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Monday, July 2, 2018

Location Location Location by Elizabeth Clements


A sense of setting is as essential to a story as dialogue, conflict, and pacing. Without it we have talking heads in a pea-soup fog. Artists and singers and movies have the advantage over writers by giving instant visual or oral gratification…like all these years later I’ve never forgotten the vista of the sweeping western frontier that greeted Lt Dunbar in Dances With Wolves. In a smaller dimension, our Cypress Hills reminds me of North Dakota and I can see those hills from where I live and it’s the setting for my trilogy.

Years ago, I became hooked on Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense mysteries. I read every book of hers available in our town library. She was excellent at painting word pictures and to this day there’s a scene that remains imprinted on my mind. I don’t recall the title, but the book may have been Airs Above The Ground, about the Austrian Lipizzaner horses. I’m fairly sure the setting was mountains and Austria, which makes me think of that title. She describes the scene beautifully, romantically, even perhaps with an air of mystery, her trademark, then ends that descriptive paragraph with a thud—"and the odor of pigs” (or something like that). Funny how that little snippet has stayed with me for decades and now I want to find and read that book again.

Dr. Zhivago has some of the most unforgettable scenery ever: springtime in the Urals, with the breeze dancing through a field of yellow daffodils, accompanied by that incredible soundtrack; or the snow-encrusted summer house nestled like a miniature ice palace amidst the snowdrifts, the windows covered in delicate patterns of frost and lit by a single candle. Another brief but unforgettable wintery image from the movie that packed a powerful visual punch for me was the boxcar crowded with people fleeing from Moscow—and when the straw was scooped and tossed out the open doorway, I flinched seeing all that mold staining the floor. A stark picture of the miserable, war-time conditions of all those gray-clad occupants who were crammed like chickens onto tiered bunks that reached to the ceiling of that frigid boxcar. The camera shot lasted only a few seconds, but it spoke volumes in my mind of the misery endured by these desperate victims of war. Here’s a clip from the movie that shows Yuri and Lara’s arrival at the ice-crusted summerhouse:

Dances with Wolves also made a succinct but powerful ecological statement with just a quick shot of an empty tin can of beans tossed carelessly onto the prairie by the wonderfully disgusting muleskinner who played a small but important part in the movie. Perhaps it was the director’s not-too subtle jab at littering, which is so prevalent in today’s throwaway society?

And who can forget the stunning visual in Gone With The Wind’s famous railway scene with its hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers lined along the tracks? And Atlanta burning around them as Rhett and Scarlett flee to the safety of Tara?

I cite these movies in particular because I’d read Dances and Zhivago just a few days before seeing each movie. I was gratified by how closely and satisfyingly the director had followed each book (although the film’s ending differed from the Zhivago book). I know there are lots of other movies that come to mind, that have fabulous imagery, especially Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or the new worlds created in the Marvel sci-fi movies. And don’t get me started on the fabulous settings for many western movies: Utah, the iconic Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, New Mexico and the magnificent Grand Canyon, to name a few western settings.

The weather can be an important element in a book or movie. It’s been probably twenty-five years since I read one of Linda Lael Miller’s books, which was set in the Pacific North-West. I’ve forgotten the book title and the characters’ names, and sadly, even the plot, but what vividly remains in my mind of that dreary, sodden mining town is the incredible impression she gave the reader of the misery of sullen skies, day-after-day rain, and mud. And what a scintillating day when the sun stopped sulking and came out to play. Everything was gray: the skies, the rain, the buildings and even the clothes. The weather became a unique character in that book because it dominated so many scenes. 

The movie, Paint Your Wagon, is another wonderful example of rain and mud creating atmosphere—and you can almost smell all those unwashed bodies mining for gold. Clip from the movie:

For us to create unforgettable scenes for our readers, we have to help them inside our vision. Telling is easy but showing takes more words, hence the advantage movies and paintings have over books. Sometimes we can spend hours perfecting what we see in our minds. Years ago, I did a workshop on imagery for a romance writers’ group in Calgary and used three songs for the exercise of stimulating imagery. It was interesting to see some writers scribbled several pages, while others wrote just a paragraph or two, and others gazed thoughtfully into space.  Some willingly read what they’d written; it was interesting how the impressions varied amongst the group members from the same stimulation. After one of those songs, I said I was going to write a book about “What if the hero comes back?”, thus inspiring Beneath A Horse-Thief Moon. What if has always been my favorite writing inspiration. I’m sure I’m not alone!

