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Writing Prompt: Develop Setting – Inspired by Colson Whitehead on New York City

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

I am a very visual person — I think in pictures — so writing setting is perhaps the last aspect of storytelling that I worry about. In writing a story set in India, details crept into every line without me thinking about them. I knew the exact color of shadows, the moment a bird would flush out of dry brush. A lot of writers can relate to this, especially if their drive to tell a story is inspired by place.

But that’s not always the case. In Friday Links for Writers: 3.21.14 , I quoted Anne Enright from a bit of advice where she said, “description is hard.”

Describing setting can be a powerful way to engage readers, conjure up surprising sensory details, reveal character, add resonance to a scene, develop internal and external conflicts… but it has do so in a way that moves the story, and that fits the voice and character(s)’ point of view.

Continuing the series on Novel Revision, today’s post shares a prompt for developing an important setting in your story, making it work to build character, motion and greater resonance. While many details may have come about in a first draft, midlevel revision is a great time to revise for ideas that were not yet clear in your first vision.

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Find a Place to Stand

Anne Enright’s advice was: “Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.”

This is a great starting point for thinking about setting: begin by knowing your character(s)’ point of view and seeing your setting from where the character stands.

Colson Whitehead on New York

Some of you may know I am working from my family’s house outside New York City at the moment, and felt the impact of this year’s anniversary of 9.11.01 in that context. On the anniversary, Jodi Kantor shared on Twitter a link to Colson Whitehead’s beautiful article from the New York Times that ran November 11, 2001.

As a New Yorker living in the city as it recovered, Colson wrote not directly about the event, but about what defines one’s connection to and identification as being from the city.

Read it because it’s beautiful — and because we’ll use it as our prompt. (Read it now, or in the prompt below: The Way We Live Now: 11.01.01)

The First Brick in Your City

Colson says, “You start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it.” Anyone who’s spent time in New York knows what he means by “private New York,” as everyone comes to define their own sense of the city — a city so large that any of us sees it only in pieces.

But isn’t that true of each character’s response to setting?

In the paragraph that follows, Colson lists a handful of ways a person might have experienced their first moment in the city.

Freeze it there,” he says; “that instant is the first brick in your city.”

There is so much about writing setting that can be taken from his words. The point of details in your novel is not to inform a reader of what to see and do when visiting the place; you are not a glorified camera taking a picture for the reader. What matters about the places in your story are the ways your character(s) perceive and respond to them.

In Colson’s essay, each example of a newbie arriving in New York City presents a character you can view clearly in your mind, despite being limited to the details of a single sentence. They are details of setting, but they clearly define the interaction of people within that setting. The details involve objects, structures, qualities and even the kinds of actions and thoughts a character has within that setting. A detail could be as mundane as holding a piece of paper or a communication between friends, but the detail is not left vague. “The phone rang,” could happen in any city, but Colson made the same detail of a phone call place-defining, as: “there was some mix-up in the plans.”

Prompt for Developing Details of Setting

So let’s turn his essay into a prompt for your own writing today.

Interpret this for whatever you are working on: a novel, a short story, a poem, a detail in your memoir, a detail in an essay, details fleshed out for a travel piece, or start something new.  You won’t be recreating Colson’s format; you’ll just use the prompt for generating details in whatever scene you imagine.

  1. Read Colson Whitehead’s The Way We Live Now: 11.01.01
  2. Have in mind the place you will write about, thinking of it first as it is in the story’s present. Tip: Have in mind a specific place. For existing work, this will be an important location in your piece. For new work, be sure to have a single place in mind before writing. While Colson writes about a city, yours could be any kind of a place, real or imagined.
  3. What is the “first brick” in your character’s experience of this setting? Be vivid. Be true. Likely part of your backstory, what first memory comes to mind as the moment he/she began to define their own private version of their place? Freeze there. Think, then write where it feels revealing.
    • What emotion attaches to that first brick? Awe? Horror, pain, fear, injury…? Joy, excitement, beauty, anticipation, faith…?
    • What details attach to that first brick? Think of the stub of paper with a new address in the hand of the New Yorker arriving at their first address, or the limited view of a toddler in a carriage.
    • What actions or motion are involved? Are there details of arrival, communication, cross signals, movement? Are there broad sights or limited senses?
    • What does your character want (or think they want) in that first moment? This may be very different — distorted, more basic, more naïve — than later in the story.
  4. Moving through your story, how does your character continue to build their definition of the setting?
    • How does that first brick define the setting for your character?  Does it leave a ghost of emotion through later events? Does it start memory on solid or unstable footing? Do regrets haunt, long after, no matter how much success follows? Do later moments never live up to the first glow? Is there a sweetness the character carries from that first memory that lends forgiveness or blind faith in later experience? or..?
    • Does your character (or do you) come to measure later scenes against that first experience, or is it nearly forgotten as others take priority?
  5. Options for how this might create tensions, conflict development or structure in your story – where you might take it next:
    • What other “bricks” of memory, detail or experience define the setting for your character? Does this possibly suggest a structure for story events?
    • In what ways do these details define your character’s “own private” setting? Is your reader aware of a contrast between that private vision vs. other perspectives?
    • Do different characters perceive contrasting “private” versions of the setting? Does this lend structure, tension or just details to scenes? Would these different perspective ever cause missed understanding in dialogue between characters?
  6. Going beyond a single scene, how could you use this different private viewpoint to add details of how characters dress, what they carry, how they speak or what they do?

