Some Novel Settings

Last week, Musefly Writing Studio posted an excellent discussion on settings in a story. After reading it, I realized I hadn’t included any images lately of the settings in my WIPs. So I thought I’d take some time today to share a few photos that my characters could have taken. But first, a little background for newer readers and anyone who’s forgotten what I write about.

Each of my stories so far features an archaeologist as a main character. For Death Out of Time, that’s Madeleine O’Brien. In Summer at the Crossroads, we have Katharine “Kat” Donnelly. And in Meghan Bode’s stories, well, you can guess. From these names, it’s also clear each is a woman. These stories are also set mainly in Virginia and Washington, DC. So how about we take a look at some of the sights (and sites) in the lives of these characters?

Death Out of Time opens in a setting very much like you see in the photo below. The trees would be farther away, however. Madeleine doesn’t know how her life is about to change forever, all as the result of a “straightforward” archaeological excavation.

An old pasture. Death Out of Time opens in Loudoun County, Virginia, in a similar setting with fewer trees.

Madeleine is wrapping up her excavations, so she doesn’t stay in the field for long. The action soon moves to her lab, which looks a lot like the one in the following photos. Actually, I’ll bet Meghan Bode’s lab is similar, too. But Kat Donnelly’s? No. She does fieldwork in Guatemala and can’t bring artifacts back to this country, except for a few samples for specialized tests such as neutron activation analysis. In fact, she might not have a lab at all.

Madeleine and other characters in Death Out of Time also spend time in DC, and Meghan Bode’s novel will take her there. Kat Donnelly of Summer at the Crossroads teaches at one of the DC universities. Both Madeleine and Meghan will spend time in the building below, although for very different reasons. Just because the main characters are archaeologists living and working in the same region doesn’t mean their lives are all that similar. In fact, they’re not.

The key to “people-free” photos in DC is to arrive early on a weekend morning—before everything opens.

Madeleine’s trip to DC also includes a stop at the monument below. Depending on how the real repairs go, I’m not sure if it’ll look like the image on the left or the right. The haze and humidity, though, will be more like you see on the right. That’s the difference in air quality between early April (left) and early September (right).

A character in Death Out of Time might see a street like the one below in his job. This is “Colonial Williamsburg” in 2009.  Let’s just say he sees it in another year.

So, there you have some snapshots of my stories’ settings. If I’m successful with my words, images like these will come to a reader’s mind. I have a timetable in mind for completing the first draft of the rebuild of Death Out of Time. Let’s see if I can stick with it….

Do These Three Characters Know Each Other?

A follower asked this question recently in a comment on a post. The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is in the “how.”

Madeleine O’Brien and Kat Donnelly were in graduate school together at Barnett University in Chicago. Barnett is fictional but could be based on one or more real schools. Neither will ever know how much more there is to the other than they could imagine. Kat teaches at a university in DC (so far unnamed) while some years later, Madeleine took a position at Kelson University (fictional) in Arlington, Virginia. Meghan Bode teaches at Custis University (fictional), a private school somewhere south of Arlington. She specializes in Mid-Atlantic historic archaeology and has met Madeleine, who does more general work in the area, at regional conferences. Although both Kat and Meghan know Madeleine, the two haven’t met. But who knows what the future might hold…?

Have I confused you enough for the day?

I hope your projects are all moving forward and that you’re enjoying some beautiful fall (or spring) weather.

56 thoughts on “Some Novel Settings

    • And it has taken several years. 😉 The idea for Madeleine’s story first came to me in late 2007/early 2008, but I didn’t start writing it until late 2010. And now I’m rebuilding it. At least I have that better understanding now!

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  1. Thank you so much for the shout-out, JM. That was a lovely way to start my day. 🙂

    I think the use of photographs to help writers describe setting is a great idea. You can fudge the details as much as you need in order to stay true to your characters and plot. There are also certain details you might not think about until you see a photograph representing the kind of area you want to describe.

    I would say that you did a fabulous job describing Madeleine’s lab and the site in the opening scene in Death Out of Time. That’s pretty much how I pictured those settings when I read your ms.

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    • Those settings are one of the few constants that remain in the rebuild. 😉

      Being able to easily visit these areas is a great help, as is bringing home the photos as reminders. That’s where writing about an area we know well can be an advantage. But with today’s Internet, even writing about a place we’ve never visited doesn’t need to rely solely on imagination or travel books. There are so many resources available for places that there’s really no excuse for ignoring them!