One show vs telling exercise I like to use to create a visual in a reader’s mind is this simple sentence: He was walking angrily into the room. That’s telling us, but three people can immediately form a picture in their mind and they are all different. How was he walking? Limping, stomping, dashing? How did he look?  Red-faced, scowling, sneering? However, if you write: He strode into the room, kicked the cat out of the way and slammed the door so hard the windows rattled—we form a pretty good impression of him and we also have a much stronger use of verbs. We still don’t know what his face looked like, or his hair color, but we sure know he’s mad about something and he’s not a very nice person (poor kitty). Also, we don’t have to tell he was mean because the writer showed he was a nasty person or at least in a foul mood.

I like to start my books with action to (hopefully) hook the reader, and when the action slows a bit, then toss in some more of the setting, description or a bit of backstory. Snippets of the character’s personality can filter in via the action. Your reader should be too busy wondering what’s going to happen next that hair and eye color is the least of her must know now concerns.  Besides, she’s possibly already seen the cover and knows those details.  

Here is a brief excerpt from the beginning of Beneath A Horse-Thief Moon to give a sense of setting:

Someone’s behind me.
Chase Reynolds dipped his head to block the campfire with his hat brim while inching his hands toward his holsters. Better to die fighting than be shot in the back by a yellow-bellied bushwhacker.
 “Touch ’em and yer dead,” snarled a guttural voice.
 Chase froze. He risked a glance over his shoulder. Moonlight outlined a rifle aimed at his back. Teeth clenched, Chase raised his hands.
 “Git up.”
Chase rose slowly, turned and took satisfaction in towering over the bastard, who scooted back three steps. 
The man whistled. “Fang,” he called out. A wolf-like dog materialized from the darkness. Firelight gleamed on its shaggy gray fur and glittered in its pale eyes. The creature stopped in front of Chase and growled.
“Aptly named,” Chase muttered, his gaze riveted on the animal's sharp teeth. 
The outlaw jerked his rifle at the flames. “Douse it.” 
Warily, Chase bent and dumped his coffee pot. The fire sizzled, sputtered, and died. A plume of acrid smoke spiraled into the air, lighting a spark in the dry grass. The man stomped it into the ground.
Interesting. Most outlaws wouldn’t give a damn

The other thing I’d like to share about settings is that I’ve been fortunate to visit the areas where my books are set. This isn’t always possible, and many writers rely on research, videos, movies and biographies to color their stories. However, nothing can replace being there: to see the flora and fauna indigenous to the area, breathe in the prairie sage or salt-laden sea breeze, experience the desert heat or damp chill and appreciate the vastness of the setting. The photo below is an overview of the Cypress Hills. From this, one sees how easily the heroine’s ranch can be hidden in the coulees and trees.

Cypress Hills and Reesor Lake in south-east Alberta, spreading for miles eastward into Saskatchewan

When I began my first book, a contemporary, the history part of it was from the Yukon Gold Rush and that’s the only place I haven’t been, but the modern-day action was set in Edmonton, Alberta, a city I’ve visited several times. Two more books are set right here in Medicine Hat. My first historical was inspired by a month-long visit to New Brunswick and the famous “flower pots” of Hopewell Cape. We spent an entire afternoon wandering through a working pioneer village. Thus, I’ve tried to incorporate into my novel all the sights and sounds and scents of southern New Brunswick’s famous Bay of Fundy area.

