Blogging from A-Z April Challenge Reflection Post!

The Blogging from A to Z April Challenge is over for another year and I have survived!  To everyone who made it through with me, cheers to us!

Hedgehog cheering for you

Sorry it took so long to write this–work has been insane and I’m so tired at night I can’t even work on Secret Book or anything else.  I hope things level out soon.

This year, in addition to choosing a theme ahead of time and pre-writing, I decided to pre-post.  WordPress has a scheduling function that allowed me to construct each post the night before and set it to go live at 6:00 am the following morning.  I knew this existed, but I’d never used it.

I think it should be my go-to from now on; writing the night before instead of waiting until I got home from work saved me so much angst.  Usually, I either try to crank out something on my lunch hour and then post when I get home, or wait until then.  It’s too easy to get behind that way.  So nope.

I have several blogs bookmarked to read—unfortunately, the list of quality posts is crazy long every year and I can’t possibly visit all the interesting-looking blogs while trying to keep up with my own posting.  But after the challenge, I can go back and peruse them at my leisure.  I have no life; I might as well catch up.

Off-topic, but why are there so many stock photos of people with laptops lying like this?

Image:  Matthias Ritzman/Corbis /

Everybody knows you use your laptop in bed like this:

Image: Sam Diephuis via Getty Images/

I enjoy doing this challenge, because it lets me choose an aspect of writing and deconstruct it—trying to explain it to you often changes the way I think about it.  Not everyone who reads my blog writes also, and I’ve had more than one question about how I do things.  While each writer’s process is different, we’re all trying to do the same thing.  When I read other people’s posts, I learn from them as well.

It’s loads of fun to tie something into the theme, like the Sherlock pictures in the Character posts in 2014’s challenge.  I had a great time thinking up captions for those.  This time, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower not only provided illustrations but plenty of examples.  While I’ve got nothing quite so ambitious, my little brain wheel is churning over a sequel to Tunerville, which may take me into an alternate universe, if it please ya.

If you want to read TDT but you’ve never read any other Stephen King, you should absolutely read ‘Salem’s Lot first and then Hearts in Atlantis [edited to add: and also Insomnia, though it’s a brick].  I’m a third of the way through Book VII and I’ll be finished soon, so I won’t bug you with it (much) after this except to periodically exhort you to read it and not watch the Hollywood shitshow.

Okay, one more.

Image:  Michael Whelan /

I hope the A-Z team keeps this challenge going–unless a miracle happens and I get so busy with cool life stuff and book tours (!!!) that I don’t have time to blog every day, I’ll keep doing it.  I’ll see you soon with more random writing and stuff.  ‘Til then, long days and pleasant nights, sai.

Z is for Zoo

Will there be indigenous animals in your story?  Your setting’s fauna will reflect other elements such as climate, topography, and the introduction of non-native species at some point.  Usually, this last is caused by human travel and/or habitation.  There are few unspoiled places left on the planet, no thanks to us.

We’re dirty things, we are.


If you’re creating an imaginary world, you’ll still have to work within these parameters if you want it to be somewhat realistic.

I’m mostly done poking you in the brain with Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.  If you haven’t already, I hope you read it before the whole Hollywood mess comes out.  However, I have one more thing to discuss:



Known in the High Speech as throcken, billy-bumblers look like a cross between a dog, a badger, and a raccoon, as King describes them.  They have luxurious fur, corkscrewed tails, and beautiful gold-ringed eyes.  At least, Oy does.  I’ve seen lots of different depictions of Oy in fan art.  Bumblers have limited speech—it seems imitative, but Oy is clearly intelligent and can count a little—so I think it’s more like with certain species of parrots.  They’re very smart and some experts think they’re capable of a degree of reason and communication.

Aside from Oy’s species, Roland’s world contains animals most of us are familiar with:

  • Horses
  • Dogs
  • Birds—rooks, crows, etc.
  • Mules (the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse)
  • Fish
  • Hares/rabbits
  • Deer (primary ingredient in gunslinger burritos)
  • Tygers (at least one). Yes, that’s how you spell it in Mid-World.

