Thursday, June 17, 2010

Writing Settings with Elizabeth Spann Craig

Today I welcome Superwoman herself - Elizabeth Spann Craig! She writes, promotes, blogs, teaches, and raises kids - and I have no idea how she accomplishes so much. Only Superwoman would have the time to visit Spunk On A Stick's Tips...

Writing Settings—Should You Use Real or Made-Up Locations?

For some writers, settings can prove a real challenge. Should you use a real place to base your setting on? Or make up a setting location completely?

I’ve used both a fictional setting and a real setting and found pros and cons to both.

Real Setting Pros:

• I found it a little easier to make the setting come to life. I could write about places I’d actually been—and convey what I’d seen and heard and felt in a very solid way. For my Memphis Barbeque book, Delicious and Suspicious, I tried to make Beale Street come alive. There weren’t just things to see there—there were barkers at restaurant doors calling out the evening’s specials. There were young men doing back flips down the street. There was music coming out of every door. It was easy for me to relate these things because I’d been there, seen it, and heard it.

• It’s nice to be able to market a book to a specific town or readership. When you send ARCs to the town’s newspaper, it’s great to be able to say that you’ve set your story there.

Real Setting Cons:

• You can date your knowledge…and your book…if you’re not careful. I felt very safe mentioning the Peabody Hotel in my upcoming release because it’s been around since 1869. And Graceland isn’t going anywhere—that was a safe mention. But I was careful not to bring up other places that might not have the same degree of longevity. The economy has been brutal for restaurants in particular, and I don’t want to date my book by mentioning a place that might go out of business.

• Readers might contest the setting information that you put in your book. You have to be very careful and very accurate.

Fictional Setting Pros:

• You’re dreaming up everything about your setting. The freedom that you can do anything with your setting—put in a lake, make a famous botanical garden, stick in a ski slope—can be a nice creative trigger.

• No one can argue with you about your setting because it’s completely made up.

Fictional Setting Cons:

• Making up a place from scratch can be a lot of work. In my Myrtle Clover series, I had editors question me more than once about the physical layout of the town. I had to end up sketching it out (and I’m a really terrible artist) to make sure I hadn’t written anything that just didn’t make sense as far as layout.

• It can be a little harder to make the fictional setting come to life. You really have to brainstorm what the location looks like. And that takes time away from your plot and characters.

What if you’ve decided to write a setting based on a real place? And…what if you’re not a resident of the location?

Sometimes it’s fun to set a novel in a place that’s interesting or exotic. My editor thought Memphis, Tennessee, would be an exciting place to write about and I agreed. While I’d felt very safe writing a fictional setting for my Myrtle Clover series, there’s nothing quite like having a real, living, breathing town to write about and try to capture on paper.

So how do you go about researching a setting?

Nothing beats visiting the location, of course. I took a family trip to Memphis last summer when I knew I had a series based there. I spent hours walking through the city, soaking up as many of the sights, sounds, and aromas as I could. I made sure I saw different parts of Memphis, too—not just the parts the tourists see. And I took pictures of everything. I looked like the biggest tourist on the planet. But I just didn’t know what I might need for a future book. I took lots of notes and lots of pictures.

Talk to a resident. This is a great way to find out little nitpicky things that you might not be able to learn online. I needed to know if someone could reasonably walk from one part of town to another—and I asked a resident to get the answer. If you’re on Facebook, you could ask a general question: “Anyone know someone who lives in Memphis?” and you have a good chance of finding someone who has lived there, currently lives there, or has a friend who lives there.

Google Images. Google Images can be a great tool if you’re trying to write about a very specific building or location for your setting. I wanted to see the number of trees a particular park had in it…Google Images gave me the answer.

Google Street View. Here again, Google comes to the rescue if you’re trying to realistically portray your setting on a street level. You can put in an intersection and use your cursor to pan the street you’re interested in. You can get a great feel of the type of place it is—how much commercial property or residential property the area has, etc.

Contact the Chamber of Commerce or the Department of Tourism for the town. Those folks are usually only too happy to help you out. They can mail you brochures, talk to you about the town, etc.

Have a librarian help you find books and articles on your setting if you don’t want a high-tech search or are writing something historical.

