On Writing

Starting out:

People often ask me what advice I have for people who want to become writers.

Tough one.

I "taught" writing for a number of years through the Continuing Education Faculty at the University of Winnipeg. I am putting "taught" in quotes because what I was really doing was telling students how I, personally, approached writing a novel.

While there, I did something not all writers might necessarily advise, but which I felt was very important. I emphasized the necessity to learn the basic punctuation and grammar rules of English (to be broken only once they are learned!). To me, learning the language in which you intend to communicate (presumably important) information to other people, requires a knowledge of how that language works.

To me, it's like giving a person keys to a car and telling them, "Okay. Go ahead - drive it" .... and then walking away and leaving them to it. They might learn to drive it on their own. But they might not know it needs gas to run. It's important to know where the key goes, how the gas pedal works and the brake pedal (especially!) and how to generally steer the thing.

This is why we must teach young students not just to read, but also how to write with clarity. By teaching them the basics of their language, they might then be free to drive their creative car anywhere the want to go with confidence - and if they want to become writers, so much the better. 

I also emphasized to the novice writers in my classes how important story is for me; both as a writer and a reader. And how vitally important character development is for me, as well. And also how setting is extremely important to many readers. I am also a visual artist, so I want to make my story as visual as possible for the reader -- and my settings as real, as "alive", as they can be.

If a story I am working on doesn't pull me through with an electric cord of tension, drama, changes and surprises as I write, then I soon lose interest in it - and I know the reader will as well.

And speaking of readers, I also tell writers to remember one thing. Don't write to satisfy some unknown reader to begin with - write to satisfy yourself. Tell yourself a damn good story - and you can be sure others will love it, too!

But take note! You will never ever satisfy every reader. It's impossible. Impossible. But if you can get a publisher interested and get the work out there, it will find its way to readers who will "get" what you wanted them to get.

My other "advice" to people starting out as writers is this:

Read, read, read. Especially the best writers of the kinds of books you would like to write. It's the first and best "advice" that I can give to new writers. If you want to write picture books, then read pictures books. Hundreds and hundreds of them. If you want to be a young adult writer, read the very best YA writers. If you want to be a mystery writer .... well you get the idea.

You will absorb many of the basics of writing if you read the best writers. They will definitely be your best teachers.

And I would suggest you get a collection of books similar to the ones shown above and read them. That way you can argue with a copy editor and know what you are talking about!

Then .... write the book that is in you to write.

Then revise, edit, revise, edit.

Enjoy the process. Writing should be the most fun you've had in years. If it isn't, why do it? If you're looking for fame or fortune, it's highly unlikely you'll find it in writing. It's the love of it that keeps most writers writing.

I would never ask more than one trusted person to read your work at a time, once it is finished. Perhaps a local writer whose work you admire - one who reads manuscripts for a fee. Listen to them carefully. However, if you disagree with them, then don't make  any huge changes - unless you feel they are right.

Or get a second opinion from another experienced writer in the same field - always remembering that they are not you; they do not write like you; or think like you; but they can tell you things: such as; did your story keep their attention; did they connect with your characters; did it sag in places etc etc. And you may find that both writers point out the same things that aren't working in your novel that you were convinced were working!

I have to admit, I did not let anyone read my first work except my daughter. I sent it to two different publishers. That was when publishers were still taking unsolicited manuscripts. I was lucky. I found a publisher right away.

Either way, start finding out what people in the business of publishing/writing think of your work, by sending it out - but only when it is the most polished work you can make it.
And remember - to quote William Zinsser, "Hard writing makes easy reading. Easy writing makes hard reading."

Lizzie - from the cover of Who is Frances Rain?
In the glasses are a young Frances and Lizzie herself


Getting to know my characters:

When my main character and I mutually agree to record their story, the first thing they ask is to be written up as a real person, not a caricature of themselves - or of someone else.

"Let me tell you my story as it happens," they say. "Here I am, already in my setting, my world, see? I'll introduce you to the other people involved. So grab your laptop, or some pencils and lots of paper, and follow me! Oh, and by the way (this over the shoulder) we'll talk about mistakes you make later." They are always bossy....

And so, like Alice, I do their bidding - wide-eyed and curious about what's about to happen. But I also keep one canny eye on the situation as it develops. I am after all the boss in all this. I don't tell my character that, of course. They are so touchy.

