Story ecosystems


Ancient Aboriginal art – Australia

Modern graffiti – London

Modern graffiti – London

Silk’s Post #145 — Sometimes the most valuable writing insights don’t come from books or courses or conference workshops. They just pop up out of “real life” and open your eyes to some different way of understanding that you can apply to your craft.

One of these perspective game-changers hit me recently and I wanted to pass it on.

Every hear of biocultural diversity? I hadn’t until last week, when I met up with some very smart sailing friends from an NGO called Terralingua, whose mission it is to preserve biocultural diversity through research, education and policy-relevant work in cooperation with some pretty impressive supporters and partners – like the United Nations Environment Program, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

I mean, Wow. As interesting conversations go, this was a 10 out of 10. Here’s a quote from their literature (emphasis mine):

“For millennia people have been part of nature and have co-evolved with it. Over time, we have adapted to the natural environment, while drawing material and spiritual sustenance from it. By interacting closely with one another and with nature, we have developed thousands of different cultures and languages — distinctive ways of seeing, knowing, doing, and speaking … This is the true web of life: interlinked diversity of nature and culture.”

Okay, a bit wonkish – but I get it: people are part of the ecosystem, just like the plants and the other animals. And not just any generic ecosystem, but the specific and unique geographic neighbourhood they live in. And the culture – including language – that they create is specifically in response to the realities of that locale (debates about the number of words Eskimos have for snow notwithstanding).

Seems obvious when you think about it. Existential, even.

But somewhere along the path to “civilization”, I suspect our big brains started thinking of ourselves as a species somehow apart from – and above – the messy web of other organic life and landscapes. God-like, perhaps.

Maybe it started breaking down when people got mobile – left “the garden”, so to speak, in search of greener grass. And then, of course, there has been the levelling and disruptive effect of technology – our deus ex machina with unintended consequences.

Today, if you don’t happen to live in an unmolested tribal village, you probably don’t think of yourself as an example of biocultural diversity. And maybe the top of your worry list is not dominated by preservation of what now seem like outmoded – even doomed – tribal cultures in remote places with names you can’t pronounce.

Because we live in a global culture now, don’t we? It seems like there’s no place left on Earth where you can’t find a McDonalds, or a Starbucks, or a smart phone, or the industrial waste of some international corporation, or someone who can speak English (though, as I wrote in an earlier post, There’s more than one English). In contrast, there’s not much undisturbed wilderness anymore, if any. Instead, we have zoos and what Joni Mitchell called tree museums (aka “parks”).

Nevertheless, it didn’t take much to convince me that biocultural diversity matters and needs to be preserved. Count me in. Maybe it’s just my incurable idealism, but I say grab on to whatever bits of wisdom and harmony you can, wherever you find it, because there’s little enough of it to go around. It might save your life sometime.

But hold on – what does this have to do with writing?

Well, you know how brain synapses work. They let thoughts wander, and ideas morph into other ideas, and concepts find unlikely applications. And it all started me thinking about story ecosystems.

For a writer, biocultural diversity is the perfect model of a story world. You just have to expand the element of the natural environment to include all types of environment … urban neighbourhoods, alien planets, gated suburban communities, farm lands, resort destinations, refugee camps … you get the picture.

Three big things have changed in the modern world: the nature and impermanence of these new environments, the mind-boggling pace of life, and the inescapable connectedness people have with each other far beyond their own home territory. Nothing is slow anymore. Nothing is isolated. And, foolishly, we live today as though nature has been “conquered”.

What hasn’t changed as the world has gone “global” is people’s adaptation to their own local environment, although we now have to learn our survival skills way, way faster than our forebears. We’re not only still part of diverse ecosystems, we cling to them, sometimes desperately. Everybody needs to belong – to have their own territories and tribes.

Their own different cultures and languages — distinctive ways of seeing, knowing, doing, and speaking.

For a writer, this perspective reveals character, plot and setting as completely unified aspects of a story. It put my head into the story I’m writing in a whole different way. It gave me the key to my main character’s motivations, interactions with others and with his environment, way of thinking, way of talking, plans and actions, consistencies and inconsistencies.

Thinking of my protagonist as part of his ecosystem – not just a character who dropped into the plot and setting from “somewhere else” – was a subtle shift, but a profound one. Why? Because I saw that the inevitable “somewhere else” was my own head, and when I first dropped him into my plot, I now realize, he took with him all my own personal cultural referents. In other words, the author was present in my story – too present.

The received wisdom, we’ve all heard, is that there’s a bit of autobiography in every writer’s protagonist. And that’s okay. We all have a little Walter Mitty in our souls someplace. But I think the greatest books, and the most memorable characters, get their authenticity and uniqueness from their cohesive story ecosystems.

