Welcome To The Old Apartment: Creating Settings That Don’t Suck

This is the cafe. It's Jasper's Caffeine Dealers on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, Australia. That's Snowman at the table.

This is the cafe. It’s Jasper’s Caffeine Dealers on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, Australia. That’s Snowman at the table.

Your setting is more than just a geometric surface for the characters to stand on. And occasionally have sex on. Done right, a good setting can almost become a character in its own right. Look at Hogwarts. The worst part* of the seventh book for me is that Hogwarts isn’t much of a part of it. It’s like missing a great supporting character that you’ve grown to know over the years. Or how about Serenity from Firefly? It was a more than a mode of transportation/place for people to argue.

However, not every setting is a magical castle or a spaceship. And they don’t have to be in order to be awesome. 221B Baker Street; Gotham City; Castle Rock, Maine; Hardy’s Wessex County: all of these could–and in some instances, do–exist in our world. But they all have those little touches that made them more that just a stage on which the plot reveals itself.

A trick for making good settings? Frankenstein them together out of places in real life.

Whenever I go on vacation, I take pictures of interesting places. Most of them will sooner or later be reincarnated into a story. That coffee shop that had a back seating area between two buildings, a little alley barely three feet wide crammed with tables. The bar set up in an empty lot out of pallets, oil drums, and a shipping container. A friend’s strangely laid out apartment with the weird staircase to nowhere.

You don’t have to go on vacation, of course. Maybe your main character lives in a house with the same floorplan as your childhood home. Or they hang out at your favourite beach or restaurant. Or they go to your gym, with the grunting steroid-heads in the corner and the stack of strangely greasy magazines that you always regret touching. The trick is to find what is special about each of those places, and bring that to the fore.

Just like taking character traits from real people, you can take settings from real life locations. Change the name, change the details, but keep whatever drew you to the damn thing in the first place. The view. The proportions. The location. The barista who only speaks Esperanto.

Keep a list, somewhere. Document it with pictures if you can, or floorplans and sketches if you can’t.

And see what happens in those places.

*Fine. Second worst.

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Monday Challenge: Places and Faces

Can you feel the hate?

Today’s writing challenge is a shameless homage to one I did in a writing workshop a couple of years ago. This post captures the essence of it, but for the non-clickers, it was about writing places. New ways to look at settings. I learned a lot of stuff in that workshop that I still use. When it comes to writing techniques, I am like the little old lady with a pocket full of string: never throw anything away that might, eventually, turn out to be useful.

Usually, when I think of places having souls, I picture urban environments. Maybe it’s the concentration of people, or the very human marks we leave on the landscape, but I just find it easier to put a face to the place. To figure out who that neighbourhood is, not what. But I feel like stretching out today, so let’s look at non-human habitations. They don’t have to be rural or isolated, but the human presence shouldn’t factor in.

Monday Challenge: Take an inhuman landscape and tell me who they would be if they were a person. Discard human furnishings like buildings and roads and nuclear power plants; tell me about the land and the sky.

For example, if I was to look out my window, the backyard thus viewed would likely turn into an icy, cruel, androgynous figure with a smile like a razor blade and long, blackened nails tap-tapping on the glass. Come out, it says. You have to come out sometime.

Like fuck I do.

I showed you mine. Now show me yours.

Monday Challenge: Scorcher



Sacrifice to the burning god of summer. (Photo credit: Seguromy)

do not deal well with heat.

It’s true. For every degree it is above twenty Celcius, I lose about three IQ points. By the time it gets over thirty, I’m in trouble. If it gets to 35, I might as well be brain dead. In fact, I am brain dead. Ask me to do a puzzle and I’ll probably just eat it.

If anyone finds my brain wandering alone of the side of Highway 104, please bring it home to me. I miss it.

I’m not a summer person, as you can tell. All I want to do is find a place with air conditioning and camp out. Which explains why I’ve seen so many movies this month.* But, since I am no longer a student**, summers are no longer free time. There’s writing to do. There’s editing to get done. There’s submission letters and queries and proposals to wrangle into shape and ship off in the night, like packages of ebola.

