How do authors establish a story, its characters, and setting?
Stories don’t just appear in an author’s head, fleshed out with three-dimensional characters in a lush and well-defined setting. As we’ve discussed before, story ideas come from any number of places: overheard conversations, the front page of the daily paper and the latest scandal in Washington or Hollywood, our neighborhoods, childhoods and a dozen other places. But turning those ideas into a novel is a blending of the characters and the setting.
Recently I mentioned how the idea came to me for my time travel, IAIN’S PLAID, but once my heroine had traveled into the past the historical events of that time became part of her story and in researching those years, other ideas came to me. My heroine was faced with a world on the verge of war and her knowledge of the outcome helped to create her character, but as knowledgeable as she was about the history of that time, the reality of being there drove her story, changed her goals and perspective. Once I knew she was going to land in 1775 and because I grew up near Boston Massachusetts, there was plenty of “setting” to color her world, create conflict for her and flesh out that initial idea into an amazing adventure.
In my first novel, THE CANDIDATE, the idea for my hero to be handed a photo that caught him off guard, jerking him back to a time he’d done everything to forget, and to emotions he never wanted to relive came to me after I saw the stage play Miss Saigon. Then I decided to place him in the midst of a hotly contested race for the White House, so that the photo and the man who brought it to him challenged everything Matt Steele thought he knew about himself, and the choice he faces, to put honor on the line could change the outcome of the election. Given that premise, the venue was mostly Washington, DC. I’ve been in DC many times and over the course of writing the novel, I visited three more times. Being able to walk the streets and corridors of our nation’s capitol as I put my story together made creating the setting much richer. Being a story set in today’s world, there were dozens of ideas taken from current events to help me create the characters and their world.
My contemporary romance series, The Camerons of Tide’s Way, got off to a rather different start. The first book in the series was written on a dare. Could I actually write a contemporary romance? It was a trial and error endeavor. I created a hero and heroine and gave them conflicting goals and then just started writing – by the seat of my pants. I have mentioned that I’m a pantser, right? The book was written, pitched and even optioned by an editor, but the one thing seriously missing was the setting. It could have been anywhere USA. But my editor wanted to “feel” where it was. Since I love the ocean and have lived reasonably near it all my life, I ended up choosing a fictitious sea-side small town somewhere in North Carolina. Again, I visited the area, talked to folk who lived there, took dozens of photos and found myself another author who was a life-long resident of North Carolina to be my go-to person for dialect, diet, flora and fauna and a hundred other setting type bits of information.
But setting is more than just the place in time, or the physical location. It’s also what your characters are doing? What are their careers? What do they do for fun? If your character is a Marine, as some of mine have been, it’s important to understand the world of a Marine, from his or her mindset, which will be different than a civilian, to the clothing they wear and the hierarchy of leadership. A military world is very different than a civilian one even if both of them exist side by side in the same physical location. The same would be true for law enforcement or the medical or legal professions. Living and working in a courtroom is a very different setting than that of an office in a brokerage house, and those differences in setting will help to drive the plot as well as define the characters.
I think research is a MUST for a writer. They tell you to write what you know, but let’s face it, after the first couple books you can’t keep giving all your characters the same career, or family life, or back story. Research is obvious for anyone writing a novel in a historical setting, but it’s just as important for those who write in the world they live in today. My newest project is a mystery that I hope will become a series. As part of that research, I signed up for a ride-along with a deputy sheriff from my county. When he picked me up, I had a notebook full of questions to help me get the setting and the job done right. But in the course of the seven hours I spent in the front seat of his cruiser listening to his answers and other stories he chose to tell, whole new ideas for conflict popped into my head. I was fortunate to be paired with a man who had 17 years of experience, had done undercover work, been an investigator, been in two gun fights and managed to save the life of another deputy in one of them among other things. He had lots of interesting stuff to impart. I also got to watch him in action, not just “on the job” but interacting with his fellow deputies and with supervisors. It was one of the most interesting research experiences I’ve had and he ended it with passing along his email address and cell number, inviting me to contact him any time with other questions.
Do I have a method for creating my characters, settings and stories? My first thought about that was no. I’m a pantser. I just write what comes into my head, but as I wrote this blog, I realized that it’s not as undisciplined as that. I don’t write detailed outlines of my stories before I start writing, but I always have a vision of where and how my story is going to end, and in creating my setting and doing my research, I learn a whole lot more about the characters and what drives them, what they are afraid of and what brings them satisfaction and joy.
Why not hop on over and see how these other authors pull together their stories, characters and settings?
Rhobin L Courtright