For me, it’s more clarifying to see things through this holistic lens than to think about character and setting and plot and dialogue and pace as separate elements, then try to somehow knit them together. I think wrapping your head around your story ecosystem helps with character POV, fends off the dreaded author voice, and lets characters be who they are and do what they’d naturally do.

This is the sought-after flow state that writers report when they say their characters “take over” and insist on how they’ll act and react. The polar opposite is the character who initially captivates the writer and reader, then – when put to the test – doesn’t live up to his billing, but rather devolves into the author’s pawn to serve the plot. Sound familiar?

I may have just written 1,000 words to state the obvious. But sometimes simple truths take the long way around to get into your head.

Emotional weather



Silk’s Post #140 — So, you’re writing a scene and there are a million things you have to remember to work into it somehow. The setting of the scene. Your point-of-view character’s “want”. Who the other characters are that he/she is interacting with, and what they want. The scene’s emotional hook. The plotting. The pacing. The conflict and suspense that’s supposed to be present on every page. And maybe you’re calculating how you can slip in some backstory without putting your author’s foot in your mouth.

Now, for really experienced writers – and, I imagine, for prodigies – all this is probably instinctive, like riding a bicycle. But for the rest of us, it’s like trying to remember all the individual component actions we need to coordinate to get rolling and have a successful ride. Hold on to the handlebars. Balance. Pump the pedals. Look ahead. Don’t go too fast. Don’t go too slow. Don’t turn too suddenly. Steer. Watch out for cars, dogs, potholes, loose gravel.

Like me, I’m sure the last thing you’re looking for is another thing you have to remember. However, recent events in the world have made me think about another component of storytelling that links “setting” to all the other elements in a very meaningful way.

It’s emotional context.

I don’t mean the specific emotions of your POV character, or even your whole cast of characters. I mean the emotional environment that is inherently part of the setting. The storyworld is made up of more than just physical landscapes, plot-related events, cultural attributes, eras and places. There are emotional dimensions to all these things that create an atmosphere in which the action takes place.

I would call it emotional weather. While it may be a subset of a broader, more persistent emotional climate (think, for instance, of the general mood in a place experiencing prolonged warfare, or economic distress, or their opposites), emotional weather is more volatile, difficult to predict, and local. And while it may be stormy in one part of the storyworld, or among one group of its inhabitants, it may be sunny in another.

Does this sound like a recipe for one of a writer’s most desired dishes: conflict? I think so.

All this may seem obvious as you’re reading it. But like a well-practiced bike rider, we don’t always think consciously about things that have become second nature to us. We all experience not only our own personal emotions that relate directly to our lives, but also participate in – and are affected by – the mass emotions of larger groups of people, people we don’t even know.

In the past couple of weeks, events have brought my awareness of this phenomenon up from my subconscious to my conscious mind. Think about the recent emotional weather experienced by these groups of people, and how it is likely affecting their perspective on the world, and yours …

  • Masses of Syrian refugees trying to gain safe haven in Europe.
  • 24 million people watching the televised Republican debates.
  • Tens of thousands watching Pope Francis’s addresses and homilies in person, and millions watching on television.
  • 60,000 attending the Global Citizen concert in Central Park in New York City, and millions more watching electronically.
  • 2 million Muslim pilgrims at the Hajj where hundreds were tragically crushed.

I defy anyone to experience any of these things directly – or even to observe them second-hand – and not react to them emotionally. Even if the experience isn’t deeply life-changing (which depends on how immediately and directly one is affected), it still can shift one’s perspective and attitude and beliefs. And in our era of mass communications, these “local” events are now experienced globally.

I think emotional weather shapes attitudes and actions more than we realize. And that makes it relevant to storytelling. It can infuse different groups of people with anger, bliss, intolerance, generosity, fear, hope, mistrust, trust, despair, joy. These feelings may be transient for some, but for others they may evolve into a permanent world view, especially if they seem to confirm pre-existing beliefs.

A key point is that people don’t have to directly experience the events or conditions that create emotional weather to be affected by it. Today, emotions can easily go viral.

So what does all this mean for a writer? I believe that when a story has deeper emotional context – when the writer builds emotional weather into the storyworld, as well as the personal emotions of the characters that are directly related to the plot – the book will be richer and more authentic.

Not only that, it will offer more opportunities to create conflict and tension. After all, conflict and tension are not just rational responses to stimuli. They’re inherently emotional. They may begin in the head, but they grow in the heart.

And that’s what storytelling is all about.

5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:

New pages written:  6 (that’s all?)

Word count: 6,916

Rewrites:  None

Blog posts written:  1

Research done:  6 hours

Other progress:  5writers blog renovation – wrote new and revised background pages, updated photos, other tech fixes.

