Thursday, April 14, 2011

Location, Location, Location

I totally blew it on my first book.

Everybody from my critique group thought I should give my story a specific location.  That without a "where," it kind of flopped around and was harder to hook into.
from chokola at Flickr

I thought that it was better to keep the location vague, so that it could be Anytown, USA.  I didn't put my characters up against a blank screen, but I avoided anything that would have let the reader pinpoint a location.

And so, though my agent diligently circulated it... publishers passed.  Since that time, I've read many books, both where the location is clearly defined, and where it's not, and... I've come to see that "they" were all right.  (Again!)

I, the reader, want to know where the action takes place. I, the reader (or in the case of a movie, the watcher,) want to see the tall buildings and know I'm in Chicago.
Chicago's Bean, photo by author

I want to smell the salt tang of the sea, feel the sand between my toes, and watch the sun set
over the Pacific from the romantic beaches along the California coast.

Moonstone Beach, Cambria, photo by author

I want to hear the church bells ringing in Santa Barbara.  (If perhaps not this loudly.)

If it's somewhere I've been before, I want enough detail that I feel that warm rush of, "Hey, I've been there!" If it's somewhere I haven't been, I want to visit and experience it through my characters' eyes, ears and senses.  Are they in New Hampshire in the fall?  New York during the winter holidays?  New Orleans during Mardi Gras - or right after Katrina? Or somewhere that is a big holiday town, right after all the tourists have left?

Even if the characters absolutely hate where they live and can't wait to blow town, I want to be where they are, and know why they want to leave.

Drilling Location Down

Besides the "big" location, we need to pay attention to the details and choreography of the small locations - the rooms, parks, cars, etc.  Think movies and interior shots.  A friend wrote a brilliant chapter to her novel that I read recently.  In the beginning, the characters have to climb across a huge bed that almost fills a small room, to reach items on the other side.  Then the bad guys break in and there's a big sword fight, and it seems that big bed isn't there anymore.  They're not bumping into it, or stumbling over the bedclothes, it's... disappeared.  Magic!

If necessary, get some graph paper and map out where the doors, windows, and furniture are. Make sure the  characters have space to move around the way we say they are moving, jumping, dancing, tripping.

Make sure you choreograph your characters.  If he's a pro basketball player and she's ballerina-sized, trying to kiss him, I want to see some props in place: stairs, a big box, a horse's mounting block.
Mounting blocks available via JSW Horses in the UK

One friend wrote an entertaining scene where the bad guy grabbed the terrified heroine, with one arm tightly around her waist, his other hand over her mouth, and holding a knife to her throat with his other hand.

Who wouldn't be terrified, being menaced by a three-armed man?

Not that I haven't made mistakes just as silly.

What location mistakes have you made?
Have you every done a bad job choreographing the actions 
of your characters within a room or "set"?

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