Posted in writing inspiration, Writing tips

Let’s Talk About Setting

Setting is more than just a place. Often where a story is set is more important than even when it takes place. A romance set in New Orleans would be very different from one set in New York City. When we think about horror it is often in a small rural setting but when it’s done in a suburban setting or in a city, it takes on a different feel.

I love any story set in Louisiana or North Carolina because I’ve lived in both places. I also love to read a lot of westerns both modern and historical because of my travels. Feeling a connection to the places I read about is part of the fun, but I also love to read about the highlands of Scotland and Regency or Victorian England even though I’ve never been there.

Part of what I love about reading and writing about different places is becoming immersed in the setting. Victorian London fog evokes danger and mystery. A stone castle alone on a windswept mountain can give you the feeling of strength and solitude, or if viewed during a storm, fear and uncertainty.

Setting combined with weather, time period (era), season and the emotions of the point of view character can influence the reader’s feelings. If a determined optimist arrives during a terrible storm to a cold, ancient stone castle, they might be glad to be out of the storm and notice all the faded beauty and majesty of the castle, thankful for a fire in a hearth to chase away the chill. On the other hand, a grumpy, pessimist might see the same castle with its cold stone and faded glory as another burden to bear. Someone who is a bit melodramatic and fearful might view it all with a sense of foreboding and fear.

To give the reader the most accurate version of what you wish them to know and feel about the setting, be sure to have one of your point of view characters react to it that way. If you wish to surprise your reader or mislead them, do just the opposite. Remember in jaws, the characters are all reacting to a day at the beach. They are mostly happy, excited, having fun…until disaster strikes.

With hurricane Idalia just making her way past North Carolina, I wonder how writers might portray this event differently depending on their experience. Here we had little more than a tropical storm but down in Florida the experience was a bit different. Using natural disasters in a story, severe weather, even terrible events, can add another layer of drama, fear, and even depth to the setting, time period and even the characters’ growth. How a character reacts to these things can tell us a little more about them.

How do you feel about setting, weather and events in your stories? Do you like to read about them? Do you write about them?

Posted in backstory, Thoughts, writing inspiration

Research or Going Down the Rabbit Hole

Research for The American are Coming!

I love to do research. I can’t help it. it Is one of my guilty pleasures. I’m a nerd. Always have been. In school when we’d get the chance to go to the library to do research, I’d get so caught up in the search I sometimes forgot what I was searching for. Finding new things along the way is part of the joy of doing the research. The problems are going off in another direction than the one you intended or getting so lost in the research you forget about the writing, and the biggie, wanting to put everything you discovered into your story. I mean, when you find out really cool things it’s difficult not to include them in your story. BUT… while it might be interesting and maybe even important to know that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show had a second female sharpshooter or that he hired over one hundred Sioux to work in his show even while there were still Indian Wars going on, all of this information is important and helps me as a writer understand my story’s time period and politics, how much of it is really necessary for the story itself.

It has taken me years to feel confident, and I say that with a laugh because I’m not really confident that I’ve reached the point where I know what I’m doing, but I’ve taken the classes and done the research and tried to immerse myself into the time period. Developing the character, the atmosphere and the series is important. I hope that when you read The Americans are Coming that you experience life in a traveling show, (I researched the history of the circus in America, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and travel in the 1890s), that you get a feel for Winnie’s life as a performer and a member of the show family, I hope you enjoy piecing together the clues and puzzling out the mystery, but I above it all, I hope you read the story and not see the work that has gone into it only the entertainment that it offers.

For a list of the books, YouTube videos and blogs I used to research this book, here are the ones I’ve compiled so far, and they are by no means the full list. I also have references from people such as HCRW president: Cyn Hayden who gave me information on steamer ships, my granddaughter: Hailey Miesse and her mother, Brandi Lupton who aided me with my horse research, my husband David who helped with many miscellaneous questions (he’s a great research assistant), and my local librarians: Denise Toler and Robina Norman who answer weird and bizarre questions at odd times during the day (and sometimes at night).


