Thursday, May 23, 2013

3 tips to create places in novels

I already talked about how I create characters for my novels. Now that we have nice looking well developed characters we need a place to make them move an interact with each other, nobody lives really long in vacuum. So today I'll be talking about how I create places.

But first let me explain a bit about the places in Demon Soul, Attic Mirror and the rest of the Demon series.
The stories are set up in a house. This house has the particularity to be at the crossing between different World. Above, you have the Demon World which can be access either through the chimney in the living room or above the fairy tree in the garden. From the center of the fairy tree, you can go to the Fairy World. From the mirror in the attics you can go to a place called Teneria. The house is filled with children, the older ones have their own bedroom and the girls have private bathrooms. The younger children share rooms. Like any normal house there is a living room, a kitchen and a room to watch TV. In the attics again there are two side, on the right side rooms have been prepared for the children activities, Jayden's painting room, Ethan's laboratory... on the other side, it looks like an attic filled with old things and dust. At the end of the second floor corridor, there is a door to the library tower. In the basement live the vampires.

This description is the picture I have on my mind while writing the first drafts. The small problem with it is that it is not fit for readers because it only shows where things are, not what they look like, smell like and how to access them. It is also not fit for characters because there is no emotion in it. To create real places for your novel, something that you can actually use in the narrative you need to work on descriptions. Here are three tips that should help you get closer to your goal.

Tips number one: What is the place for and what do you want it to look like?

This list is probably the most complete thing in the writing process about creating a place, you can add everything about places where you have been to use them as references. I generally like to look at pictures. It is also useful to think about dimensions for a room. I have demons flying out through the windows so my windows need to be large enough for them to jump in the side and maybe spread their wings out. You need to consider how many people will be in the room to make it large enough. Tell about the light, the colors, the smell, the noises, what is present in the room and what can be expected to be there but isn't. 

Now let us create a nice place for our character. As the first tips post showed the birth of Lizzy, let's now create Lizzy's environment. We have see the room a bit before now it's time to give it some more substance.
  • Lizzy is a pianist so we need a room with a piano.
  • It is for a concert so the piano is at the bottom on a stage and there are sits going up. 
  • The sits are not very comfortable, only black cushions attached to the wooden benches without back holders or resting places for arms. They are on uninterrupted lines so you can enter the rows either from the left or right sides of the room. There are other sits on the right side of the entrance, three by three along the wall but from them it is difficult to see the stage.
  • It's in a small town so the room is not too big, it can contain about three hundred people.
  • The entrance of the room is at the top of the stairs. It takes about three large steps to reach the first row of sits and there is a wood railing before them. 
  • There are drawing on the walls made by children for some sort of school festivals, and also an advertisement for the church charity event. The walls are not smooth, there is red carpet on them, dusty and old for about one meter high on the left and right side, the rest of the wall is dusty white roughcast. 
  • There are long and thin windows near the ceiling, but not enough light can get through so you need to turn on the electric light when entering.  
  • There are lights above the sits, two rows of three neons.  
  • There is a heavy curtain separating the stage from the rest of the room, a red curtain looking a lot older than the carpets. 
  • The stage is a little elevated from the ground by about twenty centimeters. It's one meter and a half away from the last row of sits. 
  • The floor of the stage is made of dark wood with traces of shoes on, as if a lot of people have walked in over the years and there are a lot of scratches, some leading to the piano.
  • It's a black grand piano covered with a stained yellow blanket. 
  • The room smells like paint and dust, it seems it hadn't been opened for a long time.
 Something like this give a rough idea of the room. You can always add more and you don't have to use all of it later or all at once, it's just the place where you come back to pick up ideas.

Tips number two: Create a small paragraph describing the place from a neutral point of view, imagine that you are entering the room for the first time and note what you notice first.

By setting yourself in the room you are more likely to notice the important details as the opposite of the details that a character will notice due to there personality. Your main purpose in this case is to set a neutral point of view and to show to yourself where you need to act by comparing the list to the paragraph and noticing what you used. This helps to emphasize perceptions over feelings so you need to refrain from giving your point of view and if you like the room or not, leave it to your characters. I think of it as an action description. Something with only enough details to be viable.

The room where the concert was supposed to be held was in a tall building in the center of the city. The first time we went there it was rainy. The room was situated on the first floor but we still had to climb stairs to reach the entrance door. The manager pushed the door in front of me and entered to turn on the light. It was dark and the neon took some times to turn on. I search of the windows, they were small and narrow along the ceiling. The ceiling seemed high. I took few steps to reach the wooden railing and have a better look at the room's disposition. There were sits going down to the stage and my sight was blocked by a large red curtain going down to the floor. I turned to the right to face the manager and notice a second row of sits along the walls. 
"Can you open the curtain?" I asked.
The manager didn't answer but walked down. I followed him. He climbed on the stage and pulled the curtain from the middle. It wasn't one curtain, there were two and he has to pull on them to get them to open. I climbed on the stage as well, almost tripped on the small step and pulled on the second curtain. It was heavy. The piano was in a corner, with a dusty yellow blanket on it. I walked straight at it.
"Can we have light in here as well?" I asked turning around to look  at the sits. There could easily be three hundred people in this room. The sits didn't seem comfortable enough for a lengthy concert. The manager turned on the lights on the stage, they were coming from above the curtain. I would have to put the piano close to the edge of the stage to see my fingers.

