Archive for August, 2010

Setting as Character in a Fantasy Series

Much thanks to Kathi for starting up this blog for BSB!!

I had previously answered her questions about using setting as character in my own blog, but I’m crossposting it here by request (with a few edits for anyone who might not be familiar with my blog & books.) 🙂

I want to know more about using setting as a character. How hard is it to do? When does an author choose to go this route?

Sword of the GuardianThis is actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately while plotting out the sequel to my first book, Sword of the Guardian. The ongoing story arc of this romantic fantasy series is driven almost entirely by the war between the gods, and the consequent division of the land into two very different kingdoms. My ultimate master plan (haha) is to show how, through the events of the Ithyria novels, the land and people — and the gods themselves — are able to restore unity to a thousand-year rift.

This means I’ve been thinking a lot about the world of the Ithyria series in terms of being its own malleable character that needs to develop as the plot progresses. Like a character, the world has a complicated and emotionally-charged backstory, and political, cultural and spiritual personality quirks that need to evolve in order to reach resolution. Like a character, different parts of the world set different moods and provide for different interactions. Some events simply can’t take place if they’re not set in a specific part of the world, since neither of the gods can extend their powers very far into the other’s territory (a fact that actually plays a very BIG part in my current project, Prayer of the Handmaiden.)

As a romance series, each Ithyria book focuses on the story of a different lesbian couple. But though the leading characters in each book change, always in the background as a sort of silent third-wheel is the world that molds them all, and that they in turn mold for those who will come after them.

Is it hard? HECK YES. There are so many questions that I have to find a satisfying and sensible answer to before I can move forward. Sometimes the answer I come up with then undoes some other part of the story I had planned, and I have to go back and figure out how to make them mesh. I have to be as true to the setting as I am to the other characters or the trust that’s built with the reader will fall apart. And as I’m currently still floundering around in that development stage I have to admit I’m finding it particularly difficult. But, thinking of the setting as a character in and of itself also feels very… organic, I guess. It’s this treatment that adds depth to plot, that connects the characters and books to each other, that allows the background story arc to progress in a way that (hopefully) keeps the reader in that “willing suspension of disbelief” that Coleridge so aptly described, and which we all know is the only way a person can actually enjoy speculative fiction. 😛

Ultimately I believe every story’s setting functions as a character, whether intentionally or not. It’s pretty much unavoidable, really. Many things that can happen in Ithyria probably could not happen in modern day NYC. The way something goes down in a swamp is probably going to differ quite a bit from they way it would happen in a desert. Night offers different possibilities than day; so does winter from summer. A setting’s unique qualities inform the scene, affect the characters, impact the development of the plot. So it’s not so much a question of whether to use setting as a character as it is how that characterization is going to get handled. And just as characters have varying degrees of promininence, it seems to me that setting doesn’t necessarily always have to be a lead role, either… just so long as its power isn’t overlooked!

Merry Shannon

“Yeah, I live in New Orleans…”

Hi, Kathi.  Thanks for the mention of Water Mark.  Since I’m one of the September authors, I’ll take you up on your ever-so-gentle hint that I blog.

As you brought up setting I thought that I’d go ahead and riff on that.  New Orleans has always been a challenging city to capture, to get beyond the quirks and get to the character of the place.  There is the New Orleans that visitors see and there is the New Orleans that we live in.  I don’t think I’ve included a Mardi Gras in any of my books, yet to most people that’s what they know about the city.

Until Katrina hit us. 

Yeah, I live in New Orleans.  It’s been five years and the spotlight is back on us again.  For those most part, those of us who live here just get on with our lives.  I haven’t watched the TV specials or read the articles.  We live it every day.  The black lines tell me I’m on the first floor of the parking garage, the ones left by the flood.  Instead of seeing them as a memory of the 11 feet of water, I use them to tell me that I need to straighten out and veer to the right instead of continuing down the spiral ramp.    

So for Greg, Ali, me and all the authors writing about New Orleans, we’ve had to confront the challenge of an utterly changed city.  The streets I walked down on August 28, 2005 weren’t there 24 hours later. 

How do you write about a city you live in but no longer know? 

My pre-Katrina books were set in a sort of vague now—I deliberately didn’t tie them to specific events that would date them.  (Although, of course, technology did that for me anyway.  No cell phones or internet in the early ones.) 

But the two post-Katrina novels, Death of a Dying Man and now Water Mark, have to be historically accurate novels in a way that I’ve never had to do before. 

Most places evolve over time, for example, New York City of 1950 is a different place than New York of 2010.  Every year has changes, but for the most part they are gradual.  Until 2005 I didn’t have to drive the blocks I wanted to write about—I’d been there six months ago, or a year ago.  Maybe a store closes and something else opens, but that was about it.

  New Orleans, always challenging to write about and get it right, abruptly added almost impossible layers to that challenge. 

Oh, let me add, writing is hard.  Cincinnati is hard to write about and get it right.  (Or Milwaukee or Baltimore or Dallas or Sacramento).  I’m not trying to compete about whose writing task is harder—there is no way to know.  This is my story only.  Writing is hard no matter where/how you do it. 

But with New Orleans I had to confront how Katrina would have affected not just Micky, but all the characters in my books.  Who flooded?  Who didn’t?  I had to know where they lived, which part of town.  Where were their lives set?  And not just their ‘now’ lives, but for some of them, where did they grow up?  Did that survive?  Where did they evacuate to? Why?

All our lives were thrown up in the air, a brutal, destructive game of pick-up sticks.  A house destroyed, but a job remained.  No work and all your family was in Houston, but your home didn’t flood.  Or you didn’t know if you had a place to live or a job, but you had to make decisions in that limbo. 

For us writers, the same had to be true of our characters.  Setting isn’t just a plot of land on which a story is located.  It’s where the characters live their lives.  It changes as time moves on and the characters change with it.  If the ground is fragile—the levees weak, the waters close as it is here, but all places contain their fragilities—the souls of the characters become entwined with it. 

JM Redmann

Welcome to the Bold Strokes Books Authors Blog!

I am not an author, but I am an avid fan who wants to know what’s going on with the BSB authors and interact with them so I created this site. I am hoping that other fans of BSB authors want this too. This forum is all about fun, getting to know the authors and asking your favorite author questions you’d like answered. You’ll get to see at least one author blog a week, and maybe more if we’re lucky.  Every few weeks I will randomly draw a comment posted and that person will win a Bold Strokes title of their choice.

To give you an idea of what I envision this site to be about, I just finished Water Mark by JM Redmann (see excerpt under this month’s book excerpts). JM uses New Orleans as a character. So it got me thinking about Greg Herren (Vieux Carré Voodoo) and Ali Vali (The Devil Be Damned) who also use this setting as a character. All of them do such a great job of giving us a rich exciting picture of the city. They also have  shown us graphically what Hurricane Katrina has done to New Orleans. They gave New Orleans its own voice through their books. So I want to know more about using setting as a character. How hard is it to do? When does an author choose to go this route? Maybe we’ll see one of these authors blogging their response. I hope so!

So for now, let’s hear from the authors and from you. Tell us what you want the authors to blog about.

And most of all, let’s have fun!


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