Been there: Using real-world settings in fiction

Been there: Using real-world settings in fiction

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m always fascinated by the worlds that writers create for fantasy and sci-fi novels. I think I’m fascinated by the sheer complexity of creating an entire culture from its laws and religion to its people, plants and landscape.

But basing our stories in the “real world” we all know (or think we know), can be just as complex.

Keeping facts straight.

krzywy-las-641507_640Using real settings—real towns or cities, real street names, real landmarks— can seem easy because you have everything created already. You don’t have to invent culture, landmarks or names. If you mention the CN Tower or Westminster Abbey, you need only give a few details, and readers can fill in the rest.

Provided you get it right.

You can be sure that if you get it “wrong”, someone’s going to tell you. Or your reader will be aware that you made a mistake once, and be on the alert in case you do it again, so now there is a subconscious element of distrust as they read. At the very least, it will kick them out of the narrative momentarily.building-72225_640

Your Impressions

Sure, you can control facts to a large degree with good research and careful editing, but what you can’t control is readers’ reactions to your perceptions of real places. If, like facts, readers think that you got the impression “wrong”, it will be noticed, and have the same effect as getting facts wrong. If, as a narrator, you describe a particular real neighbourhood as “dangerous”, or “upcoming” or “ugly”, that might be your interpretation, but your reader may not agree. Your perceptions of real places are valid, but so are your readers’impressions of the same place.

So what can you do?

Impressions vs. facts

As you write be aware which setting details are facts and which are opinions. Characters only should express all the impressions or opinions. Characters in this instance include the narrator in a first person story. In sections of exposition, stick to facts. This is a good rule of thumb for any details actually, not just for setting. Essentially, setting opinions expressed through exposition become “author intrusion” and open that door for “getting it wrong”.

Manipulating impressions

The moment you move impressions of real places to the realm of character, you have the opportunity to manipulate setting to support other elements like character development and theme.

By choosing to focus on the details the character notices in a setting and what they think and how they feel about it, says as much about the character as the setting. Characters usually notice the things that align with their emotional state and with their level of understanding. You can set or heighten mood and sneak in details that will be important to plot or speak to theme.

midway-game-983385_640

Think of a child and his mother entering a fairground. The child is likely feeling excited and looking forward to fun, so will notice details that are colourful, fun and energizing: whirling rides, flags and balloons, stalls full of prizes to be won. The mother might be jaded by years of attending fairgrounds, aware of potential danger and cost. She will notice questionable people, machinery that looks or souman-1283576_1280nds dangerous and the crush of crowds that make it hard for her to keep track of her child.

Another manipulation is to purposely describe factual details “wrong” to establish an unreliable character.

Fiction and reality fusion

Perhaps the best way to use real settings is to create a fictional piece within the real one. A fictional town in real Northern Ontario. A fictional bar in Paris. You still get the advantages of the “real world” settings, but not the disadvantages. Your fictional component should be similar enough for believability, but you have the freedom to create your own “impressions”’ of the place. You get to decide if the place is “dangerous”, or “upcoming” or “ugly”, and your readers will believe you.

 

One Day I Will Write About This

One Day I Will Write About This

Guest blogger: Erin Silver

When my husband left me to be with another woman — when he confessed he was in love with someone else — there wasn’t much I could say. But I do remember telling him one thing: One day I will write about this.

fist-bump-1195446_640At first, I couldn’t write about my experience. The feelings were too raw. The emotions too heightened. I had no perspective on what had happened to me and what it meant in the grand scheme of my life. If I had tried to write about my divorce when the process began four years ago, it would have been an angry jumble of words. Words I may have regretted sharing one day.

Something told me it was time

But within two years, I was ready. Something clicked inside of me. Something told me it was time. By then, I was no longer angry. I had grown as a person and a writer. And suddenly I had a story to tell; a story about someone who was betrayed and bewildered, left to start life over from scratch. Someone who had to rediscover herself and find a way to become happy for the sake of her young boys.

strategise-865006_640I had worked through some real lows with my therapist and eventually came to realize that I wasn’t actually worthless and unloveable. Among the lows were some really bad dates and the feeling that I might never find love again. That was a terrifying thought: not knowing how my story would end or if the eventual ending would be happy. But there were some highs, too: taking my boys on a road trip all by myself, being accepted into a Masters of Fine Art in Creative Nonfiction program, meeting someone special and watching our kids grow to care for one another. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything.

Sharing my story

interior-design-1048090_640I began scouring my brain for different angles, different facets of my story to share with new audiences. I pitched certain ideas to certain editors, and I followed up and followed up and followed up until I began selling pieces.

I wrote about taking my son to therapy for Todays Parent, co-parenting for the Globe and Mail and going back to school for the Toronto Star. I pitched a blog, A Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, to UrbanMoms.ca and write regularly about my everyday experiences. Before I knew it, I had developed a portfolio of articles and blogs related to divorce, single parenting and co-parenting. I’m now writing an intimate and even funny “foodoir” (memoir plus food) about the last four years of my life.