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What About You?

Are you working on setting this week? Did you use this prompt or what other inspiration helps you envision your setting clearly? Several of my friends work in photography or other media — how do you reflect on setting in your work?

Let us know how your work is going in the comments. Feel free to share a link to your own post, if you want to share an excerpt or other writing.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s follow option or via email, or the Bloglovin button in the sidebar. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield.  I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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Writing Process: How to Write on the Beach

No so much a selfie as sign of how bad the glare on the laptop screen can be. c Elissa Field

No so much a selfie as sign of how bad the glare on the laptop screen can be. c Elissa Field

One of the best parts of being a writer is supposed to be our ability to do our job from anywhere.

It’s true: I remember getting an assignment while on vacation with my family at a resort in Mexico. I wrote and submitted the piece while lounging in the most gorgeous cabana beneath bougainvillea overlooking the infinity pool with a swim-up bar.

My beach writing this summer: 2 novel manuscripts in print, laptop and a pair of flamingos guarding editing supplies.

My beach writing this summer: 2 novel manuscripts in print, laptop and a pair of flamingos guarding editing supplies.

Likewise, as a mom with sons home from school for the summer, I don’t want to spend all of my novel revision hours holed up beneath my laptop while the boys are stuck watching TV complaining about just what a drag their mom is.

(What unfair irony: I’m researching motorcycle racing in Northern Ireland or writing about a furtive flight into Havana or a photojournalist lost on assignment in Syria… while my boys see just me staring at a laptop. You get my quandary.)

So it is that I spent much of June writing with my boys at the beach.

Today’s post is a pictorial “how-to”, as it turns out there are some tricks to being successful at writing on the beach.

Enjoy your day, wherever you write!

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The Basics

tree topsThe best advice for getting any writing done on the beach is similar to advice I’ve shared in Motivation to Write: Keep Writing While on Vacation.

It’s a twist on staying focused to write at home: you’re still removing obstacles and distractions, setting goals, and working in a format that keeps you productive.

1) Bring your work in a format that is conducive to actually getting something done.

Just like writing on the subway or anywhere else on the go, you have to think through your current writing goal and the format that makes that goal most portable.

Beach writing is great for generating new work — whether longhand in a journal or on a tablet or laptop. The clarifying environment loosens up many writers’ creativity, as might a run on the beach.

Since my goal this summer is novel revision, I use beach time for read-through revisions. For this, I bring a full, printed, bound copy of the manuscript.  Of course I have a pen for writing edits, but have found a highlighter most useful — I highlight just the words that are working and focus on those when typing revisions. I don’t bring my whole editing kit of colored pens, post-it notes, etc., though. I keep it simple.

My novel, Never Said, was mistaken to think this would be a vacation. c Elissa Field

My novel, Never Said, was mistaken to think this would be a vacation. c Elissa Field

But, whoa — that binder is bulky and messing with my tan lines.

If I weren’t working on a full read-through, I might take a short printed section (or a short story). Or, I’ll address working on a laptop, below.

2) It’s not Survivorman…Take only what you need

You can tell the locals on our beach because they carry the least gear. I know: you’re heading to this exotic workspace and all the “seasonal” aisles at the store suggest you need floaties and an umbrella and special blankets and a cooler and…

Get past the marketing frenzy. It’s the same drill as if you were getting writing done at home: you have to limit obstacles and distractions. The more you schlep to the beach, the longer it takes to just get going.

Option 1:  The calmest form of beach writing is if you’re staying at a resort, in which case: casually walk to the pool or neatly raked private beach with your writing materials. Use the towel they give you, the chair adjusted for you, and drink they bring you. Write your work, then leave everything there; they will clean up after you. Return to your room for a massage and nap, dine in the nice restaurant. Repeat. One added obstacle: time needed to brag and Instagram pictures of the waiter bringing you snacks

Option 2:  Sometimes you’re on vacation or staking space at the beach for an entire day. Fine, then recruit your little minions (aka family) to carry a cooler with drinks, lunch, an umbrella and all you need to be comfortable all day.

office equip bonus shells 2Option 3:  For every other beach trip: take just the basics to be comfortable for 2 hours. Even your beer won’t get hot without a cooler for two hours. Stop complaining, just sip faster.  You need: you, sunscreen already applied, a chair (yes, it keeps you off the sand), a towel, your work, a drink. If you can’t carry it all in one trip, you’re carrying too much.

