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

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Strategy # 2 Holy Landscape: Welcome to Last Chance

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

Holy Landscape Case Study

“The red warning light on her car dashboard may have driven Lainie Davis to seek help in the tiny town of Last Chance, New Mexico, but as she meets the people who make this one-horse town their home, it’s her heart that is flashing bright red warning lights. These people are entirely too nice, too accommodating, and too interested in her personal life—especially since she is on the run and hoping to slip away unnoticed.” (Backcover Copy)

Below are some excerpts from Lainie’s first landscape reactions to this unfamiliar terrain. As you read them look at each as a mini snapshot. How does author Cathleen Armstrong use the landscape and physical details in her first chapter to connect Liane? How do you see them as possible literal and emotional connections to Lainie’s immediate situation?

Or use the questions from last week’s exercise and apply them to these excerpts.

She peered into the darkness rushing past. “Man, it’s empty out here.”

She dropped her speed by another five miles per hour and pulled into the slow lane. Just ahead, on the other side of a barbed wire fence, a small sign read, “Last Chance for food—22 miles.”

Out of the night, and barely illuminated by the last glow of the fading headlights, a sign of familiar size appeared. “Welcome to Last Chance, Pop. 743, Your Last Chance for the good life”
“What is this, a joke? There’s nothing here!”
On cue, the engine sputtered, wheezed, and died, and the car coasted silently to a stop on the empty road.

The little patch of sky she could see through the rear window held more stars than she knew existed and she watched them while the day’s events played in her mind. After a while, she heard a car door slam and an engine start and she rose up to see the pick-up pull onto the road with a spatter of gravel. The neon lights in the bar were gray shadows against the black window.

Tomorrow she’d find a way to get to El Paso and the new start she knew was waiting for her there. What was it those signs said? Last Chance for rest, for the good life? Maybe one more chance was all she needed. She was still looking at the stars and listening to the crickets when, enveloped by the hot smell of her cooling engine, she fell asleep.

Share: Which line had the most effect for you personally?

Bonus Exercise:
Go through your own first chapter and look at each landscape detail. Choose five areas to relate directly to your main character by adding a few concrete details.

Read deep, marcy

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Strategy # 2 Holy Landscape: Ecosystems

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

Begin Outside-In or Inside-Out

If you know your setting, then start making lists of all the possible ways the climate, the weather, the topography and daylight vary, and include different seasons. If you have your character and story question, but haven’t decided the setting, then make a list of the emotional roller coaster she will be on. What physical location might provide matching storms? Look at the genre you’re writing in as well. Some have built-in expectations.

A snow setting might well mirror a season of grief. A dark rocky coast is a perfect place for murder. Or what about a delta—sunny by day/dark at night and a good place to hide a body. Looking for a light romance—beaches, night-light cities, or a travel cruise.

Where does the sun rise and set? What parts of home are in light or darkness daily or seasonally? How could that contribute to your character’s personality? Or health?
As the result of a routine physical, a family member was diagnosed with a vitamin D deficiency after six months of working indoors in an office. His previous job had been outdoors.

Perhaps you know the city but may not know all the details. Is the house built on rock or on sand? What might happen if the nearby river overflows its banks like a century earlier? In California realtors must disclose to prospective buyers whether or not the house sits on an earthquake fault. What might happen if a shady realtor hides prospective dangers such as a small town built over a defunct mine site with tunnels decayed to the point of collapse?

Study weather patterns. What potential storms would fit best? Raging rivers, tsunamis, or hurricanes? Look for natural habitats that have a long history of dealing with this force of nature and place your fictional town or city in the middle.  Don’t ignore the unexpected. Recently tornadoes have appeared in areas not normally associated with them. No one is actually surprised to hear of an earthquake in California, and might not know that there is a cluster of earthquake faults mapped in Upper State New York that spread into Canada.

Discover what is really under the city. Look for natural history writers who dig deep into their ecosystems with facts and metaphors.

