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A Sense of Home

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Cabin Painting - Novel Conclusions literary blog - Christina Gerstle - writing tips - writing rules - writing blog - book blog

Cabin with Children Playing by Thomas Birch via Wikimedia Commons

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to create a sense of home for my main character in my current work-in-progress.  Before the inciting incident in most stories, the author establishes a “normal” that the character will soon be deviating from.  This sense of normality, often a feeling of home, establishes a foundation or a jumping off point for your story.

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett preens in the spotlight as the belle of the ball before the Civil War turns her world upside down.  Understanding her place in the pecking order helps us as readers much more fully appreciate what she is trying to win back as her journey wears on.  We can relate to her more fully (even though we’re not selfish debutantes, not usually, anyway) because we know where she started.

In Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, Bray establishes Gemma’s comfortable life in India in order to really underline the differences between her life before the inciting incident and afterwards.  Mild first chapter spoiler ahead – when Gemma’s mother dies (our inciting incident), and she is sent to boarding school in England, the dreary, cold setting contrasts starkly against the vivid view of India that opened the story.  This illustrates for us as readers how much Gemma wants to escape, a theme that plays out throughout the novel.

How do we establish the scene, a sense of home (or at least the foundational “normal”), in our own writing?

  • Make it matter.  A few strong details that we can call back to mind later in the story will do more than long chapters of exposition (I still can’t believe Dickens had an entire chapter about fog in Bleak House.  I never could finish that one).
  • Maximize contrast between the before and the after.  The luxury of Scarlett’s life made the struggle afterwards even more evident.  The festive, colorful atmosphere in India made Gemma’s first few days in England even more dreary.
  • Establish empathy early on (e.g. have a “Save the Cat” moment).  Before the main character hits the inciting incident head-on, when the scene is being set, we as readers need to learn something about our main character that gives us a reason to care.  If we are not given a reason to care, we may not even continue reading.  For example, I turned off the movie Taken after less than 20 minutes because I didn’t care one whit what happened to Liam Neeson’s character; the audience was given no tangible reason to care about him before he got in trouble.

How else can you establish a foundation before your inciting incident?  How do you create a sense of home in your stories?

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Dreaming of Endless Books

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Ever after library - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Ever after. Imagine the library down the hall. Courtesy of Google Images.

Earlier today, I was chatting with my better half, Beau, and I mentioned how I would love to have a library in our future house (which does not exist yet).  He didn’t quite see eye to eye with me on this one:

ME:  Can we have a library in our house someday?

BEAU:  We already have a library.

ME:  What are you talking about?

BEAU:  If a library is a room full of books, Library #1 is our living room.  Library #2, the bedroom.  Library #3, the office.

ME:  (dreamily) It would be all tall, gorgeous shelves full of books with comfy overstuffed chairs.

BEAU:  And maybe the bathroom is Library #4.

ME:  Hmph.  Not what I meant, punk.

This got me thinking about beautiful libraries.  I love libraries, and beautiful libraries are even better.  The first one that popped into my my is the gorgeous library at the monastery in the movie Ever After.  I can’t find a picture of that exact library, but it is multiple floors and open to the working area where the monks are making new copies of the books (this Cinderella movie is set hundreds of years ago).  Danielle, our Cinderella, lights up as she tells the story of falling in love with the book Utopia by Sir Thomas More.

Harry Potter Hogwarts Library - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Hogwarts Library. Courtesy of Google Images.

The omnipresent library of the Harry Potter books (and movies) also deserves a nod.  Major props go to JK Rowling for working the library into every book in the series.  Harry’s good buddy Hermione manages to find out something important from a book that moves the plot forward in every story in the series; the library is practically a character in the books.

Beauty and the Beast library - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Belle in the town book shop. Courtesy of Google Images.

There are also a couple of fantastic libraries in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (side note: I can’t believe this movie is more than 20 years old).  As a kid, the fact that Belle adored reading made me love her more.  Who could forget the charming town book shop or the luxurious library at the Beast’s mansion?