Best new thing: Thanks, Pope Francis, for stepping into the lion’s den, shining a light in dark places, and making everyone with a heart want to be a better person. You rock. (And I’m not even Catholic.)

Branding for writers

IMG_1540Helga’s Post #109: April 10 has turned out to be a rather interesting day. This year – more on that later – as well as ninety years ago. That’s the day F. Scott Fitzgerald published “The Great Gatsby”. A few notes below in honor of the book’s anniversary.

Fitzgerald struggled mightily with the book’s title. The one he was last documented to have desired was “Under the Red, White, and Blue” (A good thing his publisher won out). The novel is widely considered to be a literary classic and a close contender for the 20th century’s best American novel. (It’s neck to neck with To Kill a Mockingbird and Grapes of Wrath, depending on who is judging). Not everyone agrees. Regardless, what makes the book a classic is how Fitzgerald educates his readers about the garish society of the Roaring Twenties by placing a timeless, relatable plotline within the historical context of the era. In contrast to the theme of the book, Fitzgerald was not among the highest-paid writers of his time; his novels earned comparatively little, and most of his income came from 160 magazine stories. Scott and his wife Zelda did spend money faster than he earned it; the author who wrote so eloquently about the effects of money on character was unable to manage his own finances.

But this post is not entirely about “The Great Gatsby”. I just found some of the background of Scott Fitzgerald noteworthy. In a roundabout weird connection (that only writers can fabricate and spin), my own April 10 was sort of an experience of the opposite of Fitzgerald’s garish society. Perhaps opposite is too strong a word, too dramatic, but it was at least an extremely toned-down version of American garish society.

And what a great experience my 10th of April was. (Unfortunately though I didn’t get any writing done except for this post).

The day started with discussing that we are going home to Canada in three weeks. We really should pack in some unusual experiences while we are still here in the California desert. My husband’s love for eclectic music and venues combined with my hunger to explore the unknown got us searching how to combine our foibles.

We went about our research independently and agreed to draw straws in the end. I have no idea whether it was serendipity, or being married for more than 30 years, or maybe, just maybe, due to a subconscious desire to please the other, that we both chose the same place. Or perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence at all, considering we both watched an intriguing Anthony Bourdain documentary about the place some time ago. Long before we decided to become snowbirds.IMG_1559

Whatever, karma or logic, we agreed on Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a place high in the Mojave Desert. This unique place was a living movie set once, but today people come for the music and mesquite BBQ. It’s a simple place. Some might call it a run-down shack.Pioneertown_pappys I think it’s romantic. Because of the people who visit and especially those who work there.

It’s got an interesting history. In 1946, a group of Hollywood investors founded Pioneertown with dreams of creating a living movie set — an 1870′s frontier town with facades for filming and interiors open to the public. On the outside were stables, saloons, and jails, and on the inside were ice cream parlors, bowling alleys, and motels. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Russell Hayden, and the Sons of the Pioneers (for whom the town was named) were some of the original investors and personalities who helped build and invent Pioneertown. More than 50 films and several television shows were filmed in Pioneertown throughout the 1940′s and 1950′s. In 1946, where Pappy & Harriet’s stands today, was a facade used as a “cantina” set for numerous western films well into the 1950s.

IMG_1539Should you ever be in the area and want to visit, you can put it into your GPS as 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown, CA. I would urge you to do so if you are a writer in need of visual inspiration or have a penchant for any of the following:

  • A drive through scenery so awesome you’ll forget to breathe
  • Some very, very ‘interesting’ tattoos (all genders)
  • A stage that continues to be graced with some of the most talented and eccentric bands and musicians anywhere to be found
  • The best and biggest ribs you will eat in your life
  • Margaritas and beer served in Mason jars
  • The friendliest, kookiest (in a positive sense) servers on the planet
  • Washroom graffiti that makes you pause long enough for your ribs and Mac and cheese to get cold
  • Did I mention the bar?
  • Totally casual, all ages and walks of life
  • And the people. Especially the people

A writer can ask for little more.IMG_1551

Now I just have to find a way to get a few scenes into my novel where I can use those images that are branded on my mind.

Wishing you rich and colorful images to draw on in your own writing.

Is productivity only measured in words?

Karalee’s Post #93

siwc2014For the next four days our 5Writer member Silk will be attending the Surrey International Writer’s Convention for her annual mixing with authors, agents and fellow writers. This year Silk has a bent for learning more about publishing and social media as well as attending lectures on the craft of writing . And of course, much information is exchanged among the attendees after hours in the bar and at dinner.

Joe will join her on Friday to do much of the same and  I’m sure they will fill us in on their experiences next week.

