Heading in a New Direction

Off and on for the past fifteen years I’ve been working on my magnum opus–a multiple book series on an actual event of domestic terrorism. Fifteen years may seem like a long time, but for twelve of those years I had a full-time and demanding job plus an actual social life. That, and the research was not only extensive but sometimes mentally taxing.

I composited real people into fictional characters but stuck to the history as it’s known in public records. I changed the names to protect the innocent–and to disguise the guilty. I filled holes in the historical record with fiction, but fiction extrapolated from the research. In all that time, the only thing I didn’t change was the location of the event of domestic terrorism.

Until now.

I’ll digress a bit to again recommend that writers participate in critique groups. Not only do you get an honest appraisal of your craft, but you get the reactions of readers–both needed before you think about publication. Locate a critique group and join one. You’ll find it useful beyond measure.

Book one of this series is going through my critique group, and the comments and suggestions have been just what this series needed. And a key comment was about keeping the location historically accurate. When the critique group members started making suggestions about plot, I kept having to respond, “But the reality is this or that.” My critique group quite rightly pointed out that by sticking to the actual location, I was boxing myself in.

At first, the thought of changing all the references to the actual location was daunting. Book one isn’t an issue; it doesn’t even come up in that. It’s book two and three where the first veiled hints get dropped, and in book four that particular setting is critical. So, I debated long and hard with myself about whether or not to change it and came to the only logical conclusion.

I changed the location, moving it one state north then one state east. Sounds simple, right? Not. There are hundreds if not thousands of allusions to this location, including physical descriptions of buildings, locations of streets and landmarks, and dialogue. Doing  a global search-and-replace won’t cut it. It means yet another methodical and thorough edit.

And maybe that was the point all along.

All fine and good, but when you’re planning to publish the series so that book four appears in the month of the twentieth anniversary of said event, it’s not so convenient. Convenience, however, isn’t a consideration. The art and the craft of writing are the major considerations, so I’ll do it. I’ll grumble a bit–well, a lot–but I’ll get it done, in the knowledge it was the right decision for the story I want to tell.

Friday Fictioneers and Place

All the photos we’ve used for these months of Friday Fictioneers have had a sense of place, but on occasion that “place-ness” is not just the fact that a photo has to be a representation of somewhere. It’s an actual place.

Today’s photo for me evoked exotic locales, narrow streets and alleyways of the Old World. If you look close, in the photo you’ll see footprints, and the great perspective the photographer (fellow Friday Fictioneer Jan Morrill) has captured makes you feel as if you can walk into the picture. I don’t know if that was planned or by accident, but it’s brilliant.

And I don’t mean place in the sense of setting. Every story has a setting, and it’s a key element in story structure. In some stories it’s incidental; in others you wouldn’t have the story without that particular setting.

For me, sometimes “the where” the Friday Fictioneer photo shows is central to the story, i.e., it is the literal setting. Sometimes “the where” is simply a representation of what I want the setting to be. I mean, this picture could be a back ally in Podunk, Iowa, for all I know, but I wanted it to be some Old World city on the Mediterranean, some place where adventure abounds. And so it is.

Add in a couple of bad experiences with on-line dating (I think you’ll figure out which site from the title.), and we have a little story I call “DisHarmony.” (Yes, that spelling is what I intended.)

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, “DisHarmony” above, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab at the top of the page, and select the story from the drop-down menu. To read other Friday Fictioneers offerings–and I hope you do–click on the icon at the end of my story.

Settings

One of the things you learn in any fiction writing class is the importance of setting–a reader needs to be able to “see” where you’ve located your story. Sometimes writers can focus on the plot and the characters to the exclusion of setting. Sometimes setting can be just as important as memorable characters or a finely detailed plot.

When your work is a novel, unless it stays in one place for the length of it–like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians or Murder on the Orient Express–you have to do some research if you’ve never been there. That’s a key component of the writing, because a reader might have been there and can spot the errors.

When John Updike got the idea for The Witches of Eastwick he had the perfect small town in mind–Wickford, RI. However, when he went to the town to research and people got wind of the plot–three witches in the 1970’s who take petty, and not so petty, revenge on neighbors–they threatened law suits if he used the name of the town. Updike let them think they won. The book’s title is The Witches of Eastwick, but if you read the description of Eastwick in the first few pages you recognize Wickford right away. And it was the perfect setting for this quirky novel about the devil coming to earth. (What would have been the difference had the Wickfordians not been such typical New England prigs? Maybe it would have been a tourist destination–it’s a quintessential New England town–instead of a town you drive through to get to the Newport beaches.)

I grew up in a rural area near a small town, so those are settings I’m comfortable with. I can tell from a story if someone has only seen a picture of a farm or gone to one. I spent a lot of my life in a large urban area and worked in the Nation’s Capital for the most part. I’ve spent a great deal of time in New York City, so I get the urban setting and am also comfortable setting a story in busy cities. I also like the juxtaposition of city and country–it’s something that’s never quite been overcome by urbanization.

I’ve done some world travel–a modest amount–to England, Scotland, and other places in Europe. I can insert any place I’ve visited in a story with ease. Some of my work is based in Eastern Europe, and that’s an issue. I’ve never been there, and, frankly, unless you’re a high-paid, commercial novelist, extensive travel to research your settings can be beyond the budget.

Atlases can give you maps and facts and figures–all good, of course–but Google Earth can put you there. Its “Street Views” options can put you in the city or town or countryside you want to write about. It’s still not as good as being there, but it can give you a starting point. The next point is finding someone familiar with the area to give you the personal touch or cultural memes for a setting. I had a friend who had traveled extensively with USAID, and he was always able to give me a good read-over for settings.

Some writers overcome the setting issues by creating completely fictional ones. Whether in fantasy, other genre, or literary fiction, that can eliminate any setting errors or hard feelings from the locals. For his collection of linked short stories, In an Uncharted Country, Clifford Garstang created Rugglesville, VA. For her first book of linked short stories, Thrown Out,  and an upcoming series of novels, Jennie Coughlin created Exeter, MA. Both constructs are real; you can “see” yourself in either place. They feel real. Even in fantasy or science fiction, if you create your own world, people still have to be able to “walk” through it. It’s not enough to say “we’re on a spaceship” or “we’re in a fairy land.” The writer has to give the setting depth.

Which do you prefer–setting your work in known locales, or do you create your own world?