Writing Wednesday – Brainstorming with Setting

WPA stairs, Bigfork MT

I’ve been thinking a lot about brainstorming lately, about how to move forward when your conscious mind has no idea what happens next.

And one answer is to mine your setting. Think about where your characters live and work. Does that location give them an opportunity to question a witness or suspect, or to dig into a box of neglected files? Who does your protagonist run into when she stops for gas, where another character can threaten her and drive off, or when she pops into the grocery store, where options for conversation are limited by the presence of others? Move your characters around—what or who will they see while in transit? What idea will occur to them because of something they spy out the window of a car or bus>

What’s their favorite place, and what might happen there? Who will they run into? Where do they seek refuge and solace? Where do they hide?

Haul out the maps. What does Google Earth show that gives you more options? In writing Killing Thyme, my third Spice Shop mystery, I looked at photos of the Seattle Police Department headquarters to better describe the building, and discovered a parking garage I hadn’t remembered. That led to my protagonist, Pepper Reece, traipsing after the cold case detective and confronting the man as he got into his car, where she demands information and gets more than she bargained for.

Flower Row, Pike Place Market, Seattle

Spend an hour—set a timer!—reading the newspaper for your story city, browsing the police department website, reading neighborhood blogs. Pore over real estate ads. Look at pictures of landmarks. Ask what a city is known for, what’s its politics, its burning issues. What happens there that happens nowhere else? How does that influence your long-time resident and surprise your newcomers? Why do people move here? Why do they live?

Think about your relationship to the place where you live, or where you’ve lived in the past. What would your protagonist say if asked the same questions? Your antagonist? What are the tensions inherent in the community, and how do they influence your story people, even if they aren’t front and center in the plot?

The Saturday Writing Quote

Setting is hugely important to me, as reader and writer. So I liked this observation from a young short story writer who writes of her native Nevada:

“Early on I was often crippled about being able to write about anything. … Eventually I decided to choose place as my form. … By the end of the collection, I was actually looking at a map and thinking, where haven’t I written about? I couldn’t really start a story without understanding where it was set–because I can’t really start to think about who these characters are and what kind of trouble are they going to get into if I don’t even know what they see when they get up in the morning.”

— Claire Vaye Watkins, author of the story collection Battleborn (Riverhead, 2012), quoted in Book Page, August 2012