But what triggers a character to show up at all? Is it something I've read? A photo? An event? What is the "kiss" that awakens a character in my head? Sometimes I know right away, because I've been researching something that interests me, and up they pop -- but other times, it can be a photo, an article, a dream, or finding something in an antique store - and it's only later that I figure out what the trigger was. In Who is Frances Rain? Lizzie showed up shortly after I found a pair of old spectacles on an island near our cottage.

Two posts from Facebook friends recently, made me think about a couple of things regarding character. One post was about naming your characters, and one was where a colleague said she was about to have "a meeting of minds with her main protagonist." I've had those. It can get ugly.

If you are like me, before I start a story around a character, I have to find out their name. Naming a character is as important as naming your own child. A baby can't tell you - unborn or too small to talk as they are - and, in some cases, you might even be forced to pick a name that someone else likes better than you.

I have found the characters in my novels generally refuse to tell me their name until I figure it out for myself. If a name doesn't fit, and I go with it anyway, my protagonist finds devious ways of letting me know it's wrong, wrong, wrong. When I finally hit the right one, we're both happy. And the character often gets a little smug about it, too.

As an aside, I find it hard to attach certain names to characters, especially names that are popular at the time. I won't list them here for fear of hurting feelings. But, to me, there are, to my way of thinking, names that seem to diminish a primary character somehow.

I like names with character. I named my first fictional character after my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth, known as Lizzie to all. From what I hear, my grandma was a character!

I named another main character in the book, Frances, because Frances is an old name, but mainly because it means, "free" and, if you've read the book, you know why I chose it.

I personally think names that are in fashion for awhile, and then vanish (thank goodness) can also "date" a book pretty quickly. Names can say a lot about a character before you even learn what makes them tick. So I avoid names that are connected to fruit, light fixtures, planets, desserts etc; and often those that are not spelled traditionally. I avoid weird spellings of traditional names, like Elizabeth, when they are morphed into atrocities like Elissabith. I signed a book for a woman once, "To Elizabeth" only to find out it was Elissabith. She was quite annoyed. As was I...

After saying all this, I do have a lot of odd names in my fantasy trilogy, so really who am I to talk? Names like Cill, Ailla, Leto, Mennow, Jowan, Caul, etc - many of which I made up. But these characters live in fantasy worlds, so anything goes. Besides, I'm the boss, remember....

In the first novel of my fantasy series, The Watcher, Emma's mother has named her two girls Summer and Winter. Winter is my main character. She has pale skin and white hair. She hates her name, because she is constantly teased about it and her looks. So she announces one day that her name - from that day forward - will be Emma. Her mother says, "Are you aware that Emma means "grandmother?"

Emma doesn't care. She just wants to be plain, simple, straightforward Emma. Despite the change, Emma is anything but plain or simple, but she does remain Emma -- and she also remains straightforward throughout the three books. Being Emma gets her through some pretty harrowing adventures trying to beat The Game, once she falls into a number of very strange worlds!

Once the name-game is over, I know other conflicts will come between my characters and me. And the "meetings of minds" meetings grow in number as the pages grow in number.

After a story gets rolling, my characters and I get along pretty well on the whole. But now and again we suddenly take off in different directions, and that's when we go into head to head combat. The character sometimes wins. But it's when they take a seriously wrong turn, like Emma does in her deadly games in The Watcher's Trilogy series, that I know I have to take charge and redirect a story and get my character back on track.

Actually that happens a lot in rewrites. But by then, I am in full control, and I always get the last word. I am the boss after all!

And of course, each of my main characters has a different personality, so I am dealing with a variety of needs and wants - depending on their upbringing and the story. I've been thinking a lot about characters and their development in stories.

After going head to head with a main character recently, I began to wonder about chickens and eggs (maybe because my character's family has some in their city backyard in 1907) - but there is this strange "which comes first feeling" in a story where characters cause events to happen in their lives, but then, events outside of their control also happen as well - and both of these forms, involving plot, change that character's personality and their needs and wants. Mmm. Something else to muse about ...

As it is, I'm already thinking about some changes in my new mss.


How do we use words to describe things the readers can "see".

Don't tell me the moon is shining: show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Anton Chekov

As a writer (and an artist) I have always "seen" the images I write about in my head - very clearly. Some writers have told me they don't see the things they are writing about in their mind's eye as they write. When I worked with novice writers, I talked about using their inner eye while writing, in order to describe in words any vibrant visual images they wanted to create in their stories. Many had no idea what I meant.

