Living the Fictional Dream

Erin M. Kinch’s musings upon the writing profession

Archive for the 'Setting' Category

What Happens Next?

It is really sad when you find an old story on your computer, start reading, get totally caught up in the world and the characters, and then it just stops. Especially when it leaves you wanting more. I did this over the weekend. Got totally wrapped up in a sci-fi world (colonies on the moon) that I created a few years ago (before babies). I have several stories set there, all drafts, not all even finished. But the world is totally clear to me. I don’t remember all the research I did now, but it’s there on the page. And I like the characters, too. Sadly, my plots are either unfinished or rather lacking.

And, yet, I want to know more. One of the stories especially… what happens next? I have no idea now where I was going when I wrote it back then. And, I probably didn’t know where I was going with it back then or I would have finished it at the time.

I tell you, though… I wish I could jump into those stories and read them all the way through, beginning to perfectly plotted end, and find out how they turned out. I’d really like to know what happened to those guys and girls on their colony on the moon.

OK, subconscious. That means it’s time for you to get to work!

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Cons

It seems there are a lot of stories and shows out there about con artists these days. Leverage, White Collar, and Ocean’s 11/12/13, to name a few off the top of my head. Oh, and The Heist Society series fits this bill also. The thing I’ve noticed about all these stories is that the cons all have names. The Ella Fitzgerald. The Zigzag. The Flopper-diver. And all the con artists in the shows seem to know exactly what the con consists of just by the fancy little name. They don’t even have to discuss who’s doing what. “Oh, we’re doing the White Rabbit? Great. Meet you at the club in ten with a water ski.”

I’ve been wondering lately if that is based on reality or not. Do real life con artists out there have fancy names for all the different cons? A secret language, of sorts, that only real con artists know? Terms that weed out the ones who are really in the game from the wannabes and the law enforcement?

It’s definitely good world building. When they use these little names in the stories, I feel like I’m being let in on a super secret world, a world within our world. Kind of like Harry Potter’s world, and how the Muggles never know, but in this instance, the con artists are the wizards, and everyone else is a Muggle.

But then I wonder if it’s just a conceit. Something movies and shows made up to save a little exposition time. Like keys hidden in the visor of a car or elevator doors that don’t bounce open when the bad guy reaches in to grab the good guy.

If the stories use those names, it saves them the time of explaining who’s doing what and what’s going on. The audience just accepts that everyone knows what to do and goes with it. Boom — you can head straight into the action.

And there are purposes for such short hand. If the writer uses it to skip the boring stuff and move into the interesting stuff, then it’s a conceit well used. We don’t need every single detail. It’s better writing to just say she got a drink, rather than detail her walk to the cupboard, selection of cup, filling of cup, walk to table, etc. But, if it’s used to skip plot or character development to just horn in more action, then it’s a problem.

It’s also a conceit well used if it brings a little detail to a made up world, makes the reader feel included. But it should be used to enhance. If all you rely on to create your world is the little cheats and short cuts that are part of the public consciousness, then that’s just lazy writing.

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Scent Memories

The power of the sense of smell is fairly amazing when you think about it. Especially considering that humans are so much less dependent on that sense than the other four, especially sight. But it is so crazy how a certain aroma will take you back to a specific memory almost instantly.

When I was a kid, I loved going to the library. For much of my childhood, the small town where I grew up didn’t have its own library, so on Saturdays and during the summer my mom would take me to the main library branch in the larger town about 30 minutes away.

I remember the smell of the building that would waft over me when I stepped through the doors. It was kind of musty and old, but not in a bad way. I loved that smell, and I loved how it clung to the books when I would take them home. When I was young, I always assumed the scent had something to do with the books themselves, but now I think that it probably had more to do with the age of the building.

The library I went to as a girl was built in… I guess the 50s or 60s. It had a bomb shelter in the basement, if that helps date it for you. There is a building across the street from where I work, a bank, and every time I walk in there (there’s a Subway on the first floor where I like to pick up lunch sometimes) I catch a whiff of that library/old building smell.

One whiff, and I’m suddenly 11 years old clutching an arm load of books and waiting for them to run my library card through their little machine. Though they later got scanable cards, the ones in my memory are the ones they had when I first got a card — they were pink and made of paper and they went through some kind of machine that pressed them and made them warm to the touch after when you checked out books.