      I was happy to reference your Musefly post. 🙂 You’re putting together a great resource there, and I want to be sure readers know about it!

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  2. Interesting glimpses there! I particularly liked the photo of Colonial Williamsburg. To me, that is such an American looking street. The other pictures could potentially be England, or another country – I know of course that the monument is in Washington, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently American about it, whereas that street just doesn’t seem like it could be anywhere else! (Except perhaps Canada).

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    • It’s interesting that you think the Colonial Williamsburg scene looks so American—because those buildings either date back to the Colonial period or are authentic reconstructions of such buildings. And, of course, this part of Colonial “America” was dominated by English settlers and their descendants!

      But I suspect by sometime in the 1700s, architecture was taking on forms that reflected the building materials available here, the climate, and maybe influences from settlers from other European countries. After all, not everyone who came here in the 1600s and early 1700s was English….

      I’ll bet there have been academic papers written about this!

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  3. JM, loved the lab shots. Most of us don’t know all the tools people like your characters (and you — which is just cool beyond words) use. (On a different note — have you read any Patricia Cornwell?) The other shots help as well. If a person has been to the place in which a novel is set, she/he conjures up those images in their minds as the characters take us there. When I began writing my novel about my character in NYC, I made up some places in my head. After living near there and visiting so much, I found that my “mind” did a pretty good job.

    And I’d much rather visit the monument in April (isn’t it cooler then??) than in early September. Does your character complain about that crazy heat? 🙂

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    • Thanks, Brigitte! I want readers to experience some real archaeology in these stories, even if the events around it aren’t so mundane. So we’ll learn about Madeleine’s (and my) favorite lab tool. 😉 I think there’s a lot to be said for basing stories in places that we’re familiar with. As long as we don’t overdo the details, there’s just something about a writer who puts the reader in the setting with some well-chosen words. I really enjoy that in a book, and I hope I can come close in mine.

      Weather does have a role in Death Out of Time. And the characters do discuss it and react in some ways as a result of it. But I can’t say too much here lest I give away too much! April generally is cooler than September, although we’ve had a remarkably nice summer this year. I’m sure we’ll pay for it down the line somewhere! I usually recommend April and October as the best months to visit out here. The weather is more likely to be mild, the kids are in school, and there aren’t too many tourists. 😉

      I haven’t read Patricia Cornwall because from what I’ve seen of her book “blurbs,” they’re a tad too dark and violent for my reading tastes. I lean more to less-gruesome types, like Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway novels.

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  4. “neutron activation analysis”—With phrases like that, you’ll get the Big Bang boys as fans. 😉

    As always, clever post. Helping readers visualize the settings beforehand makes good sense. Good luck with your timetable!

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    • Ha—those boys should also love the multiverse aspect of that book. 😉 And they might like the time-travel aspect of Death Out of Time.

      I’m keeping quiet about the timetable because too many things could impact it, even beyond writing issues like a brick wall. I’ve been going through the existing sections, seeing what can be kept in some format, and thinking about new “plot points” and “pinch points” for the revised story. Listen at me—I sound like a planner now. 🙂

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  5. That makes sense that your characters would know each other or know of each other. Once the separate books are all done and published, that would be fun to do another one where they work together on a project. Lots of possibilities! I love the historical aspect to it all and the Colonial Williamsburg photo makes me dream of all that history.

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    • I’ve had this scene in my head since 2011—Madeleine and Kat run into each other after the events of their first stories and leave the encounter, each explaining what they “know” of the other afterward to the people with them. Each, of course, thinks the other’s life couldn’t begin to compare with hers. When in fact…. 😉

      It would be fun to put them in a story together, although a press might not be fond of that idea. But if I go the indie route, who’s to say “no”? 🙂

      There’s a lot of history potential in Death Out of Time….

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    • Visiting these places, or at least going through the photos of them, can really refresh my creative mind and Muse. There’s something about walking the same (or at least similar) streets, seeing the sights, hearing the background noise, smelling the air, tasting the food…. Hmm, I’m glad I’ll be in Virginia tomorrow evening. 🙂

      Take lots of photos this fall!

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  6. Thanks for sharing these images. It helps me imagine your characters in their settings. I have also found it helpful to keep some photos in my writing area to remind of the importance of place. I love the idea of your some of your characters collaborating on a mystery someday.