I would try to explain with this example. "When you go for a walk, look up a the sky and try to describe in words in your head what you are seeing. Do the lines of Canada geese flying over look like just a bunch of geese passing overhead? Or do they look like they are playing "crack the whip" in the ice-blue sky"?
As a writer and artist I am always looking, looking, looking. When I see something that pleases me, or catches my eyes, or shocks me visually, I try to write it in my mind the way I see it. I probably look a bit gormless at those times, but it works for me. I carry little notebooks to jot down images as well.

I think it’s important that we, as writers, use part of “writing time” to look, to examine, to study our  worlds - to help train that inner eye, so our writing will conjure up clear images in our readers’ minds.

It seems to me there is a very strong link between visual art and the art of writing. When Chekov wrote, "Don't tell me the moon is shining: show me the glint of light on broken glass." I believe he was telling writers to "see" -- to paint and sculpt and create vivid images in their minds as they write, not to simply state the facts by telling us what we must see. We have all heard the phrase “Show, not tell.”  He said it the best.
I decided to see if I could express this connection I feel between writing and “seeing” - by searching out artists and their paintings and pairing them with writers' quotes. I hope this brings Chekov's image of “show not tell” to life in an interesting way - using the expressions and descriptions and visions of the moon and moonlight by writers and painters.

Tom Thomson "Moonlight and Birches"

Have you seen the bush by moonlight, from the train, go running by? Blackened log and stump and sapling, ghostly trees all dead and dry; Here a patch of glassy water; there a glimpse of mystic sky?
On the Night Train, Henry Lawson

"Moon" JMW Turner

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding,
      up to the old inn-door.
The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes

"Moonlight" Winslow Homer 

 How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here we will sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet 
Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare

"The Starry Night", Vincent Van Gogh

Crazed through much child-bearing
The moon is staggering in the sky:
Moon-struck by the despairing
glances of her wandering eye
We grope, and grope in vain
For children born of her pain.
The Crazed Moon, William Butler Yeats

 Dieppe Sketchbook
"Moonlight on the Sea"
JMW Turner

 I sat by night beside a cold lake
And touched things smoother than moonlight on still water
But the moon in this cloud sea is not human
And there is no shore, no intimacy,
Only the start of space, the road to suns
Transcanada, F.R. Scott

"Dog with Ladder", Joan Miro

The squalling cat and the squeaking mouse
The howling dog by the door of the house
The bat that lies in bed a t noon,
All love to be out by the light of the moon.
The Moon, Robert Louis Stevenson

"Ladder to the Moon" Georgia O'Keefe (Inspired by Miro's painting)

That I could clamber to the frozen moon
And draw the ladder after me.
Arthur Schopenhauer, quoted from "Parerga and Paralipomena"

"Lovers in Moonlight" Marc Chagall

Two Lovers watched the new moon hold
The old moon in her tight embrace.
Said she: "There's mother, pale and old,
and drawing near her resting place."
Said he, "Be mine, and with me wed,"
Moon high she stared ... and shook her head.
 Moon Song, Robert William Service

"The Wandering Moon" William Blake

The night walked down the sky with the moon in her hand.
 A Memory, Frederic Lawrence Knowles

 "Harvest Moon" Samuel Palmer

 To lie on the bottom of the sky, like a gold doubloon.
The harvest moon has come,
Booming softly through heaven, like a bassoon.
And the earth replies all night, like a deep drum.

So people can't sleep,
So they go out where elms and oak trees keep
A kneeling vigil, in a religious hush.
The harvest moon has come!
"The Harvest Moon" Ted Hughes

 "Moonlight" Edvard Munch

 And then as now you hung above those trees
illuminating all. But to my eyes
Your face seemed clouded, tremulous
From the tears that rose beneath my lids
So Painful was my life: and is, my
Dearest moon: its tenor does not change
And yet, memory and numbering of epochs
Of my grief is pleasing to me. 
 To the Moon, Giacomo Leopardi

"Moonlight Spiritual" Bernard Hoyes 

Music is moonlight in the gloomy night of life.
Titan, Jean Paul Richter


 To Outline or Not to Outline....

To outline
or not to outline...
Photos by Margaret Buffie

To outline or not to outline .... ahhh, as writers, that is the question. In my opinion there is no right or wrong way to set up or prepare for writing a novel. Or how you actually write it. For one thing, each storyline, each set of characters, demands different approaches.

After saying that, I admit ... yes, I am an "outliner". I always use an outline of some form or other when I write a novel.

What is an outline?

Here is the basic definition of what it can be:
"An outline is usually in the form of a list divided into headings and subheadings that distinguish main points from supporting points."

