Tag Archives: Craft of Writing

NaNoWriMo – Day 9: Setting the Scene

The setting has always been an integral part of my books, and over the years many reviewers have remarked upon the descriptions of the setting in my novels. When my debut novel The Lily Brand came out in 2005, Robyn Roberts from Once Upon a Romance remarked:

Ms. Schwab gave such detailed descriptions of the estates, gardens and people that I felt as if I knew them myself.

And when Castle of the Wolf was published in 2007, Sandra Marlow from the Historical Romance Club wrote in her review that

Ms. Schwab’s writing has a flow that pulls you into her stories so subtly that you forget you’re just reading a book instead of actually interacting with her characters. I finally have visited the Black Forest of Germany.

Truly, there is no greater compliment for a writer than “I was right there with the characters.” (Well, “I stayed up all night to read this book” isn’t too bad either! *g*) I’ve always had this particular knack for descriptions – indeed, even when everything else about my writing was pretty much crap, I could pull of descriptions of the setting.

But how do you do it without overwhelming your reader with pages after pages of endless descriptions?

I tend to think of describing the setting as layering the scene, and I was reminded of this when I was working on one particular scene of my NaNoWriMo project this week. So I thought I’d share my process with you. Here’s what I started out with. This is the beginning of the scene that introduces the hero:

Alex entered the City through Temple Bar and was immediately enveloped by the hustle and bustle of Fleet Street.

Well… Nice, but a bit bland, isn’t it? It doesn’t evoke any specific images, instead what you get is a rather blurred view of a busy street. However, for historical fiction, I think it’s very important to take your reader into the scene and let him catch glimpses of that faraway, long-ago world your characters inhabit. So, let’s add a few things, shall we?

I like working with visual cues – that makes it easier for me to get a feeling for the setting and to describe things – so I started by doing a Google search for images of nineteenth-century street life. I also searched for period maps.

Depending on your setting, you can really find the most amazing things online, ranging from drawings, cartoons, and photographs of street scenes to beautifully detailed maps and descriptions in old magazines. Now that we’ve collected all this info, let’s work on our sentence and let’s start with Temple Bar (the online search yielded that it once separated the Strand from Fleet Street and was used in the olden days to display the heads of executed traitors):

Alex entered the City through Temple Bar, which had once been crowned by the heads of executed traitors. The only sightless heads staring down from it now where the two Charleses on their pedestals high up above the bustling street. Arrogantly, their stony eyes watched watched the efforts of carts, carriages, and pedestrians to press through the gates.

Much better, isn’t it? Now you get a glimpse of that construction the hero is passing through, and you also have this nice contrast between the immobile statues of Temple Bar and the movements in the street. Fleet Street was one of the main thoroughfares through the City of London, and as such it was prone to traffic jams. In one of Gustave Doré’s illustrations of London in the 1870s, you can see Ludgate Hill and rather horrid press of traffic:

In the middle of the foreground you can just about make out a horse-drawn omnibus, with passengers sitting on the roof, while in the background at the right a flock of sheep blocks the street.

A flock of sheep??? Now wouldn’t this be something! (If you’ve read any of my novels, you know that I’m often attracted to the weird and slightly ludicrous…. *g*) So, let’s give our readers some glimpses of what the “hustle and bustle” in the sentence from which we started out, actually refers to. And let’s add some noise to involve more senses:

A bleating flock of sheep blocked the path of an omnibus, and the driver swore a blue streak, waving his fist at the woolly [hooligans]. Passengers were hanging out of the windows, complaining about the delay, while behind the bus along line of carriages had become stuck. A hearse, going in the opposite direction to the Strand, tried to pass by and nearly ran down a boardman, sandwiched between advertisements of the latest fabric cleaner and hairwater.

Boardmen carrying advertisements were part of the fleet of poor people you could see milling about the streets of London. In 1870s photographer John Thomson ventured out to take pictures of these people, of the street sellers and beggars and chimney sweeps and shoe-blacks. Several of his photographs are featured in the book Dickens’s Victorian London and you can see examples of his work here. I’ve added the boardman advertising Renovo and the shoe-black to my scene as well as another kind of street seller featured in Henry Mayhew’s The London Poor. Oh, and I’ve also added smells (in the early Victorian Age, even several of the better areas in London had problems with their sewers):

The din reminded Alex of an Eastern bazaar, but as for the smell—

He wrinkled his nose.

It would appear that today Fleet Street was permeated by the poignant aroma of l’eau de sewer.

And that’s what an Englishman calls civilisation, he thought wryly. He stepped around a shoeblack, who huddled against a wall covered in advertising posters.

In the rise and flow of vehicles and pedestrians from all walks of life, nobody paid much attention to the tall, blond man, his face deeply tanned by Eastern suns. But then, how could they have known that here walked Alexander Crenshaw, a man whose adventures in America and in the Far East many a reader had followed avidly? Indeed, to his own surprise, Alex had found that in the seven years he had spent away from England, he had become something of a celebrity. Society hostesses vied for his attention, invited him to their balls and parties, and men were eager to talk to him, to invite him to their clubs.

A great bother, all of it, really, yet if it ultimately helped to bring in additional funds for Layard’s excavations, Alex would not complain. He owed the man a lot, and the least he could do was to properly prepare for Layard’s arrival in a few months’ time […].

