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Friday, May 21, 2010

Setting the Scene

I'm a time traveler.

No. Not my characters. Me.

Are you having a hard time buying my story? I assure you, it's true.

I spent the morning in 1870 smack dab in the middle of July with the temperature hovering around the century mark and my hair sticking to my damp forehead.

How did I get there?

I used three devices to transport me to another time and place:
music, sensory stimuli, and images.


I have a folder on iTunes that houses a number of classical pieces played by my characters, both of whom are musicians. I've listed to the selections several hundred times while working on my story, so hearing the compositions of yesteryear helps me shift gears. Since I'm a historical writer, I put it in reverse and go back in time.

Contemporary writers can use music to get them in the mood too. If your story is set at Christmas time, blast some carols. Do you have a scene taking place at the beach? Download some Beach Boys tunes.

Sensory Stimuli

I woke this morning to find puffy white cotton ball clouds scudding by and the thermometer outside registering 62ยบ. The one inside was a whopping two degrees higher. This presented a challenge, since my characters were in the midst of a heat wave. I don't know about you,but when I'm chilly, I have a hard time remembering what it's like to be overheated.

What did I do?

I donned my bulkiest sweater, closed the door to my office, and cranked the space heater. I don't know how hot I got it, but I was, um, glowing. (Victorian women in the 1870s were far too proper to sweat. They left that to the horses.) The elevated temperature and my physical reaction made it far easier to feel what my characters were feeling.

Other senses can be used to set the scene. Are your characters at the circus? Pop open a jar of peanuts, and you have an instant scent-sation that can make you feel like you're there. Is your heroine in the middle of an earthquake or experiencing turbulence at 30,000 feet? Write while trying to balance on one of those jumbo exercise balls.


One of the fastest ways for me to jump into a scene is to see it. To do this, I gather photographs that depict the people and places in my story and keep them nearby when I'm writing.

Since I write historicals, I went to a local antique store with a huge wicker basket chock-full of cartes de visite, those wallet-sized images of non-smiling people, which are mounted on cardboard. I set my stories in real towns in California's Mother Lode, so I purchased reference books about the tows, which are filled with photographs from by-gone days.

Whether you write historical or contemporary stories, it's easy to find images on the Internet that depict your setting--or one like it if yours is fictional--as well as pictures of people that look like your characters. You can print these out and keep them close at hand. Some of my writer friends mount their photos on poster board as collages.

Real life beckoned, and my trip back to 1870 came to an end. I closed iTunes, opened the door to my office to let out the heat, and blew a kiss to my characters, assuring them I'd see them again soon. When I do, I'll set the scene. I left my hero and heroine in a rose garden, so I'll pop outside, snip some of those on our bushes, and set them on my writing desk. I can smell them already.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I wanna know . . .

How do you set your scenes?

Do you listen to music when you write?

Do you strive to emulate the sounds and scents?

Do you select pictures of your main characters and locations?


Jan Cline said...

Unbelievable! What a great idea! It makes perfect sense so why haven't I done that before? Sometimes I will pull out an old classic movie to get me inspired, but now I will try some more tricks.
Great post.

Cindy said...

Great post. My setting is fictional but it's based on a real location so I'm going to find some pictures to inspire me. And I always listen to music to inspire me. My MC's job is a little unusual so all I could really do it read a book on her occupation but so far it's working.

In this new WIP, I really want to be in tune with my characters and the setting so I'm going to try some new ways of inspiring my scenes. We'll see what I come up with :)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Hi Keli,

I make a habit of taking notes when I notice something particularly attention-grabbing. My daughter popped the head off one of our bearded irises the other day and I used it in a scene, taking the head with me to feel the texture and description.

I also made a book trailer for my third novel, though I may never reveal it b/c the jury is still out whether they help or not, but having that small video inspires.
~ Wendy

Anne Barton said...

This was really interesting, Keli! I enjoyed learning about your time travel methods. :)

I like it to be really quiet when I write . . . then I let my imagination do all the work.

Thanks for sharing a few of your secrets!

Keli Gwyn said...