This is fine if you are doing an essay for university or high school, based on research etc., but the creative act of writing an entire fictional novel is much more complex than this, and the creator is forced to keep a lot of balls in the air -- that can come crashing down -- if they have not in some way organized how to keep those flying balls in order. An outline can do that for a writer.

How you construct a functional outline and still maintain the freedom to be free to change events and develop characters can vary a lot, from notes on cards to chapter by chapter outlines and many varieties in between. You do what works for you to get from the first word you write down to the very last word.

I usually begin an outline after I've written my first few chapters, with a simple chapter by chapter format written in point form - adding a few sentences under each chapter heading, which indicate or remind me what might be the action and character interaction in that chapter. Open to revisal at any time. I never type it out. I always hand-write it in pencil. That way I can chew on my pencil and think ... and scribble ... and erase and think some more!

Below is the first page of the first outline for "Who is Frances Rain?"
Photo by Margaret Buffie
I started this outline for "Frances Rain", after I got stuck around the middle of chapter three, because it was my first book and I didn't have an outline set up. When I stalled, I thought, where the heck am I heading? No idea. Maybe a vague notion. But how to get there?

I had never taken a writing course, but it seemed to me to be a sensible idea to form an outline of sorts in order to control and organize all of the myriad thoughts, characters and scenes swarming around in my head. So that is when I created the first outline page, above, followed by many others.
If you have begun your novel and become stuck (some people call it writer's block...) try an outline from wherever the block stopped you. Just as an exercise. If you are about to start a novel and you have a pretty good idea what kind of book you want to write; a vision of your characters; a setting; and a general plot idea; sit down and try to work out a chapter by chapter outline of the movements through the story. You'll soon know if an outline works for you.

Most novice writers appear to want a magic method handed to them that will allow them to get a novel written with the least amount of angst and time - and the most amount of creativity. They want someone with lots of experience to give them the answers to the quickest and most efficient way of writing a novel and to also offer easy ideas that will allow them to somehow magically write better because of it. An outline is not going make that happen.

But it can help you work through a story idea, on paper, that will allow for flexibility, movement, change of mind ... and if nothing else, it will force you to deep-think about your plot and characters.

An outline can be extremely detailed (see some of the quotes below) so that all you have to do is flush out the details when you write the novel. Some writers do outlines so detailed it is almost like a first draft. (Unlike my own lean outlines.) It's up to the writer. You do what works for you.

As I said, I go for a very basic and simple outline and work through the story chapter by chapter. These first "chapters" are only a loose guide and may later be divided into two or or more chapters or I may have to join two chapters together depending on how the writing goes. I will also put a * symbol beside an important scene in those notes - and will often even write the actual scene on the back of the outline page or in a notebook - usually again with a pencil while my thoughts are fresh. That scene may or may not end up in the story.

Here are some of the things I think about when doing my chapter by chapter outline.

Photo by Margaret Buffie

On the outline below for "Winter Shadows", I made notes and added a few extra ones about weather etc. As this novel takes place in the present and the past in the dead of winter, the weather and the setting are used very specifically to set mood. I always mark down what day it is, Monday, Tuesday night, etc -- especially if I am going to have my story take place in a very limited time.

Photo by Margaret Buffie

Of course, my first goal is to always tell a compelling story. But that can't happen without strong characters, and I never stop thinking about how they are feeling, and reacting, to what is happening. And my notes reflect that always in my outline.

I still write the first few chapters of a new book without any form of written framework, and then sit down and work out a path for the rest of the novel, knowing full well that this will certainly not be the only path I take in the development of the story. If my characters at some point refuse to go the way I am heading, then after some thought, I am usually willing to veer down the branch in the road where they seem to want to go. Sometimes I even start an entirely fresh outline or else I stretch the existing one to add new events.

This year, after trying to write my 11th novel without an outline, (as an exercise!) my creativity dried up because I had no idea where to take my characters and they couldn't give me any hints. We were all stymied. So I am now working on the outline for it - and it's moving along pretty well. Clearly this is how I work.

If you are writing a 300 page novel with many chapters, chances are you're using an outline in some form or other whether you realize it or not. As I said previously, outlines come in all sizes, shapes and forms. Some are nothing more than notes to yourself. Using an outline, for me, isn't restricting, but freeing. And it keeps me from having to do huge rewrites. My outlines can, and do, morph and change in many ways through the writing process. They are always fluid, allowing loads of room to manoeuvre.