Buffalo Bill’s America by Louis S. Warren

Wild Women by Autumn Stephens

A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Life by Elspeth

Gangway! Sea Language Comes Ashore by Joanna Carver Colcord

The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales The Great Courses by Professor Patrick N. Allitt, Emory University

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West from 1840-1900 by Candy Moulton

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England from 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes

Eyewitness Visual Dictionary The Visual Dictionary of Ships and Sailing

Reader’s Digest America’s Forgotten History


Battle for the Big Top by Les Standiford

Unmentionable by Therese Oneill

The Hidden History of Holidays by Hannah Harvey

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

Stephen Fry’s Victorian Secrets

The Life and Times of Prince Albert by Patrick Allitt

The American West: History, Myth and Legend by Patrick Allitt

YouTube Videos/Channels:

Absolute History

Weird History

Joe Scott

all of this information is important and helps me as a writer understand my story's time period and politics, how much of it is really necessary for the stuff itself.
Posted in writing inspiration, Writing tips

Setting and World Building

Do you find yourself looking for books set in certain places? Or do you read the blurb of a book and choose it over another because of where the story takes place? Setting and world building can be as important as the character. Often, the setting or world becomes another character in the story.

In Mortal Engines, the worlds were different with their own personalities and quirks. Each one was distinct from the other and played a large part of what the characters go through to reach their goals and change.

In The Hunger Games we leave poor, rural District 12 to go to the Capitol, which is like leaving reality and going down Alice’s rabbit hole. These two distinct settings play a part in showcasing our characters and establishing who they are. Katniss is who she is because she is from District 12. Her character would react differently had she been for any other place. During the games, the world or setting changes and the players have to adapt to survive. This changing world is as much a character as the players themselves.  

As readers, we love to be immersed in a story-world and feel as if we are a part of it. Whether we are traveling back in time or soaring through the galaxies, when a writer paints a vivid picture of their world, we forget we are reading, as everything comes alive, we become actors on the stage playing out in our heads the story as it unfolds.

There are authors whose work is so detailed as to even describe the cracks in the china cup from which their character is drinking. They wax poetic upon each nuance and detail until the world is exactly as they see it leaving no room for error on the part of the reader.

Then there are the few who give so little information it feels as if the characters are acting on a white stage or within the darkness of a deep cavern. Though either would have some sensory stimulation, too often writers who do this fail to take into account the characters’ reaction to the nothingness.

When an author gets it right and finds that balance, in my opinion, is when they give just enough description that the reader can use their imagination to fill in the rest of the details. If I describe blue silk drapes the color of the sky. Many colors come to mind. Is it the pale blue of a summer sky, or the vibrant blue of spring, perhaps it’s the navy blue of midnight or the almost purple of sunset? Depending on our own moods or the tone of the story where our minds might take us with this description. While the curtains might not be important to the story and their color doesn’t matter, if it is tied to a character’s memories or emotions, then it becomes more so. The blue silk drapes were the color of a sunny sky in spring, reminding her of his eyes. She should have the curtains removed. The simple change in the description gives you more details about the character as well as describing the room. What does it really matter what color the curtains are? If it’s not important to the story, the description serves little purpose.

Setting and world building are the stage where your story plays out. Star Wars would be a totally different story if set in the old west yet there have been critics who have described it as thus. When George Lucas first began designing the scene for the movie, they used what they knew and set it outer space. What does a trading post look like? Or a marketplace?

In one of my stories, I have a setting, a local café. In rural eastern North Carolina this café’s atmosphere, clientele and even the language spoken, or accents differs greatly from one set in the western part of the state. How different would it be from a café in New York City or even upstate New York? How about a Parisian café? While cafes worldwide might be similar, they all serve food, have tables and seats, someone to serve, but what makes this café different? While I could just say it’s a café, I added a few layers of interest. It used to be the old train depot. It’s been in the family for fifty years. It’s a local hangout. While these things don’t tell you how the café looks, it gives you a feeling of why it’s important.

