Welcome To The Old Apartment: Creating Settings That Don’t Suck

This is the cafe. It's Jasper's Caffeine Dealers on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, Australia. That's Snowman at the table.

This is the cafe. It’s Jasper’s Caffeine Dealers on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, Australia. That’s Snowman at the table.

Your setting is more than just a geometric surface for the characters to stand on. And occasionally have sex on. Done right, a good setting can almost become a character in its own right. Look at Hogwarts. The worst part* of the seventh book for me is that Hogwarts isn’t much of a part of it. It’s like missing a great supporting character that you’ve grown to know over the years. Or how about Serenity from Firefly? It was a more than a mode of transportation/place for people to argue.

However, not every setting is a magical castle or a spaceship. And they don’t have to be in order to be awesome. 221B Baker Street; Gotham City; Castle Rock, Maine; Hardy’s Wessex County: all of these could–and in some instances, do–exist in our world. But they all have those little touches that made them more that just a stage on which the plot reveals itself.

A trick for making good settings? Frankenstein them together out of places in real life.

Whenever I go on vacation, I take pictures of interesting places. Most of them will sooner or later be reincarnated into a story. That coffee shop that had a back seating area between two buildings, a little alley barely three feet wide crammed with tables. The bar set up in an empty lot out of pallets, oil drums, and a shipping container. A friend’s strangely laid out apartment with the weird staircase to nowhere.

You don’t have to go on vacation, of course. Maybe your main character lives in a house with the same floorplan as your childhood home. Or they hang out at your favourite beach or restaurant. Or they go to your gym, with the grunting steroid-heads in the corner and the stack of strangely greasy magazines that you always regret touching. The trick is to find what is special about each of those places, and bring that to the fore.

Just like taking character traits from real people, you can take settings from real life locations. Change the name, change the details, but keep whatever drew you to the damn thing in the first place. The view. The proportions. The location. The barista who only speaks Esperanto.

Keep a list, somewhere. Document it with pictures if you can, or floorplans and sketches if you can’t.

And see what happens in those places.

*Fine. Second worst.

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Monday Challenge: Places and Faces

Can you feel the hate?

Today’s writing challenge is a shameless homage to one I did in a writing workshop a couple of years ago. This post captures the essence of it, but for the non-clickers, it was about writing places. New ways to look at settings. I learned a lot of stuff in that workshop that I still use. When it comes to writing techniques, I am like the little old lady with a pocket full of string: never throw anything away that might, eventually, turn out to be useful.

Usually, when I think of places having souls, I picture urban environments. Maybe it’s the concentration of people, or the very human marks we leave on the landscape, but I just find it easier to put a face to the place. To figure out who that neighbourhood is, not what. But I feel like stretching out today, so let’s look at non-human habitations. They don’t have to be rural or isolated, but the human presence shouldn’t factor in.

Monday Challenge: Take an inhuman landscape and tell me who they would be if they were a person. Discard human furnishings like buildings and roads and nuclear power plants; tell me about the land and the sky.

For example, if I was to look out my window, the backyard thus viewed would likely turn into an icy, cruel, androgynous figure with a smile like a razor blade and long, blackened nails tap-tapping on the glass. Come out, it says. You have to come out sometime.

Like fuck I do.

I showed you mine. Now show me yours.

Monday Challenge: Scorcher



Sacrifice to the burning god of summer. (Photo credit: Seguromy)

do not deal well with heat.

It’s true. For every degree it is above twenty Celcius, I lose about three IQ points. By the time it gets over thirty, I’m in trouble. If it gets to 35, I might as well be brain dead. In fact, I am brain dead. Ask me to do a puzzle and I’ll probably just eat it.

If anyone finds my brain wandering alone of the side of Highway 104, please bring it home to me. I miss it.

I’m not a summer person, as you can tell. All I want to do is find a place with air conditioning and camp out. Which explains why I’ve seen so many movies this month.* But, since I am no longer a student**, summers are no longer free time. There’s writing to do. There’s editing to get done. There’s submission letters and queries and proposals to wrangle into shape and ship off in the night, like packages of ebola.

And I’m not the only one. I note on my newsfeed and my other tendrils of information that there are others out there, slogging away in the heat. Doing Iron Writer challenges. Taking a notebook to the beach. Writing at two in the goddamned morning to avoid the discomfort of your fingers sticking to the keys in humid weather.***

To those people: you’re awesome.

So I’m here with a tall cold glass of inspiration for you on this sun-scorched day.**** The Monday Challenge: tell me how the heat feels. Go outside if you have to, or stay in the shade, but tell me about the sun sliding down the side of the house, the hot breeze coming off the ocean, the smell of the grass withering in the front year or of flowers bursting into bloom. I want to hear about grass fires and BBQs, drought and beaches, sunstroke and tanning.