Fact check with the specific location you’re writing about. Yes, I did call the Graceland staff to do some fact-checking for Memphis Barbeque book two. And they were gracious enough to give me information on the seating capacity of the wedding chapel on the grounds, along with other information.

The important thing is to set your book in a place you’re excited to write about—whether that’s somewhere from your imagination or a real place you either know or want to discover. Which type of setting do you usually prefer?

Thank you for visiting today, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin as Riley Adams, the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink (under her own name), and blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010. Delicious and Suspicious releases July 6, 2010. As the mother of two, Elizabeth writes on the run as she juggles duties as Brownie leader, referees play dates, drives carpools, and is dragged along as a hostage/chaperone on field trips.
Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers Kitchen
Elizabeth Spann Craig



Thanks for a most intresting post, I love to know how authors books are produced from the idea to the finished article.


Will Burke said...

Thanks for the interview -- I'm strong in dialogue, but have MUCH to learn on setting! Very helpful!

Mason Canyon said...

Great post. Featuring real places as the setting can make the reader want to visit that area and experience some of the things mentioned in a book. Interesting to see the pros and cons of both, especially having to draw a map of the fictional town.

Thanks Diane for hosting Elizabeth. Two superwomen in the same spot, gotta watch out for all the energy going on here. :)

Thoughts in Progress

Anonymous said...

That's a nice interview. Using Google Images? Great idea.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Thanks for visiting today, Elizabeth!
And I love Google Earth, too.

DL Hammons said...

That was really interesting (and useful). Thanks Diane for hosting Elizabeth, and to Elizabeth as well for some really great material to think about! :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

If I ever write something based here on earth, I'll remember these tips!

Hannah said...

Thanks for the great info! It's good to know the pros and cons of both, I have always wondered.

Angela McCallister said...

Thanks for the post! It's thought-provoking for me because I'm still working out the details of setting. I prefer to make up my own setting so I have more control over it, but I sometimes have a hard time balancing how much to show of the setting. Some readers prefer to have some room for their imagination, while others want a clear picture of where everything takes place. It's hard to find that balance sometimes.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Welcome to my world of poetry-- We all approach things a little differently!

Will--I'm so glad it helped. :)

Mason--I'm a terrible artist, but I make little squares and circles and lines for the street. It does help me get it all placed in my head.
Mr. Stupid--Thanks! :)

Diane--It's a great application, isn't it? Thanks so much for hosting me!'re the Superwoman!

DL--Thanks so much! I appreciate your coming by and commenting.

Alex--Yeah, Google Images isn't going to work so well for you!

Palindrome--Thanks so much for coming by!

Angela--I think it's a tough thing to balance. For me, setting is *usually* not as a reader. I like to get a sense of place, but I don't ordinarily want every detail laid out for me...except, maybe, in the instance of the room in which a murder was committed, or if I'm reading a man-against-nature type book where it would be important.

Sugar said...

Thanks for the great info..I am srtuggling with the exact thing right now.. I need real places, but I still need to make my own's been difficult to say the least.
Great ideas!

Helen Ginger said...

Great suggestions. I like using real settings, but there can be hazards. The research is fun, though!

DL Hammons said...

Me again. Just wanted to say that you ROCK! HARD!!! :)

Christine Hammar said...

A very informative post, thankyou!

I'm also struggling with to use a real place or a fictional one. Swedish writer Henning Mankell writes about inspector Kurt Wallander, who lives in the city of Ystad. That's a real place and readers from all over the world travel to Ystad to see the place where the crimes happened :).
I just don't know... Frustrating...

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Sugar--It's hard to decide which way to go, but it's nice to have different options.

Helen--I heard this terrible news story in the last couple of months. A town in...I think it was France? suing an author for what it felt was an unflattering picture of the town. Ack!

DL--Thanks so much for the encouragement! I really appreciate it.

Christine--I love the Wallander series...and we're getting some of the episodes of the British TV version here on PBS. But that's a lot of pressure to put on yourself--making the setting so vivid and your books so good that people take tours to see the locales! Thinking that way would freeze me up, I think. :) I'd just concentrate on writing a good story (which, since I've read your cover copy, I think you've done) and maybe sketching in the setting with interesting tidbits. :)

Laura S. said...

Diane, thanks for hosting Elizabeth! This is a super useful post. Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth! I create fictional towns in my stories, but they're very similar to my hometown. :)

Arlee Bird said...