Years later, on a research trip to southern Saskatchewan, I visited the wolf caves situated a few yards from the International Boundary. Standing in that enlarged wolf cave, breathing in the dirt and imagining a couple of horse thieves camped there, waiting for a safe moment to run with their stolen horses hidden in a second wolf cavewell, I just knew I had to incorporate that experience into a book. Then more magic happenedmy secondary characters demanded their own story and thus the Prairie Moon Trilogy was born, lol, all set in the lush, historic Cypress Hills of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

We’ve all heard the advice write about what you know. That is true, but I’ll go one step further…write about what you love, what you feel passionate about! It will resonate in your story. Research is great and necessary, but get the passion down first, then polish it with research. As lovers of history, we writers can get caught up in research, often gathering far more than what we actually need. This way we can narrow our research to what’s pertinent to the story instead of wallowing in it then having to edit much of it out. However, in defense of necessary research, it can unearth some terrific nuggets that will enrich our story even more.

When I first began writing, I was advised to stick to American settings. I strongly resisted. I felt and still feel Canada has fabulous scenery and interesting history that should be shared with readers. In my late teens and twenties, I’d read hundreds of romances, historical and contemporary, always set in the U.S.A. or England or France, etc., but never in Canada. When I finished writing my first book in 1982 (yes, that far back), I finally came across one book—a Harlequin Presents—that was set in Canada—Calgary, to be precise. When I saw that pocketbook in the bookstore, with the Calgary Tower on the cover, I was devastated because my book was set in Calgary; I didn’t want the editor to think I had copied the book (even though I’d already sent my manuscript off to Harlequin before I even began reading that romance).

Well, when I read it, this writing novice learned something very useful. Good, accurate research is imperative. That published author had obviously never been to Calgary (that’s all right) and knew nothing about the city other than the fact that English friends had been to the Calgary Stampede and she thought that would make an interesting setting. There was not one single landmark mentioned in the book, not any mention of the cowboys and the arena events, not even a note about the mountains or prairies or foothills or Calgary’s fabulous western history. 

Readers love to identify with a place they’ve visited while reading a book. It gives them a much more intimate enjoyment of the story. However, this British author failed to do that for me. For a while, she put out a book a month or every other month and had an irritating habit of plunking in a paragraph describing the heroine that read like a paint-by-number list.

Am I being over-critical? I don’t know; I just go by what I like and don’t like and try not to make mistakes that I’ve perceived in books or at least things that annoyed me in a book. By the way, I stopped buying that author’s books years ago. She was new and refreshingly different, initially, but after five or six books of the same…. That’s a death knell for an author’s books.

I don’t wish to end my blog on a negative note—everything I’ve written here is simply my humble opinion. There are a lot of fabulous writers and books out there, many I have yet to read, including PRP authors, but I simply wanted to share my writing experiences with you, what I’ve learned to do and not do. And if anything I’ve said helps someone at their stage of writing, then these words are all worth the effort. I’m far from perfect and I’m learning all the time.  I feel the day I ever think I don’t need to learn anything more is the day I must dig deeper.  Also, I must remind myself not to compare my writing with others who write much better than I, but rather just dwell on the love of creating my own stories the best way I can. I do believe in following my instincts, and they’ve never led me astray when it comes to the way I feel about books.

Thank you for visiting the PRP blog and have a wonderful day, no matter what you set out to do today. Please visit my website to view the many photographs my son took for me of the Cypress Hills and historic Fort Walsh.


  1. Thanks for your insights. I have visited British Columbia and Alberta a number of times and love the western history of the region! Glad you have incorporated it into your novels. I'm sure that makes your stories unique and appealing. One fascinating and historic location I'd love to revisit is Barkersville - wow, what a WESTERN setting it conjures up in one's mind!

    1. Thanks for posting, Gail, and mentioning Barkerville. I had to look it up and now I want to go there the next time we travel to B.C. In the meantime, I'll have to settle for Heritage Park in Calgary, which boasts a lot of beautifully preserved buildings and offers a train ride around the park or a boat trip on the reservoir. The little city of Brooks, Alberta, has a wonderful collection of old houses, which are filled with artifacts and Victorian-era furnishings. We need heritage places like these so that that era is not forgotten.

  2. Elizabeth, that's the one thing I love about connecting with authors who love to share their passion, you learn so much.