How important are the details? Well, if someone is thrown from the second story balcony and you’ve never mentioned a balcony, that can take your reader out of the story. A simple description of the character wondering at the view from the second story balcony, could at least establish it as fact. If the main character had reason to be up there and look out, maybe that would add to the mystery or suspense. They were seen on the balcony just minutes before the victim was tossed over the side. Now they’re a suspect.

As writers we have to remember that the importance of the setting and description, is how it affects the characters and the plot of the story. If we mention a gun over the mantle, then that gun must be important at some point in the story.

Happy world building and keep on reading.

Posted in inspiration, my books, Thoughts, writing inspiration, Writing tips

Weather and Setting

Weather, how it sets the tone or mood of a story…

“But who wants to be foretold the weather? It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.” ― Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

“After three days men grow weary, of a wench, a guest, and weather rainy.” ― Benjamin Franklin

My uncle swore it didn’t take three days for fish, guests or bad weather to start to smell. Like old Ben he had a way with words and little patience for fools.

“The storm starts, when the drops start dropping

When the drops stop dropping then the storm starts stopping.” ― Dr. Seuss

With the threat of winter mix looming over eastern North Carolina my thoughts turn to the weather and how it affects the setting of a story whether it’s a book or movie or even a television show. Weather can play an important part and at times feel like one of the characters.

“In Ohio seasons are theatrical. Each one enters like a prima donna, convinced its performance is the reason the world has people in it.” ― Toni Morrison, Beloved

Have you ever opened a book or started a story and immediately felt different? Maybe you were feeling tired and blue, overwhelmed by the holidays and you start reading a story that begins with…

The first snow of the season fell like promises upon the town.

Sunlight glittered off the new fallen snow as Christmas carolers sang on street corners and sidewalk Santas rang their bells.

That tone, mood is much different than say…

She shivered in her too thin coat as the sky darkened and the snow turned to ice burning her skin.

The clouds hung swollen and ominous in the gray sky as the wind shifted bringing with it the promise of freezing rain.

The first two sound happy, promising, maybe a sweet romance or family story, while the others seemed darker, more threatening, like horror or suspense. There is an expectation with each genre that the weather, if referenced will affect the story. If a romance, a snowstorm might force a couple together to get to know each other and come to be attracted to each other. In a mystery, the snowstorm might force suspects together and could result in murder or mayhem. In horror, a snowstorm could be foreboding as victims are forced to be in whatever horrifying situation whether haunted house or a madman’s lair.

“A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.” ― Carl Reiner

“When all is said and done, the weather and love are the two elements about which one can never be sure.” ― Alice HoffmanHere on Earth

Ignoring the wind and white caps lashing against the side of the ferry, Cole propped his hip against the ship’s rail and watched as the dolphins frolicked in the river. Through his binoculars, he could see the pod clearly. Shivering in his canvas work jacket, he swapped his binoculars for the camera strapped around his neck. He zoomed in on the sea mammals, thrilled to have caught sight of them on the ferry ride back to Leeward.

First paragraph of Christmas Inn at Teach’s Island

Jeremy kissed her as they came out of the woods and into her yard. Lush green grass surrounded the house in a small patch near the wrap-around porch. The rest of the yard was hard-packed dirt that too often ran to mud, especially during the winter months. When everyone else was having a white Christmas, eastern North Carolina had mud.

Only in My Dreams

Violet stared out the window of the sitting room. Snow floated from the sky in tiny white ice crystals that were often a nuisance. Winter was far from her favorite season, be she supposed the snow was preferable to rain. – The Rogue Who Stole Christmas anthology, The Rake Who Loves Me by Dawn Brower

“October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

If these were in the opening paragraphs of a story, it would set a tone and expectation for the rest of the book that may or may not be true. If it’s later in the story, we expect certain things to happen in the upcoming scene. But like the weather, things can change even in fiction, a midnight storm might be frightening and sleep-depriving, but the morning might dawn clear and sunny.

