Wish You Were Here

Shell LakeI 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.”

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