Another scent memory that sometimes strikes me unawares is the smell of sun on grass. It’s been a while since I got a really good whiff of this one, but I used to smell it a lot when I was in college — I guess because they were always working on the grounds. The smell of sun-baked grass used to cling to my first dog’s coat when he would come back in the house from his back yard time. Sandy (a cockerspaniel) was an inside dog, which made smelling the outdoors on him all the more unusual. Sandy passed away while I was in college, but whenever I inhale that sunshiney, grassy smell, I’m transported back to when that little stinker used to sit on my feet or want to play tug-of-war; I can totally see him standing in front of me wagging his little stump of a tail.

The power of various smells and aromas can be utilized to great effect in one’s writing, in my opinion. The more senses you invoke in the story, the richer and more detailed your fictional world will be come, which makes you better able to draw in your reader and hold him there, right where you want him.

Hearing and sight are the dominant senses we describe in stories, but if you add the scent of woodsmoke; the taste of the cool, crisp water; or the way the fur carresses your main character’s fingertips, it gives the story an extra layer of depth. And, every detail you add has the possibility of resonating with your audience in ways you can’t anticipate — we all have our own associations with sights, sounds, smells, etc., and the more we can tap into those within our readers, the more bound they will be to our stories.

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Your Favorite Part

I don’t have a big blog topic to talk about today, so I thought I’d turn the spotlight around on you guys.

What is your absolute favorite part of writing? Why do you return to the keyboard day after day? It’s a fairly frustrating job — lots of work for little to no money (unless you make it big with a novel, and even then midlist authors are having a hard time squeaking by these days).

I answer that last question easily. I write because I have to write. I would be making up stories in my head anyway. I might as well write them down. And if I’m going to bother writing them down, then I should make them the best they can be, and see if anyone else out there thinks they are worth sharing. I don’t expect to get rich or famous of off it (though I’ll take it if it comes!).

My favorite part of writing, though, has to be that escape. I love disappaering into someone else’s world, seeing that world through their eyes, and yet also having a hand in creating that world. Getting into the creative zone is an amazing feeling. Nonwriters don’t understand when I say I’m not making all this up — the characters tell me what’s going on. But it’s true, and any writer knows it!

I also really love creating characters and world building and all the intricacies there-in. Those are my favorite parts of the creative process itself, but my favorite thing about writing, the escape of the creative zone — definitely!

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Writing Away

Lots of writing exercises going on in my writing group write now, and I’ve promised myself that September is the month that I’m going to make the most of them. Jens is running our prompt contest this month, and I have my eyes on the $10 prize. His prompts were quite challenging, I must say, but I have several ideas already. And I already turned in one, so go me.

We’re also doing a world-building exercise. It’s really fun! Six of us claimed land on a map that Virginia made, and now we’re coming up with the common elements of the world at large and the unique elements of our countries. Alex actually posted about this last week and included a lot of cool world-building links.

World-building can be scary some times, and yet it is also fun. The first time I built a world, it took me years to get it all fleshed out. This time, I’m starting with the world first, so hopefully the stories I eventually write set there will be well grounded in their unique fantasy world. Maybe it’s because I have experience creating a world before, but this time it seems more fun and less stressful. Maybe because I know that I can do it if I take the time. It also helps to be doing it with a group of friends.

If only I were better at making up words/names for things. That has always been a struggle for me, because I always think the made up words sound so stupid when I make them up (but I don’t think that when other people do… must be that hyper inner critic of mine!).

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Richness in the Details

Today has been a day for movies with that lush feel of glamorous old-school Hollywood — Indiscrete, A Touch of Mink… Men in tails, women in full-skirted velvet and satin evening gowns and luxurious fur coats, perfectly furnished apartments with hand-carved mantles and plush upholstery, dramatic vistas made even more vivid with that touch of Technicolor.

These settings are slightly familiar to me, but enough unfamiliar that the details stand out. And that’s how it should be in stories, too, I think. Especially speculative fiction stories where you have to do world building. When a fictional world is rife with rich and textured details, you can fall right into that fictional dream, feel like you’re really there.

Nothing new, I suppose, but I’ve been thinking about it today, anyway.

Strangely, when I’m creating a world, one of the things that makes me feel like I know the world intimately is when I know how the characters are going to dress for a given situation. It’s always been that way for me. My first “books” — eight or ten page stories scribbled on notebook paper in junior high — had little to no description of the scene, but every character’s outfit was immortalized in print from shoes to hat or hair bow.

This obsession with clothing is one that I’ve had to force myself to temper in my current writing. The outfits are always there in the first draft (though, not quite so detailed as they were when I was in junior high). I have to make myself cut them out during that pesky revision stage (or at least some of them, enough not to have clothing ad nauseam).

