Staci Troilo

Suspense, Passion... Fiction That Flutters The Heart

Tag: setting

Fiction Pet Peeves Part 2—Settings

winter landscapeIt’s wintertime. I think this is a popular season for reading, mostly because sitting under a blanket with a book and a cup of coffee sounds a lot better than going outside and shoveling snow. Summertime is great for being outside. Not winter. (To those of you who enjoy skiing, snowboarding, building snowmen, or making and throwing snowballs, I apologize. I just don’t get it. I hate being cold.)

But I digress.

I’ve been reading a lot, and thinking about some of the books I’ve read brings me to my next pet peeve. Settings in fiction. Please be patient with me on this one. I know setting a scene is necessary. But there is a right and a wrong way to do it.

1) I don’t like it when a description of the setting is the opening of a book.

Yes, there are some people who could describe the contents of my refrigerator and make it sound like a wonderland. (J.K. Rowling, I mean you. Herman Melville, I do NOT mean you.) But notice that the greats of our time start with something more exciting than the dirty gray brick of the bank the POV character is about to enter. I’m not a huge fan of in media res beginnings. I want to meet the character before the building explodes. That way I know how I should feel about the explosion. But given the choice between the soot-stained walls or the explosion that turns them to rubble, I’ll take the explosion. Every. Time.

2) Purple prose is pretty, but it’s out of place in contemporary fiction.

I know I’ve been guilty of writing like this in the past, so I almost hate to mention it. But descriptions that turn poetic just don’t fit in today’s genre work. We’ve all read probably every adjective possible to describe a sunrise or sunset. And shorelines. Forests. Mountains. Fields of wildflowers. Those descriptions had their day. Now, unless a writer can focus on an unusual detail or give me a reason why this area is unique—or at least important to the POV character—just saying where the character is probably is enough. Save the description for things we’re unfamiliar with. Or for things that are important to the characters.

3) Big blocks of writing to describe the setting can slow my reading pace.

Again, I know setting a scene is important. But it can be done with less intrusion. Do you want a description of the room written like a list? No. But if you have a character interact with things in the room, we’ll get the picture without the dictionary entry. I like it when setting is revealed by a character tripping over a red oriental rug, slamming her knee off the corner of an antique table, and knocking a Tiffany lamp onto the floor. That way, we see the action and we see the decor. And when that same character worries not that she might have chipped a bone in her leg (even as she limps to the camel-backed sofa to sit) but how she’ll pay for the damage she caused? Well, then we get character information, too. It’s a win-win.

So, there you have it. Things that bother me about poorly-handled settings in fiction. Yes, every scene should ground us in the space. But not to open a scene, not with dozens of useless details, and not as a boring list. I’ve read too many novels lately that fail one or more of these criteria, and that bothers me. New York should know better. We should expect better. (And yes, we, as writers, should strive to write these settings better.)

What about you? How do you feel about opening a book or scene with description? Purple prose? Lengthy lists of detail? Is there something I missed? Share this with other readers and writers, and let’s all talk about it.

Setting the Stage

Native LandsSometimes I feel like I talk too much about the projects I’m working on. I mean, I’m passionate about them and want to share them with the world, but I’m not the only author with something to say. So I’ve reached out to some of my author friends and asked them to share their thoughts, their work, their passions with us.

Today, I’m happy to host friend and fellow author P.C. Zick, who is going to talk with us about setting. Take it away, P.C.

Setting the Stage with Setting in Fiction

“The uncertain air that magnified some things and blotted out others hung over the whole Gulf so that all sights were unreal and vision could not be trusted; so that sea and land had the sharp clarities and the vagueness of a dream.” The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Of all the authors who have inspired me in my career, John Steinbeck stands at the forefront. Why do I admire him so much? It’s because of his ability to use setting as a part of the plot.

I’m an avid fan of using the reality of setting—landscape, weather, era, climate—as a strong backdrop to a story. As a reader, descriptions of setting transport me to other places and eras. As a writer, the setting of my fiction gives me one more tool for fine-tuning my plot engine. On a more basic level, I simply love reading descriptions of setting that establish mood and tone. And I adore writing scenes with lush scenery and powerful seasons to project the atmosphere in my plots.

zick trails jpgIn my novel, Trails in the Sand, I used the setting of a lazy river on a warm day in the first chapter to contrast with the tension about to invade the lives of the main characters as disaster lurks in the Gulf of Mexico on an as-yet unknown oil rig named Deepwater Horizon.