In the meantime I will encourage them to tweet #surrey2014 about exciting news or such and I may join them for a drink one evening. The conference will be exciting and tweets are already rolling:

Hallie siwc2014







sean cranbury siwc1







kc dyer siwc2014







Sean Cranbury, author and presenter has shared his work re social media if you want to check it out.

I’m not attending as I’ve dedicated my time and funds to the Writer’s Digest course I’m taking: 12 Weeks to a First Draft. That brings me to a quick discussion on productivity.


 According to the MW dictionary, the word PRODUCTIVE means:

: doing or achieving a lot : working hard and getting good results

: producing or able to produce something especially in large amounts

: causing or resulting in something


To me writers inevitably measure their productivity in their word count. Is productivity only measured in words?

Undoubtedly that is what matters in the finale since words are what our end product is. But before The End is achieved, there is so much behind the scenes work going on before, during and after our first and subsequent drafts until the book is ready for publishing.

My course has me looking at many aspects that go into making a great story. It’s not simple characters, settings and plots, but rather layers of depth that create a complex story with compelling characters and plot lines. That means a lot of time spent on ‘What if’s’ and looking (deconstructing) other books to see how other authors achieved their goals for an unforgettable story.

This week my mind-mapping  has continued and expanded to include sub-plots and how my protagonist and antagonist can become more emotionally complex, which also makes the main plot more complicated too.

I am having LOTS OF FUN and making great progress in my story. To me I have been very productive this week, albeit much of my work hasn’t directly added to my word count. It’s work that is very important, the backstage work that Silk talked about in her last post. This has to be mastered too in this craft of writing that we have chosen to do.

So this week my productivity has been:

  • most of my mind-mapping has been completed
  • character development, setting and plot lines are being layered in
  • Word count: words cut 760; words added 1600; total in first draft 2500
  • Hours in my office: 30
  • Times I journaled my progress: 0. I suck at this and need to follow-through even if only to see if it helps. I won’t know if I don’t try it.
  • Pies eaten: 1/4 pumpkin. My favorite and there’s so many pumpkins right now….
  • episodes of Orange is the New Black watched: 0

If anyone is preparing for NaNoMo and want good advice, read Jami Gold’s blog on this topic. She talks about tracking two types of  arcs: a story/plot arc and a character/emotion arc. I found this blog also helpful in developing my own story and not only for the one month go-for-it for NaNoMo.

Happy writing!

Basically, you have to write

Karalee’s Post #90



Our writing group is busy preparing for our fall two day retreat meeting starting tomorrow. We do have a long to-do list and it does have a lot to do with writing fiction.


On the other hand, we need to stay focused in order to make sure the list doesn’t remain in the to-do category.



I’ve recently gone back to the basics in outlining a new manuscript and already feel a bit stuck.



If you believe in karma, meant-to-be concepts or in sheer luck, it does happen at times.

I follow a blog by C.S. Lakin called Live Write Thrive and she sent a title today called ‘Ramping Tension to the Max in Your Novel’. Now I don’t know if you experience this phenomenon, but when I’m stuck, or on the verge of understanding a concept, or need to learn about something in particular, often the solution arises from unexpected places. Sometimes it is downright eerie, but maybe every so often my stars align or something.

So when Live Write Thrive popped up in my inbox today it must have been meant to be. Not only does it address the topic of tension, and the concept suddenly became clearer to me, she also gave a her checklist at the end of the blog to go through in designing and writing your novel.

All in one place! My lucky day, but then, I was ready to delve into the whole topic and much deeper than before as my learning continues.

Her checklists are as follows and each are definitely worth a close read:

  • concept with a kicker
  • protagonist with a goal
  • conflict with high stakes
  • theme with a heart
  • plots and subplots in a string of scenes
  • secondary characters with their own needs
  • setting with a purpose


I’ve discovered that learning about writing also teaches yourself much about, well, yourself. Me, I have a whole book in my head at once, but have difficulty talking it through out loud as well as having my story flow like a movie on the page.


So thank-you this week C.S. Lakin, I will definitely work through your checklists!

Last week I touched on the release of Kindle Unlimited. This week in the blog Build Book Buzz  readers are encouraged that when they download with Kindle Unlimited to read 10% of each book. Why? If they don’t then the author doesn’t get paid.

Just another little point for us aspiring authors to understand in the self-publishing world.

Happy writing!


Tinkering on the coast

Helga’s Post # 90 — Ever so slowly we can feel the season changing. It’s still summer, and here on the West coast we are enjoying some of the best days of the year. But there are some subtle changes that indicate the dog days of summer are definitely behind us. Most noticeable are the shorter days. As the fading light and cooler temperatures beckon us indoors a little sooner each day, it also adds to our writing time. Theoretically speaking at least. Mostly back from our holiday travels, it’s time to dust off the keyboard to get reacquainted with our characters and immersing us in their lives.

