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

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Strategy # 1 Habitat Highways: Interview with Sarah Sundin

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

So far our habitat discussion leans towards the concept that we get to choose the locations of our choice to match our desired tone and atmosphere. But what happens when our settings are mandatory? How do we connect them to our characters?

We welcome award-winning author Sarah Sundin, who is known for her impeccable research and page-turning WWll novels. She has an extraordinary interactive map on her website at Sarah is the author of On Distant Shores and With Every Letter in the Wings of the Nightingale series from Revell, and also the Wings of Glory series. Her new novel In Perfect Time (Wings of the Nightingale, Book Three) releases this week.

Sarah, thank you for joining us. Please share some advice on how to create a meaningful setting, when you’re bound by historical settings, and any other suggestions for habitat authenticity you have discovered.

Read deep, marcy

Sarah Sundin
Writing fiction set in actual locations, either contemporary or historical, is both restricting and inspiring. Restricting in that we’re bound by reality, but inspiring since reality often provides story or character ideas.

My newest novel, In Perfect Time, takes place during World War II in Italy, France, India, and the United States. Because my characters, a flight nurse and a C-47 pilot, follow the Allied advance, the novel is mobile and involves over thirty unique settings. Each of those needed to be researched. Each needed that 3-D cinematic feel to put the reader squarely into the setting.

Ideally we could visit each setting, but time and money often make that impossible. Here are some tips for creating meaningful settings.

1) Visit
Whenever possible, visit your story settings. While researching the Wings of the Nightingale series, I was blessed to be able to visit Italy and southern France. Do your research before you visit and list everything you want to see. While there, take lots of notes, pictures, and video—you can also use some of this for promotion when the book releases. Watch for sensory details, especially sounds, smells, tastes, and the weather—things you won’t read in books. Pick up brochures, maps, and books to prod your memory when you return. When possible, talk to the locals to learn customs. If you’re writing a historical novel, keep in mind how the setting has changed over time. Visit local museums and libraries for historical context.

2)  Maps
Maps are extremely useful research tools. I’ve used AAA maps, historical maps, and Google Maps. I’ve also drawn maps. For my Wings of Glory series, I drew a map of Antioch, California, penciling in real businesses as well as my fictional businesses and homes, to make sure my characters took the proper streets and turned in the proper direction.

I adore Google Maps’ “man-on-the-ground” feature. Look for the little stick-figure guy on the map’s key, pick him up with your mouse, and drop him on any of the blue-highlighted roads. You’ll have a panoramic view. You can virtually drive down these roads and study the buildings and landscape. Since I write historicals, I have to keep in mind how things change, but this feature helps me remember places I’ve visited and helps me visualize places I’ve never seen.

3) Read
Books and websites provide many of the details you need for realistic settings. For a short scene, a quick hop to a Wikipedia page may be all you need. As a historical fiction writer, I rely a lot on books for information, especially about how things were during World War II.

4    4)  Firsthand Accounts
If you can’t visit a location, try to interview someone who’s been there. Remember to ask about sensory details and local customs for that “been there” feel. For historicals, look for journals, memoirs, or oral histories to provide color. Reading accounts from WWII nurses and soldiers told me about the serious mud problem in “sunny Italy,” the sound artillery shells make when they go overhead, and the stuffiness and odors on the C-47 air evacuation flights.

      5)   Local Newspapers
When available, local newspapers are rich sources of information. My upcoming WWII Christmas novella in Where Treetops Glisten (Waterbrook, September 2014) is set in Lafayette, Indiana. While visiting, I spent several hours poring over microfiche for the Lafayette Journal and Courier. These papers showed me businesses, restaurants, prices, where to buy Christmas trees, the weather, and more!

     6)   Museums, Parks, and Experts
Museums and national parks are wonderful resources, especially for the historical fiction writer. Even if you can’t visit in person, their websites offer lots of information.