Further down the street, across from St Dunstan’s, a muffin-man ran his bell vigorously and proclaimed his ware. As Alex walked past him, a whiff of warm muffins and crumpets rose from the street seller’s basket to tickle Alex’s nostrils.

See? Isn’t this so much better than “Alex entered the City through Temple Bar and was immediately enveloped in the hustle and bustle of Fleet Street”? While our starting sentence was rather bland and gave the reader only the vaguest impression of this Victorian scene, in the fleshed-out paragraphs the scene comes to life, and you allow your reader to experience the sights and sounds and smells of a Victorian street scene

NaNoWriMo – Day 4: What to do when you’re stuck

Typically, when I reach Chapter 3 or 4 of any new project, the dreaded mid-book blues hits: that feeling that your story is crap, that it’s the worst thing ever written in the whole history of mankind, and where the heck do you want to go from here anyway?

Apparently, this is a perfectly normal process a lot of writers go through and doesn’t necessarily mean that your story is really so bad that reading it would have killed the dinosaurs (if they had been able to read, that is). The trick is to overcome this feeling and to continue writing (because, let’s face it, curling up into a ball and sucking your thumb helps neither with your story nor with your word count — not to mention that it makes you look rather ridiculous, too).

So what do you do when the mid-book blues hits? Here are a few ideas:

  • If you haven’t yet done an outline of your novel, do it now. This might help you to recognise themes and motifs in your novel (I’ll do a separate post on my method of outlining soon.)
  • Write a scene from later in the book (aka the patchwork approach to writing a novel)
  • If you have a writing buddy, phone her or e-mail her and talk about your project. A fresh pair of eyes might give you a new perspective on your novel.
  • Do a mock-up cover for your book – this typically gets me really, really excited about a new project.
  • Do some (light! at least during NaNoWriMo) background research on your setting — this might give you ideas for new scenes or ideas how to expand existing scenes
  • Go for a walk to “air” your brain. 🙂
  • What a film to let other people’s creativity inspire you. (I find Studio Ghibli films extremely inspiring. Watching those beautiful animated films always makes me want to sit down and write and create something myself.)
Happy writing!

NaNoWriMo – Day 3: Naming Your Characters

Coming up with names for your characters can be tricky, especially when you are writing historical fiction. After all, you wouldn’t want to give your nineteenth-century British heroine a name like Charlene (which is a twentieth-century name that is mainly used in North America and Australia), would you? But never fear: there are tools to help you!

A dictionary of first names is always a good investment. I have A Concise Dictionary of First Names by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges from Oxford University Press, which I love because it gives you a short explanation and history for each name, e.g.

Frances: Feminine form of Francis. In the 16th century the two spellings were used indiscriminately for both sexes, the distinction in spelling not being established until the 17th century.
Short form: Fran
Pet form: Franny

These days, however, I mostly use another book to find names for my characters, namely an 1833 edition of Debrett’s Peerage, which is basically an index of all the peers of the United Kingdom. Apart from titles and names, the book also offers some information about the family history: 

DUDLEY RYDER, Earl of HARROWBY, Viscount Sandon, co. Stafford, Lord Harrowby, of Harrowby, co. Lincoln, High Steward of Tiverton, D.C.L., F.A.S.; born 22 Dec. 1762; succeeded his father, Nathaniel, the late lord, 20 June 1803;  created, 19 July 1809, Viscount Sandon and Earl of Harrowby; married, July 1795, Susan Levison-Gower, da. of Granville, 1st marquess of Stafford, K.G., (by Susan Stuart, da. of Alexander, 7th earl of Galloway), and has issue, – 1. SUSAN, b. 20 June 1796, m., June 1817, Hugh, viscount Ebrington, eldest son of the earl of Fortescue, and d. 30 July 1827; – 2. DUDLEY, viscount Sandon, b. 7 May 1797, M.P. for Liverpool; m. at Berne, 15 Sept. 1823, Frances, da. of John, 1st marquess of Bute, and has issue, 1. Frances, b. Sept 1824; 2. Dudley, b. 5 Jan. 1828 […]

 As you can see in the image above, people would add handwritten notes with additional information, for example about births and deaths: the nineteenth-century owner of my copy of Debrett’s has added a “d” for died or dead in front of Susan Levison-Gower’s name. Thus, Debrett’s also has a way of confronting you with the harsher realities of life in the nineteenth-century: even in noble families many children didn’t survive past infancy; mothers died in childbed, young men were lost at sea.

What you also find is that fancy names were rather uncommon (at least among the upper classes). Men were given traditional English names such as William, John, George, Peter, Thomas, Henry, James, Charles, Robert, and sometimes Augustus or Nathaniel. A greater variation appeared to have existed when it came to women’s names: the most common of those were names like Mary, Maria, Emma, Caroline, Catherine, Anne, Sophia, Elizabeth, Susan(na), Jane, Charlotte, Henrietta, Louisa. But you can also find more exotic names such as Urania-Annabella (poor child) (in the Wallop family, Urania seems to have been a popular name as it pops up in several generations) or Meliora-Emily.

Moreover, I use Debrett’s for inspiration for last names and titles. Thus the entry I cited above inspired the name of a secondary character in my NaNoWriMo project: my heroine’s brother-in-law is called Nathaniel Ryder.