Hi, AlleyPals! Laurie here :) Today it's my privilege to welcome one of my dear friends, debut author Sally Bradley. She recently celebrated the release of her novel, Kept, and I couldn't be more excited for her. You guys are in for a real treat today :)
Setting has typically been a weakness for me. I always used specific locales and even explored the area so I could write knowledgeably, but when people talked about the setting being another character in the story, I knew I wasn't there. Then came Kept.
Kept takes place on the edge of Grant Park in Chicago. I've been there a number of times, but it wasn't an area I knew. Yet somehow, in this book, the setting mattered in every chapter. It affected everything, and readers who know the area said I captured it well. So I got to thinking. What did I do differently? Why did my setting have such an impact on the story? Better yet, how could I do this again? After much thought, here's what I came up with.
1. Adore your setting.
Like... seriously. Take that adoration to the nth power. I'm a Chicago geek. I grew up in the suburbs and loved every moment my family spent visiting museums or parks or driving by the skyscrapers. If I had to pick, I'd totally live downtown. In fact, I'd live in the exact luxury high rise that Miska Tomlinson, my heroine and no relation to Laurie, lives in. I realize now that was key.
To me, Chicago is a gorgeous, glittering magic that I can never get enough of. And Metropolitan Tower, on the edge of Grant Park with incredible views of Lake Michigan and Buckingham Fountain, captivated me. I wanted to know what it would be like to live there. My fascination with my setting helped me not just include it, but also bring it to life. Find that one spot that makes you passionate, the place that maybe no one else even knows you love so intensely -- or are curious about. That fascination, that love will keep you tied closely to your story, always wanting more. You'll strive to do it justice, to make everyone else see the same beauty and value.
2. Make your setting truly visual.
Do you make up a town? Use a real one? Since Chicago is my MO, I went for reality. When my characters were arguing beside the lakefront, I hopped on Google Earth, went down to street level, and stood where they stood, took in all the views they did. When my hero chased my heroine back to their building, I traced his path along the streets and showed details that mattered -- the crosswalk signals that kept him from catching her, the revolving door of their building that she went through. In essence, I didn't have to make stuff up. I looked at what was there and made sure it got onto the page. You can do this too, even if you make up a location. Find a real place that matches your imagination and get every image, video, picture that you can. Surround yourself with them so that at any moment, you can look at what's real and draw inspiration from it. Of course you can make stuff up, but having something visual helps you include details you'd forget otherwise. And if you can see it, odds are so will your reader. Also find the one thing about your setting that matters most. What do you really love or want to play up? For me, that was Buckingham Fountain. I wanted Miska to have a view of this massive fountain. (Tell me that's not stunning!)
Because I loved the fountain so much, I looked for opportunities to not just include it, but to highlight it and make it come alive for the reader. You become an evangelist for the setting because we want everyone to catch our passion, right?
3. Connect your characters to the setting.
In the past, my characters were ambivalent about where they lived. But not this time. In fact, the whole plot revolves around Miska's love for her home's location and her determination to day anything (seriously, anything!) to stay there. Dillan, the hero, likes the area too, although not as intensely. Early in the book, he makes a comment about Buckingham Fountain that makes Miska think he loves it the same way she does. It's that innocent comment that makes her first take notice of him. How do your characters feel about their setting? Do they hate it? Love it? How can that feed your plot? Your characters' motivation? Figure out how it affects them. And if it doesn't? Maybe that story isn't right for this setting.
We don't want our setting to just be a stage; we want it to play a role in the book -- in the characters and in the plot. That's why it's so important that your characters have strong feelings about their location. Like I said, Miska will do anything to live by Grant Park. But as her character arc evolves, she begins to react -- and behave -- very differently toward the setting. It's that change that conveys how deeply her character has changed.
I also used setting to play a role in the plot. I'd love to tell you exactly how, but I'd have to give the ending away to do it! But go back to what fascinated you about your setting. Go back to your visuals and the details you uncovered as you explored the area. What can you use literally in the action of your book? What aspect of the setting can twist everything around for your characters?
5. Don't force the symbolism.
During the rough draft, I spent too much time on the fountain, park, and lakefront. I overwrote about them big time, but it was so fun.
When I began editing, I kept coming back to Buckingham Fountain. There was some symbolism there; I just knew it. But I didn't know what it was. What did it mean? What did it signify?
It wasn't until the fourth draft that it dawned on me. The fountain had a spiritual significance to my heroine. Now I never tell the reader this. In fact, I'd like to think that it's very subtle and that a lot of people will miss it. But I think deep in the reader's subconscious, the fountain's symbolism creates a continuity between Miska and her character growth. The setting connects her to her internal goals and arc. I'm so glad that I didn't censor myself or force anything during those early drafts, because it would have been obnoxiously in the reader's face. But something was going on in my own subconscious, tying the things I loved to deeply personal moments in my character's life. Letting it happen naturally was worth the forehead wrinkles.
So there it is, my list for setting success. Next up for me is a rewrite of a book I loved... but had no connection to the setting. I'll be taking time to figure out exactly where this story should take place. And I can't wait to see how it changes everything.
Sally Bradley writes big-city fiction with real issues and real hope. A Chicagoan since age five, she now lives in the Kansas City area with her family, but they still get back to Chicago once in a while for important things like good pizza and White Sox games. A freelance fiction editor, story has been her passion since childhood, and she's thrilled now to be writing books that not only entertain, but point back to Christ. You can find Sally at her website and Facebook page and can check out images for Kept on the book's Pinterest board. Kept is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo and will soon be available at iBooks.