“Our paddles caressed the water without creating a ripple as we floated by turtles sunning on tree trunks fallen into the river. A great blue heron spread its wings on the banks and lifted its large body into the air, breaking the silence of a warm spring day in north Florida. The heron led us down the river of our youth stopping to rest when we fell too far behind. The white spider lilies of spring covered the green banks of the Santa Fe River.” Trails in the Sand by P.C. Zick

Some of the authors I admire most, such as Steinbeck, use setting as a literary technique. A storm becomes a metaphor for tension between characters. The seasons serve as symbols within the theme. Temperatures create mood from humid heat to frigid cold. Place—from sea to river to urban environs—expresses as much about mood as does a character’s words and actions. Setting a story in Tel Aviv establishes a certain mood very different from placing a story in Memphis. Europe in 1942 resounds with air raids and fear. In New York City in 1942, life continues on with only minor inconveniences, such as rationing of nylons and butter.

I set my first novel in Michigan where I grew up, but I wrote it after moving to north Florida. I wanted to use the dramatic seasons of my birth home as a dramatic plot technique. The four distinct seasons of the north helped to create tension and to move the plot toward its dramatic conclusion.

By the time I wrote my third novel, I’d changed settings to Florida. I found myself seeking out ways to describe the varied landscapes so others could see what I discovered when I moved to a very different climate and landscape than where I’d previously lived. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings of The Yearling and Cross Creek fame, drew such vivid portraits in her novels of north Florida. After reading several of her books, I yearned to write in a similar vein and to show the landscapes and environment surrounding me.

“Somewhere beyond the sink-hole, past the magnolia, under the live oaks, a boy and a yearling ran side by side, and were gone forever.” The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

I didn’t adapt to my new setting easily. When I threatened to take my baby and leave my first husband after watching a lizard cross my path, a neighbor intervened.

“Read Cross Creek,” he said as he presented me with a copy of Rawlings’ famous book, not yet made into a movie. I read avidly, soaking up her descriptions. I slowly learned to appreciate my surroundings with new eyes. Her descriptions of the Florida landscape helped me fall in love with all parts of my adopted home because her experience had been similar to my own. She moved from New York to the wilderness of Florida and had to adapt. Writing helped her make that transition.

I grew to love the snakes and skinks, heat and hurricanes, sand spurs and slash pines. I began to understand how our environment shapes us. Out of Florida’s beaches, marshes, and swamps rose runaway renegades, hardy natives, and tough cowboys. Setting created them as much as genetics.

When I took a leap of faith and left my teaching career to venture into writing full-time, many wondered if I’d lost my mind. A month after I quit, I won an essay contest. It’s no coincidence that the contest honored the woman who allowed me to fall in love with my environment and to fall in love with writing about natural landscapes. The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings essay contest win gave me the confidence to continue on my journey.

Native LandsAnd I continue writing novels where setting surrounds the plot. In another of my Florida novels, Native Lands, the Everglades play an important role in the lives of the characters. The swamp, the isolation, the threat of hurricanes, and the wildlife create the backdrop for intrigue, mystery, and even love.

I’ll leave you with the final lines in Native Lands, where I made an attempt to express my profound love of a descriptive setting to show mood within my fiction.

“The stars twinkled in the dark sky as night settled over the Glades. The crickets croaked and the sulfur from the swamp assaulted their noses as they rolled out their mats to sleep near the fire as Mali and Locka once did on their travels south. The wildlife settled in the mud holes and rivers surrounding them. Slumber descended, as peaceful dreams floated in their heads.” Native Lands by P.C. Zick

Thank you for sharing, P.C. The quotes you chose are powerful reminders of how important setting can be in a work of fiction.

If you’d like to learn more about P.C. and her work, check out the links below.

Website | Blog | Amazon Author Page | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Google + | Video Trailers

Pat ZickP.C. Zick began her writing career in 1998 as a journalist. Her first novel was published in 2000. She’s won various awards for her essays, columns, editorials, articles, and fiction. She describes herself as a “storyteller” no matter the genre. She lived in Florida for thirty years, and she finds the stories of Florida and its people and environment a rich base for her contemporary fiction. Florida’s quirky and abundant wildlife—both human and animal—supply her fiction with tales almost too weird to be believable. Her romance trilogy, Behind the Love, is also set in Florida.

She writes two blogs, P.C. Zick and Living Lightly. She has published three nonfiction books and nine novels.

Zick Promos (5)Her writing contains the elements most dear to her heart, ranging from love to the environment.

She believes in living lightly upon this earth with love, laughter, and passion.