Okay, fine… Here are a tropical writer’s tricks to take a drink that does not require a cooler. (Some of these assume it’s ok to have adult drinks at your beach. I will not come to bail you out.)

  • That’s what frozen drinks were invented for. Margarita, daiquiri. Mix, then refreeze so they melt more slowly. (Don’t get loopy while writing: frozen margarita mix by itself makes a great beach drink.)
  • Freeze your nonalcoholic beverages (water, lemonade, juices) but make sure to do it in BPA-free bottles.
  • Make a great beach “sangria”: Near fill a water bottle with frozen berries or frozen sliced peaches, mango or papaya. Top with half juice (or even lemonade) and half chardonnay.
  • My favorite beach drink is a 50-50 shandy of Peroni and Pellegrino sparkling limonata. Semi-freeze the limonata to keep it cold, or float with frozen berries or a chill-cube.
  • Freeze grapes to use as ice cubes in nearly any drink. They don’t dilute the drink as they melt. Or, freeze cubes of margarita mix, lemonade, juice or whatever you will be drinking, and use those to cool your drink.

Dealing with glare.

No so much a selfie as sign of how bad the glare on the laptop screen can be. c Elissa Field

No so much a selfie as sign of how bad the glare on the laptop screen can be. c Elissa Field

No matter what the ads say, it is harder to read a laptop screen in bright sunlight. But it is manageable. The glare in this selfie of me was cured with a simple tilt of the monitor.

  • Turn up the brightness on your monitor. Most laptops are set to dim brightness when unplugged in order to conserve battery power, so you need to turn this up manually (on my Dell, that’s a combination of Fn+F5). This does reduce your battery life, so close unneeded apps. Save battery power for the manuscript by reading email or Twitter on your phone.
  • Wear sunglasses. Well, duh. Polarizing colors will serve you best. A hat won’t do it.
  • Target what you work on. Glare will be hardest on fine-tune editing work, like commas and spacing.  The least effect will be on typing in new material. Do your fine-tuning at home and use beach time for new writing or read-through’s.
  • Edit in print. Easiest adaptation is to go old school and use beach time for handwritten edits on a printed draft. My best beach work has included rewriting a scene in longhand or highlighting the best text to keep in a novel in process.

Dealing with sand

Despite best efforts, I was typing with sandy hands.

Despite best efforts, I was typing with sandy hands.

Heh. Good luck with that. I distinctly remember the day, my first year in Florida, when I gave up ever having no sand in the carpet in my car. It’s just a reality of the beach.

Some tips for managing sand intrusion into your work:

  • Nothing precious. My print copy of my novel has a bit of permanent sand in its binder. Another draft has a wet splash from a  morning by the pool. They’re working drafts. Honestly: a little water or sand is nothing compared to the red ink, post-it notes and highlighter scarring their pages. I can live with that. Just another badge of courage.
  • Swim last. I don’t swim until after I’m done working, which helps with sand management as my towel and I are dry, attracting less sand.
  • Oops. Flipped my laptop and binder into the sand. No damage though - it dusted off.

    Oops. Flipped my laptop and binder into the sand. No damage though – it dusted off.

    Have a safe seat for your laptop. I carry a separate bag where my laptop stays unless I’m working on it, and an extra towel to rest it on, in a safe place out of direct sun. I don’t leave it unattended while out swimming for hours; I don’t bring a laptop on days I’ll be distracted for long stretches with that kind of activity. (I also don’t leave it in the car as police say beach parking lots can be targeted by thieves who figure beachgoers left purses and wallets in the car.)

  • Only out when you need it. Don’t let sand or water be an obstacle (or you’ll get no work done), but have alternatives so you only need the laptop out for certain work. I leave the laptop in a covered bag while working on a print draft, and use my cell phone rather than the laptop for tasks like checking email, my website or Twitter.
  • Select your seating. While I used to sit picnic-style or lay out on a blanket or towel, a beach chair raises you off the sand. I use a lightweight, adjustable one that folds to carry backpack-style. My boys keep their splashing and gear away from my work area and we don’t settle in right next to someone’s digging dog.
  • Avoid wind. It doesn’t just blow the sand – it makes you squint and wrestle with your work. Enough said.
  • Go resort-style. No one said the beach has to be off-roading. Even if you are not staying at a hotel, resorts often let you rent a cabana or lounge chair for the day, which certainly civilizes the experience. Some of my local friends have paid for a beach/pool membership at local resorts. Sitting poolside gets you off the sand altogether.

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How About You?

What strategies do you use to write in unusual locations? I wrote about the beach, but I’ve heard friends with awesome solutions to writing successfully in traffic, in the grocery store, or… How about you?

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