Writing Shortcuts (Part 2): Getting Setting Right the First Time

Attention! This post was graciously sponsored by Grammarly. (Thanks Grammarly!!) I use Grammarly for proofreading because, as I’m sure all the zombies in the crowd will agree, two sets of eyeballs are better than one! (Is anyone else as excited for Halloween as I am?!)

Now, onto our regularly scheduled program: writing shortcuts, first drafts, and setting.

This map of Philadelphia State Hospital campus (the first photo that appears in my book) served as a basis for my fictional setting.

By now, I’m pretty confident you’re all aware of the existence of my first book. I’ve talked about it once or twice. It’s a book defined by place, about a place. Set broadly in America, on the outskirts of a major northern city, more specifically on a 1,165-acre property with 124 buildings, the place served as the focus, the setting, and the main character rolled all into one. Place and setting defined every word that appeared in the narrative. If a photograph wasn’t taken of the place or on the place, then the photograph didn’t need to appear in the story.

So what does this have to do with writing the first draft of a fiction manuscript? With fiction-writing shortcuts and nailing the setting the first time around?

A lot actually.

After spending eight months researching and reading and sorting through hundreds of photographs from hundreds of angles and time periods, I knew that place inside and out. I was intimate with its secret hallways, underground passages, the mundane chores that occurred behind every single closed door. The world was pre-built, so to speak, and my imagination was free to run wild through it.

As a result, little fragments started popping into my head, all set in the same place, on those same hospital grounds: It was a collection of what ifs? and characters and love stories and dark secrets and complicated family trees. Once I turned in the non-fiction manuscript on deadline, I dove head-first into this new story that was a product of my own imagination.

Except for the setting. The setting already existed. It was real and solid and the perfect base for all the action that was happening on its surface, in its forest, on its rooftops.

The setting gave birth to the stories, the characters, the plotlines that started to creep across the page. It defined the characters’ personalities, their fears, their actions, their memories.

In manuscripts I’ve attempted before this, setting was an afterthought, overshadowed by the characters and the plotline. It was something I defined in only the broadest of strokes: City or the country? Year? Season? Done.

This thoughtless method developed landscapes with random trees and floating rooms that didn’t connect to a house and roads wandering around in my fictional world, unconnected, unclear, confusing. Sometimes, reading through these drafts I would end up pulling my hair, wanting to scream “WHERE ARE WE?!” and “THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE!” and “Now the fireplace is in the MIDDLE of the room?! In the last scene it was by the DOOR!”

Remember those books you read growing up that had maps? Fantasy books with brand new worlds and countries and mysterious dark places? I love those and I think every single story needs them. They might not need them printed on the endpapers, but every author needs that cheat-sheet map during the drafting process. When writing the first draft of my manuscript, I ended up getting a chapter in and then stopping to draw down a map, to make sure the things always stayed in the same place, consistently from scene to scene, to have a master reference instead of making it up as I went along. (I was thinking about sharing my own hand-drawn map, but it’s so egregious, I’m not sure you’d even recognize what a tree was…so I’m refraining. Also, I’m not quite ready to share my fictional world or story yet. For now, it’s all mine.)

The map got more detailed, more crowded, more filled in, as the story progressed because new things needed to exist for new scenes. I got to know the setting as I drafted, just like I got to know the characters better. But already having the basics of the setting down before writing the story made it so much easier. And when I rewrote the entire manuscript for Draft #2, it was a relief that setting wasn’t one of the things I needed to completely overhaul.

So, thankfully, setting was one thing I got right before the first draft–this time around, at least. But pacing certainly wasn’t so smooth in that first draft! Tune in next week for the next post in this writing shortcuts mini-series.

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2 thoughts on “Writing Shortcuts (Part 2): Getting Setting Right the First Time

  1. Maps are indispensable as far as I’m concerned. Keeping consistency of setting is always a challenge and a map makes that much easier. Besides, I love to make maps. They can add to the wall decor of your writing room too.

  2. I like true stories you get more out of it. I do read both, thought true stories are touching plus you get more facts about the story then a movie.

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