I remember my ﬁrst oﬃcial interview about my middle grade mystery, called Turn Left at the Cow. It features family secrets and a treasure hunt (and yes, even some of Old MacDonald’s critters make humorous guest appearances). The book isn’t due out for a few more months, but the reporter had read an advance copy and wanted to talk while the story was still fresh in her mind. She lived near the rural Minnesota lake that was a big part of my inspiration, so much of my setting felt familiar to her.
Except she was confused about the deserted island — maybe because it’s nonexistent in real life? And she couldn’t place the giant bullhead statue — probably because the nearest statue of a bullhead is two hundred miles away.
So I had to admit that I’d borrowed those details from other small towns. After all, what treasure hunt isn’t made more exciting by a pirate-inspired deserted island? And what small town isn’t the more memorable for having an unnecessary but over-sized aquatic vertebrate on a downtown corner?
That kind of geographic collaging is one of my favorite parts of building a story setting. Depending on how ﬁctionalized my story, I have the chance to create a mash-up of all the diﬀerent places I’ve been, or even wished I could be. If I want, I can fashion a place that exists only on the map of my imagination.
There are lots of ways that young writers can use actual collaging and related techniques to build a setting for their own stories. Hand around old magazines, travel brochures, and catalogs, and ask students to cut out (or draw) images that ﬁt their imagined settings. Then have them paste the images onto larger sheets of paper for inspiration boards. They can make collages to represent a whole town, or they can do it for a smaller component: their character’s bed- room, or the location of some key action in their story.
I also use my cell phone to take photos of anything I see out in the world that seems like it might ﬁt into one of my story settings. Then I collect the photos in small inexpensive photo albums. They’re a great resource when I’ve been away from a story for a few days and need to re-picture the setting.
Pinterest also provides endless opportunities for creating inspiration boards online. Writers can build boards that showcase the details of their character’s home, school, town, or other key locations by mixing and matching elements from all different sources, creating the visual spaces and moods they want for their stories.
Which means that even if your young writers want to add something unusual to their setting — say a giant ﬁsh statue, for example — it’s simply a matter of “wish, and it’s here.”