And I’m not the only one. I note on my newsfeed and my other tendrils of information that there are others out there, slogging away in the heat. Doing Iron Writer challenges. Taking a notebook to the beach. Writing at two in the goddamned morning to avoid the discomfort of your fingers sticking to the keys in humid weather.***

To those people: you’re awesome.

So I’m here with a tall cold glass of inspiration for you on this sun-scorched day.**** The Monday Challenge: tell me how the heat feels. Go outside if you have to, or stay in the shade, but tell me about the sun sliding down the side of the house, the hot breeze coming off the ocean, the smell of the grass withering in the front year or of flowers bursting into bloom. I want to hear about grass fires and BBQs, drought and beaches, sunstroke and tanning.

Love it or hate it, we’ve got to deal with it for at least another little while. Might as well pin it down on the page where you can deal with it.

*By the way, Pacific Rim: you should see it. Unless you hate giant robots and awesomeness.
**Thank all the known and unknown gods. Because of my studies, I still occasionally wake up in the middle of the night, thinking I have an exam the next day.
***All right, this one might have been me. Because that feeling is fucking disgusting.
****Seriously, I’m not going outside unless I’m wearing SPF 1,000,000.

Monday Challenge: Open the Door


We’ve got a long way to go. (Photo credit: garryknight)

We are going on a trip.

Yes, I mean us. You and me. Bare Knuckle Writer and Bare Knuckle Reader. Do you mind if I call you Read? Really? Too bad, I’m doing it anyway.

No, you don’t need to pack. Not even a toothbrush. Where we’re going, you won’t need anything.* Just your eyes and maybe a few words. Because, when we get where we’re going, you’re going to need to tell me about it.

You see, there’s a door. It’s down below. It takes you…somewhere. That’s all the information I can give you. Just somewhere. Probably on this planet. But it might just be a copy that’s been placed somewhere else. A mirror universe, an alternate dimension. There might be another you here. There might be something worse.

That’s another thing: going through the door could be…weeeeeell, it might be a little dangerous. Just a little. Maybe two littles. But no more than that.

Well, unless you open the door onto something really fucked up. But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

What? No, of course everybody comes back. Like, ninety percent of the time. Well, ninety percent of ones I thought would make it back. So…maybe fifty percent total. And I’m pretty sure the ones who didn’t return were just, you know, busy or something. I don’t put any stock in the blood on the floor. That could have been from anything. It might not have even been blood. I certainly wasn’t going to walk through the door and find out.

This trip is the Monday Challenge, and here is your task, Read: Tell me where you are. I won’t be able to see it, not unless you show it to me. So use your words. What does it look like? What do you imagine it smells like? What sounds are there?

And why have you been sent here?

Ready? Time to open the door. And good luck out there.

You’re going to need it.

The Secret Door

The Secret Door is presented by Safestyle UK

*What? No, not because you’ll be dead. Fuck, what do you people think I am? You’ll be scarred for life at the worst.

My Brain Wears A Black Hat


And she that sat him’s name was Imagination. (Photo credit: Kevin Zollman)

My head is full of frontiers.

I put this down to the countless hours I spent watching science fiction and western movies with my dad back when I was a much smaller terror than I am now. All those towns with a single dusty street, all those galaxies beyond the edge of known space.* And all the characters that are made by those settings: the hard ones, the daring ones, the abject cowards and the morally questionable.**

This comes out in my writing, I think. Looking back at a lot of my stories, I notice a trend. The ones I love best tend to take place on borders of some kind. Occasionally they occur within the confines of a larger setting—a modern city, for example—but the main action always happens somewhere outside of the light, like the lawless confines of a hidden underground dog fighting ring. Places where normal morality has been suspended.

And now that I’ve recognized this, I’ve taken a fresh look at some of the stories I’ve been stuck on. You know the ones: they just didn’t work out and you’ve got no fucking clue why. They died of Story SIDS. But now I’m thinking that maybe a few tweaks of setting might breathe new and terrifying life into them.