    For me, my setting is Colorado or the Tri-state area I grew up in. Even though the stories are historical, that sense of place that you feel having been there does color your stories.

    Thanks for your insights. Best to you as you continue on your journey. I agree, when you stop learning you may as well give up or dig deeper. Doris

    1. I'm with you, Doris--I love connecting with authors and learning more about them and what inspires them. I've always had a passion for Colorado and visit it vicariously through movies filmed there. It's still on my bucket list. Thanks for stopping by and have a great day writing and researching.

  3. Great post, Elizabeth. It's wonderful when we can visit a locale in our stories, but I've had several where I couldn't. I remember once a reviewer dinged me on the location of a mountain and I was crushed that I'd somehow gotten it wrong. I hadn't visited the place (Trinidad, CO) but I researched the heck out of it when I wrote my story. I still wonder if she wasn't wrong lol but she lives there, so I know the error is mine. As for showing vs. telling, it's something I must continually work at. I often 'tell' in a first draft and later try to switch it. And I do agree that you must respect a place's monuments (and local foods and customs). It's folly if you don't. Love your excerpt!

  4. Thanks for your kind words, Kristi. Originally I used a few real people in my story, because I came across such interesting people in my research, i.e. Dutch Henry, who was one of those interesting bronco-buster-turned-outlaws. However, there was conflicting data on him, so in the end, with the help of search and replace, I changed his name (and some others) so I wouldn't get the dreaded feedback from a reader that I was wrong, lol. That allowed me poetic licence to create my character(s) inspired by real people and places. If you check out the photographs on my website, you'll see the many glimpses of life in a N.W.M.P. fort over 125 years ago. Kudos to the dedicated people who keep that life and times alive in museums and "working" historical villages. Kings Landing in New Brunswick was my first experience strolling through such a period community and became the setting for my first historical. Talk about inspiration. All my five senses worked overtime that day, and perhaps even a wee bit of ESP?

    1. I believe in ESP, too, LOL. I think if we're open to it, the spirit of stories can find us. I do believe research helps with this connection. Because at some point we must step away from facts and create a realistic fiction.

    2. Kristy, I so agree with your comment. I believe when we walk where others have walked and sit where others have sat, what's to say that some of their spirit still lingers there? Years ago, I had the most incredible experience at the Bay of Fundy. It was a chilly wind off the Bay, so I put on Doug's red windbreaker and while he was with the boys exploring, I huddled on the boulders, pen and steno book in hand, and watched the tide come in. By my feet was an elongated flat boulder. First one drop splashed on it, and then another, and another and soon it was wet and submerged. I kept staring at the encroaching tide and a figure took shape in the water, a young woman with long, flowing golden hair, undulating like seaweed in the water. She was in jeopardy of drowning when a dog loped to her and started whining. In the distance a man was jogging, and whistled for his dog, but the dog remained by the girl, until finally the "hero" came to see what the problem was, discovered the girl and lifted her up into his arms and strode off into the sunset. End of vision. I sat there, stunned, demanding more, but nothing came. In the wee hours of the next morning, around 4 a.m. I woke from a vivid dream, am a montage of all I'd experienced that day, but it had nothing to do with the vision at the rocks. I despaired because I so wanted it to be a story. Initially a contemporary romance, it evolved into my first historical. Then at some point of editing, I realized that "scene" was actually the prologue to my story. The final draft of it I reduced down to 595 pages, but I never submitted it to an editor because of the length. One day I will sit down and type it into this computer, that is, when I find my hard copy. It's like my first love, I've never forgotten it. And what's to say the spirit of some Victorian miss swirled around me that breezy August day in New Brunswick and whispered in my ear?

    3. Oh, I love that story, Elizabeth. Places carry spirit--or energy--however you want to look at it. I don't doubt that you picked up on something. I had a similar experience with my first book, a western romance. When I drove across Texas in my 20's, I stopped at a rest stop outside Amarillo, and I 'felt' my heroine in the distance watching me. I later set the story in the location (I'd been trying in vain to set in AZ but it just wouldn't work -- I suspect that was why). You should definitely find that story and get it cleaned up for publication!!