Jan, I watch historical romances to get me in the mood to write too.

Cindy, I find the research such a fun part of the writing process. I wonder if there's any way you could locate someone with the same profession as your MC, whether in person on online. I love asking people about their work and find that most of them are more than happy to talk about their jobs. They can sometimes give me great ideas for my plot too. They know better than anyone the kinds of challenges they face and the types of things that can go wrong, which can be wonderful fuel for the imagination.

Wendy, I'm impressed that you made a book trailer. I have no idea how to do that. I'd love to see yours.

Anne, as a mother with children still at home, I have to ask. Is there such a thing as quiet? :)

Laura Marcella said...

This is so awesome, Keli! You're amazing. I put on music and collect images to set the scene, but I've never really used the "sensory stimuli." Such a great idea! Thanks for sharing!

Terri Tiffany said...

Wow! I've never done any of that before. I usually write contemporary in areas I know so I think about my own memories there and that's about it. I've been writing about a cottage by a lake nearby--maybe it's time to take a ride.

Sherrinda said...

Oh wow, Keli! Heating up the place to get into character!!! I would be so uncomfortable, I wouldn't be able to concentrate! lol (I hate to sweat!)

I like to listen to epic words to distract me. And I love to light candles. It's all about the ambiance for me!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Wow, Keli. What great ideas! I've never thought about doing something like that. Think I'll have to try something more visual and tactile!

Thanks for the suggestions!


Jessica Nelson said...

I did look at pics when one of my wips was set in a different state, but otherwise I like writing in the quiet and relying on my memory.
Great ideas here though! It's fascinating to read about others' writing process.

Lisa Jordan said...

I love listening to music while I write. It helps me to tune out the background noise so I can focus on the screen. Different scenes need different music. If I'm writing a heartbreak scene, I'll use sappy sad music. If I'm writing a romantic scene, I listen to love songs. The scene dictates the music.

Before I create my characters, I visualize them, and then try to find real life people who share the same looks. I keep their pictures in my notes so I can go back to them for reference.

I use visualization techniques to help me get inside my characters' heads to experience their senses when writing a scene. Sometimes it works well, and other times, I'm too distracted to focus correctly.

Great post, Keli!

Jill Kemerer said...

These are great ideas! I do not listen to music while I write, but sometimes a song will bring me to a story. I, too, like to have visual aids around me when I write.

Jody Hedlund said...

Keli! These are fabulous ideas! I hadn't thought of making myself hot to get a better grip on my character's overheated moment, but I'll have to remember that for the next time.

And I like the idea of going to an antique shop and buying pictures! I've been able to find some great ones in books and online, but nothing beats having them right there staring at you while you type!

Laura Frantz said...

Keli, You give such great tips! Love the sensory stuff - roses and heat and all the rest. I'm a big music fan and listen to classical pieces (or my son on the violin) and soundtracks like Master and Commander when I write, especially those romantic or climactic scenes. It really does help pull you into the story. But I know writers who prefer absolute silence. Fun to share here and peek into your office:)

Rosslyn Elliott said...

These are such cool writing aids! Thanks for the helpful ideas. I need to remember to use some of these sensory stimuli.

Catherine West said...

Keli, that is cool! Or warm. LOL. For me it depends on the book and what stage I am at with it. I tend not to use music most of the time. For my Vietnam book, there was a ton of research involved. By the time I finished, I was dreaming about jumping out of helicopters. I played a lot of music from that era as well - still do because I love it, but I really needed to feel like I was grounded in that time and place. I did. I'm just praying I wrote it well enough to make my readers feel the same way!

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I don't find pictures usually... but I write listening to soundtracks. :0)

Mariel said...

i love this...i just found your blog. i love your 'get into it' ideas. i write bible studies, not fiction, but i do get inspired from spending time at a park or near the sea...:)

Susan DiMickele said...

Great post -- I could use some inspiration tonight! At YOUR request, I posted a picture of me holding my first book. Tomorrow's the big day! Thanks for your support!

Nishant said...

now I will try some more tricks.
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