We are delighted to welcome Award Winning Author Nicole Evelina today to talk with us about her advice in creating a setting for a story, creating visible backstory, conflict, creating believable dialogue and advice on what to do when writers are stuck on a specific scene.
Nicole, what are the steps in creating a setting for your story?
Really for me the only two steps are the decision and the doing research. The decision is really based in what will best serve the story, both in terms of historical accuracy and plot/characters. When I can, I like to visit the location (even if I am writing about another time period) because there is no substitute for walking where your characters do. But if I can’t, I look at pictures, Google Maps and Google Earth, read guidebooks and talk to locals (gotta love the internet for that!)
To me, the setting has to tell the reader something about the time period (or for contemporary books, the nature of the story) and the characters. It has to be accurate, lush and evocative.
So I’ll give two examples. In my Guinevere books, Avalon is a main setting. Obviously, it’s a mythical place, so we don’t know what it would look like, but I took the ideas Marion Zimmer Bradley started with in The Mists of Avalon and expanded upon them with what we know of the location (I went with the theory that Glastonbury is Avalon) and then my imagination. I hope what I have written conveys to the readers that this is a place almost out of time, where magic is real and its inhabitants (of whom Guinevere is one) are peaceful students of the old ways.
Been Searching for You is set in modern-day Chicago. I chose that location because it’s my favorite city, but also because it’s not over-done like Manhattan, yet conveys the sense of frenetic energy that accompanies modern life. Despite having that big-city vibe, it’s still very Midwestern and so are its people, including my characters, who mostly hail from either Chicago or Des Moines. If I put them in a bigger city, it wouldn’t really represent the values they hold dear.
There is a fine line between creating a visible backstory and a hidden backstory of your characters? What are the steps in balancing it out? What should you not do?
In the beginning, all backstory should be visible to you, the writer. You need to know everything your character has experienced that is relevant to your story. Because of that, I usually write out lengthy stories for my characters, even knowing most of what I write won’t end up in the book. (If nothing else, it’s a nice extra to offer your fans later on.)
The tricky part comes later when you are actually writing and need to incorporate that backstory into your draft. I try to think of it as writing only what the other characters and the reader need to know. That isn’t easy, and it’s not unusual to include too much in your early drafts. But as you go through the editing process and you become more sure of your story, it should become obvious what needs to be there and what doesn’t.
Keep in mind that there are various ways to present backstory. If there is one thing you shouldn’t do, it’s dump it all on the read at once. A) that’s boring and you will lose them and B) it doesn’t move the story forward and it’s a lot to take in. Think about your backstory like sprinkling glitter on an art project. You don’t want to just dump the whole container in one place; rather, you want to carefully, slowly add in a bit here and a bit there. That will keep your reader engaged and will help keep your pacing even. You don’t have to do this through narration. It can also be done through dialogue, flashbacks, memories, etc.
How much is too much conflict? And what do you do about it when it’s not working in the plot?
The main way you have too much conflict is when it is there for conflict’s sake. If it doesn’t move the plot along or reveal something about your characters, it isn’t real conflict. I’ve read a few books – thankfully not many – that come across like the author’s idea of conflict is heaping one bad thing after another on his/her characters. No. That is melodrama. Leave that to the operas (and soap operas).
Conflict comes in many forms and as authors, we need to vary the source. Sometimes the conflict is our interactions with other people; sometimes it’s acts of nature/God; sometimes it is within ourselves; occasionally, it’s all three. If there is too much of one type, our magic as plotters won’t be invisible and that is a cardinal sin against writing.
When the conflict you’ve written doesn’t work, it means that you as the author had a misstep somewhere along the way. Maybe you went off on a tangent, or just don’t understand your characters well enough yet. No matter the cause, the best thing I’ve found is to step back and give yourself some time to reassess. Start back at the beginning and look at the motivations for the characters involved. Then look at where they clash and/or what obstacles you have put in their path. That is your source of conflict. Then look at where you’ve had the characters go from there. Chances are good you’ve not stayed true to them in some way.