Here is an example of my novel Winter Shadows' first general outline. As I was planning to do alternate chapters between a modern young woman and another young woman living in 1855 in the same house, I had to plan how these two people interconnected in order to kind of "mirror" each other somewhat through time ...but at some point I also knew that they would actually meet each other. It was pretty tough to organize. Can you tell? Imagine if I'd winged it and not figured this out before I started? For me.... utter chaos!

Photo by Margaret Buffie
After wrestling with this, I could then work out a chapter by chapter outline, and each young woman got to tell her story.

A number of well known writers use outlines, but just as many claim they wouldn't touch an outline with a ten foot pole.

One of the reasons some people give for not outlining is that they believe that their characters will evolve more "organically" if they don't use one.

Others claim that outlines take away the mystery of the story and it becomes very boring for them to write. They also feel that the freedom to allow the story to develop on its own is crippled.

If a writer hasn't outlined a novel before, I can definitely see them assuming these things are likely to happen. But it seems to me that they are seeing an outline as the entire novel set out in point form, so all the secrets are out and they have nothing left to "discover".

It is not like that for me at all. My outlines are lean point by point frames on which I can eventually weave my story in full colour. This allows for the characters, tensions, plot, and that thread of electricity I need to drive the story to develop in a natural and exciting way for the reader (and me!).

Here is another form of "outlining or planning for a novel". It is a (bad) drawing I did of the ranch house for my book, "My Mother's Ghost." I had my characters moving around this vital space as I was writing, but half the time I became confused because I didn't know the layout of the house except in my head.

So I decided to "build" a quick sketch of the ranch house and its floor plan. As it happened the plot changed, but the final lay-out of the floors that I decided on (bottom left) really helped.

Photo by Margaret Buffie

Quotes about Outlining

The thing I've discovered in researching this topic, is that writers seem quite willing to take a stand when it comes to outlining.

Here's a few quotes from the "pro-outline" group:
When F. Scott Fitzgerald was working on a novel, he surrounded himself with outlines of plot and the backgrounds of his characters. He immersed himself in the outline to the point of working out all the details before hand.

In a letter to John O'hara (who later wrote Butterfield 8), Fitzgerald advised the younger writer to start with a big outline:

Invent a system Zolaesque (in the style of Emile Zola) …but buy a file. On the first page of the file put down an outline of a novel of your times enormous in scale (don’t worry, it will contract by itself) and work on the plan for two months. Take the central point of the file as your big climax and follow your plan backward and forward from that for another three months. Then draw up something as complicated as a continuity from what you have and set yourself a schedule.

(Note from me: Wow! Now that's an outline!)

I never do a full outline, and if I did,
I would not feel bound to it, because the view from
inside a scene can be different from the view outside it.
But neither do I just start writing and see what happens;
I am far more disciplined than that.
- Piers Anthony

The research is the easiest. The outline is the most fun. The first draft is the hardest, because every word of the outline has to be fleshed out. The rewrite is very satisfying.
- Ken Follet

The benefit of this kind of outlining is that you discover
a story's flaws before you invest a lot of time writing the first draft,
and it's almost impossible to get stuck at a difficult chapter,
because you've already done the work to push through those kinds of blocks.
- George Stephen
There's an outline for each of the books that I adhere to pretty closely, but I'm not averse to taking it in a new directions, as long as I can get it back to where I need to go. Justin Cronin.

If you do enough planning before you start to write, there's no way you can have writer's block. I do a complete chapter by chapter outline.
R. L. Stine
For all my longer works, for example novels, I write chapter outlines so I can have the pleasure of departing from them later on.
- Garth Nix.
I'm a great believer in outlines.
- Tom Wolfe.
The outline is 95 percent of the book. Then I sit down and write, and that’s the easy part.
- Jeffrey Deaver
Hone your outline and then cling to it as a lifeline. You can adjust it in mid-stream, but don’t try to just write your way into a better structure: think about the right structure and then write to it. Your outline will get you through those periods when you can’t possibly imagine ever finishing the damn thing — at those times, your outline will let you see it as a sequence of manageable 1,000 word sections.
- Bill Wasik
And here are some writers who are "anti-outline"
Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters' theses. Stephen King
(Note from me: Whoa. Really? If you've read F Scott Fitzgerald above, or R. L. Stine and others, I think you'd agree that King might be a bit off the mark! Also see the link I've just added at the end .... interesting...)