I don’t think I’m the only one who has a place inside their head. All writers do. Maybe yours is an ancient city, steeped in history and corruption, layered in beauty and horror and fabulous inventions and terrible crimes. Maybe it’s the cozy confines of a small town, its casual simplicity overlaid with a Byzantine tracery of friends and neighbours and obligations and old secrets. Maybe it’s the clinical sterility of a spaceship or a lab or an institution. Or the broken post-apocalyptic landscape. Somewhere, there’s a place where your imagination feels at home.

So, what would we see if we cracked open your mind? Where does your imagination put its clawed feet up and relax?

Mine’s riding into some wild dead-end town right now, magic and horror following behind.

*Not hard to see why I love Firefly, is it?
**I’m aware that variants of these appear in almost all settings, but in the frontier, there’s much less accountability. There might be a token of the law, sometimes embodied by the character themselves, but ultimately they have to make choices based on what they can live with at the end of the day. It makes for strong protagonists, if often damaged ones.

Monday Challenge: Nothing But The Rain

Rain, Rainy weather

Grab your gun and bring in the cat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the rain. The sound of it falling on the roof of my sun room*, the smell, being out in it…there’s something clean about it. I turn off my music on mornings like this one and just listen to it falling, dripping off the edge of the roof, splashing on the deck. It’s as close to being zen as I can get.

Weather is an important part of story telling. Not the most important, maybe, but the right weather creates an atmosphere that can’t be missed. And I’m not talking about the stereotypical ‘rain when it’s sad, sunny when it’s happy’ shit. That’s lazy. I mean the soft fall of snow piling up outside during a funeral, making the hush of the service spread out into the world. The pitiless revealing glare of the sun to someone who has secrets. The never-ending overcast sky of a planet shielded from attack from orbit. The cold breeze against the your skin at the edge of the world.

Today’s Monday Challenge is to write your weather. Go outside if you have to, taste it in the air. Hear the way it changes the street, smell the rain or the dust on the breeze. Feel it on your skin.

Then come back inside and write about it. Tell me what it is, either on your own or through a character.

What do you hear?

Nothing but the rain.

*Yes, ironically named, I know.

Monday Challenge: Player of Games

Trivial Pursuits

After this, we play Battlegammon. (Photo credit: Alice Bartlett)

Everyone enjoy their weekend? Mine was nice. Lots of games, board and otherwise. I played the British Xbox version of Trivial Pursuit and tried to guess who all those ‘football’ players were. Very confusing, and not at all helped by the ever-so-slightly condescending voice of the announcer. And, with a bribe of pie, we learned to play our friend’s Battlestar Galactica board game. I also discovered that I am a Cylon, and, with my fellow Cylon, succeeded in destroying humanity. Oh, and there was some Firefly in there, too. Good weekend.

Leisure time defines who we are. You look at the way someone spends their free time, and you think you know something about them. Based on my weekend (games of all varieties, sketches of tabletop RPG characters, victory brunch after destroying humanity as a frakking toaster), an observant person would correctly assume that I am kind of a nerd, but a social one. They might also notice that I have a penchant for playing the bad guy, but nothing can be drawn from this. Pure coincidence.


The Monday Challenge for this week should really be the Sunday Challenge, because it concerns leisure time, but the Posting Schedule is all-powerful and cannot be denied. Invent a pass-time for your characters. Anyone who watched Battlestar Galactica remembers Pyramid and Triad, the games that survived the apocalypse. Harry Potter fans all know Quidditch, of course. And let’s not forget Tri-Dimensional Chess, first created in Star Trek and later developed into a real game.* Blernsball, Tall Card, Electro-Magnetic Golf, Jiggly Ball, Pod Racing, Double Cranko, Calvin Ball, Sabacc…there are a lot of these. And with reason. People can’t just sit around and advance the plot all the time. They get bored and they need something stupid to do, usually while drinking. Hence the games.

So, what are these characters doing when they’re gathering in the break room? This is not just for writers of alt-world fiction—feel free to make up the rules to Inter-Office Hockey Joust. Or Rebound. Or Guerrilla Catan. And then write a scene in which someone plays it, and then loses horribly.

But remember: choose your stakes carefully.

*A fucking hard real game.