Writing Exercise from a Painting or Photograph

When we ‘see’ the effect of micro scenes, we can then apply the techniques to our fictional scenes deepening their effect in theme and story and image. Choose a photo or painting that represents either the actual look of a particular place in your world, or the emotion that you want to convey.

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’?

Share: Did you find a nugget that captures a holy landscape for your character?

Read deep, marcy

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Strategy # 2 Holy Landscape: Literal Connections

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


Landscape includes interior and external sites, emotional connections, literal space, and geographic background. It includes the climate, weather, topography, and amount of daylight. Each of these areas has the capacity to silently boost the sacred connection between reader and character by allowing the reader to identify with the literally tangible, yet subtle details.

For example, in the movie The Count of Monte Christo, Edmund Dantes spends many years in prison. According to the above list, his landscape is cold, damp, rocky and dark. His literal landscape also becomes a mirror image to his emotional life. Even when a landscape is confined to one room or is a silent backdrop, we can use its natural attributes to influence our scenes.

So how does this translate to practical application? We begin a piece at a time and build the world from emotional resonance. We not only draw out our physical locations, but doodle out the emotional impact they have on our characters. We brainstorm each setting’s location, even if only as a brief two-minute list. If you see something that triggers an emotional reaction, but you’re not sure how to use it, then put it in the resource pile for later.

When you read for research, pick out the parts that intrigue, comfort, challenge, or frighten you. And temporarily leave the rest behind. Keep a list going as to where you found that information, so if you need to return for more details, you’ll find it easily. It’s a banquet laid out before us and we can’t possibly eat it all. So we pick out the best parts first, in case we get full. Or try to cram more information into the story than it needs. The parts that stir our hearts, the parts that we react to emotionally, become our map routes, our mirror reflections, and our atmosphere internally.

Externally we discover our connections through landscape, as Elizabeth George explains it. To her landscape is “the broad vista into which the writer actually places the individual settings of the novel, sort of like the canvas or other medium onto which a painter has decided to daub color……when we discuss landscape we’re also talking about….the emotions that are evoked by the setting.”
She continues, “…landscape is the total place experience in a novel.”

The Chateau d’lf used in The Count of Monte Christo movie is a real place, built in the early 1500s as a military fortress and later turned into a prison.

Share: What literal climate, weather, topography or daylight can become an emotional mirror for your character’s internal struggle?

Read deep, marcy

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Strategy # 2 Holy Landscape

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


Have you ever gotten together with a group of family or friends and pulled out a photo album of a particular location? Notice how each person gravitates to a particular photo and sometimes the same photo will generate both a positive and negative reaction.

In her study on memoir, I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl notes that it is a landscape bordered by memory and imagination. “For to remember is to make a pledge: to the indelible experience of personal perception, and to history itself.”

The memories recalled are sacred emotional connections to each person. The landscape has in some ways encapsulated the experience. Whether used as a silent backdrop or a plot plunging odyssey, landscape has the potential to magnify the power in your story with few ordinary details. The key is the personal connection, a holy unique recall.

 Looking at landscape through the eyes of art and imagery can become a separate language of communication. It’s setting up your scenes or vignettes as a view through a series of ‘photographs’.  The snapshots can come from a personal album, or a collection from a museum, a series of postcards, or by remembering images in your mind’s eye. Or the specific details can turn mandatory locations into an indelible experience for your character, as author Sarah Sundin pointed out last week @ 

“You can craft settings so realistic that your readers will say, “I felt like I was there!”

Landscape Exercise:

Now that you’ve chosen your natural habitat and researched a sense of its strengths and weaknesses, begin to look at daily details.

Where does the sun rise and set? What parts of home are in light or darkness daily or seasonally? What does the air smell like when you open the door in the morning, in the afternoon or in the evening?

Share: Do any details surprise you?

Read deep, marcy

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