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”
- E. L. Doctorow
(Note from me: Outlining is for many writers an important part of the writing process. Putting words on paper isn't the only way to write. Thinking about your story is also "writing". So is research. Because all the time you are doing these things you are creating characters, storylines, settings and other important aspects of your novel in notes and in your head. He is right about one thing though - never talk about your writing in progress! The response you get can kill the passion just like that!)
Because I don’t work with an outline, writing a story is like crossing a stream, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock."
Anne Beattie.

So I made an outline. Well, you know, days are going by, and I am not writing anything because this thing is laid out in front of me. It's as if you get every brochure for a trip you are going to go on and you get the minutest details of every step along the way. Well, I really doubt you're going to then get in the car and go. You know, it's like, why bother if it's all laid out in front of you?
- Steve Tesich
(Note from me: Well, that's just silly. When you finally go on the trip, you not only see things you've never seen before, but you get to see the things you've always wanted to see - and sometimes you decide on the spur of the moment to take a left instead of the prescribed right, and have a great adventure that winds you, eventually, back to the road you were travelling on before.)

I don't plot the books out ahead of time, I don't plan them, I don't begin at the beginning and end at the end. I don't work from an outline and I don't work in a straight line.
- Diana Gabaldon

Final comments: An outline allows me to know a direction that might work better than others and keeps me from having to do multiple rewrites - and it also lets me know that, although I never know for sure the ending to my story (I like to be surprised, too!) I will get to the end without getting out of control - or bogged down in a muddy path that is leading me nowhere.

But if you work better without an outline and have had success in publishing - or at least finished a novel to your own satisfaction, who am I to tell you that you're wrong?

This painting reminds me of how it feels to work on a novel at any stage of it. It is one of the few paintings, I think, that captures the mood we all find very familiar! I like to think he's working on an outline!

Ivan Kulikov's painting of Russian writer, Evgeny Chirikov

I just saw this link posted a few days by my facebook friend, Linda Granfield who I featured in a recent blog on children's writers. More outlines! And the first I've seen online.


Setting is WAY more important than you think!

"Everything in its Place..."

Autumn labyrinth, Jacel Yerka Modern Polish Painter

Slayton House Andrew Wyeth 1968

Fiction is made up of a handful of basic ingredients which include character, plot, point of view and setting. All essential parts of good storytelling. Yet, for many writers today, setting appears to be the least important ingredient. Why?

Of course no writer can expect a story to take place in a vacuum. We know we need to set a place for our story. It's very easy to set up the time in which the story is taking place. But how important is where it’s taking place?

To begin with, why have we chosen when and where our particular story is taking place? Is it because our plot demands an historical setting, a modern day setting, a futuristic dystopian setting, a school, an orphanage, a lake, an ocean, a castle, a farm or city in Europe or Asia or North America ... or on another planet ... or in a parallel universe?

Once that is determined, how involved should that setting be in our story?

Eudora Welty wrote, "Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else... Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?”

However, writer Jeffery Deaver writes: “Rule one: Write about settings you're familiar with.”  

Is this really the number one rule? 

It is true that writing about a place you live in, and know well, is a good basis for a novel, in many ways - but there are times you might want to move into settings that are historical, or from your imagination. 

If I am researching an historical setting as I did for Winter Shadows, then I know I must "research myself" into that familiarity, and be true to the time. Reading about an past era and doing careful research is the way I approach it. But photos and paintings from the times can, and do, help me a lot. It might help you, too, once your research is under way.

Winnipeg Snow Storm 1902, F. M. Armingtom

Impressions of London, Anders Zorn, 1890

 The Arrival of Rural Teachers, Vasily Perov, 19th C


The same goes for a fantasy or science-fiction setting. I owe it to my reader to have a clear vision of my setting when I write a fantasy. I have to know it as well as I know the street I live on. And I must paint my readers strong images of that place -  using words -  so that it becomes as real to them as it is to me.

The Merman King, (From the Little Mermaid), Edmund Dulca, 1882-1953

Underwater Life, Jacek Yerka, Modern Polish Painter

Double Life, Jack Yerka, Modern Polish Painter

As a fantasy writer, if your setting is not “real” to you, if you don’t understand fantasy - haven't read any - or have decided that movies and other writers can help make up some kind of useful fantasy world, I would suggest that you think again. I doubt you you will engage the reader in your characters lives and story as well as you might if you haven't created a living, breathing distinct and real setting for them to discover. 


Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “You can exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are.”

Ernest Hemingway wrote about setting as being an integral part of storytelling and this is vital to me as well. “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.

In my opinion, truer words were never written!You can’t have one ingredient without the other or that cake just isn't going to rise!

