Ripped From the Headlines!

The question this week for our WinR’s and readers is: How much do real world events–from natural disasters to political fiascos–impact your writing?

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Jackie Houchin

The “real world” has a lot to do with the kind of writing I do, in fact my web site is titled “News & Reviews.” But I tend to go for the softer sort of news, i.e. art gallery openings, classic car shows, author panels at our local library, and interviews with interesting business and career people.

Yep, you got it! I’m a chicken. The two or three investigative stories I’ve written – while providing good “press” – resulted in some nasty backlash for me and even a few threats. Yikes!

I did learn two things however. Confirm EVERY detail you get from your sources no matter how reliable they are, and be sure to cover BOTH sides of the issue thoroughly. Then take your punches like a … woman. (Oh, and be sure your editor doesn’t add his two – unconfirmed – cents to your article!!)

Politics? I avoid discussing them like the plague. Of course when controversial issues appear in the books or plays I review, I address them, but it’s in the context of the story presented. My personal convictions do occasionally leak through, however.

I write more about human-instigated disasters than those presented by nature (God). I interviewed an elderly shop keeper once who had been robbed and beaten by a gang of punk kids for the few bucks in the till. Terrified by the incident, he decided to close the small neighborhood market. You see, he knew the boys; had watched them grow up.

I also chronicled the burglary of a local Catholic Church, where the thieves walked off with the entire safe. The Priest’s pleas that the safe or at least the communion instruments inside it be returned went unheeded even though he promised “no questions asked.”

Another story was about a woman who was injured by an inattentive mechanic while having her car repaired. The owners and employees conspired to make her look the fool. Thank God for a part-time worker in a neighboring business who was willing to come forward.

These are the things that “get my dander up.” But I just report on them. If ever I were to write fiction, the sense of injustice I feel when interviewing these victims would assure a very nasty “reward” for my antagonist. Take that, you scumbag

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Bonnie Schroeder

The biggest effect real world events have on my writing is as a sometimes unwelcome distraction. Bad news scares away my muse, so I try not to read the paper or turn on the radio until I’ve done my morning’s writing (easier said than done). It’s hard to write if you’re worried about some unfriendly country launching a nuclear warhead at us. And politics is endlessly fascinating but more of a time-waster than a useful tool for the type of fiction I write.

I have used an occasional local story in my fiction. Key scenes in my recent novel take place during one of Southern California’s notorious October wildfires, the Santa Anas roaring in the background. And I keep a clip file of events that might sometime pop up in a story – a murder or a particularly flagrant white collar criminal, usually. I keep trying to find an irresistible heart-warmer to use, but so far that hasn’t happened.

Since I also publish an online newsletter for the local Red Cross, disasters do have a direct and immediate impact on that side of my writing. Our chapter deploys volunteers to national events like last year’s Gulf Coast hurricanes, and they also come out for local disasters like brush fires or even single-residence fires, to support the victims and the responders. I’m always attuned to news reports because if our chapter volunteers are deployed, I need to know and to report it to our readers.

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Jacqueline Vick

As far as story line, real world events don’t really impact my mysteries or children’s books. However, I can’t resist some commentary.

I wrote “Logical Larry” (an early-middle reader) out of disgust for the way children are targeted, whether it’s by commercials luring them with “must have” toys or a rogue teacher forcing young elementary students to wear pink shirts to support the union’s opposition to pink slips, threatening them with “NO PLAYTIME”. Larry attempts to teach children to think for themselves. They need to learn to question things at an early age.

In my mysteries, characters may make comments that address issues rather than actual events, such as when Deanna Wilder, feeling left out, considers calling herself a Euro-American.

Events tend to come out more in my blog, God’s Teeth. This is where I raise issues that drive me nuts and find a way to make them a useful writing exercise. The difficulty is how to make the point without being flat-out mean.

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GB Pool

Real life incidents are a great jumping off point for many of my stories. My first novel, Media Justice, was a conglomeration of all the wall-to-wall news accounts of every “trial of the century” last century. It was that super saturation of media frenzy and instant experts that seemed to come out of the woodwork that made for a compelling story.

But I prefer to pick my own villain rather than use the one in those headlines. It makes it far more interesting to develop the character when I can create their personalities. It is the essence I am looking for, not the facts from any particular case.

