Recharge: Day Two - Wish You Were Here

Hello and welcome to Day Two! Let's get right to it.

  • What is your favorite place?  It can be a travel destination, a room in your home, or your favorite used bookstore/coffee shop.  What do you love about it? 
My favorite place is the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota, from Duluth to Grand Marais.  I love the natural beauty, the history of the area, the interesting landscapes and landmarks.  I lived in Duluth for four years and miss it every day.  I am planning a real writing retreat - hopefully sometime in April - and it will be someplace along the North Shore.  It's close, accessible, beautiful, and keeps travel expenses manageable.

Wish you were here!

Yesterday I had you imagine a beautiful and inspiring location for your retreat.  Today, we're going back there.

Today's topic:  

Setting is one of the first things I think about when I sit down to write something new.  I've usually already been inspired by a specific town or location, so it's a matter of putting down the details.  You know, in a logical, lyrical manner without data dump. That's sometimes most times easier said than done.

Your setting must be credible, original, and compelling, whether your story is set in present-day Minneapolis, on a plantation in antebellum Georgia, or District 12 of the (not-so-distant?) future.  Setting impacts other elements of the story and many times can be a character itself.  

Your setting must come alive for your reader.  You know that amazing feeling you get as a writer when you are so lost in your story --  you're so INTO it, you're THERE with your characters, moving through their world -- you forget to shower or answer the phone or feed your children?  Yeah, that.  You want your readers to become lost in that world as well, to believe in your characters and stay with their story through the end.  John Gardner, in his classic guide THE ART OF FICTION, calls this the fictional dream.  A credible setting is a huge part of that.

So how do we get there?  How do we translate that imagined world, that place inside our heads where our characters live and breathe, onto the page?

Shapiro: Whether you're writing travel stories or novels, one of your many strengths is creating a sense of place.  I wonder what you think is most important to create that sense of place.  When we read your books, we know where you are -- we feel it.  What are your keys for doing that?
Allende:  I would say that the most important is to describe it with the senses.  So I describe the smell, the color, the temperature, the texture, how you feel time, because time varies in every place.  If I'm writing a novel, I try to understand the history of the place because the history determines much of the character of the people in that place.
Let's start, then, with sensory details and descriptive passages. Think of some of your favorite books, how the authors have created that sense of place.  Stephanie Perkins doesn't just tell us that Anna went to a French bakery; she brought us into the patisserie and described the pastries behind the glass in such a way that our mouths watered and we would die if we didn't eat a macaron right this minute.  Jane Austen doesn't merely tell us that Pemberley is a majestic estate surrounded by impeccable grounds; we are there with Elizabeth the first time that she lays eyes on the park, the trees, the lake, the exterior and interior of Pemberley House.  We learn every detail along with her.

Here, Harper Lee describes the home of Boo Radley in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  Her choice of words is such that we know the Radley place is dark and dingy and run down, but she doesn't tell us this straight out; we learn it through the details Lee uses:
The Radley place jutted into a sharp curve beyond our house.  Walking south, one faced its porch; the sidewalk turned and ran beside the lot.  The house was low, was once white with a deep front porch and green shutters, but had long ago darkened to the color of the slate-gray yard around it.  Rain-rotted shingles drooped over the eaves of the veranda; oak trees kept the sun away.
J.K. Rowling writes of the first time that Harry Potter enters the Great Hall:
Harry had never imagined such a strange and splendid place.  It was lit by thousands and thousands of candles that were floating in midair over four long tables, where the rest of the students were sitting.  These tables were laid with glittering golden plates and goblets.  At the top of the hall was another long table where the teachers were sitting.  Professor McGonagall led the first years up here, so that they came to a halt in a line facing the other students, with the teachers behind them.  The hundreds of faces staring at them looked like pale lanterns in the flickering candlelight.  Dotted here and there among the students, the ghosts shone misty silver.  Mainly to avoid all the staring eyes, Harry looked upward and saw a velvety black ceiling dotted with stars.  He heard Hermione whisper, "It's bewitched to look like the sky outside.  I read about it in Hogwarts, A History."
What are some of your favorite settings?  Go back and re-read some of the descriptive passages in your favorite books.  What aspects really drew you in?


Exercise #1:  Write a paragraph or two describing the view from your real-life desk or writing location.

Exercise #2: Now write a passage describing the view from your virtual, imagined desk at your retreat location.  Use a photograph if you need a little extra inspiration.

Firefly, the Jamaican estate of Noel Coward

What sensory details have you included?  What do you hear, see, smell, touch, and taste?  Did you go even father and access emotion and memory?

Now return to your favorite place from today's Icebreaker.

Exercise #3: Describe your favorite place through the eyes of a character who is visiting for the first time.  How does this place make your character feel?  Think about time as well.  What details have you included to indicate season or time?

Of course, not all of our settings are beautiful and inspiring.  Let's go someplace dark and scary.

Exercise #4: Think of a time that you've been in an unfamiliar place that made you feel uncomfortable or frightened.  Put your character there.  What does your character hear, see, smell, touch, and taste?  Is it day or night?  Summer or winter?  How does your character react in this setting?  

Go to your current WIP or other work for today's final exercise.

Exercise #5: Using sensory details and descriptive passages, either re-write a scene from your WIP or write a new one.

Write a scene with this opening sentence:   
The bell above the door clanged.

  • Almost as much as I love to travel, I love to read travel guides and essays.  Travel writers, of course, write amazing descriptions of place.  Spend some time in the travel section of your local bookstore or library and see if you aren't inspired.

  • Return to your favorite books, read the world-building passages, and see how those authors brought time and place to life.

That's it for today.  Thanks for joining me.  Happy writing and I hope to see you tomorrow!



  1. Oh I love, love, love today's post. I probably won't be able to get a post up on my blog today because I've actually been making time to work on my WIP--but this is so very helpful with that. I'm loving this writing retreat :)

    1. Thank you - I'm so happy to hear this! :) Go, girl! Write!! Working on your WIP is so much more important than blogging!

  2. I had a fun time with today's, especially imagining that I was hanging out at my mountain cabin retreat :)

    1. I get your blog posts in my email each day and I had that John Denver song in my head ALL DAY! :) Glad you had fun with it!

  3. Great post, I've bookmarked it to come back to :)

  4. What a great idea to find inspiration in travel books! I am latching on to this. Thanks!

  5. Wow, fantastic post, especially because this is one of my weak areas when I write. I have the setting in my head, so I forget to put it down on the paper! Easily half of what I do in the second draft is expand on descriptions of setting. This gave me a lot to think about to help me improve.

    1. Thanks, Nickie - I'm glad you found it helpful!

  6. This is so great because I really need to work on setting. Like Nickie, it's always so vivid in my head but doesn't always translate to the story. And I LOVE Minnesota in the spring and summer, so beautiful up there! Writing in Duluth sounds awesome!

    1. Writing in Duluth is truly awesome! I also love MN in the spring and summer (except during dog days) and the fall, but let me tell you how SICK I am of winter.... oh wait, I may have already mentioned that.

  7. I didn't get a post done today. :( But I love your post. I really love the idea of looking to travel guides for inspiration. You are putting so much work into this virtual retreat. You're awesome, Sara!

    1. Thanks, Kitty! It has been a fair amount of work, but I'm so glad I did it. :) Now to find time to do the exercises myself....

  8. Discount ticket for the Disney is superb offer for the tourist and i think its good vacation packages for the all tourist new york indianapolis bus..


Post a Comment