Imagining settings and characters

I can only work on updating the winery guide so much every day.  Quite frankly, the business of fixing the maps or drawing new ones, proofing both maps and text for typos and style, double-checking the paragraph and character formatting in InDesign, etc., etc.,  is, well, sometimes a little mind-numbing.

So, each week, in one way or another, I’ve also been working on the novel (working title: Wait For Me).  It’s a lot more rewarding and satisfying, quite possibly because it’s just a lot more creative.  I finished the text outline and got the general flow in reasonably good shape.  And I’ve been psyched by two recent pieces by other authors that dealt with how they go about imagining the settings, characters, and even clothing and accessories for their characters.

The first was a Word Craft article in the Wall Street Journal by Rebecca Makkai on how she conceptualizes the settings for her novels.  Rebecca draws on the neighborhoods and houses and rooms that she’s either lived in or visited, and picks and chooses certain characteristics of them for her books, combining the interior of one with the neighborhood setting of another, for instance.  This is perfectly understandable and something we probably all do.

The most interesting part of her essay was that for her most recent book, a novel about a haunted house, she found herself struggling to recall some of the details about the house:

“As I found myself scouring my manuscript to remember, for the fifth time, whether I’d made that driveway gravel or paved, and where exactly it forked, and how long it was, I started to worry. Just because I could picture any one room, any one garden bench, didn’t mean it all fit together. An astute reader would actually notice if the house faced east one day and west the next.”

So she decided to actually sketch out the details of the floor plan of the house, including drawing in the furniture, the doors, the rugs, and other details of the house.  Her novel is set in three different time periods, so she drew three different floor plans to show what the house and its contents would have looked like in each of those moments in time.

These drawings helped her enormously as she continued to work on her draft because she knew where doorways were, she knew how rooms interconnected, she knew where the stairways were.  And because she knew all these details, she could make the characters in her novel move around in a realistic and consistent way.  She finishes with a great quote from Hemingway:

“Hemingway said that when you omit something you know, it still shows through in the story—but ‘when a writer omits things he does not know, they show like holes in the writing’.”

I’ve already found a house in a small town that captures what I’d imagined the house in my story looking like.  Now, the next step will be to decide what the inside will look like.  That means I’ll be drawing floor plans and furniture for the 1860s and the modern-day house, just like Rebecca did.

To build out that imaginary house, I’ll be using K.M. Weiland’s technique of spotting photos on the Internet and then saving them for future reference.  She has great Pinterest boards for interiors, clothing, ships, characters…. just about everything she’ll need to help make her fictional characters seem real.  So that’s another next step: find things that will give my own book texture and realism, even though the characters and the setting are completely imaginary.

In the meantime, here’s a photo of the house for you.  What do you think?  (I used some of the editing effects in iPhoto to give it an old-fashioned look.)

What my house in "Wait For Me" will look like

What my house in “Wait For Me” will look like

What do you do to help imagine your characters and settings?

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