And what is even more fun is to take a well-worn news story, one of those that the media beats to death, and rework it so the bad guy ends up the victim and the original victim turns out to be the villain. It makes the story fresh and it keeps the reader guessing. Fact is great, but fiction is better. (Sometimes.)

I do have a spy trilogy, as yet unpublished, that follows my father’s military career and actual historical events. Most of the events I depict, at least from my father’s POV, are fictional, but there are many things I don’t know about his career. He was cleared to Top Secret, was a command pilot in the Air Force, and he didn’t talk much about his exploits. He did read the first draft of the first book. He sent me a letter and mentioned a few things that I got wrong. And here I thought I just had a great imagination.

But history and the headlines are a great source of ideas for any writer. I just prefer to rewrite aspects of it for a story. I don’t want to misrepresent history. That happens enough without my help. But I do like to flavor stories with real things so the reader doesn’t know where the facts end and the fiction begins.

Writing: A Solitary Profession?

Writing is generally a solitary act. But does it need to be? What do you think about writing groups? Are they beneficial or a waste of valuable time?

After you read the responses from the WinRs, let us know what you think!
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GB Pool

The Loneliest Profession

Writing is basically a one-man operation, unless you write for television or the movies, where a committee does it. But the traditional author sits in front of a computer, typewriter, or a piece of paper and writes all by himself.

Belonging to a writers’ group, above and beyond the constructive criticism and brainstorming sessions, gives you people to talk to about your work, this precious commodity that you have created, nurtured, and hopefully someday will send off into the world to entertain and enlighten other people.

Having “a second pair of eyes” is a perfect way to see things that you missed, hear things that you didn’t know were there, and point out things that aren’t working. And if you are in the right group, they will see the good things in your “baby” as well.

I originally belonged to a larger group of writers. Their styles ranged from Science Fiction to experimental to Women’s Fiction to Mystery. Good writing is good writing. I can read anything and enjoy it if most of the basic rules of English Grammar (and Common Sense) are adhered to.

There in lies the rub. When a portion of the group doesn’t recognize the basic Parts of Speech, proper syntax, and know how to use Spell Check or even a dictionary…Houston, we have a problem.

A few of us broke away from the herd and started our own group. Two more writers joined us and we have the group we have today. We have watched each other grow, improve, learn, and it has made us all better writers. We learn from our own and each other’s mistakes and achievements.

But of all the things a group, any group – sewing circles, car clubs, collectors’ groups – brings to their members, the best thing is it gives you a place where people who are doing the same thing you are doing can come and talk about their dreams, their learning experiences, their frustrations, and their successes. It lets you know you aren’t really alone in this wonderful world of writing.

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Bonnie Schroeder

I belong to the Alameda Writers Group (AWG), Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC) and the awesome WWW — which I think stands for Wednesday Women Writers, even though we sometimes meet on Thursdays.

Have I found these groups helpful? A big fat YES!! I have gotten honest, kind and insightful feedback that has (I hope) improved on my fiction immeasurably. Equally important, I’ve received encouragement and the immense comfort of knowing others share my Terror of the Blank Page.

From a craft standpoint, I believe it’s essential to have other writers read your work and give notes, and the people in my critique groups are serious readers as well as wonderful writers. They know what makes a piece work, and what brings it down, and when I’m too close to my work to see the most glaring errors, my fellow writers gently but honestly let me know where I went wrong. One of our wise members has remarked that she learns as much by reading others’ work as she does by getting feedback on her own, and that is so true.

When I see another writer struggling with an issue of plot, character development, or just trying to get those words in the most effective order, it teaches me something about my own process. My writing groups have supported and inspired me, and I can’t imagine life without them. Heck, I’d hang out with them even if I didn’t write.

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Jacqueline Vick

One of the best moves I ever made as a writer was when I accepted the invitation to join the WWW writing critique group.

The only writing feedback I had received prior was either paid for (I highly recommend Pilar Alessandra of On the Page for screenwriting) or anonymously delivered through contests, and sometimes the latter feedback was either vague or snarky.