And some we wouldn’t be:

  • Taheen­—creatures with human bodies and the heads of animals (nasty minions of the Crimson King). The can toi are the offspring of taheen and humans (even more nasty).
  • Lobstrosities—carnivorous lobsters that live in the Western Sea; they tumble out of the waves at night and eat whatever they can find on shore, including people)
  • Were-spiders
  • Skin-men
  • Cam tam—doctor bugs. See “The Little Sisters of Eluria,” Everything’s Eventual and Song of Susannah)
  • Lots of mutants, or muties, thanks to the Great Old Ones’ thirst for nuclear wars

Oy is definitely the best animal in the series, and one of the best characters too.  Your animals may not be characters (or plot points either; bear attack, anyone?) but they’re worth including.

This shit is why I don’t go camping in the high country.


They can lend quite a bit of color to your setting.  Let’s say your characters find themselves in a jungle.  This biome is full of life–monkeys chirp and howl, birds screech, snakes will slither across the debris on the forest floor.  And you can’t forget the insects and arachnids.  Some tropical spiders have leg spans the size of a dinner plate.  You can look that up if you want; I’m not gonna.

Readers can relate to characters with pets.  You can play them for comedy–a pet parent who spoils her little Yorkie or kitty, or who names a Doberman Poopsie.  Use them for drama–a couple splits up, and who gets to keep the dog?  If you’re a heartless bastard, you can even twang people’s emotions with them.




If you’ve never thought about including animals in your fiction before, give it a try.   Whether you write or just love to read, share your favorite fictional animals in the comments.  Who are they and why do you love them?  How do they enhance their settings?

Y is for Yearning

What if in your story, your character is not in the place he wants to be?  He yearns to return there.

When we yearn for something, we can build it up in our minds as much better than it actually is.  Most people who’ve had crushes or relationships have experienced this; if the love is unrequited, the object of our affections attains a near-mythical status.  A celebrity we don’t actually know takes on all the qualities of our ideal partner.

Following a breakup, the spurned lover can find himself in an agony of desire as he begins to idealize the relationship and focus on his ex’s best qualities.  He may forget about the reasons they broke up in the first place.  People who reunite after a split rarely stay together, unless they are committed to working out the problems that pushed them apart in the first place.

Because many times, love is not enough.

You could make the setting in your story the object of such yearning.  Like Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, your character could spend his efforts trying to go home and arrive with a newfound appreciation of the place he left behind.  Or, he could idealize it to the point where a return makes his situation worse.

In a story that takes place inside someone’s head, the setting could be entirely within the character.  Films that use a similar technique include Shutter Island (2010; also a book), and to a smaller extent, Heavenly Creatures (1994).  In the latter film, the two girls, Pauline and Juliet, imagine a fantastical kingdom in which they can escape the uncomfortable realities in which they live.

Yearning is such a strong feeling that it can really mess with characters.  It can even mess with you, the reader.  Dare I say it can mess with writers as well?  Writing can feel like yearning, in that we long to be in the zone where our stories take place.  We want to go there and live the lives our characters live–if we didn’t, we wouldn’t put ourselves through all this.

I had this revelation the other day and it blew my mind a little, so of course I’ll share.  Some writers employ the technique of metafiction to deliberately knock you out of a story.  Whaaaaat? you say.  Bear with me; I’m getting to something.

They use ironic language and departure from narrative norms to point out that yes, you are reading a book and no, it’s not real but it could be, and wouldn’t that just be interesting as hell?

It’s behind me, isn’t it?


People have criticized Song of Susannah (Book VI of The Dark Tower) not just for its slow pacing and weaker structure, but also because Stephen King actually inserted a version of himself in this book.


Roland and Eddie go todash and are supposed to go to New York while Pere Callahan, Jake, and Oy go to Maine, but they all get switched.  They end up in Maine and find King; he tells them he quit writing the story, and they tell him he has to finish it.  Then they leave him with no memory of the encounter but a push to fish the manuscript out of a box in the basement and get back to work.


Sounds silly, doesn’t it?  Well, it was, a little, but as a literary device, it’s absolute genius.  What if putting himself in the story was not Stephen King being egotistical?  What if this meta stuff makes it easier for the reader to imagine him/herself as a part of the story?  If Roland and Eddie could come through into our earth–into Keystone Earth, if that’s where we really are–and give King some shit, then we could go to Mid-World.

Maybe there really are other worlds, as Jake Chambers says in The Gunslinger.  Maybe we’re in one right now.  Oddly, I’ve seen two unusual cars recently like the ones the can toi drive.  The first was on the highway; the second, at my work.  Maybe I’m about to go todash….maybe Roland of Gilead will come and save me.  I can only hope.