It’s not necessarily been cathartic, as you might think. I’d prefer to describe it as a mandatory part of my existence. I can’t explain it or rationalize it. It’s not like I want to talk about it; I want to move on. I don’t want to confess my private life to people I’ve never met; it’s not pleasant dredging up memories and feelings I wish I’d never experienced. When I get into the thick of it, it’s actually quite painful. I write as I cry and I cry as I write. But I’m drawn to it not because it’s fun, because I have any interest in bashing my ex, or hanging onto the past. No, it’s just something I must do.

Because if I, a writer, don’t write about it, then everyone else going through the same thing will erroneously believe they are alone.peas-580333_1920

It’s how I felt when it happened to me. Like nobody understood my pain or suffering. Like I was the only one who was ever cheated on, betrayed, and divorced; who had to date after being dumped, put my life back together, and manage as a single mother. If I write about it — all aspects of my journey, my innermost feelings and thoughts — someone else might realize that things happen for a reason and that you must rise above challenges, face disappointments head on, to get to a better place. It’s truly what keeps me going.

Writing your experience

If you feel drawn to a particular or painful topic, like me, here are a few tips that can help you write about it:

  • Wait until you’re ready. Don’t rush the process.
  • Keep a journal, then refer to it later.
  • Take the time to reflect on your experience, even if it’s painful.
  • Be honest with yourself. Is that really how you felt?
  • Don’t hold back. If you’re uncomfortable with what you’ve written or feel too exposed, you can always edit it later.
More about Erin:

erin silverErin Silver is a writer, editor and blogger with work in Good Housekeeping, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, Today’s Parent, Chatelaine, ParentsCanada, Best Health and Clean Eating magazine, among others. Her blog, “A Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce,” appears on UrbanMoms.ca. Erin also blogs for the HuffingtonPost.ca. She is currently pursuing her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at King’s College in Halifax and writing her first book, Burnt: Cooking My Way Through Divorce.

The Unoriginal World of bobbi leblanc

The Unoriginal World of bobbi leblanc

Gwynn Scheltema

I was reminded about poetry when I went to the ballet this week. And not necessarily what you may expect…expressions of beauty through pattern or escape to a lyrical world (although that certainly happened).

No, I was reminded about the quest for meaning in art and the effect of succumbing to fads and affectations.

The Quest for Meaning

The National Ballet’s mixed winter program began with two offerings of classic Balanchine choreography: The Four Temperaments and Rubies. As the knowledgeable and always eloquent creative Director and Principal Ballet Master, Lindsay Fischer reminded us in the pre-performance talk, Balanchine choreographed always with the music uppermost in his mind. He didn’t start out with an idea he wanted to express. Instead, he listened to the music and let the music suggest the movement.ruby-1254568_960_720

When you listen to a symphony, you don’t spend that time wondering what it means. You let it transport you and enjoy the way it makes you feel. Balanchine’s ballets are like symphonies. You enjoy them for the emotions they stir in you, for the beauty in the patterns that delight you, for the surprises that please you when you least expect them to.

Good poetry is like that too: the music of the words and rhythms, the surprise of juxtapositions and turning points, the satisfaction of found mutual experience and ah-ha moments. And the delight of images that make you feel like you see what the poet sees. To paraphrase Chekov, poems that allow the reader to experience the moon by seeing “the glint of light on broken glass”.

And always emotion. It’s not necessary to read poetry looking for meaning. Allow the images to evoke whatever emotion or memory they do for you. There is no right or wrong reaction to what is written. Like a symphony, or a Balanchine ballet, let the poem transport you and move you.

 

Fads, Trends and Affectationscactus-659128_960_720

The final offering was a new work by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman called Cacti. At first it was disturbing, confusing, but it didn’t take long to become comical, in fact, hilarious.

It poked fun at all the trendy things we’ve seen on stage and in dance competitions: androgynous dancers; bizarre props that seem to be symbolic but aren’t; weird, intrusive (and often annoying) lighting and stage sets; contorted body positions and music that isn’t sure what rhythms or mood it’s going for.

In short, it was using conventions and trends that others had been using, in fact, overusing. And did it result in “art”? Was it trying too hard to be “art”?  What resulted was a parody of art.

In this case, the choreographer was going for that and succeeded brilliantly. But it was a heads up to those who forget to open their minds and let the muse be original.

It took me back tofun issue 2004 when Ruth and I were on the editorial board for the literary journal LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview. Submissions of poetry went through a “fad” at that time, where everything was lowercase, even the pronoun I, and the poet’s name. Poems were made up of numbered parts, had words in italics, parentheses and were often divided by slashes. And all of them (it seemed) started with a quote from someone else or notes on what inspired the poem. That’s not to say that these devices cannot be used; there are some very fine poems with one or more of these elements in them. But what we were seeing was random, put in there without meaning or context because the poet had seen it elsewhere and was imitating without understanding why it was like that in the first place. That’s the pretentious part.

