Gearing Up for the 10th Annual Breathe Christian Writers Conference

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Just a quick note to let you know that I will be speaking tomorrow at the 10th annual Breathe Christian Writers Conference, keynoted by James Scott Bell (#1 bestselling author of Plot & Structure, Write Your Novel from the Middle, and thrillers like Don’t Leave Me, Blind Justice, and One More Lie).

I’ll be teaching a workshop I call Settings to Make Your Novel Unforgettable. I previewed this talk last year at a local NaNoWriMo event after the Lansing area leader/mentor/queen bee asked me to talk about settings. I said yes (you always say yes) and then figured out what I wanted to talk about later. It turned out to be a fun, informative, and (I think) helpful session. And now, after some recent experiences for me, I think it’s going to be even better.

I’m so excited to get to the conference, reconnect with the people I’ve met there over the years, and discuss the shared passion of writing in a setting where the attendees also share the same faith. It’s such a positive, welcoming atmosphere, and I’m always grateful to be a part of it.

I Am Building a World for You

For the past several years in my creative writing life, I have been developing a parallel world. It is not a huge departure from reality. It’s not fantasy or sci-fi. It’s not a world that you would not recognize. In fact, you may find yourself very much at home there. It’s a mere side step, the sort of shift you make to get out of someone’s way when they are moving faster than you’d like to move. It’s stepping off the sidewalk and onto the grass where it’s more interesting anyway.

This world is located in my very own state. Its cities and lakes and rivers and other features are all born from reality before they go through a subtle metamorphosis in my mind. And when they come out of my fingers, they are new. Because the writer of fiction does not merely record. He interprets. What to our eye may be a leaf of a certain shade of green becomes something more in fiction. Raindrops become tears, shafts of light become memories, birds become souls, forests become prisons, parties become battles, and folds of blankets become entire histories laid out in cotton.

It’s useless to attempt to keep the writer’s mind centered on what is. It is so much more satisfying to build what isn’t…yet. I’m readying a new manuscript for submission to agents that I can envision as the first in a series of three. I’m already developing the stories for the second and third. And yesterday, while I was driving my son to karate, the germ of a new story wormed its way into my mind. A different setting, but the same world, and connections to a character or two in this possible series of three. An expansion of the world I have been building in my mind and on paper. Nods to earlier work are winks to the loyal reader, an inside joke just for her.

I’m drawn to literary worlds like this. Wendell Berry’s Port William, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Careers made largely by developing a parallel world and staying in it for decades, learning all of its secrets. Even the series we read as children carry shades of this — Madeline L’Engle’s stories of the Murry and O’Keefe families, L. M. Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island, even the world of The Baby-Sitters Club. Places and characters we didn’t want to leave.

I’d like my own fiction to be like that — stories you want to stay inside.

So I am building a world, street by street, field by field, house by house, character by character, secret by secret. And I’m more hopeful than ever that I’ll be able to share it with you someday.

I Am Building a House with a History

Lately, when I’m not working, cooking, reading, spending time with my family, or folding laundry, I’m busy building a nearly 150-year-old farmhouse. I’m digging the cellar, placing the windows and doors, nailing on the shingles, and sending long fingers of Virginia creeper up the chimney. I’m polishing the oak staircase, papering the walls, and arranging the furniture. I’m also planting gardens and trees and secrets all over the place.

It’s great fun.

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I’m building this house in my mind and on paper so that my characters can live in it–so they can move through rooms, stare out windows, and pull covers up over themselves at bedtime. I’m layering each room with the history of its inhabitants. Each floor is being smoothed by generations of feet. Each book in the library is being flipped through by countless fingers. I’m making it a place I would want to spend a lot of time and I hope those who one day read this book will love to spend time there as well.

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I dream about houses fairly regularly. Sometimes I’ll visit the same one in multiple dreams over the course of many years, but I’ll discover a room or a person I didn’t know was there. I’m hoping if I think about this house I’m building enough in the daytime I may be able to walk through it in my dreams at night.

When was the last time you built a world in your mind or on paper? I bet it was something you did a lot as a kid. You may be rusty, but I’m willing to bet if you dusted off your brain a little there would be no end to what you can imagine.

What’s the Weather Like in Your Story?

WindowviewartsyI feel a bit nervous saying this, as though by daring to utter it I might somehow invite another winter thrashing, but it truly does seem that spring may at last have won the epic battle it has been waging with winter for the past two months. It was finally dry enough and warm enough to spend the day outside, to feel the sun’s heat on my skin and hair, to remember what summer is like. I don’t know how dependable the change of the seasons is in the Middle East, but as a Michigander I feel greatly comforted when I read that God is more faithful than the changing of the seasons.

I think something in us as humans wants to have to contend with something. We want to contend with something and win, or at least endure. And that’s why when outsiders or transplants to Michigan bemoan the weather or are surprised by 50-degree temperature swings in a day or can’t believe it’s still snowing in late April we smugly shrug our shoulders and say “That’s Michigan!”

You don’t like weather? Start packing your bags.

And yet, even I will admit that enough is enough. I knew winter had gone on far too long when I was driving home from Grand Rapids earlier this week and I noticed a farmer’s field covered in bright green and my very first thought was, “What the heck is that?” Two days later I drove back to Grand Rapids in a snow storm.

My own modest gardens have come alive as well. And I saw the first bug smash against my windshield this week, so it is spring for real. Isn’t it?

Maybe because I’ve grown up with schizophrenic weather I love reading stories where weather plays a part or sets a mood. I like to know if it’s sunny or cloudy, humid or parched, burning or icy. Should I be sweating as I read this scene or shivering? If it’s raining, what kind of rain is it? A steady cold spring rain? Drizzle? The fat, merciless raindrops of a storm? Is it falling straight down or sideways? Does it soak me or sting me? Am I managing to stay dry or is my face wet?

Do you make the best use of weather in your writing? Or is that a literary tool you’ve left in your toolbox?