Tag Archives: setting

Writing lessons from a week in Costa Rica

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica

I recently returned from a vacation with my family in Costa Rica. While the trip contained plenty of beach time, it also included a walk through the cloud forest that got me thinking a lot about setting and worldbuilding. (Yes, cloud forests are a thing, distinct from rain forests and the types of forests we see in the U.S. (Dry forests?) No, I was not aware of this fact until the guide told us that Monteverde is a cloud forest.)

In the cloud forest, we saw hundreds of different species of plants. This would have been cool by itself, but the really amazing thing was the way those plants interacted with each other. In their fight for a scarce resource (sunlight), several types of plants adapted to grow on the trunks or branches of other trees, their roots stretching hundreds of feet to reach the ground. There was a type of tree that did not tolerate these freeloaders, and shed its bark whenever anything tried to grow on it. There were plants on top of plants on top of plants.

What does all this have to do with worldbuilding? It got me thinking not only about the fauna of the fantasy world of my current WIP, but also more broadly about these types of cooperative and competitive relationships. What resources are available in one part of this world versus another? Do people trade to get those resources, fight for/steal them, or adapt to live without them? How do the experiences of a character who grew up working on the wheat farms that were constantly raided by a neighboring kingdom differ from those of a character who grew up eating plants and game from the forest on the other side of the kingdom? What expressions, mannerisms, and superstitions would these characters have developed? How would that impact the way they view their government, and what they would like from their government?

It’s easy to forget how much our environment affects us when we’ve become accustomed to our routines. Stepping out of my everyday world was a good reminder of all the ways settings impact characters, their goals, and the conflicts they encounter.

What questions do you ask yourself when crafting a new world? Do you come up with the setting first, or build a world that fits your characters and plot?


Awesome Audio

Lately I’m becoming more and more of an audiophile. Audiobooks were my gateway, and for a while my main listening material (aside from music). Then a friend convinced me to listen to a podcast, and a few weeks later I was asking her to recommend an app so I could subscribe to the ones I like and get every new episode in one place.

I posted a few weeks ago about podcasts for writers, but today I have a few more specific audio recommendations. First, this episode of Writing Excuses on setting and the environment blew my mind. L.E. Modessit, Jr., discusses how the environment affects many aspects of daily life in far more detail than I’ve thought about before. If you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction, I highly recommend listening to this. (And even if you write contemporary fiction, there’s some fascinating information here.)

Illuminae.My second recommendation is the audiobook of Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. The book is composed entirely of documents — chats, interview transcripts, military reports, etc. — so I didn’t think it would translate well to audio. It was on my list of books I should really read when I got through my current stack of print books. But then another writer recommended the audio version, and boy am I glad I listened! The production is great, and of course the story itself is fantastic. (And if you don’t want to take my word for it, Illuminae was also just nominated as a finalist for YALSA’s 2016 Teens’ Top Ten.)

Happy listening!

Recommended Reading: Setting

Alaskan Landscape.

Photo by flickr user blmiers2

One of my favorite parts of being a librarian is reader’s advisory, or recommending books (or other media) to patrons. And one of my favorite parts of being a writer (other than actually writing) is studying other writers’ work. I’ve decided to combine these two favorites with a series of recommended reading for writers, focusing on different elements of craft and the books/authors that I think make good use of those elements.

I’m kicking the series off with setting. Esteemed reader’s advisor Nancy Pearl says that readers who prefer rich settings often gravitate toward fantasy, science fiction, and western novels. In all of these genres, the setting is essential to the story itself, so if you’re looking for examples of great settings, these are good places to start. Moving beyond the general recommendations, here are a few books and authors I’ve looked to for help enhancing the settings of my own work.

Ready Player One. At the top of my setting list is Earnest Cline’s Ready Player One. Holy cow, if there were ever a book that screamed “world building,” this is it. There are so many layers to the setting of this book, from the “real world” of the near future to the many virtual planets of the OASIS to the Gunter subculture to the crumbling society at large. I could go on and on, but Cline has a way of expertly weaving all of these layers together to create a vibrant, believable setting and culture. His explanations of various facets of the real world and the OASIS come in manageable doses and only when we need them, and their arrival through the narrator’s lens makes them even more striking.

If gaming isn’t your thing, I find epic fantasies great studies for setting. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind series are both excellent. Or, if you’re not up for such a big time commitment, a standalone high or urban fantasy like Neil Gaiman’s  Stardust or Neverwhere will provide a rich setting, too.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. For a more realistic setting, Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a great portrayal of Seattle, jazz, and the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s. A lot of what makes this setting work so well is the narrator’s way of describing it from his view as a Chinese boy who befriends a Japanese girl at an otherwise-all-white school.

These are just a few books to get you started. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention M.T. Anderson’s Feed, pretty much anything by Scott Westerfeld, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. (Any series with its own theme park that puts visitors in the middle of its made-up world deserves a nod in a post on setting.)

What books would you recommend for an in-depth look at setting?

Writing descriptions for all of the senses


Photo by Flickr user Darkmuse. Those who have read Monsters will understand the reference.

Great writers have the ability to place us in the heart of their characters’ worlds, often with just a few words. We can see the blaze of day bleeding into night, hear the purr of the vintage car’s engine, feel the boiling heat of Mars’s core. But two powerful and often neglected senses are missing from many descriptions: smell and taste.

Studies have shown that our sense of smell is strongly connected to our memories. For me, the mix of sunscreen, salt, and cotton candy evokes memories of a Jersey shore amusement park that are so strong I can hear the roar of the roller coaster and the screams of its riders as they plunge down the first hill. A whiff of a friend’s hand lotion conjures an afternoon spent at her house years ago. If scent is so powerful, why do we forget it so often when writing?

Monsters. I’ve been pondering this while listening to Ilsa Bick’s Monsters (third in the Ashes trilogy), which makes excellent use of smell to conjure vivid settings and characters. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that one of the main characters develops a heightened sense of smell early in the series which Bick uses to effectively put us in Alex’s head, in her world, and (most importantly, since this is a thriller) in the moment. No other author has made me “picture” a character by his scent or foretold impending danger by a smell rather than a sound or sight so effectively. What really makes this work are the strong ties between smell, emotion, and memory. Of course, this is also backed up by vivid descriptions that evoke the other senses.

The Scorpio Races. I’ll admit, I haven’t yet read a book that used taste in a similar way, though I’m sure it’s out there. Titles I’d like to read that come to mind are Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and Joan Bauer’s Close to Famous, and I know there are several food-themed mystery series out there that I assume mention taste a fair amount. Aside from Monsters, the most recent book I’ve seen that stands out for using taste effectively was Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. Though taste isn’t as prevalent in this book as smell is in Ashes, I thought the description of the November cakes was well written, and I could both smell and taste the salt of the island air throughout.

I’m going to make an active effort to include more descriptions using smell and taste in my writing. If you’re looking for great descriptions with smell, and can stomach a fair amount of gore, I highly recommend the Ashes trilogy. (And if you’re an audiophile like me, Katherine Kellgren is an excellent narrator.) What other books/authors have you seen make good use of these senses?