What are the steps in creating believable dialogue?
I don’t know that I follow steps. I listen to what I hear in my head and go from there. Some general guidelines:
- Cut out the inane niceties. It’s fine once in a while to have someone ask how someone else is, but most of the polite things we say back and forth are useless in books. It’s filler in real life conversation and has no place in writing. This is not only the “ums” and “uhs” that pepper normal speech, but the boring stuff we all feel the need to say before we move on to the topic we really want to talk about.
- Get to the point. When you’re writing, dialogue has to serve a purpose. It needs to reveal information or in some other way move the story along, and do it quickly. In order to do that, you need to keep the intro, the “how are you?” type stuff to a minimum, unless the point your scene really is to reveal how someone is doing. Likewise, keep the closing stuff, the “well, I’ll see you later” type stuff short. It’s that meat in between the two that the reader really cares about.
- Keep it natural. No matter what time period you write in, you dialogue needs to sound like it’s stuff people would say. Example: I judge a lot of both published and unpublished writing contests. Ever since a certain poorly written bestseller came out, I see a lot of “holy cow!” and “holy crap!” in books written for adults, even hot romances. Unless you’ve made it clear that your character doesn’t cuss (and given us a reason – maybe he or she is religious), it would be more realistic to use a curse word. Likewise, when you write in a previous time period, your dialogue will be more formal and you need to be mindful of what people would and would not reveal. We are a lot more open now than people were in the past; they are many subjects that weren’t discussed in polite society.
What is the advice you would give to a writer when they get stuck on a specific scene or comes across a road block in their plot?
Don’t sweat it. It happens to everyone. It does not mean you are a failure.
If you feel the need to be active, do something that doesn’t require a lot of conscious brain power, like cleaning your house. Sometimes the problem will resolve itself when you don’t try to fix it. Taking a shower is another great way to activate that same subconscious part of your brain. Some people swear by running as a way to let them think.
The thing that works best for me is meditating. It amazes me how fast I get answers that way. All I do is put on some instrumental music, close my eyes and ask my character what the answer is. Nine times out of 10, the scene will materialize before my eyes.
If it doesn’t, put that project aside and work on something else for a while. Your brain may just need a break.
Nicole Evelina’s books
- Daughter of Destiny (Guinevere’s Tale: Book 1) (Book of the Year, Chanticleer Reviews; Grand Prize, Chatelaine Awards, Women’s Fiction/Romance; Gold Medal Winner, Fantasy, Next Generation Indie Book Awards; Gold Medal Winner, Fantasy, Readers’ Choice Awards; Silver Award for Best New Voice, IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards; Winner, Midwest Book Awards, Fantasy; Winner, Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA) EVVY Awards, Fairytale/Folklore)
- Camelot’s Queen (Guinevere’s Tale: Book 2) (Fiction Book of the Year, Author’s Circle; Best Second Book, Next Generation Indie Book Awards; Gold Medal Winner, Fantasy, Next Generation Indie Book Awards; Winner, Ozma Awards for Fantasy, First Place in Mythic Fantasy Category; Finalist, Midwest Book Awards, Fantasy; Awarded the Indie B.R.A.G. Medallion; Shortlisted for Foreword Indies Book of the Year – Fantasy; Shortlisted for WishingShelf Book Award, general fiction)
- Been Searching for You (Novel of Excellence, Author’s Circle, Romance; Winner, Midwest Book Awards, Romance; Winner Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA) EVVY Awards, Romance; Silver Award Benjamin Franklin Awards – Romance; Third Place over all categories, Lyra Awards for Fiction; Winner 2015 Romance Writers of America (RWA) Great Expectations and Golden Rose contests; Finalist, Chick Lit, Readers’ Choice Awards; shortlisted for the Chatelaine Awards for Romantic fiction.)
- Madame Presidentess, a historical novel about Victoria Woodhull, America’s first female Presidential candidate (Awarded the Indie B.R.A.G. Medallion; Chaucer Award Winner, First Place US History Category, Historical Fiction)
Thank you, Lindsay!