John Gardner  agrees: “He (the writer) must shape simultaneously (in an expanding creative moment) his characters, plot, and setting, each inextricably connected to the others; he must make his whole world in a single, coherent gesture, as a potter makes a pot...” 

You can’t have one without the other....

So why do some writers see the various settings in their  novel much like a constructed set on a stage .... mainly as background for the action of the characters? Their settings tend to be mainly static, not interactive, until the writer decides to push them around to prepare for another scene or changes the lighting.

As a writer, my settings become as vital to my story as any character in my novel. In fact, my settings tend to become pretty important “characters” themselves in the way that they dramatically affect my human or fantasy characters.

A number of writers have told me that when they write, they really can't visualize the setting their characters are living in. One writer brushed it off - and told me he leaves the setting for later “inputs.”

(As a short aside, my writer friend, Melanie Fishbane wrote on Facebook today, "I had that moment when I was looking at someone and that person triggered me into thinking about one of my characters, which got me thinking about my character's hair and how I would describe it." 

This is so important! This writer is using what I call her "visual" brain to create her character. 

Sometimes I wish that all writers would take city or landscape painting lessons, in order for them to really understand  setting. They would be forced to grow new "eyes" if they had to paint what they were seeing! Then when they came to write their setting, they will have a much more intimate knowledge of how to paint with words. But taking a load of writers off to paint isn't going to happen, is it? 

However, I feel it is important for writers to consciously discover ways of developing that part of the brain that has "stopped seeing" or has not developed fully. We all have it in us. We just need to help it grow.

Other writers might disagree. They would claim, that character and dialogue and plot are far more important. Of course character and dialogue are critical! Crucial. But for me, as a writer and a reader, so is setting, but in a very different way.

As a reader, I want to see the setting in my mind’s eye when I begin a novel. As a writer, I feel it is my duty to describe the houses, or the fields of grain or the horses drawing ice out of the frozen river - or any other setting -  with details, images, smells, sounds, and touch that can be developed in the visual and sensory part of reader's brain.

I feel my reader will appreciate the feel the grass under their feet, or the hot desert sands on their skin; or hear the drizzle of rain, the plop of snow off the roof; the hush of silence; or the cry of anguish echoing down a dark hallway in a strange new world. And they will be more  deeply involved when that setting has its impact on the main characters. 

For those of you who want to be writers, this doesn't mean you need reams and reams of description. This is where the “art”, the consciousness of your visual and sensory awareness comes in. This is where the real work of a writer is tested. This is your proving ground.

Can you describe the setting without taking up pages and pages of the novel doing it? Of course you can.

When I am writing, all of my senses are alert to colors, weather, temperatures, dust, blowing leaves .... water smacking against a dock or canoe; snow blizzards that freeze your lungs; the strange room across the hall that has guttural noises emanating from it; the fantasy world of purple deserts and waters mazes; and even a soft and cozy day looking out of an old stone house in 1857.  My writing isn't perfect, I'm still developing as a writer, but involving my reader is my aim!

All of my settings have to affect my own senses of taste, sound, hearing and touch – and they must be clear and strong in my head, so that I can create them for the reader.

How do you introduce and wind the setting throughout the story? 

1. Firstly, I would suggest that you work your setting in when it is needed, not after you write the book. Because, remember, how you use your setting will have an impact on your characters and if you tack it in later you will be missing a great opportunity to involve the setting and the characters with each other. I try to have my characters very aware of where they are - by not just looking at it but "feeling" it. 

2. You, the writer, don’t have to describe it for your reader. Don't tell us what it looks like. Let your characters and their reactions describe it - this will create a rich evocative setting. 

3. Try to trim your characters' descriptions down into short paragraphs and sentences here and there, to  allow the setting to flourish in the reader’s mind and to become a character on its own.

Once again, the old argument arises, why is setting that important - as long as the character development is there and the dialogue is there and the tension of the story is there?  

Because the world we, ourselves, live in day to day has an impact on us whether we are consciously aware of it or not – and it does affect us every moment we are awake; whether it is sitting in a dusty library room; an uncomfortable chair in a concert hall; riding through the clouds in a stuffy plane; sitting on a bed while rain drips in through the roof into a tin bucket; or walking anxiously down an unfamiliar dark street alone. 

3. For me, at least, there must always be a kind of lively exchange between character and setting. Setting will definitely affect how a character reacts to things going on in the story. In fact, setting can affect the way a story moves forward – if the place itself has a determined say in what happens.