It’s a careful balance really — leave enough details in to make the world lush and real, but don’t overwhelm the reader with unnecessary facts that are irrelevant to the plot. Just another ball for the writer to juggle in the air, another one of the tricks from our bags.

And with that thought, I’ll leave off yammering for tonight. G’night all!

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A Multitude of Worlds

The SED contest continues. I’m proud of myself because I have, thus far, written a story every day. Just six more days to go. Here’s hoping I can keep it up!

This contest made me realize just how many fictional worlds exist in my imagination. When I can’t think of something to write for my daily SED story, I find myself turning to these fictional worlds and writing about an aspect of them that I haven’t yet explored, perhaps a small subset of the culture or a minor character who deserves his/her own story.

Of course there is Tyden, the medival-style fantasy world from the novel that is in a constant state of revision. That one is the most fully formed of all of them. But in the past year or so, several more have sprung into being.

There is my science fiction universe in which the Moon has several self-sustaining colonies. Sadly, none of the stories I set there worked out quite the way I had planned, but that world is really vivid to me. I’ve named all the colonies, worked out where they are and what their resources are, and everything. Maybe someday it will actually see the light of day!

I have two urban fantasy universes (distinguished from a fantasy world because they are layered on top of the real world instead of being created completely from scratch). One is a Y/A universe inhabited by Sirens. My 2006 NaNo novel was set in this world. Sadly, novel revisions aren’t coming along quite as swiftly as when I wrote the whole first draft in one month!

The other is a world of Thropes (short for Therianthropes, which means shapeshifters of all kinds). My shapeshifter universe has a whole Thrope society made of of werewolves, werecoyotes, werepanthers, werefoxes, wereleopards, wererats, and more. I’ve written two short stories set in this universe, one of which, “Alpha,”  will be published in Electric Spec at the end of the month.

I’ve recently created a super hero universe, as well. The first story, “Zero to Clean in Ten Minutes or Less,” was published in A Thousand Faces, issue 4, and the second of which, “Bridge Club,” will be published in a forthcoming issue of ATF.

There is my fantasy world (loosely based on 18th century Earth) in which people who survived the fall of Atlantis roam the Earth, first seen in “The Widow and the Stranger,” published in Allegory e-zine. And I have another medieval-style fantasy world about immortal sorcerers who devote their lives to a mysterious Game. One story set there has reached round two in a flash e-zine, but I haven’t heard back about it yet. Oh, and there is my Christian vampire hunter world — more urban fantasy — only one story so far (scheduled out in Afterburn SF early next year), but ideas for several short story ideas have occured to me. And, there are a few others, less well defined than the ones mentioned above.

All these ‘verses beg the question — how much room do I have in my imagination anyway? If my imagination is anything like the Book World in the Thursday Next series (which  highly recommend if you’re looking for smart, funny, highly literate fantasy), things must be going amok in there!

But, that’s why we’re in this writing game, isn’t it? Because these worlds and characters are there in our minds just waiting for their stories to be written down on paper (or via the keyboard). We don’t do it for the money or the glory (there isn’t much of either of those to be had). We do it because we enjoy it (at least sometimes), and because the stories are out there waiting to be told.

If I don’t tell the stories of all my imaginary worlds, who’s going to?

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Stories That Don’t Leave the Launchpad

It is day two of my writing group’s challenge to write a story every day. Thus far, I have written the two required stories. I’m not very enthused by either of them, but my cumulative word count for the two days is 7K and change. That’s some serious wordage!

The first story is the one that really got up there — it’s over 6K on its own. Sadly, it didn’t work out like I’d planned. It is a story set on the moon in a future time when mankind has self-sustaining colonies there. Every since I read about this contest sponsored by the National Space Society I’ve wanted to submit a story. It would be such a cool anthology to be included in. The readership would be way up there, for one thing, since it would be marketed to the whole NSS membership. And, for another thing, I’ve been a sci-fi geek from way back — I love stories about colonies in outer space, travelling in space, etc. You’d think the “Return to Luna” theme would be right up my alley.

The first thing I did when I heard about this anthology was research for world building. I read up on theories and ideas about lunar settlement, the moon’s geography, etc. I came up with what, in my opinion, is a good concept for what life on the moon could be like — there are some sci-fi contrivances, such as terraforming, but not too many. I wanted to keep it more realistic than, say, Star Trek with its replicators and warp engines. My lunar civiliation was multi-cultural, as well. It has five colonies, each one founded by one of the top runners in the space race right now — Japan, China, Russia, India, and the U.S.