    4. Thanks, Kristy...from your lips to my fingers. First, I have to complete my final edit on my trilogy, then New Brunswick, here I come. I'm so glad your Texas trip provided such wonderful inspiration. When we went to NB, that was my intention to write a book set there, and it actually happened! The power of the sub-conscious is amazing.

  5. Elizabeth you made me laugh with your description of the author plunking the paragraph that described her heroine like a paint by number list. LOL I think descriptions are really hard to "get right" sometimes. Stephen King doesn't do a lot of descriptions of his characters, but by golly by the end of the book you have a pretty good idea in your own mind's eye of what they all look like! Of course, in a romance, I think you have to describe them and even though we've read a million times not to say, "He looked just like Tom Selleck"--there are still authors who will submit books with that kind of character description sometimes.

    I do agree with you and Kristy about places having spirits or energy, and unfortunately, so many of us DON'T open ourselves up to it early on because it can be scary. But it can also be so wonderful!

    I agree with Kristy--you should clean up that ms. and see what happens with it. I have one that is really really long and I'm working on it bit by bit to get it ready to put out at some point. I only hope I'm not old and gray when that time happens. LOL

    Excellent post, Elizabeth. I do love your pictures!

    1. Thanks, Cheryl, you're always so encouraging and supportive. Perhaps we should challenge each other regarding our mutual long-book project and set a completion goal date? I know you're incredibly busy with all-matters PRP. I don't have that kind of work load yet the day is never long enough to accomplish all I want to do. I'm daunted just by the thought of retyping 595 pages. The last time I started, I ended up editing as I typed and at the end of the day, despaired over how much time a chapter took to type. Some day is this procrastinator's worst thought. Thus I can relate to Scarlet when she declared, 'tomorrow, I'll think about it tomorrow' or words to that effect. Damn, now I want to watch that movie. Yep, procrastination... lol

  6. Elizabeth,

    Wonderful post, and wonderful insights.

    Back in my early days of publishing, an editor caught my error of changing the hero's eye color three times. She asked what color I wanted, and I told her to choose one. lol It was a good lesson for me to lighten up on the tiny details. While I still describe my characters, I try to approach it from hero's impression of the heroine and vice versa, rather than "He was six-foot-four with red hair and blue eyes." The authors we return to are the one who allow us to create our own images (for the most part, anyway).

  7. Hi Kaye. Isn't it interesting how we learn from our writing boo-boos and try not to repeat them. I don't mind the writer giving hair and eye color details but just slip them in at the right moment, not a solid paragraph of her hair, her eyes, etc... Many years ago one of my fave authors had her editor stomp on her describing "chocolate eyes"... and not to compare them with food. But I do see that in books now and then. I confess I've used cinnamon-brown eyes because that just seemed the right shade of rich dark brown with a hint of red just to give them a warm glow. My mom's cousin had warm eyes like that. For the longest time I wracked my brain trying to come up with a way to describe my heroine eyes. Then one day I came across cinnamon eyes and just knew that was the adjective I'd sought. Thanks for stopping by, Kaye, and as always, your kind words are very much appreciated.

  8. Having a sense of place in a scene greatly enhances the story. I can't imagine being able to delve into a tale and feel a part of it without a glimpse into the places in which the scenes unfold. What a dull and unadventurous story that would be.

    One of the most difficult things I had to do when writing westerns is describe the Wyoming Territory--the geography, the trees and fauna, and to give enough real information to make the story's location feel believable. I've only been to Wyoming once; everything else I had to research. It's much easier when an author writes stories that take place in the area in which they live.

    I think in recent years more and more stories are written with their location in Canada. I like those stories. Even TV series like When Calls the Heart take place in Canada. Personally, I am intrigued by these stories because there is so much I don't know about the western part of Canada.

    Thank you so much for reminding all of us the importance of choosing the right place for the characters to carry out their scene and to make the story come alive for our readers. Great blog, Elizabeth. All the best to you...