Hightailing for mom

Hightailing for mom

I was off to a good start getting back to my writing routine, when an invitation arrived to join our close friends Paula and John on the Sunshine Coast for an overnighter. It was an awesome weekend, filled with sunshine, laughter and good cheer. Even water sports. I could not believe how warm the ocean was in that bay. Perfect for swimming. Then there was fresh crab from the dock (executed by the vendor in Stephen King like fashion), and later a beautiful surprise birthday cake. A magical evening among good friends at a picturesque ocean-front setting. A perfect scene for a novel. Smitty’s Oyster Bar was on the agenda the next day. That too would be worthy of at least two pages in a chapter!

Shucking oysters at Smitty's

Shucking oysters at Smitty’s

A week later, another invitation. This time to Vancouver Island on the occasion of (vegetarians, hold your noses), a pig roast. To be held on a traditional farm in picturesque Cowichan Valley. The pig, we were assured, had a happy life. Never crated, able to root to its heart content, its quality of life made up for its short duration.

The event proved a total success in every way. First, the setting: A traditional high-ceiling barn, set with tables to accommodate at least a hundred adventure seekers. Barn doors were kept wide open to all sides to enjoy views and smells of gently rolling hills, meadows and vineyards. A lively youthful band struck up some event-appropriate tunes. They inspired people to try out the two-step on the improvised dance floor. The food turned out to be delicious. I will not go into detail, respecting our vegetarian followers.

IMG_0912Of course there were tons of interesting character studies. A grizzled veteran with a Mao cap; women in their eighties with flouncy colorful skirts and petticoats; teenagers who couldn’t keep their eyes (and hands) off each other, and every age and social background imaginable. Maybe pig roasts attract peculiar people.

Then there was a ‘gypsy wagon’ parked in the meadow near the barn. That’s where some farm produce is sold on an honor basis. Farm fresh free-range eggs were on offer when I visited. There was no cashier, only a wooden box where you put in your 5 dollars.

Nice. That wouldn’t work quite as well in other venues.

To round out the day we visited the sleepy little Genoa Bay. Walking to the end of the dock we came upon a small boat with an elderly men sitting in it. He was straining to read a book in the fading light. I took a closer look at the title: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spie. ‘My favorite author’, I told him. ‘Mine too,’ he replied, ‘but bloody hard to understand. I am reading it the third time and still don’t quite get it, but my, do I love those characters.’

Reading J.Le Carre at Genoa Bay

Reading J.Le Carre at Genoa Bay

The next day brought more unusual things to see and do. I had visited Vancouver Island many times, but always with a tourist destination. This time we had our newly residing island friends to show us the ‘in the know’ places. Take the city of Duncan. We had always just passed it on the highway, or stopped to gas up at the Co-op. Not this time. Our friends took us to a traditional butcher, the kind that does not exist anywhere else around Vancouver, to my knowledge. Another scene of great inspiration to a writer. And again, I will spare you the details. Maybe you have to read about it in one of my future novels.

An extraordinary seafood shop (‘Mad Dog Crabs’) was next. In-house smoked oysters (not the tiny canned ones) were on tap, as was a most delicious and unusual cured salmon that tasted almost like candy. Free samples made it easy to decide on a purchase. Huge fresh scallops were also offered, but we had to pass because they would hardly survive the trip back home.

But the pièce de résistance was a two-floor kitchen/bed/bath store located in a beautifully restored heritage brick building. Pots & Paraphernalia is a true feast for the eyes. There were only two sales women in the huge store, but you never had to wait for advice. Friendly and efficient, knowledgeable about their products, and eager to tell you that Duncan is the best place to live on earth.

Of course no trip would be complete without a memorable lunch. We actually had two. One in Mill Bay directly at a marina overlooking the harbour, the other in Duncan on a vine-covered patio. Seafood dishes reign supreme in the region (in addition to locally raised, afore-mentioned pork dishes).

So, while these two trips were short, I got to know the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island in a way never experienced before. It does help to have insiders show you the ropes. In addition to having shared quality time with our generous friends on these two trips, my writer’s brain got plenty of images to digest – in addition to the poor, but happy little piggy.

Cruising Sunny’s turf

Bell Harbor Marina, Seattle (Silk Questo photo)

Bell Harbor Marina, Seattle (Silk Questo photo)

Silk’s Post #95 — Our summer cruise down the Puget Sound to Seattle this year is immersing me in the setting of the book I plan to finish over the next few months. Re-visiting the haunts of my heroine, Sunny Laine, is plunging me back into the story I started in our 5 Writers challenge in 2012, but never finished. After nearly a year in the bottom drawer, Catch and Release (working title) is back on my desktop.

