Friday, February 18, 2011

Places I Go in My Head

By former Cozy Chick (we're so glad to have her back, even if for a day!) Karen MacInerney

The other day, a writer friend was telling me of this wonderful idea she had involving a love story she’d thought of, and I realized an ‘idea’ like that would probably never, ever occur to me. Why? Because almost all of my stories start with a place – and always a place I’d like to go in my spare time. (A place, preferably, where things like dishes and laundry get taken care of behind-the-scenes, and there are no needy children with massive school projects they forgot about until 11:30 the night before they’re due, and people don’t keep me up the whole night with croup or stomach viruses and the fridge cleans itself. But I digress.)

A lot of writers seem (from my extremely informal survey) to start with a character, or even just a fragment of a situation that sounds interesting, and build a book from there. Me? I almost always start with place – because that’s what I read for. Where do these fictional people live? I wonder. Do they have gorgeous, towering trees to shelter them, or miles of sugar sand beaches? What delicious local dish do they often eat? (Surely it’s got to be better than the tuna salad I just made, using mayonnaise that I hope is good past the sell-by date.) Do they have lovely, sprawling woodland areas where they can go for afternoon jaunts and pick berries? Do they live in delightful, cozy cottages furnished with antiques and rag rugs? I don’t know about you, but I tend to pass on books that take place in gritty downtown areas or run-of-the-mill suburban neighborhoods. I want to fall into a world that has quaint cottages, low-slung bungalows with gorgeous, blowsy gardens, and verdant village squares. Heck, I’ll even throw in a thatched roof or two if I can manage it!

In fact, it’s only after I’ve got the place down in my head that I start thinking about characters. Then, once I’ve got the characters sketched out – or at least my main character and a few supporting staff – I can start deciding who to kill. (Surprisingly, that one isn’t too tough – I always have plenty of real-life inspirations suggested by friends and family.) Plot twists and interesting rabbit trails always follow, taking me into directions I’d never guessed possible.

But for me, setting always comes first. If I don’t like the place, I won’t like writing the book – and it’s a good bet my readers won’t either. I’m experimenting with three series ideas right now – and all of them take place in villages set in Ireland, England, and Texas. I’m learning that I’m a rural girl – at least on the page.

What about you? Is it setting that excites you, or characters – or even a clever opening? What makes you pick up a book – or pick up the pen to start one?