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?

23 comments:

Tonya Kappes said...

Hi, Karen! I do find that if I lay out the town with stores, roads, etc. my characters come along the way and it makes the story so much fun to write!

~ Babs ~ said...

As a reader, I like both. I want to know where the characters come from and what is it like where they live. I like getting that scene in my head and trying to picture them walking around or what ever they are supposed to be doing in the story. Characters are great as well. If you don't like any of the characters I don't see how to finish the book even if the place is wonderful. To me they both work together.

Booklady said...

I agree with Babs. I like both. I'll follow a character I really like along the gritty dirty streets of Chicago because I like the character, even if I don't care for the location. And I love settings like you described. As for your three new ideas - Ireland, England, and Texas - my top three favorite places. (I'm a transplanted Texan, that probably should have been born in Ireland) so I'm sure I'll love whatever you come up with.

Laineshots said...

You know, Karen, I never realized it before, but I do the same thing--I most enjoy books set in places I want to be. At the same time, I don't want it TOO perfect. I have to be able to relate to the protagonist's life and don't want to hate her/him for never having to eat tuna salad with questionable mayo. Like you, I most like the quaint villages--though even big-city villages can suffice, like Cleo Coyle's Greenwich Village coffeehouse setting. Historical settings and plenty of local characters are vital. The rabbit trails are what make writing - and reading - fun.

Good to see you back here!

Rural View said...

I'm most drawn to characters and my ideas always begin with an intriguing character, although the mystery I'm working on has a sort of idealized version of myself as the heroine. However, the setting is invaluable. Books written with interesting characters but very little about setting annoy me, and I soon put the book down. I want to know where they are.

Heather Webber said...

Welcome back, Karen!!!

My characters usually come first, but I love a good setting. And the cozier it is, the more I like it.

Melanie said...

I love a setting first. The more familiar I am with it, the easier it is to dive in and accept the characters. If they are too out of place it doesn't work for me.

But then, I've chosen books strictly on the character too. I'd have to say both I guess.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Usually I have a character first but sometimes I start with a scene. I was walking through an almost empty, fog shrouded parking lot one night, started thinking about how I'd decribe it in a story, up popped a character followed closely by a situation, and it was off to the races.

Aurian said...

I'm a reader, and to pick up a book by an unknown author, the blurb has to call to me. The storyline. I read almost everything with witches in it, but if there is humor in the blurb, a snappy last sentence, I will try it out. And it will be the additional things, the place, the secondary characters, the extra information, that makes me love a book and pick up the next one in a series.

Maggie Sefton said...

Karen!! It's absolutely wonderful to see you, girl!! Welcome back! Ohhh, I do hope you'll post again. I'll gladly give you one of my dates to entice you. :)

For the record, folks---Karen, Michele Scott and I first came up with the Cozy Chicks blog in April 2006 when we were all at the Malice Domestic mystery conference in Washington, DC. We wanted others to join us, and quickly asked Heather & Kate to jump on board. Others joined us but have had to leave due to time pressures. But we are ALWAYS happy to have old blog comrades join us again.

As for your question: you know me. My characters always come first, but now that we've mentioned it, those characters are ALWAYS in a very specific and detailed setting. Interesting. :)

CBlaire said...

As both writer and reader, the *meat* of the story (the plot) excites and entices me. Of course, I prefer to be able to relate to characters..this def. inspires me to pick up the book and makes writing easier. Location= sugar coating, the more appealing,the better..except when location has something to do with the plot :-)

signlady217 said...

I don't think I've ever really dissected a book that way. I just...read! But if I like the characters, then I'll come back for more to find out what's going on in their lives. That's why I love the Cozy Chicks, they keep giving us more!

Linda McDonald said...

I love settings. I'm currently coming up with some new ideas for my own stories and I've been starting with the Place, not characters, not plot, but the setting. Since I'm doing this right now, I was thrilled to read your post Karen! Of course I love characters too, but settings really mean a lot to me when I'm either writing or reading.

Erika Chase said...