A couple of days ago, we sailed the sinuous length of Whidbey Island’s west shore, past the beaches Sunny loves to stroll, past the bluffs where she goes to watch the sunset, past the community where her crazy family lives, past the bridge where … but let’s not give away too much here.

I do have to keep a few surprises to myself, for now.

Tomorrow we begin a 5-day stay at the Bell Harbor Marina, just three blocks from Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. It’s about as close to a major city downtown district as a yacht harbour can get. There, I’ll be scouting locations for the book’s scenes. Capitol Hill, where Sunny lives. Washington University, where she studies law. Belltown, where she hunts for … but I’m getting ahead of myself again.

I’m looking forward to soaking up as much of Sunny’s world as I can (without turning our whole summer vacation into a fact-finding mission), knowing I’ll need to come back in late fall when the book’s action takes place. Seattle in late November will be a different world from Seattle in high summer. A much darker world, as befits the plot.

When it comes to writing an authentic setting, there’s nothing quite like being there. (Living there is even better.) When you read James Lee Burke’s New Orleans, or Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, is there any doubt that the writer has the setting deep in his bones? These living, breathing settings are not simply backgrounds against which action takes place. They are more like characters in the story, with a heartbeat all their own.

Yet fantastic settings have been created by authors who never set foot in the place they’re writing about. Obviously, historical novels are set in places and times that can never be experienced again, except through research and the imagination. Fantasy and sci-fi stories often are set in places that exist only in the mind – worlds that the author literally has to build. I marvel at the skill of writers like Diana Gabaldon and Jack Whyte who transport us to vivid historical settings. I’m in awe of fantasy masters like J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling who have imagined worlds so vast and detailed that they take on a life of their own. And even readers who don’t delve deeply into the sci-fi genre are transfixed by greats like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, who invented their own cosmos.

I’m starting with a more modest goal: to see and feel real places through the eyes of a made-up character who’s different in age, temperament, background, experience, wants and challenges than myself. That seems like a pretty tall order already.

And then I’ll be looking for some beta readers who really do know the settings intimately. What gaffes might a reader who lives in the actual setting find? Will there be local expressions and shorthand names for local landmarks that I’m blissfully unaware of? Did I get the food right? The weather? The character of the neighbourhoods? Ethnic mix? Local transportation habits? Dress codes? How about longstanding local tensions, or points of pride? It only takes one tone-deaf sentence to reveal to a reader who really knows a place that the writer … doesn’t.

Real “local knowledge” shines through (even if the place is imaginary). When you read a book whose setting rings with authenticity, it’s a transporting experience. You’re there. You can see, hear, smell, taste and feel it.

Now, there’s no shortage of advice for writers on the subject of settings. Plenty of how-to books and articles and workshops. But for me, the most important thing about a great, authentic setting is that it’s not just a place. It’s a whole culture. A world that’s specific and unique, and at the same time full of the diversity that makes the real world … real.

Some writers are terrific researchers. Others are blessed with soaring imaginations. Creating a memorable setting takes both skills in spades. It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to with enthusiasm – and not a little trepidation.

And I’m open to suggestions! How do you research, conceive, imagine and polish your settings?

Does your writing have the ‘it’ factor?

Karalee’s Post #75 5Writer’s group has been exploring the ‘it’ factor that some authors have that makes their stories unforgettable. What is ‘it’ that keep readers up all night to read just one more scene, or chapter, or heck, why not stay up and finish the whole thing? There’s nothing better than sacrificing a good night’s sleep to find out ‘what happens’.

So, is ‘it’ the setting? the plot-line? the characters? the genre? or a magic combination that somehow elevates the separate bits into something extraordinary?

To me an unforgettable story is a special combination of the above, plus what the author leaves out and the reader fills in.

Can the ‘it factor’ be part of the reader’s imagination? Is ‘it’ a story told so well that the parts “left up to the reader’s imagination” are just as important as what is written down?

For me unforgettable stories(or movies based on books) have done just that. Take Hitchcock. I can still feel my heart pounding and the fear generated by my 12 year-old imagination while watching The Birds. I was babysitting at the time and was literally too afraid to go up the stairs to check on the three children sleeping there! The plot-line was important, but so was my imagination running away with what would happen if the birds really did get inside? I imagined them pecking out people’s eyes and such. It still haunts me.

The ‘it factor’ is found in all genres, not just mysteries or thrillers or war stories.  etc. The ‘it’ factor isn’t genre specific and when the author leaves something to the reader’s imagination it can be either part of the plot-line, &/or the characters &/or the setting. Maybe for a story to become unforgettable the ‘it factor’ needs to be developed in all parts of the story?

The beauty of leaving parts of your story up to your reader’s imagination is that what each reader fills in will be unique to him/her and will depend on his/her own experience. To me this is magical. A writer can write a story that is a bit different for every reader that reads it!