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    • Collaborating on a mystery…. Oh, boy—I just realized what the bickering in my head would be like. 😉 Who would get top billing? Who would have to be content with a supporting role? I think I’m getting a headache already…. 🙂

      Photos are great to have in the writing space. I know some writers who create playlists for each major character or story and listen to that while they work. If something helps spark the writing, it should definitely be present!

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    • If I told the story behind the work in that particular old pasture, you might not be keen on being out there. 😉 Trying to locate the cemetery was a nightmare of green briar and bush whacking. I still have some scars from that adventure—and no good mystery came of it!

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  7. Great idea to share some of your stories’ settings JM! What I find challenging is to remember that readers aren’t actually going to see all my research photos, and the only way they can visualize the settings is through my words. Thanks to my great critique group, I get reminded when I’ve forgotten to mention some key detail.

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    • Why is it sometimes so hard to get that information out of our heads and onto the page? Thank heaven for those test readers. 😉 I like going through photos like this at times to remind myself what the key elements are for the scene. Maybe the trees aren’t important, but the scrubby weeds that tear at your clothes are. Or the important factor is a candle in the window rather than whether the house is brick or wood-sided….

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  8. This all sounds very interesting! You seem to have it all really well thought-out. And also, great visuals. I find adding pictures can really help a reader get into a story. Vague or general photos like the ones you’ve shared are even better, because they can give us a sense of what the setting is like without totally depriving us of the need to use our imaginations.

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    • You’ll never see me post photos of people who “I think” look like my characters. I’d much rather let readers form their own opinions of what they look like. I think that’s much more fun. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to enjoy a movie adaptation of a favorite book because the actors look nothing like my idea of the characters. Imagination can be best.

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  9. Very cool, JM! I like the way you use these photos to bring to life even more your archaeologist protagonists. Do you spend time looking at photos like these to create a deeper, more detailed setting description? Or, do you use them more for general inspiration?

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    • Thanks, Mayumi! Often I use them for general inspiration, but as I mentioned to Silk above, they can also help remind me what’s key for the reader to know about the setting. I hope I find a good balance between enough information for the reader to get oriented but not so much that they drift off to sleep. 😉

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    • Googlemaps is a great place to get ideas for places we haven’t visited. The way things are going with technology, maybe someday we’ll even all have our own drones we can use to get closeups…. Now there’s a scary thought—and a story idea.

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  10. JM, wow I’m impressed with how thought out all three characters are in your mind and how they do and don’t intersect. I think having one character play a cameo in another’s story is a pretty neat idea! In a way it can be like an Easter Egg or how you like to drop hints so that only readers/fans who have read both books would know the meaning of the interaction, but others might not pick up on it.

    The pictures were great! I love the early morning one with no people — that has to rare (or very VERY early in the morning) 🙂

    And yes, you sure are sounding like a planner … but if that is working for you, then that’s great news!!! Keep it up and good luck with the timeline 🙂

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    • It took a while for me to learn how these characters might know one another. And it would be fun to sneak them into each others’ books now and again. 😉 As I mentioned to Sheila above, a traditional press might not be keen on that idea (especially if different series were with different presses), but if I go indie, no one but me could say no!

      I can’t remember what time of day I took that photo of the Archives building, but it was definitely not open at the time. It was probably a Sunday morning, when folks aren’t out and about too early…. That’s a great time to get photos of the monuments and Mall without huge crowds blocking everything. Of course, sometimes you want people in the picture. You can take those in the afternoon. 😉

      Life has a way of interfering with timelines, but my fingers are crossed that I can stick close to it!

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  11. What a fun tour through your characters, their lives, and their places. I love that they’re loosely connected, too, which is something I didn’t realize until now. I love fiction that’s anchored to real-world places, and also made-up places (like your schools) that have real-world roots.

    I’m actually going to take some photos this weekend that are relevant to one of the novels I’m publishing in 2014–because I have the opportunity, and maybe the author or I can use them somehow when we’re gearing up to get this book out in March. I’ve actually also considered approaching a photographer who has black and whites of a place in Alaska that also factors into the story, just to see if we could use one of them somehow.

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    • Thanks, Laura! I’ll always keep these photographs “general” so that readers can use their imaginations about the details, if they’re so inclined. And I won’t include real people to represent the characters. For starters, I doubt I would find any that fit my ideas. But just as importantly, I don’t want readers to be bound by my visions of what a character looks like. I like creating those images in my mind.

      That being said, images can also spark interest in the story. And with modern technology, it’s easier to include them in published works at a reasonable cost. It wouldn’t surprise me that in the future, even “mainstream” (as opposed to graphic) novels might routinely include them. And even if they don’t find their way into a book, I think they can be great “extra content” on an author’s or press’s website.

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    • Thanks, August! After a rough spring and summer, the fall is picking up for the WIPs. And meeting our blog buddy Kourtney in person earlier this week was not only fun, but a real inspiration, too. 🙂 You have a great weekend, too!

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  12. Background info on the characters is so important to me. In situations where an author doesn’t provide a lot of backstory I often make up my own little scenarios for the characters. 🙂
    And thanks for a peek into an archeology lab! I was having a hard time picturing what one might look like.

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    • I tried to keep these photos “generic” since I used a real lab. 😉 So any identifying labels/names/etc. were blurred out. I’ve already drafted out some backstory scenes for Death Out of Time that I hope to include here on the blog once the book is available someday. Or maybe as a collection of short stories…. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. 🙂

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  13. It’s great to get a feeling for the settings of your stories JM – they were something like I imagined them, so that’s good news, since I’ve never been to the areas concerned! It’s great to be able to visit the places where your WIP are set – I’ve just been to the setting of my WIP this morning and there’s always something new I notice or think I can include in it.

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    • I love spending time in areas where my stories take place. Like you, I’ll learn something new about it, or I might find new ideas popping into mind that I can incorporate into the stories.

      I also love the international flavor to blogging, and I think photos like these can help readers in other corners of the world “see” our stories’ settings. For example, I haven’t yet been to England, but when I see photos on your blog, I can gain an even better appreciation for what I read in your posts. Some purists might say our words should be sufficient. But humans are visually oriented, so I say the photographs add to our experiences.

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  14. I love the photos, especially the ones of the lab. So interesting. Can’t wait to read about the “favorite tool.” I also enjoy how your imagination works, creating a world in which your separate characters know each other. You know how TV shows sometimes have characters cross-over into each other’s shows? Well, maybe, someday, yours will do that in your writing. Maybe on this blog!?

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    • The photos are from a lab I know well. 😉 I had been working on the first two WIPs for some time before I learned that Madeleine and Kat had been in grad school together. I had thought they could have meet in the DC/VA area, but no, they went back further than that. I love it when the characters’ worlds come together like that. Maybe there is a cross-over story in the future. Even if it’s never a full novel, a shorter story here on the blog could be fun! Hmm, you might have gotten Kat and Madeleine thinking now…!

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  15. It’s really cool how much you’ve put into creating your characters. I love that their lives intertwine. Makes for the possibility of an epic crossover novel when each series is going. 😉

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    • Right now I’m imagining the epic bickering between them in the writing of such a novel…. Good thing I took some aspirin a few minutes ago. 😉 Still, that scene in my head where Kat and Madeleine run into each other has never faded. It makes me think there is some crossover in the future. 😉

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  16. Great post. I do love a good setting and agree with Vanessa about the last photograph being such a typical American street to someone from this side of the pond at least. I think that’s why I like writing novels so much. You get to live with the characters for so much longer and feel more about them and their background. The settings are equally important and done right they enhance the storytelling.

    Happy writings and setting 🙂

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    • Hmm, that photo looks nothing like the Midwest where I grew up or anything I’ve seen in the south and west. The only part of the US it really could be is the Eastern Seaboard, which was so heavily influenced by English settlers! Maybe I should post a different photo from a historic area out here and ask readers where they think it was taken….

      I think you’re right about novels giving us a deeper insight into our characters and the places where their stories take place. I really want to give readers a feel for these places without bogging them down with too many details. Balance, balance, balance. I think that’s my mantra for writing. 🙂

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      • Balance is always a good mantra to have with a novel. I’ve always tried (not sure whether I succeed) to drip feed the details rather than a data dump.

        Strange about perception. I’m sure many places are nothing like the photograph, but it does instantly provide an image in my mind as to where it is. I like the idea about a guess the location post!

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  17. Somehow writing is easier if you are able to wander actual places that might be the location…reading with a general image is more fun, too….makes the story seem real
    (and I prefer not to actually see ones of the characters – imagination there is just fine)
    Sounds like you have all sorts of novel potential lingering and twining

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    • I love to visit the places that my characters work and live in. Not only do I get a feel for the setting, but those trips can spark ideas for the story. Or a person walking by might catch my imagination and become the model for a supporting character. And I’d like to think that readers familiar with some of these places will come away thinking, “Yes—she described that perfectly.” Some day!

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