Story Setting

Story Mapping…With Actual Maps!

Open up your average fantasy book and you’re likely to find a map on the very first page. This map can be simple or detailed, display an entire city or several neighbouring countries or even a whole continent. They give the reader an idea of where a character is in relation to other places. They show us how the setting is laid out. They present the protagonist’s home, hangouts, and places he or she prefers to avoid.

They’re also great tools for when you’re writing.

Your setting is an absolutely massive part of your novel and, like everything else, it needs to be kept organized. You can’t have your protagonist know the location of a place in relation to his home in one book, and then have it be in a completely different location by the next book (unless the owners changed locations or someone moved, of course). But consistency is important, and it’s nice for readers to have something visual to reference.

So, I highly recommend making your own setting map.

“Make a map?” You might be saying, “But I know nothing of cartography!”

Don’t worry. This map doesn’t need every street marked out or every town listed (it can if you want, but it’s not necessary). For example, the map of Camorr in Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora is simplistic. As Camorr is a city-state made up of various islets, only those locations are labeled with names like “Shade’s Hill” or “The Shifting Market.” Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon goes even simpler, showing us the shape of a continent, a few boundaries between kingdoms, and the locations of three or four major cities.

Say your map is of the city where all the story (or most of it) takes place. You might choose only to label the districts. It’s simple, but if your character lives in “Merchant Quarter” and needs to get to the “Freedocks,” a glance at a map will give an idea of where your character is going, how long of a trip it might be, and even the type of area they’re going from and headed to. The Freedocks might be located near the Temple District, and thus be busy, but respectable. Or they could border Murder Row, and be a place to avoid after dark.

You could go a step further and add in key locations. The protagonist’s home, place of work, and usual drinking hole could all be dotted in. Major landmarks could be labelled. Drawing a map might also help you learn a few things about your character. A character with financial stability would probably live in a nice location, like an apartment near a mall or an area with nice shops, cafes, restaurants, or markets. If your character is poor, how far do they travel for work? Chances are a maid from the slums who works in a manor has quite the commute.

For larger maps, you need not add every town and village in the kingdom, but you could add those the heroes pass through so the reader can trace their path. Label areas the heroes may venture into, like forests or lakes or fortresses. It will help you make sure your characters are headed south and don’t start going east because you forgot where the wizard’s tower was.

You can make your map on poster board or just scribble designs in your notebook. Add as many details as you want or as few. Maps are great references, and you’ll find you characters navigating their surroundings much easier because of them.

Categories: musings, On Writing, Story Setting | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Setting Tips: The Circus

What is it about the circus?

What makes young people want to run away and join one? What makes it an ideal setting for the strange and wondrous? The bright colours and cheerful music? The daredevil acts? The nomadic lifestyle? On a more fantastic spectrum, is it that the magic could be real? Could it be that there’s something perverse about this place of amazement?

But a circus is more than jugglers, tightrope walkers, and beast tamers. Here are some things to consider for your circus setting.

Does your Circus have a theme? You can choose your basic, three-ring circus, but it’s good for narrative, world building, and business if there’s something unique about your circus. It can be something as simple as a colour-scheme—The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern uses a purely black-and-white one—or the theme can encompass every aspect of their show, from colour choices to performances. Your theme can be virtually anything. It can revolve around things like monsters, or you can have a floral theme, or focus on fire-based acts and appearances. There’s no actual limit as to what you can do with a circus.

Who inhabits your Circus? What you choose as a theme and the kind of world you’ve created will effect who makes up the circus. A vampire-themed circus is more likely to have a large population of actual vampires working for them (though there doesn’t need to be). Are the lower ranks made up of runaways and drug addicts? Are the clowns just guys in suits or unrepentant monsters? The type of story you’re trying to tell will determine if the people who make up the circus are just ordinary folks or something more.

The Staff? What are the big, headlining acts in the show? Who does them? Do they have understudies in case of injury or illness? What about the other jobs? A circus is more than just the beast tamer, the trapeze artist, and the ring master. Who performs in the sideshows? Who wanders around in colourful costumes, handing out balloons? You can’t forget the non-performing jobs either. Someone has to work the games, rides (if there are any) and concession. Someone had to repair costumes. Someone has to help with make-up. They need people to cook, clean, and repair. Not every member of your circus is going to be a full-on performer.

How’s your Circus doing? The success of a circus will determine how the performers are living. Are they world renowned with wealthy patrons? Then they’ve probably got well-maintained set-ups and gear, everyone gets paid on time, and they’re more than accepting of new members. A circus that’s struggling, or on the verge of closing, probably has sickly animals, only a few decently maintained attractions, under paid workers, and are likely to do anything to avoid having extra mouths to feed, whether those mouth are coming from outside or inside the circus. The financial status of a circus can tell the reader a lot about the situations that could potentially be encountered.

What’s the roster? Just like determining who does what, it is important to know what the big spectacles are. Your main players need names, though they need not all be main characters. Make sure the characters can fit their occupations (someone with stage-fright will not make a good ringleader). Determine what sideshows are offered. Fire breathers? Jugglers? Puppeteers? Is there a Freak Show? Is it a historically-based Freak Show, displaying people with deformities or other physical traits differing from the so-called norm? Or is the Freak Show full of actual freakish or mythological beings?

What the heck is up with your Circus? Are we looking at an average, real life circus, more observing the lives of its members than anything? Or is your circus in some way fantastic? Is the magic real? Is the circus haunted or manned by supernatural creatures? Is the circus kidnapping children for unknown purposes? Are they a front for a soul-stealing doomsday operation? Really, there’s nothing like taking something meant to bring joy and putting a dark twist on it.

Remember to research. Research is always important. There’s a lot to the circus. Research what kind of training performers do. Determine what goes into running a circus. Know terms. Know how some of the acts work, even if magic is involved.

I wish you all luck on your circus adventures!

Categories: On Writing, Story Setting | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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