A Change in Setting

Last week I was in Philadelphia helping my daughter move. A few days before I got there I finished the first draft of my current WIP, and I was at loose ends—between projects and figuring out what I want to write next.
Of course there’s still plenty to do with revisions so I have some time to think about it. But my writing mind was restless and searching, and the change in setting gave me the feeling of a fresh start, with lots of new ideas to think about.

I live in a small town with quiet tree-lined streets. My usual view is out a window toward a bird feeder, and my daily companions are birds and squirrels and chipmunks. My seat at the dining room table (where I write) is on the first floor of our house so I look out at the same level as these furry and feathered creatures.

My furry feathered friends.
In Philadelphia, I was on the sixth floor looking out over a cityscape view. I had a great view of the changing skies, parking lots below, many varied buildings, people walking by—even a party gathered under a tent in one of the parking lots. In short my setting was completely different than the one I was used to.

Inside, too, my activities were very different. At home I write and then I take a break to exercise, eat lunch, then I write some more. I lead a very solitary and quiet daytime life (of course in the evenings, MEH—My Engineer Husband—is home). But in Philadelphia, as we packed and cleaned (okay, to be honest my daughter did most of the packing and cleaning and I helped out as requested) we watched the Olympics, we talked and laughed, we listened to music, we went out to eat, and we moved the car to keep from getting tickets (okay to be honest, I moved the car, AND I got a ticket. I swear I didn’t see the fire hydrant I partially blocked…sigh…).

It was a good time to have a change in my venue and activities, having just finished the first draft and all. Not only because it helped me clear my mind, think about something other than what I had just finisheda step away before starting to revise and edit, but also because I came away with a lot of new ideas. 

Things I never would have thought of in my own little world. Ideas from my observations out that sixth floor window. Ideas from all the people watching—lots and lots of people. Ideas from riding up and down in an elevator and sharing a larger space with others—instead of simply walking in a door and being home. Ideas from a change in setting.
Are you, like me, restless and at loose ends after you finish a draft? What do you do to inspire new ideas and to move on to revisions? How does a change in setting inspire your writing ideas?




I am so happy to have as guest blogger today my friend Erika Marks—whose debut novel, Little Gale Gumbo was released just a few days ago! I met Erika on Twitter, and we quickly discovered something big we have in common: the State of Maine. Although we’ve never met in person, we’ve traveled the same paths at different times, making for some interesting and fun Twitter discussions! 

Erika has generously offered to give one lucky commenter (to this blog post) a copy of her wonderful book, Little Gale Gumbo (I’ve already read it and can tell you that you won’t want to miss it!). Simply leave a comment before midnight Saturday, October 15, and you will be entered to win a copy of her book! Then on Sunday, October 16, I will announce the winner on that day’s blog post.

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Made in Maine: Little Gale Gumbo by Erika Marks
It has been such a joy getting to know Julia through Twitter. When we first met, I had no idea she was not only a fellow Mainer, but that she lives just down the road from where my parents live in Maine. (The tip-off was when she posted pictures of a very familiar dog park.) If you ever wonder why there are so many books set in Maine, look no further than Julia’s wonderful blog and her beautiful photos (and even videos!) of the Maine landscape for your answer. But it is Julia’s attention to the details of her home environment that make her posts such a unique experience for her readers and such rich tributes to Maine.

Photo courtesy of Erika Marks
When I chose to set my novel Little Gale Gumbo primarily in coastal Maine, I knew there would be an inherent challenge in writing a story with a popular setting. It is all too easy to assume readers have a built-in understanding of a place because it has appeared so frequently in books (not to mention movies and TV). But setting is as much a character in a novel as the people who populate it.

So how to make a familiar setting feel fresh?

Answer: make it yours.

In the case of my novel, I used pieces of my own experience growing up in Maine to set the stage, because for me as a reader—and a writer—it’s the details that make a setting authentic. Never think that just because a place is popular, it can’t be seen in a new light. The job of a writer is to bring a new vision, a new palette, to the familiar. To give it a twist, a spin. Don’t just smell the salt of the sea; thanks to the tides, the ocean’s aroma is constantly changing. High tide and low tide do notsmell the same. Show your reader those differences and you’ll keep their eyes from skimming over a description they may think they already know.

Most readers know what snow looks like—but what does it smell like?

Most readers have heard of Maine’s famous chocolate-cake-sandwich, the Whoopie Pie—but what about the equally well-loved, but not as well-known, Maine confection made from chocolate and potatoes, the Needham?

Most readers know about eating lobster—but what about eating steamers?

Instead of finding scallop shells on the beach, find razor clams. Instead of lobster dinners, have baked bean suppers.

In other words, don’t try to shape your setting to the one you think your reader already has in mind. Your reader wants you to set the scene for them.