Setting the Scene

Pittsburgh_skyline7Most people think Western Pennsylvania and immediately think Pittsburgh. And it’s a good thing that comes to mind. Pittsburgh is one of the country’s Most Livable Cities, and with good reason. It has so much to offer.

Casinos offer not just gaming, but entertainment and great food, as well. Or grab a bite at any of the fabulous eateries from sandwich shops to gourmet restaurants.

The Three Rivers boasts the most bridges in the US, and the city appeals to all water recreationists, from boaters and Jet Skiers to those who prefer fine dining and dancing on the Gateway Clipper Fleet.

There are three different professional sports teams, so there’s something to do and someone to cheer for all year long. If the arts are more your thing, attend one of the performances by symphonies, ballet troupes, or play actors. Looking for something more casual? The ’Burgh offers amusement parks and zoos, museums and science centers, conservatories and observatories. Education to recreation, playing hard or taking it easy… Pittsburgh offers something for everyone.

My new novel, Bleeding Heart, takes place in Pittsburgh, as well as in my hometown of Vandergrift. While Pittsburgh’s claim to fame is all it has to offer, Vandergrift offers all the quiet and camaraderie of small town living.

vandergriftVandergrift is the first worker-owned, industrially-planned town in the US. Planned by famed designer Frederick Law Olmsted, it has curved tree-lined streets, ball parks and tennis courts, a swimming pool and downtown thoroughfare. I can’t think of a better place to have grown up—it had all the charm and friendliness of an intimate neighborhood with easy access to the busy city.

I hope you have a chance to visit Western Pennsylvania and see everything it has to offer. Or you can visit my Pinterest page to see many more Pittsburgh and Vandergrift photos. And I hope you pick up a copy of Bleeding Heart, and check out a new piece of fiction set in a gorgeous part of the country.

What’s your hometown? Or where do you live now? What makes it so special? Let’s talk about it.

Four Ways to Turn Weekend Negatives into Writing Positives

snow in MayWow, what a weekend. It started with snow. In May. In Arkansas. I ask you, what’s a die hard northerner to look forward to in the south if not nice weather? We’ve already opened our pool, for Pete’s sake. And now we have snow! It couldn’t have come at a worse time—it was the first tennis tournament of the season. So here I was, missing a writing conference that I’d love to attend because of my kids’ sporting events, and the weather was not cooperating. I had planned for sun and heat and instead I was worrying about precipitation and wind chill factors. Not the weekend we had planned.

It was not a good weekend for us. On Friday, as I said, we woke up to snow. I was too cold to even get out of the car to take a proper photo of it. The tennis matches were all backed up and rescheduled, as well as operating under amended scoring protocols. By the time my son was used to the tournament and thoroughly warmed up, his match was over. Sadly, he lost, which isn’t unexpected for the first match ever, but he took it hard. By the time we ate and went home, the Penguin game had started. Luckily, we recorded it. Sadly, they lost too. It was a bad day for us all around.

Saturday started out as wet and cold as Friday. Tennis was still on amended schedules. My daughter’s match was delayed several hours, and they didn’t even bother telling us, so we just hung around for, oh, I don’t know, ever, until our turn. She made it into the semifinals, so we thought things we looking up. We were wrong.

Sunday dawned warmer and partly sunny. After Mass, we headed over to the courts and I checked in my daughter while my husband left with my son to go get some practice time in before his match. Everything was looking up, right? Wrong. They took my daughter ahead of schedule, so my husband missed the beginning of her match. He didn’t miss much. She lost. My son played a couple of hours later. He had a great match, but he also lost. We decided to grab something to eat and call it a day.

We headed out to a Mexican restaurant. I usually cook a special Mexican meal for Cinco de Mayo, but we weren’t home for me to make it, so we were at the mercy of the restaurant. The first piece of bad news: we walk in and the television above the bar has the hockey score on. No point in watching the game now. At least we won. Then the waitress who took our drink order never came back, so we were abandoned for a while. The good news was that we ended up with a really good waiter when he figured out that we weren’t being served. The meal wasn’t that good because they were super busy and using a modified menu, but we were together, so that’s all that really matters. I’ll just make our “real” meal later in the week.

So what’s the take away from this weekend?

  1. They don’t cancel tennis tournaments for snow.
  2. The kids are resilient when they lose in tennis matches.
  3. It doesn’t matter whether my kids (and my pro sports teams) win.
  4. Only four more years until I can make it to the writing conference in May.

And how these things impact fiction writing?