Given that we had to deal with hundreds of submissions, it was frustrating. Our 2004 spring issue was the “fun” issue, so as a lark, and to do much the same thing that Ekman did in the ballet Cacti, we (the editorial board) collectively wrote a poem that parodied all these affectations. We published it as “The Typical Canadian Literary Journal Poem” by a fictitious poet called bobbi le blanc (Notice: non-gender, possibly French and/or English and all lowercase name.). It was a hoot. But in the fun, like the ballet Cacti, there was that same heads up to those who forget to open their minds and let the muse be original.

It was a long poem with many numbered parts (of course), but just to give you a taste, here are the first two stanzas. Enjoy a giggle. The Typical Canadian Literary Journal Poem

 

Can You Use Parody?

Interestingly, parody is a great way to loosen up the mind and your writing. Try taking something you’re editing and rewriting it in the same style of a well-known writer, say, Ernest Hemingway (simple, direct and plain prose) or William Shakespeare (image-rich, iambic pentameter, 16th-century prose) or Margaret Atwood (precise, ironic and witty). When you are finished, consider how  your own work is different. What makes your style, your voice, unique? 

The Guilt of Reading

The Guilt of Reading

On the radio the other day, someone was talking about getting “unplugged” to read paper books. As a writer, and a reader, my ears pricked up.

The person on the radio explained that she usually reads on her phone, but when she does, she is also plugged in to message alerts and Facebook notifications etc. and doesn’t really give the reading her full attention. But what stops her from reading paper books, she said, was dealing with the guilt of being unplugged.

eye glasses on open bookFeeling Guilty?

I wonder what’s happened to our priorities when it feels wrong to be unplugged from the digitally connected world. For pleasure or to grow our minds, what is the problem with reading a book?

Writers need to read. No question. And they need to read widely. Yet her statement about guilt had a certain ring to it.

I’m not constantly plugged in digitally (to which frustrated friends and associates who labour to get hold of me will attest). So I don’t feel any guilt about being unplugged.

But, I have to admit, I do feel guilty about taking time to read.

When I plan my day, reading is seldom, if ever, on the list as an option. I do read. Usually around one fiction book every three weeks and non-fiction in between, but that reading is reserved for before bed or with my morning coffee — a luxury or a reward for an otherwise productive day.

Admittedly, if I get to the point in a novel when the book won’t allow itself to be put down, then I might spend the morning, or stay up late and finish it. And occasionally, I will “allow” myself the luxury of a day with a book. But I do feel guilty when I do that. I feel guilty about all the things I should have done with that time in the same way as I would admonish myself for playing computer solitaire.

do what you loveReading is not a luxury

It’s time, I believe, for giving my head a good shake. Reading, especially for a writer, is not a luxury. It is as necessary as writing or editing.

And I’m not just talking reading as research. Reading other writers is hugely important. It’s important to see what my contemporaries are doing. What’s winning prizes. It’s important to read as a writer. I have a notebook next to my bed where I make notes about things I want to remember or revisit. I list every book I read and the author and date. I keep notes like: Page 57 – good child’s perspective on death.

So if reading is so necessary a part of my writing life, why the guilt?

My brain seems to find it acceptable to read a book on plot or the latest copy of Quill and Quire to stay abreast of what’s happening in the writing world. It’s reading for pure pleasure that seems somehow different.  Hmmmm…

For me, I think it’s time to move all reading into the “acceptable past-time category”. It’s time to ditch the guilt. It’s time to head over to Goodreads and pick my next book!

The Gift of Feedback

The Gift of Feedback

Ruth E. Walker.

Feedback from colleague writers can be a tremendous help to developing writers. Or it can put good manuscripts off the rails. How do you know comments received in a writing circle or workshop feedback session are useful?

Remember Ruth’s three basic rules of successful writing feedback:

Respect:           Give it and get it. All feedback is an offered opinion. You are free to take it or leave it.

Encourage:      Never intend to diminish another writer; always offer colleague-to-colleague comments .critique

Inspire:            Go ahead and take risks with your writing but be prepared to hear what may need a second look.    

Receiving feedback is an art

  • respect an honest opinion by not defending your writing
  • take notes of verbal comments
  • all feedback is opinion; you may not agree but listen anyway (later on, you may realize that the opinion you dismissed is just what you needed to hear)
  • all feedback is useful; see above and remember you are free to accept or gracefully decline offered feedback
  • don’t interrupt; if you need to clarify what is said, make a note and wait for an appropriate spot to ask a question
  • if feedback is offered in a group session, pay attention; others discussing their opinions about your submission can lead you to exciting discoveries and new ideas

Giving feedback in an art

  • respect the risk a writer takes in asking for feedback; not everyone is ready for an intense critique so if you are unsure of how much to offer, ask the writer
  • begin with one positive aspect before offering suggested areas to review
  • avoid “I like” or “I didn’t like” as much as possible: this isn’t about “liking” something, it is about technique, clarity, logic, development of plot, setting, characters, etc.
  • focus on words, phrases, rhythms, etc., that stand out – either in a good way, or in a way that doesn’t work; offer suggestions if you can
  • be specific about interesting words or ideas and material that seems flat/stereotypical
  • be professional; if you are uncomfortable with the subject, and it affects your ability to critique, it is okay to pass on making any comment

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