Then I started my first story. I wrote on it and wrote on it, then I stopped, and then I wrote some more. But it was never finished. It got longer and longer, but the plot didn’t come to fruition like I’d hoped. It just didn’t gel. So, I abandoned story one, and when my writing group’s contest began, I thought that maybe I could write another one instead. Use the same world, but different characters and a less ambitious plot.

When I started the story yesterday, it felt brilliant. I knew this was the concept that would work and get me into the NSS anthology. But, there is always that disconnect between the story you see in your head and the one you get down on paper. By the end of the day yesterday, I absolutely hated the second moon colonization story. It took all these rabbit trails, and I’m not sure that it goes far enough toward the joy and wonder of living life on the moon. The story is securely set on the moon. I tried to make the world believable, which I think it was, but the plot is a smaller, more emotional plot. While I think the lunar setting added interest, it isn’t integral to the plot like I wish it were. Plus, instead of the 2K I’d hoped for, it’s over 6K. Darn and blast!

I guess every writer has this trouble from time to time. You have a good idea or something inspires you, and the story either dies a quiet death or becomes a huge train wreck, and even throwing more work into it can’t save it.

I’m not quite sure that I’ve given up on the NSS anthology. I still have a few days left to either work on story two and fine tune it to something I’m happy with or to possibly write another one as one of my daily stories for this week. Who’s to know?

What you writers out there think? What do you do when you have a story that just won’t sort itself out, no matter how much you try? Are you quick to abandon them, or do you continue to fiddle with them time and time again?

I’m probably more of the latter, though it does depend on how much effort I’ve put into it. The more I’ve worked on stories, the harder it is for me to let them go.

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Real Life Settings

My parents own land and a snug little cabin a few miles outside of the small town where I grew up. For Stephen and I, the cabin has become a great retreat. Being only a couple of hours away from home, it’s the perfect place for a weekend get-away. Holiday weekends, like this one, are even better, because we have two full days at the cabin instead of just one.

The cabin is quite cozy, as far as cabins go. When my mom first told me about it, I pictured a rustic shack with little in the way of amenities—something for guys to use on a hunting trip. Happily, that mental picture was completely wrong. The cabin has electricity, running water, air conditioning/heat, a fridge, a washer/dryer, and what has to be the biggest cabin bathroom on the planet (I think it’s bigger than our guest bathroom at home!). The property also has a shed for storage, a fire pit (great for cooking meat and roasting marshmallows over), two ponds, and plenty of hiking trails.

I love our weekends at the cabin, because I generally get a lot of writing done. Stephen and my dad go out on the property and work—chipping wood, trimming vines, mowing, etc.—while I stay inside (or out on the wrap-around porch, if it’s not too buggy) and type away. And because the cabin does not have the Internet or cable, I am much less likely to be distracted.

The cabin has popped up in several short stories I’ve written in the past year or so. It appeared fully formed in a short story I wrote about a pack of werecoyotes living in the Texas hill country (sadly, I haven’t place this story yet, but it’s gotten close a couple of times—I’m still waiting to hear from one market, so cross your fingers for me!). The cabin also appears, sans modern accoutrements, in the first scene of a story I wrote for my writing group’s 2007 short story collection (every year, we vote on a theme and all write a short story for that theme—several of our members have actually had their contributions published).

It’s funny how real life can creep into your writing. I think that it adds depth to a story if the writer knows the setting intimately. You can really create that vivid fictional dream for your reader by describing the setting with all five senses. Being able to describe the sounds and the smells, anything in addition to what the place looks like, really adds to the depth.

One of these days, I’m going to write a story set in a dentist’s office. My dad is a dentist, and I worked there part-time for several summers during high school and college. In one of my grad school fiction workshops, a classmate wrote a story about going to the dentist, and someone raved on the setting, saying that having the main character in the chair with the dentist’s hands in her mouth was a great hook. So, one of these days, perhaps I’ll put all that dental office experience into some fictional good use.

Of course, first I actually need to come up with a plot where that setting would be appropriate! And I have plenty of short stories in progress that actually have plots, so the dental office idea will stay on the back burner for now. Then again, that’s the thing about being a writer (at least in my experience)—there are always way more ideas than there are completed stories or time to write them.

Happy Memorial Day, everyone! I hope you all have a relaxing weekend, and I hope that all the writers out there are able to get extra time in on their works-in-progress this weekend!

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