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

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Strategy # 1 Habitat Highways: Backbone

Build Your Story: 8 Strategies for Writing Innovative Setting with Impact

            “Multiplot, multiple-viewpoint novels often achieve a similar feeling of unity almost entirely by reliance on common setting as the binding factor.” Jack M. Bickham.

In his book Setting, Bickham lists six unifying techniques that he considers help to shape “binder” material as cohesion similar to a backdrop for a stage play. For example,
in the movie Hugo there are varying storylines weaving back and forth in the central hub of the train station.

“Consistent and repeated reference to a single aspect.”
“Repeated reference to certain aspects.”
“Continual, sudden expansion.”
“Ongoing references to certain aspects.”
“Careful comparison reference.”
“Showing that the setting is contributing to the course of events.”

We’ll go into these characteristics in more specific detail as we work through the workshop but keep them in mind as you’re building the basic foundation or backbone of your setting. Even if you consider your story a stand-alone novel, you may find that your world, or your characters, become so rich you’ll need another story.

How then to track the repeats and references and event threads in your habitat.

Keep Records

Choose a method that works in tune with your process of thinking. Some need visual aids: perhaps a map with small sticky images or photos. Others prefer detailed outlines or tables and graphs. Just as with the maps and floor plans, don’t make it difficult and confusing but easy access. Headings, color codes, tabs, and icons can help separate categories.

A combination of physical and online folders will keep duplicate copies in case anything goes missing, but be sure to use the same categories to avoid confusion. Right now I’m learning the system Scrivener that will become an enormous help tracking a wide range of habitat settings in my series. It uses a binder system, which I am most comfortable with through years of teaching. Until I become comfortable with the online technology, I’m using a large binder with multiple divisions separated by colored dividers.

Begin with a wide overview. If you’re not sure yet what categories you want, practice by using the outline in the introduction as a preliminary outline.

Write down the broad strokes of your world to give authenticity in general: a forest or a backyard, a desert or a dune.

Then for the personal, up-close details, dig deeper for unique specifics. Find out what is the unique bird or animal or flower? Why? What legend does it have behind it? Can it be adapted as a theme or symbol?

Perhaps you realize that bridges will become a “Consistent and repeated reference to a single aspect.” Then for now make a folder for bridges and drop in all the material you brainstorm or research or imagine in that section until you are ready to sort out what pieces fit where.

As you sweep read for research, write down those odd gleanings as they pop up. Keep a separate list for them. Maybe it won’t work for the first or second novel, but is perfect for the third. Have a folder for the gleanings that don’t seem to fit anywhere but catch your interest.


  • Decide how to set up your background as you go. Will it be a separate ‘book’ matching the novel chapter by chapter? Or location by location? 
  • Keep a diary of where the major incidents happen. As we’ll see later on, they have the potential to become echoes within your own world. 
  • Also keep the references when you use library material, especially borrowed. 
  • Set goals and time management for your research as well as your writing, so the writing still continues to get your priority.

Share: What style of record keeping works best for you?

Read deep, marcy

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