I start with characters and don't go another step until they're named. That's also important to me. But, I also love to wander through my fictional setting...it's like a second home town.

And of course, when I pick up a book with a dynamite opening line, I'm usually hooked.

girldetective said...

For the record, folks---Karen, Michele Scott and I first came up with the Cozy Chicks blog in April 2006 when we were all at the Malice Domestic mystery conference in Washington, DC. We wanted others to join us, and quickly asked Heather & Kate to jump on board. Others joined us but have had to leave due to time pressures. But we are ALWAYS happy to have old blog comrades join us again

And all this time I thought it was me, Karen, and Michele who came up with it in Washington!!! :-D

Either way, it's nice to see you all again!

Karen MacInerney said...

Thanks for the warm welcome back! (And if this comment shows up twice, forgive me -- Blogger is giving me fits today.)

Interesting responses, all of them. Your insightful comments have made me realize that, while location SPARKS my ideas, I spend the bulk of my time on character development – the characters are what I connect to most, and really are the heart of the book. Interestingly, both characters and setting often have ‘wrongs’ – or problems – that have to be put right as the story progresses.

And I may be drawn to paradise, but you’re right – it can’t be perfect, or I wouldn’t have a plot. My characters may live in places with ‘unrealized potential’ or eat tuna sandwiches, but at least they have a nice view out the kitchen window! (And hopefully there’s a bakery down the street that makes divine blueberry pies they can splurge on once or twice a month.)

As I write this, I realize it’s that story of transformation that appeals to me most. I love books about characters who are somehow stalled in their lives, but take risks and make sacrifices to move toward lives that fulfill their deepest values and dreams.

Interesting comments – very thought-provoking. Gosh, this was fun! I’d love to guest-blog again. Thanks for inviting me – I’ve missed you guys!

Maggie Sefton said...

Hey, girl detective, good to hear from you, girl! And yes, you were one of the first ones we invited. Only mentioned a couple names, but never, never meant to exclude you.

And if you and Michele and Karen came up with a blog idea before we three discussed it at Malice in Washington, that's cool with me, girl. :) No problem. You can claim credit if you want.

Hope to see you at Malice. Are you going?

Vickie said...

I love a good cover that shows the location. I am drawn to a place where I would like to visit.
When I open the book and see a dead body written on the very first page? Hook-a-roony!

Dru said...

As a reader, I like both the setting and the characters. I like seeing the characters walk down the street, visit a neighborhood store, hop a train, it all makes the story come alive. The opening line adds an extra hook to read further.

Sheery said...

What a fantastic post! As a reader, I am very drawn to place. I recently read 'Major Pettigrew's Last Stand' by Helen Simonson and absolutely loved the English countryside setting. However, had the characters been dreadfully done - I wouldn't have liked the books as much as I did.

As a writer, I am always inspired by the characters' situations in life first. Once I have a decent idea of who my characters are - the setting is easy. I also tend to make my settings places that I am already familiar with in some way. For example, my favorite book (that I wrote) is set in Boston - which is where I went to college.

hatfieldtiffany75 said...

I am with signlady217, I have never thought of a book that way. Thinking about it I would have to say I love characters. If I don't like a character more and likely I won't read it but to be honest it has never happened to me because I have never started a book I never finished. The setting has never been an issue as long as I like where the book is headed.

BUT, on the contrary I love how Kate Collins has a drawing of the flower shop and cafe it is really cool.

Chaplain Jan said...

As a reader, I have to say that characters are what draw me back. I love some settings more than others (especially Southern cities or towns) but it's the characters that hold my attention & make me want to read more. I also love having little line maps of the fictional areas (doesn't work with a setting in a "real" city such as Charleston, New Orleans, or Birmingham of course). I can still use my imagination about the setting but within the author's parameters.

Shushan said...

As a reader, I like characters first, but a lovely setting adds a great deal. Village settings and historic, beautiful, natural elements add much to my enjoyment, but if the people aren't nice generally, I won't be back.

As an author (fanfic), I mentally build around 'events' - then add in the loveliness as I can.
;)