Summer Buzz

Yesterday was summer solstice–the longest day of the year. It was also the hottest day we’ve had. My AC ran continually and I actually adjusted the shades to limit the sunshine. (Anyone who knows me well knows I thrive in my bright, sunlit home.) The plants wilted and so did my attitude as I began calculating what was left of summer and the poor plans I’ve made to rest and recharge. It didn’t help in learning before I left campus that all the meetings and planning for fall will begin in just a few weeks. I felt as if time were running out!

So my brooding built and escalated with the heat of the day. The summer solstice concluded with heat lightning and severe thunderstorms. Again, it matched my mood until, like the denouement in a story, I took action to better balance my “life wheel” and make a few plans for R&R. That emotional storm changed the “heat” I’d been feeling.

Today is a fresh day, cleansed by the rain. Today I’m tending thirsty plants on the lanai and listening to the buzz of insects. I love this part of summer. I love the sounds, which change during midday because it becomes too hot for the squirrels to chase each other through the trees. Too hot for the usual sounds of dogs or people. Even the splashing from the pool next to my building ceases for several hours.

But I’m tuned into the sound of the summer buzz. The whir of the insects intensifies and grows slightly louder with the heat. (One of these days my curiosity will draw me into investigating exactly what/how that sound is made and by which insects. For now, though, I focus on fiction over nonfiction.) With each cycle of the whirring insects, I am transported to the scenes from my W-I-P. What sounds does my character hear now? What does she smell?

Later I’ll also visit the created worlds of two clients and ask the same questions about sensory details. Today I am focused more on sounds than on other senses because the insects have guided me to notice sounds.

All that matters now is that it’s summer, I love the heat, and story ideas are buzzing through my thoughts. This is happiness. This is one way I want to spend my time. This makes summer wonderful.

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Building Background

My writing students are often baffled when I ask questions about background for their stories. How did this come about? What is your character seeing at this moment? What sounds does she hear? What odors does he smell?  They want to know why it matters. It matters because the reader needs details to help connect him or her to the story. This creates reader engagement.

These writing students have vague ideas where their stories take place but the thought of “research” to build the background for their stories seems “wrong” to them. After all, they are the creators of this story—anything is possible, and everything they say “goes.”  True, but all the details need to make sense to the reader. It’s also true that fantasy and science fiction authors must make up every detail of their world while stories taking place in the present time need only mention a few details so the reader has some anchor point for painting the scene in his or her mind.  Fantasy and science fiction authors create the story setting and background by “world building.” But stories set in the here-and-now also need a little research. After all, if your character is in the woods of North Carolina and comes face-to-face with a poisonous snake, that snake had better exist in the North Carolina woods. If not, the writer’s credibility as a storyteller evaporates.

Whether I’m working on a contemporary story or one of my “other world” stories, I use sensory details to think about the setting and make decisions about the background for my stories. If I’m taking a walk and notice a particular tree, I wonder what type of trees my characters would see in a particular scene. What sounds would Kaelyne hear when she’s in training? What sounds and smells does Kaia hear at the compound, or while exploring outside? Does Kaelyne see squirrels or other small furry rodents that inhabit trees and chitter to each other? What strange species does Kaia see on her alien planet? Are they poisonous? Dangerous? How do made-up creatures (animal and insect) move? What do they eat? What are the native species of plants and animals? Are their invasive species, as we have here in Florida? What problems do they cause? (The answer to this question could lead to a subplot, especially if Kaia or the others in her compound are blamed for bringing those invasive species to the planet.)

I remind myself to look up, too. As a child I was a sky-gazer. I loved looked at the clouds and, during the evenings, at the night sky. So I think about both the day and night sky as I build the background for my stories. Clouds can alert characters—in any type of world—to weather conditions. Stars and moons in the night sky can immediately alert the reader that this is not Earth. But our stars have constellations with connected stories and legends, so what connections and legends do the stars in my other worlds have? How will this  help my characters as they work to resolve their story conflicts?

So, when a writer is creating a world for fantasy or science fiction stories, he or she has more details to sort out, but a writer with a story set in the here-and-now still has details to consider and decisions to make. The background he or she builds helps the reader engage with the characters and have a stronger story experience. Taking a moment or two to envision what the setting looks like, sounds like, smells like, and feels like and then weaving those details in as the characters notice them, will help make your story real no matter where or when it takes place.

Transforming Memory

It’s a dull day in sunny Florida. It’s been ages since I’ve been able to do this, but I’m sitting on the lanai drinking coffee and eating breakfast. It’s an hour later than it feels due to the overcast sky and steady drizzle. I’ve been watching the pond collect the raindrops for about half an hour.

Yes, it’s “winter” here in Florida, but this is unusual. Even during rainy season, our rain usually comes in steady torrents. When I first moved here, it seemed as if a faucet was turned on and then off. I recall waiting 15 minutes after the rain ended for the water to drain off the flooded parking lot so I could get to my car.

This is different. The sound of it is gentle and steady. It is just so odd to have a dreary, overcast day all day. The smell of the rain is subtle with a hint of moss and fish. The feel of it is less ominous than our usual storms. And, it is damp. Damp that lingers and seeps into every crevice. Again, unusual. The promise is different, too. Torrential bursts of rain or thunderstorms are short and followed by sunshine to quickly dry and humidify. Then life gets back to normal. This rain has no promise of stopping. It reminds me of the jungle movies in which rainy season arrives with a steady drizzle that lasts for days and weeks until the characters (explorers, scientists, anthropologists, whoever) face rivulets of water growing into streams through their camps until they are nearly flooded away.

It also reminds me of camping in Michigan. I remember being huddled in a light jacket in early July as a storm blew through during which the temp dropped into the 70s and then subsided into a steady drizzle. We’d sit drinking coffee and watching it rain, forced to put activities on hold. I’d watch the rain drip from the trees and notice details.

I’m noticing details now and wondering how rain in the setting of my fantasy novel looks. I allow bits of my memories to shift and morph into details for the setting for the world in which my fantasy is set.

My main character has been slowed in reaching her destination when her transportation is injured. Now a steady rain is complicating the situation. What trees and plants does she see as she sits, damp and miserable? Is she unable to build a fire? Why? What does she hear?

As I notice air ferns peppering a tree trunk and moss hanging from other trees here, I wonder about her world. Are there plants or creatures hanging from the trees there? Are they poisonous or will they bring comfort? Is there a plant that thrives in the damp and wet that might save her steed? What must she do to find it?

How does she distinguish the natural sounds, such as a woodpecker tapping and poking for breakfast, over the sounds of danger?

As I linger on the lanai, allowing the drizzle to sift memories to the surface, I transform them into pieces and details to create the setting or twists in the plot.