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“You enter the extraordinary by way of the ordinary.” ~Frederick Buechner

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Building a Story World

“Stare at your world until you discover what it has to offer you,” Jack Hodgins


The amount of detail you develop for your landscape will depend on the level of its ‘character’ you want it to be in your story. If you are writing an adventure that highlights physical endurance and challenge like the Indiana Jones series, then your setting details will be extensive. However if the bulk of your story occurs within a few city blocks, such as West Side Story, then you need the level of a background stage setting—just enough to ground your reader comfortably and realistically in location. You still need the exact specifics to match the tone and atmosphere.

You can either begin from the inside out by imagining the location of your setting visually, and finding the right pieces to fit; or you begin from a natural habitat and focus on the specifics that define your atmosphere and story questions.

For example, perhaps you have a town set on a mountain. You can either choose an existing mountain town and research its natural habitat, or you can choose a mountain, from wherever you want it to be—study its natural landscape and then transplant a town from somewhere else to reside there. The landscape will give the reality to the fiction.

The moors portray an image of beauty, wildness, danger, freedom and loneliness. Desert, ocean, forest, meadow, stream, canyon and island all have distinct characteristics. Even if your character will be interacting with all kinds of terrain there will still be one that is ‘home’ and one in particular that will seem threatening.

Exercise: Choose a key place in your setting. What natural landscape could hold common ground across centuries, and what capabilities could descendants inherit? List examples that could carry both the foundation of setting and the echo of atmosphere.

Share: What kind of terrain lures you for rest and restoration.

Friday, February 24, 2012


In her essay “Talent Is Not Enough,” taken from her book on writing for children of the same title, Mollie Hunter says that a writer is like a person locked in a cell for life, who learns things they desperately want to convey and develops a code to tap out the messages on the wall of the cell. “And all the time he taps he is asking himself, Is there anyone out there listening? Can they hear me? Do they understand?”

Often times the words come out in metaphors that we need to decipher, even to ourselves. We are drawn to truths before we may know what they mean. Each of us may only glimpse pieces. So we need to share together to see the whole. Metaphors give us the creative imagination to see truth in fresh ways. And to repackage them when they’ve become clich├ęs.

A Christmas Carol, by Dickens has become a well-worn, well-loved story that touches multiple themes. The characters themselves have become familiar echoes. It’s a holiday favorite, and yet after how many times watching do we think we know the story and may have forgotten key parts? Heart parts.

On a Christmas special, the Dr. Who series re-told the story with familiarity and yet such differences spread throughout that kept viewers on their toes. From set design to story line, past and future merged. The streets resembled Dickens’ England and yet felt odd enough to wonder what had changed, pulling you into the story immediately. For one example, the set designers had made everything out of steel riveted together. And all the windows were round or half-round. Not noticed immediately, or perhaps not at all, until reading the production notes but the effect had a metaphoric impact.

Journal Prompt:

Take one aspect of your setting and replace a few natural parts with another texture. They make be the same color and shape but different. Do one version is subtle tones and another as wildly opposite. How does it change the view?

For example: Take a main street and turn all the wooden buildings into another material, but keep same shape. Or turn all the buildings into breathing wood.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Building a Story World

Another creative insight into building your world comes through map-making, even if you can barely draw a line. It’s a wonderful way to combine brainstorming and concrete research at the same time. And if you add colored pencils and crayons—well it’s a delightful nurturing oasis.


1. Draw your own, especially if this helps you understand your world.

2. Or if unable to draw, trace. Or get an old atlas and do cut and past to make up your own country.

3. Go into research sections of libraries and ask to look at old maps. Make copies. Then turn them into your own. Several years ago a friend sent me a map of a small town in Holland, from around the 12th Century. It has figures on the streets showing what commerce was done where. A youth is leading sheep down one path. On another is a wagon loaded with produce. The characters of the town are included with the simple street names. One day it will make it into a novel.