In my novel, Who Is Frances Rain? the island on Lizzie’s grandmother’s Northern Manitoba Lake is an important setting that has its own set of criteria. This is a place I know like the back of my hand. I have painted many scenes from it and thousands of photos. 

On this island, Lizzie McGill is able to see a woman from the past. This is when the setting of the island takes on a life of its own - changing shape, altering weather during the summer to deep snow, to harsh winds and rain. It is the unexpected in setting that is intriguing to me both as a writer and as a reader.

The Marsh in the Bay, Oil on Canvas, Margaret Buffie

Just Before the Storm, oil on Canvas, Margaret Buffie

Sun Rising on the Bay, Photo by Margaret Buffie


My latest novel, Winter Shadows is set in 1857 along the banks of the Red River in Manitoba in the deepest part of winter that leads up to Christmas. I know I would let my readers down if my characters in the past and present didn't interact with the beauty and the steely cold of that setting!

Many of my stories link spirits from the past to young adults in the present. Each of my settings is different, but each place changes and evolves, like the characters, until, sometimes, it feels as if the story is controlled by a hidden hand that has a definite purpose in affecting the characters in a particular novel.

Church and School at upper settlement  1820

Red River House at St. Andrew's Photo by Margaret Buffie

Governor's House Kitchen Lower Fort Garry, c. 1850's 
Photo by Margaret Buffie

Captain Kennedy's House, St. Andrew's Photo by Margaret Buffie

The same is true of my fantasy series, The Watcher, The Seeker and The Finder, known as “The Watcher’s Quest Trilogy. The ideas for this story came partly from research into Celtic legends, but the story and settings are all from my own imagination. And to me they grew to be very real. My readers have said the same thing many times. In science fiction and fantasy, setting becomes entirely new worlds! The covers give a strong hint that setting is definitely important in this series!


When we talk about setting, imagine  Charles Dickens without the vast corruption and madness of London of the 19th C ..... 

Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, Sir Samuel Luke Fildes,  1874

Photographer unknown, Dicken's London, c middle 19 C.

Street Locksmith, London Photographer, John Thomson 1877,

....or Arthur Conan Doyle without his own vision of London which his character Sherlock inhabits.When I join the enigmatic genius Sherlock Holmes as he moves with lightning speed through the dark and cluttered world of London and late Victorian England I have a different, but very personal interaction with that setting.

Foggy London, Photographer unknown

November Moonlight, John Atkinson Grimshaw 1836-1893

What would Alice have without Wonderland; or C.S. Lewis’s characters Ann, Martin, Rose and Peter without Narnia. And there a many other examples to choose from.

This is why when I read Georges Simenon's books about Chief Inspector Maigret, I travel around Paris alongside the comfortable, intuitive detective Maigret in these splendid books, and follow him as he moves through every human strata of that amazing city of the mid-twentieth century - as well as all the other places he travels to in France. And  a great part of my enjoyment is my complete involvement in the settings - for I follow right behind Maigret while he searches, investigates, and muses on his cases inside the sawdust floored bistros, the rich homes, the poor apartments, and the quiet streets that his prey inhabit. 

Maigret paints his world so that I can see the earthy tones, the dark shadowy streets, the gay sunny mornings full of flowers and I can inhale the smells of French cooking and the tastes of dark red wine and cognac and coffee in those old bistros or in Mrs. Maigret’s French kitchen; and I can hear the distant sounds of taxis, and horses …. and the tap of high heeled shoes moving through the night.

Bistro, Maurice Utrillo, 1883-1955

Paris Kafe, Konstantin Korovin

Paris Boulevard, Konstantin Korovin, 1939 

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote:  “The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish.”

Children’s writers seem especially to know how important setting is. One of the most beautiful pieces of writing that involved a number of important settings, that I have read for any age, can be found in British writer Jani Howker's, Badger on the Barge. 

I wrote an earlier blog on Janni Howker. Others like Alison Prince, Penelope Lively, Ruth Park, Philippa Pearce, Karen Cushman, and many other writers, who wrote and continue to write, sensitive stories about children and young adults, that always have a deep connection to setting. 


Brian said...

Hi Margaret,

Nice post. I like your site, you have some interesting articles. My site My Perfect Pitch compliments yours, consisting of interesting articles from a published author (although I'm not as successful as you!), plus a free resource of over 1000 traditional book publishers currently accepting submissions - the largest on the web. Keep up the good work.

Regards, Brian

Margaret Buffie said...

Thanks, Brian!