Writers have used weather to set the tone of stories throughout the ages. It’s not just books but movies and television also depend on the weather to set the mood of a piece. Think about the beginning of the movie Twister, it starts with a tornado, yes that’s what the movie is about but while the tornado looks ominous, the reaction of the actors is joyous, celebratory. In another familiar movie, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is trying to get home before the tornado. She is worried, frightened, the beginning of the movie is in black and white with lots of swirling dust.

The weather can also be used to fool you into a false sense of well-being.

The beautiful summer night just before Jaws bites her first victim.

Christmas in Los Angeles, very different than the weather in New York, Die Hard.

When we think of weather, especially in stories, we usually think of the extremes: snowstorms, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornados, but it is also the seasons that have certain expectations. Autumn in the southern states can be a relief from the intense heat, or Indian Summer when the heat returns with an oppression that steals your energy and joy.

Weather can be used to describe something else, making something unfamiliar more relatable.

“They call this war a cloud over the land. But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say ‘Shit, it’s raining!” ― Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain

“It always rains on tents. Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds for the opportunity to rain on a tent.” ― Dave Barry

“Summer in the deep South is not only a season, a climate, it’s a dimension. Floating in it, one must be either proud or submerged.” ― Eugene Walter, The Untidy Pilgrim

“It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.” ― P.D. James, A Taste for Death

“The month of August had turned into a griddle where the days just lay there and sizzled.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

The Pamlico river, at least down near Bond and South Creeks was usually placid. It was only out in the sound nearer to the Atlantic that you had the strong currents but with the wind and tide fighting against her along with the torrent of rain and bouts of lightning, Roxanne was no longer sure she was swimming in the right direction or even how long she’d been in the water. She was cold, exhausted and was starting to cramp. The water had cooled as night fell and the rain had lowered the temperature even more. Her limbs were starting to feel heavy. She was afraid to flag down a motorboat for fear she’d unwittingly fall prey to the bikers. Not that she’d heard anyone in several hours. Those who’d been on the river when the storm started had long since headed to shore.

Roxy’s Betrayal

What is more powerful? The beautiful, sunny day or starry night that turns deadly or the foreshadowing of something bad with a storm or fog?

They say it’s good luck to have rain on your wedding. Does that mean a sunny, beautiful wedding day is foreboding? We often think of cloudy skies, fog and rain for funerals but in fiction as in life that isn’t always so. What if a beloved is laid to rest on the most beautiful day of the year? What would that represent to the reader? To the characters?

I could not cry, there wasn’t even a cloud in the sky. Not even God was crying the day we laid Aunt Lettie to rest.

How could the sun be shining? How could the day be so perfect and bright? A day this perfect wasn’t for funerals, it was for fishing or flying kites in the park, but my Joey, my baby would never fly a kite. He’d never learn to fish. The sun shouldn’t be shining. It will never shine for me again.

Okay that may have been a bit melodramatic, but you can feel the story amid the setting, the weather.

“With Dante gone, time seemed to stand still around me; the mornings just as cloudy and dark as the evenings, as if the sun had never decided to rise. There was no wind, like the world was holding its breath along with me, waiting for him to return.” ― Yvonne Woon , Life Eternal

“Don’t knock the weather. If it didn’t change once in a while, nine out of ten people couldn’t start a conversation.” ― Kim Hubbard

Share some of your weather-related story bites, your own or some of your favorites. Are they first pages or somewhere else in the book?   

Posted in inspiration, Thoughts, writing inspiration

Using Sense and Setting

This was first posted on Pamlico Writers’ Group website, July 11, 2017,

The Pamlico Writers have been posting picture writing prompts. Many of these prompts are atmospheric. The setting or scenery is part of the prompt. In one picture we had a night time view of a house in the water, in the most recent a lonely road with storm clouds looming.

How important is weather and setting to your stories. How do you describe these conditions? When I think of a rain storm it is the smell of rain that comes to mind. The feel of electricity in the air that can make the hair on your arms stand up. The smell of ozone. Living on the water, there is also the changes in the weight of the air. When storms threaten, the air becomes heavy with humidity. The scent of the river and ocean become more apparent. The wind changes bringing a much needed coolness to the air or perhaps a chill. Choosing words to describe the weather, atmosphere and setting can set the tone for the scene, it can even set the tone for the book. What is it about our surroundings that can change a happy story to something foreboding?

In the book I am reading by Katharine Ashe, she uses a lot of weather. At the beginning of the story her heroine is caught in a hurricane on the island of Jamaica. She is new to the island and has no idea what is happening. Ms. Ashe weaves the character’s bravery and innocence along with her naiveté concerning the storm. She expertly shows the woman’s character with the clean up after the storm using sight, scent and emotion to heighten the tension in the story. Later, as she trudges through Scotland, we see a change in the weather and in the character. Like the cold, rugged terrain of Scotland the young woman grows older, colder and tougher. Ms. Ashe describes the weather and blends the two as if the setting is another character reflecting the changes in her heroine.

A member of the Pamlico Writers’ Group, Eileen Lettick has been sharing her story about a young girl who has been in an abusive situation. The character’s bedroom and the changes in décor also reflect the changes in her own situation. When her mother takes down the pretty flowery curtains in the living room and puts up the old, heavy drapes we get a sense of foreboding. The changes Ms. Lettick puts in her story are often subtle but the impact is powerful.

I use my hometown as the setting for my stories. I often reflect back to the things that have affected my mood or perception over the years. Here are some examples:

“The warm breeze swept my tears into the river. Their saltiness mingling with the brackish water. The earthy scent of mud and the promise of the ocean filled the air, comforting and frightening as the future that was still a mystery.”

“The dirt road was a ribbon of creamy satin in the darkness. The icy wind made my steps quicker, the effort lifting my spirits. I could smell the freshness in the air, a newness, a promise. The pearl-glow of the moon, a cameo set in silver against a velvet blue sky. The face in the moon brought comfort and lightness, everything would be okay. The child stirred within me, he too felt the promise in the winter night.”

“The smell of rain filled their senses. Their hair lifted in the quivering of wind and electricity. Glancing at the fields beside them, they saw the rain rushing towards them. Dancing across the parched field, drenching row after row as it moved closer to the road. They ran. The cool breeze filling their lungs as the first icy drops pelted their bare skin and sizzled on the pavement.”

I hope each of these scenes gives you a glimpse of my home and what I was feeling at the time. Our word choices, the images we wish to convey, the descriptions all are important parts of the setting and scene. Thinking of the setting as another character, realize its importance to the story. Study not only the landscape that makes of your setting but the feeling it evokes, the sights, the smells, the sounds. Use words that bring us to this place and help us feel we are there.

I could not tell my stories in another setting. In New York City I might walk along the streets alone and lonely but I am not truly alone. I maybe just another face lost in this ocean of people, but the sights, the smells, the emotions that happen in a large city would not be the same as walking along a dusty dirt road with nothing but trees and wildlife for company. How important is setting to your stories. How would a different setting effect what is happening? If I mention New Orleans and Katrina, you have an image in your head. But if I spoke of hurricane Katrina in another place, the story would be vastly different. As you write your stories, consider what makes it unique and paint us a word picture. Remember to use all of your senses to describe setting.

The taste of the jambalaya spicy on your tongue. The sound of the musician on the corner blowing an old jazz tune for the crowd of tourists. The smell of the Mississippi mingling with the sweat of too many people as the succulent scents of seafood frying in the Quarter calls us, reminding us of home.