Some good points made here.

As far as using fictional locations, I think of an example like Stephen Kings Under The Dome where in the front of the book he has a map drawn of the entire locale. I found myself referring to the map as I read and I imagined that King must have likewise had a detailed map in front of him as he wrote to keep everything in order.

Tossing It Out

Arlee Bird said...

Please read this message from Arlee Bird:

There is a blogger out there who needs your support more than most others do. He is an inmate in a prison who is attempting to have a voice. He has been writing for several years and would like someone to read what he has to say. He does not have internet access and his submissions must be posted by his sister, who in turn sends him comments for him to respond to. I hope you will at least take a look at his blog and then if you moved to do so, leave a comment for him and follow his blog and tell others about it.

The Saga of the Concrete Jungle


Hart Johnson said...

Wow! Good points on the longevity of businesses! I have two mentioned in the Cozy I am writing--should probably look into the longevity of both of them!

I wrote an original setting for my first book, but it was really an amolgamation of several places I'd been... I used 'real to me' streets, just changing names, and plunked them in a DIFFERENT real to me location. Seemed to be the best of both worlds in a way, because nobody could check accuracy, but I could see it all. (I did still have to draw the map, though) And my book in Portland has not only a SETTING alive in my mind, but also figures I can see, which the made up one really didn't.

Unknown said...

Those are some excellent pros and cons. I use many of the same techniques and resources myself.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Laura--I think that's a great idea. That way you've got an image of something REAL in your head that you can describe--but none of the problems that go along with writing a real setting. :)

Lee--I think those can really help visualize a setting. I think fantasies and SF use them very successfully--sometimes I can get lost if I don't have something to refer to.

And thanks for the tip on the blog, Lee.

Hart--It's something to think about. I know that here in Charlotte there have been a couple of businesses that have been around for *ages* that had to close because of the horrible economy.

I think your technique is a great one! You can really make it come to life but don't have to worry about residents of the town correcting you! :)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Clarissa-- Thanks so much for coming by! Good luck with it. :)

The Old Silly said...

Excellent article/post, as one would expect from "Super Liz". (smile) I've written both ways - fictional settings and real ones. And I agree with your pros and cons about both ways.

Dorte H said...

How nice to meet you here, Elizabeth!

Great advice! I don´t think I would feel confident enough to make up a setting from scratch, though. For my current WIP I have chosen a town I know fairly well, and recently I had a bit of luck: I found a new beta reader who grew up there. So she enjoys the setting and is a wonderful source of knowledge who gives me extra ideas I would never have thought of myself.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post Elizabeth - settings can be tough. I generally use fictional because I don't travel much and using the Internet just doesn't seem enough.

Diane - you're so right - she is Superwoman!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Marvin--You're Super Marv then! Thanks so much. And I think it's great you've written settings both ways.

Dorte--That's another great way to approach it--find a friend who lives or has lived in the area and see if they can provide inside info or tips. :)

Jemi--Fictional is a *safe* thing to do. If you can't get out and research, if internet research isn't for you, then fictional works great--especially since we've all got wonderful imaginations!

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Thanks again Elizabeth and everyone who visited today!

I use mostly real places in my books with a few make-believe locations thrown in for good measure. The biggest one was a Mitzubishi dealership in Greenville, SC. There isn't one, which is perfect - no one will be mad that a Tim Garnder ownes it and not the real owner!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Ahhh! Settings! Grounding! What marvelous tools. Like the senses, too few authors use them!
Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Bloggin all things writing at Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites pick

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Diane--Good pick! I was about to say..."There's a Mitzubishi in G'ville?!" I was from Anderson, so... :)

Carolyn--Thanks so much for coming by! Settings can be useful tools, can't they?

Donna McDine said...

What an insightful and helpful post. I enjoyed it all and especially like the tip on using Google Images and Street View.

notesfromnadir said...

Thank you for bringing this up as these are important points for writers, especially those who write fiction or a genre of fiction.

It's so much easier to put places in your books that are real. Google maps & images is almost necessary. I'm a big fan of it as it's better than driving to the library to look for maps.

Creating places is very creative, but as you mentioned, takes a lot of work. It does help to draw a map, even if you're not an artist. It provides a strong sense of location & you'll know what's going on in what part of town at anytime.