For instance:

  • who hasn’t had a picture of a character in his/her mind that doesn’t match the actor playing that character when a book is made into a movie?
  • a setting can be perceived differently by every reader. Take a snowstorm. A reader that’s been caught overnight in a storm will imagine a snowstorm taking place in a book differently than a reader that has only watched from inside a warm house. The author doesn’t need to describe the storm in detail unless it is important to the plot-line.
  • much of the violence in stories or movies doesn’t have to be up-front blatant. A terrorist storming into a room full of children with a gun sets up what is or can happen, and the sound of gunfire without the sordid details leaves exactly what happens up to the reader’s imagination. Every reader can imagine it a bit differently depending on his/her own experience, even with the same end result.
  • in a romance book (or any romance that takes place in a story) heartbreak can be felt differently by each reader depending on his/her experience

If you think about it, what readers fill in are details dependent on his/her own experiences that are also tied into their emotional reactions to those experiences. This also fits the expectation to have your reader be emotionally involved in the story!

Can an author be taught this special combination of plot, setting, characters and “leaving enough up to the reader’s imagination” to elevate a story from good to unforgettable?

For certain it takes hard work. And lots of it.

Even the best authors admit this.

Have you thought about leaving certain aspects or details up to your reader’s imagination? Do you feel this can make a better story?

Happy writing!


Street scenes and road warriors


Silk’s Post #80 — Helga’s right. California is a an incomparable people-watching place. A writer’s observational playground. Especially SoCal, where you’ll find just about every sort of person under the hot, fertile sun.

And most of them will be in cars. On the road.

cal-car-2Because California, especially SoCal and the Valley towns, really loves its cars. And its roads. From two-lane county roads, to neon-lit main drags, to 6-, 8-, why not make it 10-lane highways. Whole communities have been engineered and built to accommodate this car passion.

There are fresh, new towns with malls of every description, but no Main Street. Never fear, you’ll probably find at least one mall dressed up to look like an idealized, Disney version of a tidy, perfect Main Street, with lovely landscaping and ever-blooming flowers. They call them towns, but they’re actually developments – or “planned communities” in real estate parlance. California invented them, in part, to make its cars happy. (Which makes its people happy.)

Some California towns actually do have an organic Main Street (as opposed to a strip-mall-lined Main Drag), which often has been rehabbed to recall a historic past (anywhere from the pioneer days to the 1950s), or just as often is on its second or third wave of tenants and on the waiting list for such a rehab. Rehabbed streets will likely be lined with BMWs, un-rehabbed ones with low-riders.

Do I sound cynical about California? In reality, there are many Californias, and I actually have a soft spot in my heart for the Golden State. It was the first place David and I moved to after we got married back in pre-history (the 1960s), when we lived not far from The Haight in San Francisco.

cal-car-3My husband is a fourth-generation Californian whose forebears arrived there by covered wagon (literally). He has cars deep in his DNA, which is inevitable for a red-blooded California boy who grew up in the 50s and 60s. He built and raced hot rods in his teens. So did both his brothers. So I “get” the car passion. I’ve even spent the odd late night watching Barrett-Jackson auctions. By the way, we still have his street rod in the garage – a 1931 Ford pick-up with a 409 under the hood. (It’s sleeping. David’s on to boats now.)

But back to the road. The essential environment of any road is defined by speed, number of lanes, number of lights and what it passes through. The super-highway is the dominant form of California road, as opposed to, say, the urban avenue or the small town 50s-style main street. Californians made an art form of cruising the drag in the mid-20th century, and now in the green-thinking 21st century it’s virtually impossible to put the brakes on the car culture.

Urban streets, for instance, are nothing but a frustration to cars, their drivers often grim-faced, heads swivelling as they seek that rarest of commodities: an on-street parking space. However, city streets are rich in people-watching opportunities, as pedestrians stroll, saunter, skip, march or hustle along their own miniature roads called sidewalks.

cal-car-4Highways, on the other hand, are built exclusively for cars. Occasionally, you may see a sidewalk or even a crosswalk along a highway, but these are just safety measures to reduce the potential carnage when cars travelling at high speed share the road with people who are not wrapped in automotive armour. Here, sidewalks are not necessarily indicators that pedestrians are actually welcome to share the road with cars. Ever try actually walking along a main highway, other than when you were hitching a ride? Then you know what I mean. It’s an alien environment that wasn’t built for travel on two legs, like a railroad track.

Why does any of this matter to a writer? Because, when you think about it, the best people-watching is often observing people in transit. Unless you happen to be a Peeping Tom. From her frequent trips between California and BC, Paula has extolled the joys of people-watching in airports.  Joe recently enjoyed the full, triple-shot California people experience in his Traveling with Kids odyssey. And then there was Helga’s colourful people-watching experience that, arguably, could only happen in California.

