Archive for the ‘Creating Good Settings’ Category

Fiction in the Pandemic

November 4, 2020

Literary arts have long served as humanity’s means of processing reality. But as we reel from continued global crises, what stories are going to emerge from these odd and troubled times?

As our own reality changes, what happens to the world a writer imagines? With so many of the arts hobbled by the pandemic, fiction should be thriving. Unlike any of the performing arts, writing is a solitary profession, one that does not require the physical presence of an audience.

Even more than pursuits like painting and photography, which can require some collaboration, writing is best done in isolation. We have the ultimate “work-from-home” profession. But even as it is, by nature, removed from the world, much of fiction relies on realism, or some semblance of it. We call it “world building”…creating credibility for our characters and their lives.

But what kind of world do we build now?

This is only one issue facing writers in this difficult time. In addition to the common necessities of wrangling everything from child care and schooling to health care and shopping, not to mention worrying about a Presidential election, many of us have had difficulty concentrating.

The subconscious, where so much plotting and character-building happens, has been taken over for many by a silent, screaming panic.

I’m sure the current pandemic is spurring some writers. In two years, I expect a bumper crop of dystopian fantasy (as if we want to live this year over again). However, no matter what our genre, we face a choice. Do we depict a world in which people interact as we did so blithely only eight months ago? Or, do we try to set our stories in a world of Zoom conferences and masked, distanced meetups?

No matter what our conscious choices, reality is bound to seep in. One author I know has posted on social media about his latest manuscript. Drafted largely before the pandemic, he talked about revising it, and removing handshakes and embraces, at least between non-family members. He said these scenes now make him uncomfortable.

For me, the choice has been somewhat predetermined. When the shutdown came, I was already deep into the drafts of several new stories. Not only did it feel wrong to change the settings, even as our reality was changing, it felt antithetical to the purpose of my tales.

I also had a practical concern. One work of mine is the fifth (and probably last) in a series. I have another, darker book that’s a sequel to one of my well-received horror stories. I tell myself it’s neither wise nor fair to my readers to change too much at this point, even though their real worlds have changed as much as mine.

If I revise, like my friend is talking about doing, am I going to remove the hugs and handshakes? I’m not sure yet. But I have noticed another element of reality creep in, because I tend to right the world I create as I write it.

By that, I mean I try to resolve the obstacles my protagonists experience. However, this time around, my characters keep straying from the direction I thought the story should go. The real world has made it tough to keep my concentration as I write.

I’ve always claimed to start with a “what if” and let the characters tell me where they’re going. Now, as I struggle with writer’s block for yet another month, perhaps it’s because I no longer feel my inventions are that much different than reality.

Be that as it may, I voted yesterday, as I hope you did, and I’m waiting (not very patiently) for final results. I won’t get into my political leanings, but I’m sure this whole year would make one hell of a story…except no one would believe it.


Gentle Readers, my books have all garnered some terrific reviews. You can see all of them by using the Amazon link below. Check them out. Better yet, buy one and read it. You just might like it.

buy now;


You’re invited to visit my author’s website, BROKEN GLASS to hear the remarkable radio interview about my novel “Blood Lake” on The Authors Show, or see my three local television interviews. You can also like my Book of Face page, find me on Goodreads, or follow my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.


Comments posted below will be read, greatly appreciated and perhaps even answered.

Do You Enjoy Settings?

May 10, 2019

Character. Plot. Setting.
Of those three, which do you enjoy writing the most?

For myself (and many writers I know), character usually takes the top spot. Humans connect with other humans, after all, so it’s often easier to invest oneself in characters and their conflicts.

A place, though important, is a bit more difficult and, if you’re one of those writers who struggle with setting (I know I am), I’d like to share an approach that might help.

Treat Your Setting Like a Character
I’ve talked about this before. Memorable fictional characters always have strong characteristics. You need to explore how to assign equally vivid characteristics to your settings, and suggest those characteristics to your readers.

Let’s review some of the questions I’ve suggested you ask yourself when creating characters:

1. What does this character look like?
2. What is this character’s backstory?
3. What does this character want?
4. What secrets does this character hold?
5. What is this character’s conflict?

Now that we’ve reviewed the questions, let’s answer them … only this time not for the characters … for the setting.