  1. Sometimes weather is inappropriate for the season.
    We’ve all seen storms thrown into stories, or cowboys riding into sunsets, but consider the weather as part of the setting when it’s not traditional—like snow in the summer, or a heat wave at Christmas. How can that impact your characters and your story?
  2. How characters handle adversity defines them.
    My kids didn’t make it into the finals this weekend, but they left the tournament as champions because of how they handled themselves. There were no McEnroe-sized temper tantrums, there were no tears. There were no blaming bad calls. There were no varsity limps. My kids shook hands with their competitors and held their heads high as they walked off the courts. How your characters handle losses helps readers know who they are.
  3. Heroes can’t always win and villains can’t always lose.
    There’s something to be said for the successful villain or the down-on-his-luck hero. If the hero is always on top, he’s going to be boring. He needs to face adversity and not always win. If the villain doesn’t score a success or two, he may succumb to new lows of depravity and evil, but he’ll be one dimensional. No one loses all the time. Mixing it up makes it more real.
  4. Writing conferences will help you improve your writing.
    There are times that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. This weekend, the first weekend in May, is always our first tennis tournament. It’s also the OWFI Conference. I can’t do both, and my family needs my support more than I need to go to the conference. There are other conferences, and in a few more years, I’ll be free to attend this conference, too. That doesn’t mean that I don’t find conferences important. I do, and I suggest writers find a conference and attend it. In fact, I found my agent at a conference, so I can’t say enough good things about them. Do your research, prepare, and attend. It’s a great way to network in addition to learn about your craft.

So no, this wasn’t the best weekend the Troilo family has spent in recent history. But we took our lemons and made limoncello out of them. (We’re Italian, what else would we make?) I hope you had a better weekend than we did, but if you didn’t, hopefully you found a way to get the positives out of the negatives. Good weekend or bad, why not share it with us below? Especially if you have a tip for a fellow writer.

Five Ways to Avoid Ruining Your Scene Descriptions

Hilton HeadWhen you write, you’ve got main characters, secondary characters, minor characters and villains. Many people contend that the setting can become a character in its own right, and in certain situations, a well-written setting can take on a life of its own. But there are mistakes to avoid with settings so they aren’t handled poorly.

Here are five pitfalls in scene-setting to be aware of.

1. Not Writing Enough
Have you ever read a scene so dialogue-heavy that you felt ungrounded? You were missing the basic foundation tools provided by “setting the scene.” Without just a few well-placed details to tell you where the characters are, you will uncomfortably float in the scene.

2. Being Lost in Exposition
Conversely, too much scene-setting can break down the flow of the writing. It’s a real slam of the brakes as your eyes scan the page if suddenly you’re mired down in a lengthy description of where the characters are. More isn’t always better.

3. Making Lists
One of the ways people try to condense their description is to just hit the highlights of the scenery. That often results in a laundry list of details describing the setting of the story. That’s a sure fire way to slow down readers. No one wants to read sentence after sentence of room or landscape detail, particularly if it really isn’t value-added information.

4. Writing Purple Prose
Sometimes the description is added simply as filler because the writer wasn’t sure what to do next or he or she wanted to slow the pace a bit. Often this is where the writer flexes the old poetry muscle, and purple prose is born. Scene descriptions are created in language so beautiful that The Bard himself would be envious. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings. In this case, they aren’t really darling. Just because the language is exquisite doesn’t mean it belongs in your story.

5. Regionalizing
I was at a conference recently when an agent discussed scene-specifics. She said that stories set in Anytown USA are more marketable than stories written about miners in Western PA because a coal mine in Western PA poses a limited market. That doesn’t mean you can’t set your story somewhere real—plenty of wonderful stories take place in actual places—but try not to limit your market so severely that you make your story’s audience a small, segmented market.

So, we don’t write too little, we don’t write too much. We avoid writing lists and we cut the poetic phrases that were inserted as filler. Finally, we make certain we don’t pigeon-hole ourselves into a region that is too specific to be marketable. What’s left?

The perfect sprinkling of well-placed, well-chosen details. You don’t need to describe the whole forest; throughout the scene mention the darkness of the shadows, the thick carpet of fallen needles and the pungent scent of pine. Those details throughout one scene aren’t too many, but you know you’re in a forest without saying, “They’re in a dense forest. There are trees as far as the eye can see. Needles and cones line the path, and the scent of pine permeates the air.” Further, if you mention the details in lieu of dialogue tags, you’ve killed two birds with one stone. But I’ll leave that discussion for another post…

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