Love it or hate it, we’ve got to deal with it for at least another little while. Might as well pin it down on the page where you can deal with it.

*By the way, Pacific Rim: you should see it. Unless you hate giant robots and awesomeness.
**Thank all the known and unknown gods. Because of my studies, I still occasionally wake up in the middle of the night, thinking I have an exam the next day.
***All right, this one might have been me. Because that feeling is fucking disgusting.
****Seriously, I’m not going outside unless I’m wearing SPF 1,000,000.

Monday Challenge: Open the Door


We’ve got a long way to go. (Photo credit: garryknight)

We are going on a trip.

Yes, I mean us. You and me. Bare Knuckle Writer and Bare Knuckle Reader. Do you mind if I call you Read? Really? Too bad, I’m doing it anyway.

No, you don’t need to pack. Not even a toothbrush. Where we’re going, you won’t need anything.* Just your eyes and maybe a few words. Because, when we get where we’re going, you’re going to need to tell me about it.

You see, there’s a door. It’s down below. It takes you…somewhere. That’s all the information I can give you. Just somewhere. Probably on this planet. But it might just be a copy that’s been placed somewhere else. A mirror universe, an alternate dimension. There might be another you here. There might be something worse.

That’s another thing: going through the door could be…weeeeeell, it might be a little dangerous. Just a little. Maybe two littles. But no more than that.

Well, unless you open the door onto something really fucked up. But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

What? No, of course everybody comes back. Like, ninety percent of the time. Well, ninety percent of ones I thought would make it back. So…maybe fifty percent total. And I’m pretty sure the ones who didn’t return were just, you know, busy or something. I don’t put any stock in the blood on the floor. That could have been from anything. It might not have even been blood. I certainly wasn’t going to walk through the door and find out.

This trip is the Monday Challenge, and here is your task, Read: Tell me where you are. I won’t be able to see it, not unless you show it to me. So use your words. What does it look like? What do you imagine it smells like? What sounds are there?

And why have you been sent here?

Ready? Time to open the door. And good luck out there.

You’re going to need it.

The Secret Door

The Secret Door is presented by Safestyle UK

*What? No, not because you’ll be dead. Fuck, what do you people think I am? You’ll be scarred for life at the worst.

My Brain Wears A Black Hat


And she that sat him’s name was Imagination. (Photo credit: Kevin Zollman)

My head is full of frontiers.

I put this down to the countless hours I spent watching science fiction and western movies with my dad back when I was a much smaller terror than I am now. All those towns with a single dusty street, all those galaxies beyond the edge of known space.* And all the characters that are made by those settings: the hard ones, the daring ones, the abject cowards and the morally questionable.**

This comes out in my writing, I think. Looking back at a lot of my stories, I notice a trend. The ones I love best tend to take place on borders of some kind. Occasionally they occur within the confines of a larger setting—a modern city, for example—but the main action always happens somewhere outside of the light, like the lawless confines of a hidden underground dog fighting ring. Places where normal morality has been suspended.

And now that I’ve recognized this, I’ve taken a fresh look at some of the stories I’ve been stuck on. You know the ones: they just didn’t work out and you’ve got no fucking clue why. They died of Story SIDS. But now I’m thinking that maybe a few tweaks of setting might breathe new and terrifying life into them.

I don’t think I’m the only one who has a place inside their head. All writers do. Maybe yours is an ancient city, steeped in history and corruption, layered in beauty and horror and fabulous inventions and terrible crimes. Maybe it’s the cozy confines of a small town, its casual simplicity overlaid with a Byzantine tracery of friends and neighbours and obligations and old secrets. Maybe it’s the clinical sterility of a spaceship or a lab or an institution. Or the broken post-apocalyptic landscape. Somewhere, there’s a place where your imagination feels at home.

So, what would we see if we cracked open your mind? Where does your imagination put its clawed feet up and relax?

Mine’s riding into some wild dead-end town right now, magic and horror following behind.

*Not hard to see why I love Firefly, is it?
**I’m aware that variants of these appear in almost all settings, but in the frontier, there’s much less accountability. There might be a token of the law, sometimes embodied by the character themselves, but ultimately they have to make choices based on what they can live with at the end of the day. It makes for strong protagonists, if often damaged ones.

Monday Challenge: Nothing But The Rain

Rain, Rainy weather

Grab your gun and bring in the cat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the rain. The sound of it falling on the roof of my sun room*, the smell, being out in it…there’s something clean about it. I turn off my music on mornings like this one and just listen to it falling, dripping off the edge of the roof, splashing on the deck. It’s as close to being zen as I can get.

