How a writer sees locations for prospective stories
In How to be doomed as a writer, I mentioned that author Stephen King prefers to look at story possibilities as situations rather than plots.
Over time, a writer becomes attracted to certain kinds of settings and the kinds of situations that might occur there. I’m attracted to natural wonders, especially mountains, as well as old buildings. My novels The Sun Singer and The Seeker both arise from a natural wonders setting, Glacier National Park. When I contemplated writing about the park, my first thoughts were about the kinds of things (situations) that might happen there. My Kindle short story “Moonlight and Ghosts” came to mind when I looked at an abandoned building near the house where I grew up.
Suppose you’re in a writing class and the instructor shows you the following picture obtained from the Florida Division of Historical Resources. All you’re told is that it’s an old and restored opera house in a small north Florida town.
Perhaps the instructor has influenced your brainstorming about this picture by showing you the building on a sunny afternoon with cars along the street. If s/he had shown you a photograph of the same structure as it sat on a moonlit night with the trees missing leaves during December, you’d come up with a different set of situations.
- If you’re a fan of TV police shows, perhaps this looks like a place where a crime is committed.
- If you’re drawn to opera and/or to theater, maybe you’ll think of stars, set designers, directors, little theater groups, professional “theater people” or amateurs coming together to put on a play that somebody hopes will fail.
- Maybe there’s a secret about the building, some old legend or a will uncovered in a dusty attic that describes how, when the building was constructed, several hundred bars of gold were hidden beneath the box seats.
Okay, I’ve withheld some information, so with a few more facts, are your prospective story situations the same or do you change them?
- The Opera House, which consists of a large second-floor theater and first floor shops, was built in 1880.
- Traveling productions, including vaudeville groups, put on shows at this theater for a number of years. But then, when the railroads re-routed their lines and there was no easy way for out-of-town visitors to get to town, the theater fell into disuse.
- Ghost hunters claim the owner died of a broken heart and still haunts the now-restored building. Purportedly, the former owner has been “seen” by the ghost hunters and a glowing orb of light.
- The building is now used as a venue for weddings, local-area stage productions, and other functions where a seating capacity of 600 is desired.
If your instructor asked you to write a short story about this building, would you see it as just a building where anything might happen, a setting for a theater-oriented tale filled with clashing egos and temperamental stars, or would you try to link the local legends and the history of the building into your story? The only catch is, the instructor will expect you to convey–one way or another–a sense of the building. So, it can’t be a generic structure.
Well, unless you know the building already and/or are a historic preservation specialist, you’rre at a disadvantage when you try to describe it. If I were the instructor, I’d have several information sheets prepared as handouts.
- Those who wanted to use the building as a place setting would get a general description of the interior and some architectural information about the architectural style of the building, it’s size, etc.
- Those who wanted to use the location for a theater-oriented story, would receive information about the stage, the seating, the lighting, and the dressing rooms.
- Those who didn’t know yet what was going to happen but wanted real background, would be told about the building’s history and the ghostly legends.
What do you see here?
In a classroom exercise, you’re “research”–if you think any is needed–is limited by what you see in the photograph and what the instructor will tell you either in a lecture, a question and answer session, or via handouts. Since I am attracted by legends, especially paranormal stories, I’m going to see this as a place where something ghostly will happen.
How you tend to view real locations, whether they’re lakes, mountains, buildings, or city streets, will influence what “your muse” draws you to consider. Your inclinations may suggest that the instructor should have had several more handouts about the building. One might be how the building is used today. Another might be the kinds of businesses on the first floor and on adjacent streets.
As writers, we look at locations as places where something might happen or where something did happen. Whether you like tying in real history and legends or whether you see locations in terms of what’s happening there in the present day, once you’re attracted to a setting for who knows what reason, story situations may come to mind as you Google (or go to) the setting.
When I first saw pictures of this building, my first thought was, “Good, here’s a cool old building in the Florida Panhandle where I’ve been placing many of my recent stories.”
As I learned about the building–its history, its ghosts, its restoration–ideas began to float around for prospective stories. As this process unfolds, we may never write a story…unless we’re in a classroom and have no choice. If a story comes out of it, the setting was the catalyst and the result was a marriage of the real and the writer’s imagination.
P.S. If the actual building intrigues you, you can learn more about it here.