This reads really cold. I have to say that I had to force myself a bit to notice the colors. It's the kind of description I would use in an action scene if the surrounding is not really important. It's rushed through the room, we don't know what people really use it for. It doesn't bring any feeling or emotion. This form is an important reference for me because if I want a very light description (which I often use) it contains the element which seems to be the most important.

Tips number three: Create a small paragraph describing the place with your character inside. What are they doing? What do they see? How do they feel?

In this case you will write a paragraph for your character first interaction with this room in the story you intend to write. I generally write those paragraphs before the first draft as much as I can. When I read the first draft through when editing or when I'm stuck while writing it, I go back to those location paragraphs to add something to the story. They serve as reference but can also be used partially or entirely in the draft. It helps making sure that your character has a consistent behavior with its surroundings. They also give some substance to the story. I might go to a new place unexpectedly and write some of those while editing as well. It is never too late. You can use different characters for the same place, it makes the editing easier and the story richer. You don't need to do it for all places in the novel but I feel it helpful to do it for the most important at least.

So let's go back to Lizzy now. She is coming back to her country side city so she already know the place.

Lizzy knew where the place was, she didn't really need anyone to show it to her but the manager had insisted to accompany her. It was typical from small town people, they were carving novelty. Since she arrived, she hadn't been left alone, she needed a break. He turned the keys in the key hole. Lizzy wished she had been alone as he pushed the door open, so much memories where hiding in every corner of the room. He entered first and turned on the light. Lizzy was already looking at the room, both hands on the railing, she stroke it gently and pushed herself a bit forward. It had changed, the room was different than in her memory. They had replaced the empty space with black sits. As a kid, she had to pushed chairs to place them on the stairs, there were chairs nowhere to be seen. It was looking ugly and uncomfortable. The drawings on the walls had changed too. She had almost thought about seeing hers but of course they had been removed and replaced by the one of the current kids at school. She walked on the left side looking at the drawings. They had also put some carpet on part of the walls, as a kid she had hurt her fingers on the roughcast so many time running up and down the stairs. She had an urge of touching the walls but refrained. She wasn't alone. The manager was following her.
"It has been a while since your last visit. Do you like what we have done to the place?" he asked in a jovial manner.
"Yes", Lizzy lied slowly. She hated the place.
"The piano is still the same", he said going down a bit faster and climbing on stage. 
Lizzy repressed a sigh, the piano should have been the first thing to be changed. The manager pulled on the red curtains. The same old red curtains. Lizzy couldn't repress a smile. She had been hiding in those curtains many time, at least a part of her childhood remained untouched. 
"You are going to give us a great concert miss, it's rare for this place hold such event" the manager said inviting her to climb on stage.
It was the same wooden stage and as Lizzy climbed on she remembered the cracking sound of it. She turned slowly to the center of the room. It had the same smell of dust and paint she remembered as a kid, the smell of her childhood. She closed her eyes an instant trying not to remember. This room was also the place where she had been the most ridiculed in her life. She could see their faces, hear their laughters as she didn't remember the notes, she could feel her fingers tensed on the keyboard. She was twelve by then, she thought she had forgotten but she had just escaped and now it was all coming back to her or more exactly, she had willingly come back to it.
"Miss are you alright?" the manager said behind her.
Lizzy put a forced smile on her face clench her fist as much as she could around the strap of her purse.
"Of course, this is perfect" she said turning around. 

Here we have Lizzy having fun in the room. I feel a bit bad for her. The description is a lot warmer with feelings included and also seems more natural than the first one. The main difference between this paragraph and the previous one is that Lizzy don't stop on the same things. She notice the changes that I wasn't aware of. The description is really something personal for her. If I had been using the manager in this scene it would probably be a lot reduced or he would have pointed at what the last changed had been or discuss the charity event from the church. 

I hope you enjoyed the tips and that you found them helpful. Let me know what you think and how you create your own characters.


  1. Very interesting of how you create your setting for your stories. I always had trouble of how to describe a location without sounding too boring, and just getting straight to the character interaction. I usually go for the bare minimum and analyzed what my characters needed, and adjust from there. Good to know for me to possibly use for my stories =)

  2. Thank you for the comment Winfield. I think my love of places started when I was in primary school. When I was about ten years old a new teacher came to the school. She was young and really bright. She would let us do work on our own and if we were to finish early, we could either read a book or describe one of the pictures she had placed under the board. I took it as a game to describe all of those pictures and she would correct my writing. She is the one who taught me part of this method and that description could be made with different point of view. I'm very grateful that I had such an awesome teacher.