Weather is an important part of story telling. Not the most important, maybe, but the right weather creates an atmosphere that can’t be missed. And I’m not talking about the stereotypical ‘rain when it’s sad, sunny when it’s happy’ shit. That’s lazy. I mean the soft fall of snow piling up outside during a funeral, making the hush of the service spread out into the world. The pitiless revealing glare of the sun to someone who has secrets. The never-ending overcast sky of a planet shielded from attack from orbit. The cold breeze against the your skin at the edge of the world.

Today’s Monday Challenge is to write your weather. Go outside if you have to, taste it in the air. Hear the way it changes the street, smell the rain or the dust on the breeze. Feel it on your skin.

Then come back inside and write about it. Tell me what it is, either on your own or through a character.

What do you hear?

Nothing but the rain.

*Yes, ironically named, I know.

Monday Challenge: Player of Games

Trivial Pursuits

After this, we play Battlegammon. (Photo credit: Alice Bartlett)

Everyone enjoy their weekend? Mine was nice. Lots of games, board and otherwise. I played the British Xbox version of Trivial Pursuit and tried to guess who all those ‘football’ players were. Very confusing, and not at all helped by the ever-so-slightly condescending voice of the announcer. And, with a bribe of pie, we learned to play our friend’s Battlestar Galactica board game. I also discovered that I am a Cylon, and, with my fellow Cylon, succeeded in destroying humanity. Oh, and there was some Firefly in there, too. Good weekend.

Leisure time defines who we are. You look at the way someone spends their free time, and you think you know something about them. Based on my weekend (games of all varieties, sketches of tabletop RPG characters, victory brunch after destroying humanity as a frakking toaster), an observant person would correctly assume that I am kind of a nerd, but a social one. They might also notice that I have a penchant for playing the bad guy, but nothing can be drawn from this. Pure coincidence.


The Monday Challenge for this week should really be the Sunday Challenge, because it concerns leisure time, but the Posting Schedule is all-powerful and cannot be denied. Invent a pass-time for your characters. Anyone who watched Battlestar Galactica remembers Pyramid and Triad, the games that survived the apocalypse. Harry Potter fans all know Quidditch, of course. And let’s not forget Tri-Dimensional Chess, first created in Star Trek and later developed into a real game.* Blernsball, Tall Card, Electro-Magnetic Golf, Jiggly Ball, Pod Racing, Double Cranko, Calvin Ball, Sabacc…there are a lot of these. And with reason. People can’t just sit around and advance the plot all the time. They get bored and they need something stupid to do, usually while drinking. Hence the games.

So, what are these characters doing when they’re gathering in the break room? This is not just for writers of alt-world fiction—feel free to make up the rules to Inter-Office Hockey Joust. Or Rebound. Or Guerrilla Catan. And then write a scene in which someone plays it, and then loses horribly.

But remember: choose your stakes carefully.

*A fucking hard real game.

Monday Challenge: Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep

Château of Fontainebleau, bedroom of Napoleon I

The person who sleeps here is probably overcompensating for something. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another holiday weekend here in Canada, another excuse to sleep late. Like I need another one.

I was lying in bed thinking of my new story this morning. Thoughts are always softer and more malleable before I get out of bed. And I started thinking about settings. In particular, the bedrooms of my characters.

If you’ve never read the book Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett, one, it’s good and you’re missing out, and two, there’s a section near the opening discussing how much you can tell about a person by examining their bed. Or at least the one they sleep in, which might not be the same thing at all.

I also need to flesh out some of the recurring settings in my story before November. Not so much to have a blueprint of them, but to have a feel for them. I need to know what they say about the characters who live there. And, occasionally, die there.

So, the challenge, then: describe the place your character—or characters, if you’re feeling ambitious—sleeps. A bedroom? A box? A coffin? The backseat of a car? A bench in the park? Someone else’s bedroom? A hotel? Upside down hanging from the ceiling? What does that space say about that person? Messy? Shiftless? Unhappy? Paranoid? Or irrevocably in love?

To get you started, here are two examples from my upcoming novel:

This room is old, a part subdivided from an old house. She just moved in a few days ago, so it’s still pretty damn bare. All that’s here is the sparse furniture that she bought after moving in, shoved in any old how. The bed is the only thing that’s seen any use. She didn’t make it again this morning; there was no time. Taking up much more room than the furniture are the crates containing her life of the last five years. One of clothes, which come to think of it will probably be much too light for this climate. Already she can feel her first real winter in years coming, just like the ones she remembers from her childhood. One crate has the tools of her trade: bottles, strange metal instruments, rolls of cloth and silk thread. She’ll need to find a place for them soon, a proper place. And two of books, which are the only crates that are even halfway unpacked. She keeps meaning to unpack fully, arrange things, make some kind of life here, but it’s been busy since she got back. Funny, she thought that all the rushing would be over when she finally got home. Instead, it feels like she swam from a mild stream into the ocean. She can feel the tide and the cold black depth under her feet. Sometimes she wonders if she’ll live long enough to unpack.

