’s really in the Bronx.
  • Jake appears to have come from yet another version of New York, though it seems fluid; he not only can hear and see the Rose, he meets up with a child version of Eddie, who leads him to the place where he is finally drawn back to Mid-World.
  • There are some weird temporal effects every time the ka-tet travels into these worlds. Sometimes time goes faster, sometimes slower, and they can go into both the past and the future.  In Keystone Earth, they can only go forward, so whatever they do there has to be right, because they only get one shot.

How do they travel, sai? you may ask.  Read the books and you’ll know.  I say true.

Image:  letusnerd.com

(That set’s not arranged properly; the story of The Wind through the Keyhole takes place between Wizard and Glass and The Wolves of the Calla.)

Make sure if you mess around with a real place that your changes make sense within the confines of your story.  You can’t put dinosaurs in New York without a good explanation about how they got there.  And no, you can’t say they escaped from Jurassic Park, either.

To reference another trope writers often use regarding reality, does your setting actually exist in any universe, or does your story take place inside your character’s head (or a machine’s)?  The Matrix used this to good effect.  Neo discovers that the world he knew as reality isn’t really a thing; what we see every day is actually simulated, and humans are the energy source for the sentient machines that built it.

The worst example has to be the it was all a dream! trope.  That one feels like a cheat–because it is.  It’s a cheap way out, unless it leads to something else.

So here are three ways you can use real places as your settings. Try some of them.  Let us know if you’ve already done this and how it turned out!

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?