Tag Archives: writing setting

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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Friday Links for Writers 06.14.13

fl beach

Welcome back to Friday Links for Writers, which has been on a 3-month hiatus while I focused on other work. Today happens to be Flag Day which is also my birthday. I am celebrating on a gorgeous South Florida day with a little writing spree — and a short break to visit with you!

As writing friends here may know, my fiction competed for time with a new teaching role from February to May (remember my post: Writer Day Jobs: the Time-Money-Credit Trifecta? Street cred & money have been winning out, while time-to-revise… not so much) — so the idea of uninterrupted time to “make neat” of the frantic writing done in 15 or 30 minute chunks in the past several months is a fabulous luxury.

Luckily, there is never too little time for reading, and below are some great links I’ve come across in the past week or so. As always, let me know what you find useful, what you’d like more of… or let us know what writing goals you’ve been up to lately. Great to see you here.

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The Map and the Trail

Truth: I have yet to read any advice from literary agent Donald Maass that wasn’t immediately useful. As this essay opens with a rambling piece on a family hike, I thought maybe this was the one. But no. He pulled off great insight into the power of setting, including a great series of prompts to provoke thinking about how to make setting more powerful in your own WIP. Yup, I’ll be considering these in today’s work.

Book Editing

This post, featured on K. M. Weiland’s blog, Wordplay, features advice from ghostwriter Karen Cole on what to expect from the book editing process. In particular, her definitions of 5 types of editing give interesting terminology and clarity for discussing the possible processes during book edits with an editor or agent.

What to Write in the “Bio” Section of Your Query Letter

Working on getting queries out to agents this month?  This is a great article from Chuck Sambuchino at Writer Unboxed, breaking down the finer points of what to include (or leave out) of the bio paragraph of your query letter.

Race, Identity & Writing

As someone who has written outside culture and in foreign settings, I’ve often weighed the different challenges (and permission?) writing faces when an author writes outside their own race or identity — a topic taken on in this article by Kathy Crowley at Beyond the Margins.

Forging Words

I read this in a week that my former hometown, Detroit, has been declared bankrupt. What poet would be more fitting to profile than Philip Levine, a former Rouge Plant auto worker turned Poet Laureate of the United States? There is something humbling and inspiring to hear of work and decay spoken of in the same breath as creation of art.

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air-show-snow-cones

Where Else You’ll Find Me

One of the projects I’ve been up to has been writing about resources for educators. You’ll find the beginnings of that project, including Twitter 101 for Teachers: Steps for Getting Started on Twitter, at Mrs. T’s Middle Grades.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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