I can’t stress how much my writing has improved from the perceptive comments of my group, all delivered in a caring way. If someone were to tell me that I was indulging myself in a certain passage, I could be confident that it was a valuable bit of information, not a personal criticism. And a writer needs people who will tell her when she’s amusing herself and not her audience!

On a broader scale, I belong to Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. The speakers made available by both SinC and MWA provide great insights and tips. All three have Yahoo lists that offer discussions on almost any topic, and you can ask others to share their experiences, which is priceless. Add to that newsletters chock full of information–writing tips, research advice, market guidelines–and the price of admission is well worth it.

As with anything, the more involved you get, the more you get out of it. I’m the type that has to force myself to attend meetings, but when I do, I’m always glad I did. I talk to other writers about what they are up to, find out the latest happenings in the publishing arena, and just enjoy my fellow scribes.

Writers have to fight the urge to remain isolated, and a writing group can put you in touch with others who share your passion.

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A Report Back on the CCWC

Late June, writers from all over the country met in Pasadena, CA, for the California Crime Writers Conference–a joint effort between the Southern California chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. Dozens of panels to choose from, high-quality speakers, and the comradere of fellow writers made the weekend worth every penny.

Though it’s difficult to sum up such an eventful conference, here are some highlights from the Writers in Residence who attended. We asked them to consider the following questions:

What was the best/most important thing you learned at the conference?

Which speaker (keynote or session) did you find most inspiring/helpful, and why?

In which way has the conference helped you the most – tangibly (facts, techniques, contacts) or intangibly (inspiration, support)?

Did you attend this conference? Let us know what you thought!

Pictures: MK Johnston and Rosemary Lord soak up information at a panel. GB Pool works the Forensic Track. Jacqueline Vick works the raffle table with Sue Stimpson

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MK Johnston

A good conference benefits the writer in many ways. You learn, you relearn, you’re invigorated, you’re humbled. You reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. That’s all part of the appeal, whether you’ve just decided to begin writing, you’re shopping your latest novel or any point in between. And, as has often happened to me, I found some of the most helpful information came from the least likely source.

Generally, I had no trouble picking which session I wanted to attend, but one session had nothing that interested me. At the last moment I chose Christopher Rice’s “Become your editor’s favorite author”. His message was simple – Know what your central premise (theme) is, and create very detailed character biographies. In other words, know precisely what and who you’re writing about. He also stressed the importance of creating an editorial staff to include your biggest fan (for pure support), target audience member, tough critic (knowledgeable in your genre), and proof reader. Rice also discussed the rewrite process, not just technically, but emotionally. His advice – never rewrite your book for someone who rejected it.

One concept that kept coming up was whether or not to prepare a story outline. I didn’t use one when writing my first novel. Although it allowed me the freedom to explore different paths with the story line, it also took many years to complete, a luxury I won’t have with the sequel. Several speakers gave great advice on how to get the advantages of an outline without outlining. Two good suggestions: write key scenes on index cards and add up or down arrows to note whether that scene is more or less active (to help with pacing), or rely on very detailed character bios to guide the story.

I came away from the conference with my creative juices flowing and the resolve to finish my rewrite. Can any writer ask for more?

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GB Pool

Since I had the opportunity to work on the conference from its inception, I got to see how much goes into putting on an event like the California Crime Writers Conference. But I think getting to interact with other committee members, attendees, and the speakers was priceless. I have met so many absolutely marvelous people and I realize how important networking is to anyone who wants to not only be a writer, but be a successful one.

I ran the Forensics Track at the conference and spent the entire time with that group. I got to pick who spoke and work with them and introduce them. That was a sheer joy. As for my favorite speaker, I thought private detective J. Corey Friedman was spectacular. He could literally get your mother’s underwear size by running a “legitimate scam” on her. And he showed us how to get information on nearly anybody via the Internet. One man gave him only his name and Corey found his wife’s Social Security number on-line.

Working on the conference showed how well organizations can do things if each person gets their assignments and does them. Nobody bothered me and I did my own thing. It worked for me. And then to see how happy people were who came to the conference made all the work worth while. Bernadine De Paolis said, “I pissed on the ceiling.” She explained that in her family that means I did the impossible. I don’t know about that, but I sure was glad there were so many happy faces. That’s what I wanted.

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Note: The elusive Jackie Houchin takes many of the pictures for our blog. We will capture her on camera…eventually.

Jackie Houchin

Writing (and Reviewing) Crime

Along with everyone that attended the California Crime Writing Conference, I was impressed by the four “tracks” of workshops available.

I chose the “Learning the Craft” track because it fit what I am interested in. No, I haven’t written any crime fiction since the junior detective series I wrote for my grandchildren ten years ago. But I do review mystery and thriller books, so I wanted to learn from the professionals what makes a terrific best-seller.

Jerrilyn Farmer used her book, “Perfect Sax” to illustrate how to plot a mystery. She kept us spellbound for an hour as she reviewed her reasons for choosing for the victim, the method of murder, a variety of suspects, false leads and red herrings, and then showed us how to add twists and surprises to keep the cleverest of readers guessing till the end. “But remember,” she cautioned us, “all your characters’ actions and reactions must be logical and believable.”

In her workshop on how to plot a thriller, Gayle Lynds explained the difference between a mystery and a thriller. Mysteries begin with a terrible crime, then go on to discover who did it and why. Thrillers begin with the knowledge that something dreadful is about to happen, then race to try to stop it. She also drilled us on the importance of the villain in a thriller. “Your antagonist is critical, he drives the plot. He must be a worthy opponent for your hero, a clash of titans. If you get stuck in your story, ask yourself what the villain is doing.”

The tips I learned in these two sessions will help me better understand and review the next crime or suspense novel I read…if I can just remember to apply them.

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Jacqueline Vick

For attendees of the recent California Crime Writers Conference, the most difficult task was to choose which panels to attend.

In the Writing Business Track, Carolyn Howard Johnson began the day sharing cool tips on how to market your book without spending a lot of money. With so many online options available, this isn’t as difficult as it seems. Carol explained how to efficiently produce both a blog and a newsletter by sharing information between the two. Many blogs allow users to schedule a future posting date so that the newsletter content doesn’t duplicate what’s online. She also mentioned the immediate feedback she’s received from Tweets—postings on Twitter.

I have to say that the information she gave on marketing was the most valuable concrete information I received at the conference because she was talking about steps I can take today to get my “brand” out to people so they will be interested by the time my book comes out.

Annette Rogers of Poisoned Pen Press reminded us that we writers are storytellers. She read examples of great opening paragraphs to demonstrate how to catch the editor’s attention. Editors look for stories that can compete against all media, including television, movies and radio. And we can’t sell something that isn’t out there. If a dreaded rejection shows up in the mail, tweak a few words and send the manuscript out again the next day.

Annette inspired me because writers sometimes see editors as a scary, separate piece of the publishing puzzle, and her personable approach and sense of humor reminded me that editors are simply people who would love to see good writing on their desk.

The E-Publishing Panel included Annette Rogers, Marilyn Meredith, and E-Publisher Marci Baun. While traditional publishing can take two years from acceptance to print, E-Publishers can do it in as little as four months. The standards are the same, and guidelines are still important.

This panel inspired me to think outside of the box. The opportunities to publish are out there, even though it seems that the business is contracting.

Everyone inspired me in one way or another–the speakers with useful information, the other attendees with their stories and eternal optimism. I learned long ago that mystery writers are a close community, always willing to encourage and share tips. I highly recommend that writers get out of their cloistered writing rooms and step into this conference in two years when it is offered again.

Finding Time to Write

Some writer’s snatch a few moments of time wherever they find it. Other’s adhere to strict schedules. Walter Mosley tells us to write every day. Peter Brett wrote his first novel on his smartphone during his daily travels on the F train. Do you follow a set writing schedule? Write every day? Have a favorite writing spot? Do you put butt to chair until you’ve finished a specific word count? Tell us about your writing schedule.

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Writers Write by Bonnie Schroeder

I try (emphasis on “try”) to write every day, first thing in the morning — okay, I feed the dogs and make coffee first and then retreat to my desk with one dog underfoot and one cat in my lap. On my desk, I have a kitchen timer that I set for one hour. Some days I actually write for the full hour before the phone rings or the other cat barfs or my stomach starts growling. Some days I have to stop the timer until the aforementioned distractions are dealt with; then I try to finish the hour later on. I don’t always make my goal, but occasionally I actually exceed it.

For me the important thing is to try for it, every day — weekends included. It keeps the circuits open and the muse engaged. When I worked at a job 50 miles away with a two-plus hour daily commute, there were times when I could only manage 15 minutes a day, so an hour is a huge luxury for me now. But even with those quarter-hour writing sessions, I finished the draft of a novel. It took a few years, but that daily contact with the pages kept them in my mind, kept me plugged into the current. And that, to me, is the secret: write something every day, even if it’s just a paragraph, or even a sentence. Then I can legitimately say, “I’m a writer.”

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Lucky by Jacqueline Vick

I’m extremely lucky. I was able to quit my day job to pursue writing full time. (Well, writing AND homemaking full time). That means that every morining when I rise, my day is my own and my schedule is whatever I want. Sounds great, doesn’t it? There are a few downsides.

When I’m working on a novel manuscript, there is no boss handing me deadlines. There is no client with a specific need to fill. I have to set all of those goals myself…and keep them. Repercussions can be a wonderful motivator; without them, it’s more difficult to stay on course.

My deadlines consist of “finish the first draft by May 1st”. I’m always happy to find a short story contest, because that gives me a specific deadline and specific criteria to meet.

Yesterday, I was talking to my brother who is a personal coach, and he said that the difficulty most people run into is keeping promises to themselves. They don’t value their own time and their own goals as much as they value other people’s time and goals. I’m starting to get around this by making more specific goals and deadlines, and then pretending that I work for a fabulous author named Jacqueline Vick. She has high expectations and I don’t want to disappoint her. I imagine her asking me to have the rewrites on chapter one on her desk by Friday. It’s a bit kooky, but it works.

I write every day including weekends. My butt is in the chair for about 8 hours on weekdays, a few hours here and there on Saturday and Sunday. I write in the only place available to me–the dining room table. It’s a pain to keep cleaning off the table each night, but the thought of my husband reaching around a stack of papers for the pepper mill helps keep me organized.

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Writing Away by Jackie Houchin

For an organized, everything-in-its-place, kind of person, my writing schedule is very haphazard and irregular. I mostly write when a deadline looms, so I’m thankful I have those. I write reviews for magazines and articles for a newspaper and newsletters. If I don’t get my copy in, it doesn’t get printed. Simple as that, and no amount of boo-hoo’ing will fix it. The next issue already looms on the horizon.

If I were to write a book, I fear I would find myself writing franticly for 23-hours every day during the last weeks before the agent/editor/publisher’s scheduled deadline. I admire my fellow Wonder Women who persistently, faithfully write for months and even years to bring their creations into the world. Their ultimate satisfaction will far outshine my instant bursts of pride.

So which style is best? “Whatever works for you.” Yeah, you’ve heard that before, but it’s true. Whether it’s dedicating specific minutes, hours, and days to craft a novel, or franticly writing and rewriting and “ripping the paper out of a typewriter” before rushing it to an editor…it doesn’t matter. If our words, opinions, ideas, and stories are read (sooner or later), well, that’s what counts.

That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it. Now, let’s see… when’s my next deadline?

PS: Where do I write? Either at my dinosaur desktop PC in my office until the “backside” can’t stand sitting any more, or more recently, standing at the breakfast bar in the corner of my kitchen with a 6-foot cat tree behind me (usually occupied by three cats lounging and looking over my shoulder, and trying to foil my thought processes with their diabolical purring and mind games) while I pound away on my laptop.

Location, Location, Location!

During an interview, P.D. James made reference to Agatha Christie’s sparse location information, saying that it made her books accessible to many readers because they could imagine the story unfolding in their own hometown. There are other authors who write pages of description, down to the size, shape, and number of balustrades on the neighbor’s house.

What role do you think location plays in a novel? How much effort do you think should go into the research of the book’s setting, and how much of that research should make it into the book?

A Response
by MK Johnston

Location is the universe in which your characters live and your plot can progress. It’s critical to have a vivid setting, but research adds another vital dimension. Mark Twain, in describing the difference between fiction and non-fiction, is alleged to have said, “Fiction must be absolutely believable.” Research should bring a level of believability to a novel, since false or inaccurate details will destroy a reader’s interest. It becomes a question of balance; too little information will strand the reader and too much can distract from the story. As a general rule, the more unique the location – historical, foreign, exotic, or alternate universe – the more description is needed to make it real. But research should enrich not only the setting, but the characters and the plot.

How much description is needed to create a believable novel? As a reader, I like having a partnership with the writer. When I write, I prefer to render a sketch and leave some details to the reader’s imagination. However, I recognize that some prefer an oil painting, with everything fleshed out, and there are situations when more description is needed. Sometimes the protagonist will dictate how much is necessary; the setting or action will at other times.

In aiming for reality, the key is to avoid using your research in an obvious or intrusive way. No one enjoys reading a textbook. The effort should be translucent, used to create touchstones, not speed bumps. If I can construct a sense of place that grounds the reader in the world I’ve created, and allows the characters to live out their lives on the page, then I’m satisfied.

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I Second That
by Jacqueline Vick

Miriam is exactly right. It depends on the book. When I read an Elizabeth Peters, the rich details about Egypt transport me not only to that land, but to the late 1800’s (for the start of the series). However, if a contemporary cozy included that much detail, I think the longer passages would bring the reading to a screeching halt.

I think the danger that I and other writer’s face is “keeping too much in our heads”. I’ll read a passage and “see” the room where the action takes place, but I have to make sure it’s actually on the page so that the reader can share that image with me. That’s why it’s great to have a critique group. Other writers will tell you if the image is clear.

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Location, Location, Location
by GB Pool

In many novels and even short stories, location acts almost like a character. A great setting sets the stage for greater challenges whether it be physical places (Mt. Rushmore/North by Northwest), climatic as in climate (hurricanes/Key Largo or Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival), or the local natives (from Tarzan’s Africa to people on Hollywood Blvd).

For a short story, pick an easily understood setting because it needs less description; a dilapidate factory vs. a factory that makes those tiny tweezers that fit into a pocket sized manicure set, etc., etc., etc. If you get too technical, you will lose your audience and use up your word limit.

Get most of your facts right about places you only visit on the Internet; some readers are finicky about accurate descriptions of locales; if in doubt, fictionalize your locale. All the research you do will change your perception of that area even though you won’t use every bit of information that you discover. But your understanding of a region will color the entire story whether it is the incessant rain, blistering heat or rugged rocks.

Setting denotes the background of character living there. A person living in a penthouse has a different outlook on life than does a guy living in a garage apartment. A person from one economic background will view the same background through their own eyes. Where one person sees an efficient, profitable corporation, another will see it as a greedy, industrial monolith.

Description of settings can educate the reader, but don’t go too non-fiction. Some settings act as a general background. A short description such as: the local pub, conjures up a picture in the reader’s mind so you don’t have to go into elaborate explanation. Some word pictures set the era and mood like the longer descriptions used by Anne Perry in her description of Queen Victoria’s England. The type of book and the mood you want to achieve should dictate the length of your descriptions.

Too much description of a locale can stop the action. Remember, you’re not writing a travel guide. Setting also tells us how much time has passed (After two days a thick layer of dust covered every surface.)

If your story gets bogged down with too much description and it starts sounding like that travel log, describe those locations through dialogue. It will set the scene and add information from a particular character’s POV, so you not only see the surroundings, but you know how that character feels about it. Different characters can view settings differently depending on his or her personal perspective. (A woman in love can smell the flowers in the park, while her friend who just lost her job can see the wad of gum on the sidewalk.)

Use descriptions (sight, sound, smell) of locations to evoke an emotion, reaction, or establish mood. (A scummy swimming pool tells the reader the motel is seedy.) Setting can also take reader into another world (Tony Hillerman’s Indian reservation, Dick Francis’s racetrack.)

Remember “Chekov’s Gun” story. Don’t put something in a scene if it’s not going to be used. “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Letter from Anton Chekov 1889. This tactic was used constantly in Murder, She Wrote. The camera always zoomed in on the “clue” about eight minutes into the show. During the last seven minutes Jessica Fletcher would recall that “clue” and solve the case. But you always knew that clue would make a reappearance before the final credits rolled.