I also had the benefit of having several of my characters get to know Maine for the first time. When Camille arrives with her daughters from New Orleans, it is a frigid November day and her youngest daughter Josie, toes and fingers numb with cold, is quite certain they have landed on the moon when their ferry glides up to the dock. When a character is a stranger in your book’s setting, that’s a perfect opportunity for you, the writer, to see freshness in the familiar. Much in the way when friends come to visit you in a new town and want the grand tour; let yourself be a tourist with your characters. Show them around. See the environment as they do, see the contrasts, learn what startles them, what makes them smile.

Maine is a remarkable and precious landscape—it is no wonder that its setting speaks to us as writers and readers. Even those of us who are sure we know it like the back of our hand. But thanks to the Bergeron women, I felt the damp chill of a misty Maine morning as if for the first time. I caught a whiff of warm blueberries ripening in the sun. I heard the crunch of snowmobile boots on a path of iced-over snow, and the faint crackling of sea foam as it clung to the beach, finally released from the surf.

These are the pieces of Maine that live in my heart.

I am proud, and grateful, to know they now live in the hearts of my characters, too.

How do you all “visit” a setting—familiar or not—when you’re writing? (And remember, leave a comment to be entered to win a copy of Erika’s book!)

Erika Marks lives in North Carolina with her family. Her debut novel, Little Gale Gumbo, is now out from NAL/Penguin. 

Find Erika on Twitter @erikamarksauthr, on Facebook, or on her website http://www.erikamarksauthr.com. To buy the book, go to Little Gale Gumbo on Amazon.com.

A Long Distance Relationship with Setting

North Miami - Sunset | 110522-5129-jikatu

Today I have the pleasure of introducing you to my guest Natalia Sylvester—I hope you’ll check out her blog (one of my favorites) here. Natalia and I met in March when we both blogged about cooking memories and writing. Since then we have often, quite by coincidence, written about similar subjects! But today, by design, I am very happy Natalia has written a guest post about the definition of home—a topic near and dear to both our hearts. Please welcome my wonderful guest Natalia…

I’ve never been much for the “write what you know” mantra, but I am a fan of its distant cousin: “write where you are.” Growing up, as my family moved from my birthplace of Lima, Peru, to Miami, Florida, to Central Florida and a couple more towns in between, I became fascinated with the definition of home.
As a child, I thought home meant staying in one place for longer than two years. I imagined that as an adult, I’d find a place and stay put.

Life doesn’t always work that way, and apparently, neither has my fiction. Looking through my previous stories and my current novel, I noticed a pattern: whenever I moved, my fiction moved with me. So imagine my concern when, three years and many drafts into my novel, my husband and I decided we’d be leaving Miami and moving to Austin, Texas.

I welcomed the change of setting in my life, but worried about what it’d mean for my fiction. My book is set in present-day and 1980s Miami. The cultural diversity, weather, and mood of a city that’s constantly in transition as people come and go, trying to create homes for themselves, is an important backdrop for the narrative.

Would writing about Miami from a distance dilute my ability to portray it?


I decided I didn’t want to find out. My move date became my deadline for the final draft of my book.

Every day, I’d wake up a few hours early and work on revisions and new scenes, then gather cardboard boxes and pack up our apartment. I told myself that before we left, I’d take pictures of the beaches, and the sunsets, and the buildings I passed on the way home every day. I’d go to city hall. I’d study old newspapers and pictures of the neighborhoods where my characters lived. I’d find out if their street had a traffic light or just a stop sign. I’d take note of the weather patterns from 1984-1989.


If you’ve ever moved out-of-state (and tried to hire movers only to realize you’d be better off packing and loading and driving the truck those 1,300 miles yourself) then you know I never got around to any of that. I arrived in Texas with a partially revised draft and a fear that memory alone wouldn’t be enough to help me finish it.

Several months and revisions later, I met my writers group—three women who had never been to Miami and called Texas home. I handed my draft to them for feedback and hoped that the details in my story would transport them further than the nearest gas station.


It did, but not for the reasons I was expecting.

They didn’t care what highway or exit my characters took to get from one house to another. They noticed the parrots that flew across a bridge at sunset, and the hot pink sky that I’d taken for granted. They imagined the air in the summertime, heavy and moist and foreboding, sticking to their skins. They paid attention to how the characters greeted one another—always with a kiss on the cheek—and said it helped them understand the city’s culture.

These things were so ingrained in my experience of Miami that I’d written them without realizing they were part of the setting. To me, they just were, in the way that home is a place that never leaves you.

When I look at it now, moving was a gift for my writing. This new life didn’t just give me time to complete my book, it gave me a chance to fall back in love with my hometown in a way I hope readers will.

Have you ever tried long-distance writing? What were the challenges or benefits?

Natalia Sylvester is a Peruvian-born Miamian now living in Austin. She studied creative writing and journalism at the University of Miami, then worked in magazines for a bit before deciding to freelance full-time. Her first novel, told partially from the point of view of a house that a woman inherits, was originally set in Orlando, Florida, before Natalia decided to bring it closer to home. Visit her writing blog at www.nataliasylvester.com(where she tries to make sense of this journey) or follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/NataliaSylv