If you haven’t read King’s books, then your reaction to these cars will be waaaaaay different than mine.  o_O

If you haven’t read King’s books, then your reaction to these cars will be waaaaaay different than mine.  o_O

Image:  Elizabeth West

Metafiction’s purpose is to make you question what is fiction and what is reality.  It seems King’s yearning to visit the setting he created and even infect his Constant Readers with it is so strong, he had to be there.  He’s so consumed by it that it didn’t stay in The Dark Tower books; elements of Mid-World show up in many of his other works.

To thread Mid-World through the rest of his work this way is the ultimate use of setting.  (Or maybe he didn’t make it up at all.  All things serve the Beam.)

I know I’m inspired by it.  I’ve just started Book VII, The Dark Tower, which I haven’t read since it came out in September 2004.  Considering I sort of forgot what happens (not everything), it’s almost like reading it again for the first time.  I remember the very end and that there is some crying ahead.

If I could write something like this or Harry Potter, something that made my readers as happy and angsty and slavishly devoted to the tale as this story makes me, then I would consider this nameless yearning in my author’s soul as satisfied.  As it stands, I’m woefully short.  But there’s still time.  As Roland would say, there will be water if God wills it.  And when I come to the clearing at the end of the path, I hope I will not have forgotten the face of my father.

Perhaps Roland will be waiting for me there.  


Image:  Jae Lee /

X is for Xenophobia

Damn; I found an actual X word instead of having to x-aggerate something.

Xenophobia is a fear of strangers or foreigners, or anything that is strange or foreign.  This could encompass people, customs, or even food from another culture.  People can harbor a distrust of someone from another country, another region of their own, or even just a few counties over.

Small towns are often depicted as friendly, like Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show, or often in horror fiction, horribly xenophobic.  Suspicious and unwelcoming residents have secrets, or the entire town harbors some dastardly events in its past it doesn’t want the interloper to discover.

Or worse, something happens that makes them turn on each other.  This one’s probably the most fun from a writer’s standpoint.

Just ask the residents of Maple Street what they think about THAT.


Having lived in small American towns, I can definitely say they are surface friendly—that is, you will be welcomed in a polite and hearty fashion, but you’re not truly one of them until you’ve been there for years, and many times not even then.  Most people in these places were born there, grew up there, and expect to die there, and an insular sociology dominates.  This post by Blake Campbell in the Berkeley Beacon (October 29, 2014) quite excellently illustrates some examples from Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft.

This isn’t unilaterally true; my father hails from Texas, but he is quite a well-known figure in the small Midwestern town where both my mum and I grew up.  It helped that when we moved there in 1972 (yes, I’m old; now shut up), he became very active in the local Chamber of Commerce, etc. and built an extensive social network.

A small town and a large city share this distrust to some degree—we all fear the unknown.  When a stranger speaks to us, we can react in a range from curiosity to terror, depending on the person’s appearance, demeanor, and what time of day or night it is.

In The Dark Tower: The Wolves of the Calla, several inhabitants of Calla Bryn Sturgis become aware that gunslingers are passing near their village.  For generations, the folken have been plagued by agents of the Crimson King that steal their children and return them roont, or ruined.  The minds of the roont ones are damaged and they grow to prodigious size and die painfully as young adults.  They don’t know if the group can help them, or if they will, but they take a risk and ask anyway.

Once the gunslingers win the town over (luckily, Roland knows what he’s doing), most of them accept their assistance.

Most of them.

Image:  Bernie Wrightson /

The cliché says that smaller communities are more helpful than those in a large urban area, but even real-life incidents can turn this trope on its head.  For example, in May 2015, in an accident in northeast London, a unicyclist became trapped under a double-decker bus.  People who work in the neighborhood, together with passersby, came together to lift the bus and free the man’s leg.

Keep in mind, we are talking about a very big city here, where people are busy and hurried.  They didn’t just call for help; they moved the bus off the man.

Think about this when you consider your setting.  Will the population welcome your characters?  Is your protagonist one of them, and will she fight to keep interlopers out?  What is her reasoning?  If you have no strangers, what conflicts will split the residents?  What events will bring them together?

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!


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….


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  /

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.


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 /

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


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 /

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:  /

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 /

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.


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 /

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.


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!


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 /

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….


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/


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.


(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!