1. Appearance
Most writers begin describing setting with question one, using a few sentences to set the scene. It’s the most basic aspect of setting and likely the most obvious. Consider this, from my award-winning novel, Reichold Street:

The day started as a humid, hurt-your-lungs-on-a-deep-breath morning. A blistering sun was rising over the railroad switching yard at the far end of the street. Its red-orange glare filtered through exhausted-looking trees, while sinuous heat ribbons shimmered over motionless freight cars, their rusty shapes defined like so many slumbering beasts.

2. Backstory
Like many great characters, the best settings have detailed histories such as this, again from Reichold Street:

He was looking at the old Cantwell Place. It was funny how no one back then thought of that old house as anything else. Cecil Cantwell, the only son of one of Brickdale’s founders, had built it. He had lived in it with his wife for more than seventy years. The house was there even before the railroad tracks were laid.

“Meet you by Cantwell’s.” Everyone in Brickdale, and in several other communities around it, knew that meant the east end of Reichold Street. People used it as a landmark.

Cecil had died the previous fall, about the time leaves started to turn. The maple in front of Mrs. Murphy’s house was a beautiful golden color the day I heard about his passing. I never knew exactly why he died. He was ninety-seven and I presumed he just wore out. His wife, a frail old stick, followed him a few days before Christmas.

The house had been empty since then. Someone came by and mowed the lawn each week, but no one tended the flowers, pulled weeds, or repainted the shutters from the old can of Leaf Green #502 on the shelf in the garage. Then the Toothpick Man showed up.

3. Motive
How can a setting have a motive? How can it want anything? You might be wondering, why should I care? Well, if you treat the setting as a character and consider what it wants, you add depth.

4. Secrets
This one may or may not apply to your setting but it’s a potent addition when it works. A setting with a secret is just as compelling as any secretive character. For example, take Stephen King’s spooky novel, The Shining. At the beginning of the novel, the Overlook seems to be an ordinary (although creepy) hotel. As the story progresses, we discover that the hotel has its own agenda and its own secrets.

5. Conflict
Great characters have conflicts, and so do great settings. listen to the implications of this excerpt from my novel, Blood Lake:

“Why did Luther call this Blood Lake?” I said. “I always thought this was the Watts Barr.”

“It is Watts Barr Lake,” Harold said. “You’d have known about the family name for it, if your father had done what he was supposed to.”

“Oh…” was all I could think of to say.

Harold pointed out into the lake from where we sat. “The stockade where Tsali was shot used to sit on the banks of the Tennessee River,” he said. “The natural flow of the river was right over there. At least it was until the TVA built the dam.”

“That doesn’t explain…” I started to say, still unable to complete my thought.

“There’s a lot of Burnett blood already in that water,” Harold said. “A lot of Cherokee blood, too.”

He went silent after that.

Suggesting a Setting’s Characteristics
I know you’ve heard me talk about show, don’t tell. It’s a fine rule of thumb. The same goes for describing a setting.

Show your setting’s traits through action. Cormac McCarthy didn’t just tell us the world was dangerous in The Road. He showed it by populating that world with marauders and cannibals. If your setting is trying to kill your protagonists, it’ll feel more like a character.

Developing the Arc of Your Setting
Characters have arcs. So, like characters, great settings often have arcs as well. This might sound like an odd concept at first, but it really can make a difference in your writing.

To build your setting’s arc, consider what your setting is like at the beginning of the story, what it becomes by the end, and what happens in the middle to make it so.

Maybe you start with an idyllic, pastoral country which ends up ravaged by war. Or your post-apocalyptic wasteland might be restored to beauty by the heroics of your protagonist. Or perhaps your setting stays just the way it always was despite what happened in the middle.

Whatever arc you choose, just knowing about it as you write should improve your setting.

Use these tips to make your settings feel like characters. You’ll be amazed by the results!


I’ll be at Lev Raphael’s Master Class at Oakland University tomorrow. Then I’ll be joining other authors signing books at Detroit Festival of Books at Eastern Market on July 21 and at SterlingFest in Sterling Heights, Michigan on July 27.


Gentle Readers, my books have all garnered some terrific reviews. You can see all of them by using the Amazon link below. Check them out. Better yet, buy one and read it. You just might like it.

buy now;


You’re invited to visit my author’s website, BROKEN GLASS to hear the remarkable radio interview about my novel “Blood Lake” on The Authors Show. You can also like my Book of Face page, find me on Goodreads, or follow my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.


Comments posted below will be read, greatly appreciated and perhaps even answered.

%d bloggers like this: