Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in fiction and non-fiction. Her plays are produced around the world. She writes the Jain Lazarus urban fantasies and the Gwen Finnegan paranormal archaeological mysteries. Her collection, KILLER QUINTENT, will be published this spring. She’s in a handful of anthologies including DEATH SPARKLES and NEW LEGENDS: MERCENARIES, ENGINEERS, AND CAPTAINS.
~ Now from Devon ~
The Fun of Writing About Meaningful Settings
I’m a big believer that setting is an additional character in a work. When I pick up a book, I don’t want the setting to be generic, unless that’s a theme in the book. If it’s set in a real place, I want to feel totally immersed in both the physical and emotional geography. I want more from the author than that individual looking up a place on Google maps and leafing through a travel guide. I want sounds, smells, emotion.
One of the great things about TRACKING MEDUSA was that I could set scenes and sequences in places I loved. I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of my annual pilgrimages was see the Angel Tree every year. I set a scene at the tree in one of my Nina Bell short stories. At the time I wrote TRACKING MEDUSA, the Greek and Roman galleries were newly renovated, and I could use the fountain for a scene. The chase scene from the Sculpture Garden and later through the Temple of Dendur was so much fun to write. I spent a couple of days in the museum, figuring out the routes and the pacing, talking to security staff, working out the details. I set scenes both inside and outside the main branch of the New York Public Library, with the lions Patience and Fortitude, the weird little green metal chairs, the painting outside the reading room. I set scenes in Edinburgh in Grassmarket and the Last Drop (the latter known as my office when I’m in town), and even set a whole section on Lindisfarne, the island in Northumbria cut off by the tide, one of my favorite places in the world with the ruins of the Abbey and the castle.
I first found out about Lindisfarne when I was a child. I subscribed to HIGHLIGHTS FOR CHILDREN. They had an article about Lindisfarne and the illuminated manuscripts in one issue. I was fascinated. When I graduated from high school, I headed for Lindisfarne for the first time, and I’ve been back many times since.
Setting scenes for a paranormal mystery in places I know and love was a way to share my affection for those settings with my audience. I feel an emotional attachment to them, and I wanted the depiction to be vivid for my readers. Working on edits for the book, I deeply wanted to return to the places that were so important to me.
As a reader, I love books that immerse me in the setting. I’d rather they didn’t read as a script for a tour guide, but integrate the details in the action and around the character so I can experience the flavor of life. If it’s a place I know, integrating the setting well will both let me relive happy memories of a place, and maybe show me something new. If it’s a place I don’t know, I can get a sense of what it’s like, and maybe even put it on my list as a destination.
When I travel, I take a travel journal and keep detailed notes – especially about textures, smells, sounds, since those are what I respond to most. I take lots of pictures – on a long weekend to Iceland, I took 432 photos, and on a week-long trip to Prague, nearly 800. Food gives so much information about life and culture and interaction on many levels, so my travel journals are filled with food and drink details. I keep maps of all kinds – out-of-date maps are useful if you decide to write something set in an earlier time period. When I write something set in a real place, I can pull out the journals and maps and photos and brochures. If I write something in a built world that I want to have a flavor of a real place, I can use the real details as a foundation, and build from there.
When you’re writing, you’re so deep into the world you forget that others are seeing it for the first time through your eyes when they read your book. Put in the sensory details, let others immerse themselves in the world, and the reading experience will be richer.
TRACKING MEDUSA is available: