Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Real World

Good characters make the setting real. The reverse is true, too. At writing’s finest, both happen at the same time; a seamless join that carries the story forward. I have to admit that choosing a setting—city or country? seaside or mountains?—is the about last thing I consider when I’m plotting a book. I deal with the main characters first. I give them personalities, then see how they act in juxtaposition to each other. From there, I determine what they do for a living. Last, I put them in a place that fits those parameters. For me, characters are most important because they’re going to make my setting real. Their quirks and foibles, strengths and weaknesses all add up to a story where I hope my readers can lose themselves: Mars or Manhattan, Mt. Washington or Wichita.

I like to use where the characters encounter one another as a way of showing who they are—and who they could become. In Man of the Year, Samantha is thrown into a whole new ballgame when she first encounters Jarrett in a steamy locker-room. He is immediately taken by how poised she is as the only woman in such a blatantly masculine realm. Kate in Baby on Board is horrified to find herself on a boat leaving the dock. Never mind that Patrick, a professional skipper, is at the helm. Patrick is equally horrified to learn she can’t swim and is terrified of the water. The conflict between them is heightened by this setting and the way they both act and react. Hopefully, their reality—being alive in the place—makes the setting more real.

What my characters do for a living is also part of the setting. Kate in Baby on Board is a glass-blower. The fire she works with clashes directly with the water that floats Patrick’s world of yacht-racing. A lot of steam is generated between them which often obscures the love they feel for one another. The working title of that book became Fire and Water, after the setting made itself clear. In my latest book—due out April 2010—Ian’s work as a shipwright is a perfect example of his quiet, methodical attention to detail: he makes the sawdust fly and that makes the boatyard come alive.

So, for me, characters make the setting. The more real I can make them, the more real the world they inhabit becomes. Do you want to come sailing on the Chesapeake Bay, or blow a glob of molten glass into a perfect goblet in Kate’s studio? My characters will lead the way. If I and they do their job, it’ll be just like you were there.



Friday, June 26, 2009

I feel like I've been there

The mark of a really good author, to me at least, is if she/he is able to make me feel like I've been to wherever her/his story is set -- even if I haven't. My affinity for this aspect of stories came early with the woods and prairies of Little House on the Prairie, the lonely Alaskan landscape in Julie of the Wolves, and the East Indies of The Swiss Family Robinson.

My love of setting as character today can be found in the books that I keep on my limited keeper shelf. Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon mystery series, which takes readers to various national parks and their differing landscapes -- from the remote canyons of Big Bend in Texas to the humid lushness of the Natchez Trace in Mississippi to the still-to-be-refurbished ruins on New York's Ellis Island. Another mystery author who is a master at making setting a character is Dana Stabenow, who has made the Alaskan bush so real to me in her Kate Shugak series that I'd almost swear I've been there.

And the settings don't have to be real places for them to come alive. J.R. Ward's Caldwell, New York in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series is very real in its dark, dangerous and urban way. And Nora Roberts did such a masterful job describing her fictional island in her Three Sisters Island trilogy that I still want to go there. My sister and I decided we wanted to run the bookstore/cafe combo that figures prominently in the novels.

Those of us who write for Harlequin American often shine the spotlight on charming small towns. It's fun to incorporate aspects of small towns I've visited all over the country -- a bakery from here, a landscape from there, a park from somewhere else.

Who are some of the authors and books that struck you as having very real settings, ones that are a character in and of themselves?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Blast from the Past

All the great posts this month about settings have inspired me to write one of my own. My first two books—The Man for Maggie and With This Ring—were set in a fictional small town on the east coast. For the next two books—titles TBA—I zipped across the country to the amazing and very real city of San Francisco.

Using this well-known city as a backdrop for a story has been a lot of fun, partly because its interesting neighborhoods have a lot of small-town characteristics, and also because so many aspects of the city have become cultural icons.

My favorite neighborhood is Haight-Ashbury, named after two of the most famous streets in the county.

What comes to mind when you hear the name Haight-Ashbury?

The ‘60s? Hippies? Flowers in your hair? Rock and roll?

Even if you weren’t part of that culture (I certainly wasn’t) or if you are too young to remember it (I'm definitely old enough), the name of that neighborhood probably represents something.

I first visited a couple of years ago and one thing jumped out at me right away. William R. DeAvila School—formerly an elementary school—is one block from that oh-so-famous intersection.

My imagination immediately kicked into overdrive. What would it have been like to raise a family or go to school in that neighborhood in the ‘60s and ‘70s? Right away those questions led me to a story about two people whose parents were members of that generation, and residents of that neighborhood.

The hero and heroine of this story moved away from Haight-Ashbury, and now both are back, albeit for very different reasons. I’ve had a lot of fun writing their story and I’ll soon be working on the sequel, which is set in another intriguing San Francisco neighborhood. Stay tuned.



Monday, June 22, 2009

Writing Advice

This month's tidbit of writing advice comes from Trish Milburn:

1. Break larger projects, such as heavy revisions, into segments so they don't seem so overwhelming. You can do this by either saying you'll work an hour and then reward yourself with 15 minutes of whatever you want to do, then work another hour and so on, or you can divide it up by a set number of pages or chapters per session.

2. It's good to get feedback from others, but you also need to know when to trust yourself. Finding the balance is the key.

3. If you really want to be an author, don’t let anything derail you or make you give up. The only sure way you’ll fail is if you quit.


Heartbreak River (as Tricia Mills), Razorbill (4/09)
Her Very Own Family, Harlequin American (5/09)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

City Girl Writes Small Town

Hello. Happy First Day of Summer! Happy Father's Day!

We're talking about settings this month, and that sure plays a big role in my Harlequin American Romances. The first book I sold to HAR was set in a small Texas Hill Country town. (I love the Hill Country.) I had no idea when Melissa Jeglinski bought the proposal that I would end up writing only about small Texas towns. She suggested I continue the series, then Kathleen Scheibling suggested I begin a new Texas town when she became senior editor. That was fine with me because I'd just about run out of single twenty and thirty-somethings in Ranger Springs!

The odd thing might be that I'm a city girl. I've never lived in a small town. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, where the metropolitan area is about a million people. Then I moved to Denver, Colorado, and after three years, to a suburb of Dallas, Texas. I was blessed to have wonderful Texas in-laws who told great stories of growing up in small towns. They had lived all over the state. Texas is a lot more than rolling grasslands, cattle and oil wells. Those are the settings we most often see in books and movies, but there is a huge coastline, wetlands, pine forests, desert and mountains way out west. If you've ever driven across Texas (in any direction) you know just how huge this state is.

I've had a lot of fun creating Texas towns, although there are some issues to consider. I really do try to base my settings in the reality of the region and the economy, without being depressing. Many towns are really hurting now, with industries closing, people being laid off from their jobs, high costs of everything, and a growing problem with drugs. We don't want to read too much about those realities, though, at least not without a happy ending. We need to put the issues faced by our characters in the context of rising above obstacles, solving problems and finding love.

Speaking of finding love, my husband and I went to see "The Proposal" today, and I highly recommend the movie. Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds are great together, and Betty White steals the show. The setting is a small town in Alaska, and specifically an island estate. The only way to get there is by boat, which the writer/director used very effectively. This is contrasted with the characters' "normal world," New York City. It's definitely a romance. Make sure you stay for the credits and the short conversations with immigration at the end.

Have a great Sunday, a happy Father's Day, and a wonderful summer. For those of you coming to RWA National conference this summer in Washington, DC, I'll see you there!