Not far from the first room is another, but this one is large and well-appointed. Someone has tastefully decorated it in dark, rich colours, nothing ostentatious. The furniture is all well-made, and it would be easy to overlook the blade marks scoring some places, almost covered by fresh paint. The woman here sleeps in the bed of a man she hates. It’s his bed, not hers; hers was the one she left behind five years ago, covered in blood. Sometimes when she wakes up here, for a second she thinks she’s still in the old bed, and for that second is happy. But then she opens her eyes and remembers everything. And then she turns to look at him, sleeping next to her. Her hands clench, and she thinks about getting one of her knives and driving it into the soft vulnerable place under his jaw, through skin and flesh, through the roof of his mouth and up into his brain. She wants to feel the blade scrape against his skull from the inside. But she can’t. So she lies back, staring at the ceiling, and wonders why she bothers to sleep at all.

Monday Challenge: Smells Like Teen Spirit

The Man Your Man Could Smell Like

This is the blog your blog could smell like. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the robot posts of last week, I’m back home and sorting out the inevitable mess that results from leaving your routine for any length of time. Seriously, where the hell do all these papers come from? Do they breed when I’m not looking? Do the cats bring them here? I don’t know. All I know is I want them to go away.


You know one of the weirdest things about leaving your home and staying somewhere else? The smell. Nowhere else in the world smells like your home. Whether that’s good or bad probably depends a lot on your cleaning habits, but still, there’s a scent there that follows you out into the world. It clings to your clothes and your skin. And when you’re in someone else’s place, you can always tell. Back when I used to get hand-me-downs from my aunts, I could always tell who had given me which sweater by how it smelled the first time I picked it up.

Smells are deeply linked to memory as well. There’s research to show that it’s the sense most closely linked to it; a scent can take you all the way back to your childhood in a heartbeat, without you even thinking about it.

Sensory input is tricky in writing. The default is always sight; after all, it’s the easiest and, for most people, the dominant sense. Sound is used a lot as well. But what about touch? Taste? Smell? What does you character’s car smell like? How does their favourite jacket feel on their skin? How does blood taste?

So here’s your Monday Challenge: stop right now, and close your eyes. Doesn’t matter where you are*; you don’t have to be at home for this. Take a breath and really think about what you smell in that second. Food? Perfume? Cleaning solution? Smoke? Even if it’s nothing at all, why is it nothing? Did someone just clean? Or are you in one of those in-between spaces that smells like no one and nothing, where people pass through without leaving anything behind?

Describe what that breath brings you, and what it tells you about your current setting. And while you’re doing it, think about bringing that kind of sensory input into your other writing. Sight is the easy way out; what else can you use to describe?

*Unless you’re behind the wheel of a car, in which case stop reading blogs while you’re driving.


Monday Challenge: Hanging Your Hat

The Home Welcome Sign

Hello. We missed you. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happy Monday, lovelies. Can you feel its icy breath on your neck as it tries to drag you back into Lazy Time? Not to worry, I’ve just the thing. Time to warm up your brain and flex your fingers. The week’s just getting started, so let’s get it going off right.

Today’s challenge is setting-related, but since all the elements of a story need to work together like Voltron, it’s character and plot related as well. Synergy: it’s the name of the game.

Today’s Iron Writing Ingredient is…..home.

That’s a loaded fucking word, isn’t it? Lots of baggage there. It’s the place you came from and sometimes the place you’re going. It can be the place you feel safe or the place you had to leave because it was no longer safe. It can be a house, a neighbourhood, a backseat of a car, a box in an alley, a hospital room. It can exist nowhere but inside your own head, something to be looked for and planned for. It can be nowhere at all.

If your character had a set of ruby slippers, where would they take her when she clicked her heels and wished?

Write about the place your main character thinks about when they consider the word ‘home’. Is it their apartment? Their parent’s place? Is it the same place it’s always been since they were a kid, no matter where their actual body was? Or will they be surprised to find the meaning of home has changed in their heart while they weren’t looking? Is it a safe place? Was it ever?  Are they there now? If not, why did they leave? What stops them from going back? Will they ever go there again?

Who is waiting there for them?

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to skin Monday and fly its pelt from my flagpole.