When in doubt, ask! Even if you’re an introvert (I am). Experts love to share. Several scenes in In Perfect Time are set at the historic Mayo Hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which I did not visit. One reason I chose the Mayo was the extensive website with lots of historical photos. However, most of the photos were in public areas like the lobby. On a lark, I sent an email through their contact page. They responded! And the gentleman provided information on the hallway carpet, the elevator, and the room layout. Pure gold! And yes, I thanked him on the acknowledgments page in the book.

With a little work and a little creativity, you can craft settings so realistic that your readers will say, “I felt like I was there!”

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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Strategy # 1 Habitat Highways: Mapmaking

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

Another creative method toward an innovative setting 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.


Like the floor plans, it’s a work in progress to develop alongside the actual writing. As you work, don’t be surprised if you find new threads to develop in each area.


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

2          2. Or if unable to draw, trace. Or get an old atlas, make a photocopy, and cut and paste 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 fit 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.

      6.  Or take various photographs or images and make a collage showing landscapes and buildings.

      7. For each key spot on your map, place a visual image instead of the usual dots or circles.

Have fun with them but set a timetable for how long you spend on 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?

Read deep, marcy

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Strategy # 1 Habitat Highways: Floor Plans

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

As I mentioned in the introduction, our characters need to be able to walk around their homes in the dark, just as we can, in order to know exactly where they are. How do they know which board in the hallway squeaks? 

One method of keeping track for your characters is to draw floor plans. Mark both the inside and the outside when relevant. 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 that you at least know where the ropes need to be in order to guide you through the storm.  

You don’t need to be able to draw. And for those who do, keep it simple. The purpose here is point of reference. When your world is complex and a character of its own, then these references will become key source points. And you can expand upon them along the way.

Floor Plans

So for each personally relational building your character inhabits, make a floor plan. Begin with one that has a high emotional connection, whether positive or negative. Don’t worry if you don’t know all the details yet. This also is a draft that will take shape along with your story.


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. For fictional settings consider doing mix and match from real locations for a sense of authenticity. 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 a parallel New York City,  or in a fictional neighborhood in the City surrounded by the real contemporary local color. 

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?

Read deep, marcy

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Strategy # 1 Habitat Highways: An Ordinary Day

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


Any habitat, animal, or human, has a natural cycle within it. Patterns that adhere to seasonal cycles as well as daily often become instinctive. Consider what changes you make in your own habits  between summer and winter. Eating, sleeping, working all fall into a natural rhythm based on the character and responsibilities of home. Whether they will appear in your story or not, they will be an inherent characteristic of your protagonist.

Have a conversation with your main character. Ask them about their mornings as a child, as a teenager, or adult. What images or verbal work details do they use as description? Write them down in your research notes.

For example, look at this ordinary day excerpt:

            “From the barn I see my mother on the back porch washing beans,
            my little sister with her dolls there on the stoop, my father
            leading horses from the field.

            Morning sun crawls up, a yellow dog just waking,
            stretching one leg and another, then
            its wide-mouthed fiery yawn. I rub my eyes and push
            my hand behind a plank, grope until my fingers
            close around the edges of a wooden box. Crouched

            He stands inside the door, his hat pulled down, a bridle
            Hanging loosely in his hands. Behind him, sunlight
            Makes shadows dance across the dusty floor.”
by Craig Crist-Evans.

We’re going to examine this excerpt in more detail in a later strategy, but for right now stare long enough to get a visual impression and note what it suggests to you as Hodgins suggested in last week’s blog. I have deliberately not listed the title so as not to influence your reaction.


1. What kind of place are you seeing? What emotions do you apply to this reading? Pick out specific words that you think contribute the most emotional weight.

2.  This opening image is actually not the setting of the main story, so why do you think the emotional connection it implies might need to be the first impression of place—a heart map impression? Does it feel like a habitat to you? Why or why not?

Share: What one word would you choose to summarize your response to this reading?

Read deep, marcy

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