I loved Helga’s observations about the wildly contrasting drivers who pulled up to a light on either side of her during her Highway 111 adventure. The doobie-smoking furry freak brothers in their beater car to the right … the bejewelled, ancient Gloria Swanson wannabe in her Bentley to the left. Yes, that’s the California I know and love (and mock, of course, that’s the fun of it).

This somewhat jarring encounter is what got me thinking about people-watching in cars: street scenes and road warriors. Here’s the thing: you would likely never see these characters anywhere near each other in their own neighbourhoods. It’s very possible that the only thing they will ever share in their lives is the highway, where they’re protected from each other by their vehicles. When Lady Bentley alights from her car, it will be in one world, and when the ganja gang piles out of their car it will be in a completely different world. It’s only on the road that they’re united, courtesy of the modern worship of mobility and the internal combustion engine.

How people get around their home turf tells you a lot about what life is like there. Slow paced or high speed? Intimate or distant? A cohesive society, or a disparate one?

People encountered in traffic may come from entirely different tribes, with different rules and different lifestyles. On “their” streets, they’ll be among “their” people. Can you imagine Lady Bentley wandering into a funky head shop, or the ganja gang invading an A-list country club? That’s the stuff of drama, or comedy, depending on the outcome.

I always find one of the most entertaining thing about people-watching is spotting incongruity, diversity, people out of place or doing unexpected things. What are they doing there? Why are they doing that? Many a tale has sprung from such disruptions and abnormalities.

But then, in California – at least on the highway – even the bizarrely incongruous is, well, pretty normal.


Note to readers: Apologies for my absence the past couple of weeks. Like all the other 5writers, I’ve been travelling – and on this trip the preparations, the just-made-it flight schedule, and a visit with dear friends that deserved 100% of my attention intervened. I had this post almost ready to go a week ago. Almost. But it’s better for an extra edit.

PS – All photos in this post by me. 


The thrill of outlining – part 3

Karalee’s Post #65

outlining courseMy outlining course through Writer’s Digest University finished this week and I am well on the way to having a story I’m excited to spend the next few months writing. I I still want to do more characterization, especially of my antagonist. I also want to up the stakes in a few places for both my antagonist and protagonist and add them into my outline.

The outlining course began with my basic story idea, then moved to a premise sentence that introduced my story situation, the protagonist and antagonist, and the major objective. This process automatically encouraged my brainstorming process, all those ‘what if’s’ that I love (and I think most writers do) that push my creative spirit in any and all directions, some of which are outlandish, crazy, weird, and that might just work if this and that happens….. During this creative time, this course encouraged me to also try to think about my theme as well as character motives and conflicts. Looking back, this was something I hadn’t concentrated on as much before, and it was very helpful in coming up with bigger moments  with more at stake than I may have otherwise done. (Part 1)

Part 2 was exploring one’s characters and settings. All major characters need to be explored in depth. Whether you make a formal outline or not, writers need to know their characters as though they are “real” family, friends, or enemies. We need to know why they do what they do. This means, what has happened in their lives to make them think and act the way they do? This process is extensive and time consuming, but also a great time saver when it comes to writing scenes. For me,knowing my characters also adds to the pleasure of being “in my character’s head” while I am writing.

Settings must also seem real and knowing and feeling a country or a city takes more understanding than an office, kitchen or bedroom. Helga’s last post explores this topic well.

So what is left for Part 3?

outline endThis is where you take all the brainstorming ideas, the characters and settings and story lines, and organize them into possible scenes while still jotting down other ideas that may come to mind as you do this. I think of this like sorting “dots” into the picture that will come to light once they are all connected. This is the Extended Outline and depending on your writing style, it may be quite extensive to include ideas that both work or don’t seem to, or merely simple one-liners as a reminder for when you write the scene later.

At this point all your brainstorming ideas are recorded in whatever detail works for you. Most of us don’t want to trash any ideas as there could be gold to be mined later if we are stuck, but it may be quite onerous to wade through everything during your story writing. To help streamline the process, it is helpful to sort through everything at this point (especially since it is fresh) to make an Abbreviated Outline that is easy to follow as you write your scenes.

For me, this outlining process has been very helpful and definitely worth my time and effort. I am starting out eager to write my story with a much better feel for my story and theme, my characters and settings, and their conflicts and growth.

I don’t feel that my creative forces have been stifled at all since I’m keeping an open mind to the probability that some characters may try and take over and others may come on stage that haven’t shown themselves yet. I will let them do what they feel they need to, but since I have a good idea of where my story needs to go, if characters go too far in an unworkable directions, not too much time and effort will be given to them.

Happy writing!