4. Look at old city maps, or the tourist versions of historical towns. Then adapt the parts you want.

5. Take the maps and turn them backwards, or upside down.

But set a timetable for your maps and research, especially in early draft stages when you’re still exploring possibilities. Otherwise you might forget to write.

Share: What part of map-making gives you the most creative infusion?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Building a Story World

Build to Specifics

Once again, just as we can walk around our homes in the dark, knowing exactly where we are, so do our characters. Draw floor plans. Which board in the hallway squeaks? Mark the outside as well. For example, if on a farm, sketch out where the different animals spend the day. Walk around in your world so that you could find your way through the yard in a snowstorm. Or know where the ropes need to be to guide you.

Floor Plans

For each personal building your character inhabits that is important to them, make a floor plan. Begin one.

1. Draw a simple space and write where the main windows, doors, and furniture go.

2. Take old photos, if using an historical place, and make a visual reproduction.

3. Stop by your local bookstore at a quiet time of their day and look through re-modeling magazines. Pick one with floor plans. Do the same with color design decorating. Especially one that combines different cultural themes as well. Use whatever combination fits.

4. For landmarks, look for blueprints in the library. Choose a key feature for your world and take it from another. For example, take a clock tower from medieval Italy and place it in New York City.

5. Keep a city current to today, but make its underground the same as two hundred years ago. Although technically not an Urban Fantasy, the Beauty and the Beast series is an excellent example of showing two disparate living conditions above and below the streets of New York.

Share: If a new person, friend or foe, walked into your character’s bedroom what is the one area that would draw their immediate attention?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Building a Story World

For paintings or photographs read for theme, story, and image. When we ‘see’ the effect of micro scenes, we can then apply the techniques to our fictional scenes deepening their effect.

1) Journal

a. What makes a photograph or a painting interesting to look at?

b. Why do some catch your attention?

2) Read

a. Choose a photograph or painting that represents either the actual look of a particular place in your world, or the emotion that you want to convey.

3) Respond

a. What do you first notice about this scene?

b. What is the attitude or feeling portrayed?

c. What images, topics jump out at you?

d. Do you think this picture is staged? Why? Why not?

e. What does this imply about this person?

f. What does this painting ‘say’ to you? What is the ‘voice’?

Exercise: Sentence-part two.

For those who posted their opening sentence, choose someone else’s first sentence and write up a short paragraph, using the emotional connections you anticipated for your own paragraph. Re-post, putting the original line in italics.

Share: If, or how, using another character line changed an emotional connection, or not.

Friday, February 3, 2012


Sometimes we don’t need to search for mystery. It can happen during an ordinary day. The unexpected happens, either positively or negatively, shifting our perspective into a whole new direction. Suddenly the ground shifts out and the familiar, the foundation, is cracked opening into a world we do not know and cannot understand.

Choices follow. Do we get out a flashlight and investigate the new terrain, however hesitantly, or hide away and hope the world tilts back to normal in the morning? Perhaps a little of both enables ourselves, and our characters, to cope with sudden change.

In the movie Larry Crowne, when he is called into the office for a special meeting, Larry confidently expects to receive yet another employee reward. Instead he is fired for a supposed lack of education. Which is a total mystery to him. He grew up in an era when high-school education was the only requirement and work experience became the criteria for advancement and evaluation. Now none of it is considered valid? When and how did the life rules change? Or did they really?

Although still in shock, Larry begins to build a new life trying to adapt to a new culture for him—college. Like a young child entering the world of kindergarten everything is a mystery. Some days are extremely difficult and bewildering. However he also embraces the unknown with curiosity, changing not only his life but also those around him—especially his worn out, jaded instructor. He finds a way to blend his past and present into a rich discovery.

Journal Prompt:

Put your character in a situation where she goes with expectations for a promotion, or an engagement, or a birthday surprise party, and instead receives the opposite. How does she process the ‘mystery’ of everything so right going so wrong?

"The Seeker" Rachel Marks | Content Copyright Marcy Weydemuller | Site by Eagle Designs
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