For some real-life beautiful libraries, check out this slideshow of twelve stunning libraries.  Which libraries (real or imagined) do you think of when you think of libraries?

Description that Jumps off the Page

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The Midwife of Venice - Novel Conclusions - Description in Writing

Courtesy of bn.com

As writers, we always want to weave our description into the story just enough to make it vivid but not so much as to slow the story down.  While Dickens may have been able to get away with an entire chapter about fog in Bleak House, modern authors usually can’t get away with that and still sell books.

We frequently hear about including the senses in our writing, but we need to remember to include descriptors that have a purpose.  Does it create a mood?  Does it tell us something important about our characters?  Does it move the plot forward?  Is it important later in the story?  Maybe the image of a gorgeous orange leaf floating down to a pond captivates your imagination as an author, but does it make sense for the story you’re writing?  If your character is zipping by that leaf at 60 miles per hour on her way to a family member’s death bed, perhaps that’s not the moment for that particular image.

Roberta Rich sets the scene and the mood and drops us right in the midst of the story with the very beginning of The Midwife of Venice:

Ghetto Nuovo, Venice
1575

At midnight, the dogs, cats, and rats rule Venice.  The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin.  Shapeless matter, perhaps animal, floats to the surface of Rio di San Girolamo and hovers on its greasy waters.  Through the mist rising from the canal, the cries and grunts of foraging pigs echo.  Seeping refuse on the streets renders the pavement slick and the walking treacherous.

It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.

In less than a hundred words, we know these things:

  • It is an odd time; something must be wrong.
  • Hannah lives in the super ghetto.  Literally.
  • Something creepy is about to happen.

The author gave us all of this information without telling us directly.  She uses multiple senses to show us the environment, set the eerie mood, and drop hints that something is about to happen, all at a bridge that comes up in the story again and again.  She pulls the reader in.

What have you read recently where the description jumps off the page?  What do you think makes for good description?

Related Info:

  • Check out an in-depth review of The Midwife of Venice here.  Like the reviewer, I also think it’s pretty cool that the book shows both good and bad Jews, Christians, and Muslims — it’s not just one religion versus another.
  • Agent Nathan Bransford has a great post on showing vs. telling here and how “specificity wins.”

Setting as Character

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Novel Conclusions - Setting as Character - Harry Potter example

courtesy of bn.com

In some novels, the setting works only as a backdrop, a starting-off point, but in others, the setting brings the story to life.

I can still remember the pervasive, dark heaviness of the jungle throughout the entirety of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  The impassiveness and mystery of the jungle makes the characters jumpy and also reflects Kurtz’s descent into madness.

James Dashner’s Maze Runner uses his setting, the Glade, both as an antagonist and as a puzzle to find out why the boys are there.  The mystery of the Glade itself helps build the tone of the book.

In JK Rowling‘s Harry Potter series, the grounds and buildings at Hogwarts School play a pivotal role in almost every book in the series.  The secrets of the castle — and who is in possession of those secrets — build, one upon the other, from Book 1 all the way through Book 7, though I won’t spoil the how.  We know from our first steps inside the castle that it will be important to the story:

The entrance hall was so big you could have fit the whole of the Dursleys’ house in it.  The stone walls were lit with flaming torches like the ones at Gringotts, the ceiling was too high to make out, and a magnificent marble staircase facing them led to the upper floors.

What can we as writers take from these examples?  In each of these books, the author deftly weaves the setting into the plot so that the story could not happen without the place it’s set in.  Each of these stories would be dramatically different if they were set in different locations.  Imagine Heart of Darkness in Paris or Harry Potter in Kansas — completely different.

Is your setting integral to the plot?  Does your story change dramatically if you change the location?  Why have you chosen a certain place (or places) to be your main setting?  How does your setting give depth to your story?  Each of these questions can give you another way to look at your setting and how to adjust it or change it entirely.

What’s your take on settings?

P.S. Check out an alternate take on the same topic here.

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