How To Write a Novel Step by Step: Develop Time and Place

Part 2 in a Series of 5

In Part 1 of this series on how to write a novel step by step, we discussed character development. In this article we talk of time and place.

  1. Place. There are only so many story lines as they say. The same story can be told over and over again in different settings. I often say, "Against different backdrops."

    For example: Our story is about a man who turned jewelry thief to support his family. He gets caught, goes to jail, and later helps the police find other jewelry thieves while still burglarizing homes for jewelry. In the end he accidentally helps the police capture himself.

    Now, where can this story take place?

    Jake Brimley dismounted Pinky and patted her on the nose. "Now you keep quiet, Pinky. Don’t be a-whinnying after Buck Henson’s stallion like you do. I got work to do."

    Now where and when did that last action take place? Did you guess Cheyenne in 1890? How about last week in Young, Arizona? It could have taken place in London or New York in 1740.

    Jake lowered the brim of his hat. "Darn, that northerner is cold. If we don’t get to Cheyenne soon, Pinky, both of us will freeze to death."

    So you know where this last action took place. But when?

  2. Time.

    Jake rode Pinky along the railroad tracks. He pulled the brim of his hat down to cut the sun’s glare. The tracks converged in the distance and the poles for the telegraph line shortened to a dot. Cheyenne is still a long way off, Jake thought. I’ll be glad when those trains start rolling.

    Now when did this action take place?

    With a little research, we can learn that the telegraph line was put up at the same time the tracks were laid in Wyoming. We also can determine when the first trains for public use (not construction) were running through Wyoming.

    For example, Stephen E. Ambrose wrote a book entitled, Nothing Like It in the World. The subtitle is, The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869.

    That is what I call easy research. You just read the cover of the book.

  3. Time and Place. As your character, Jake, rides his horse, Pinky, he might say something about the railroad line he is following. He may have worked on the line as the construction crews passed through Wyoming.

    What Jake says and thinks tells us when and where the action is taking place.

    Jake will seldom tell us exactly when and where the action took place, but he might. "I remember that day, the day they hung Old Tom in front of Myrtle’s Place on Main Street in Cody. They never should have done it. He never hurt nobody and never rustled one critter like they said he did. It was just because he was Blackfoot and them town folks hate Indians. Yes, I remember that day. It was the last day of October in 1886—exactly three years ago today."

    Note that Jake was referring to a past action but Jake told us that it was three years ago to the day. So the action is taking place when? Let’s see, 1886 plus 3 is…

    The place and time will tell you how folks talk, walk, earn their living, what they eat, how they entertain themselves, how they dress, and many other things. If the reader knows the time and place, many things can be left unsaid.

  4. A story may have more than one location or time, for that matter. One moment Dorothy is in Kansas, and suddenly she is in Oz.

    In my science fiction articles, Xrytspet, my alien friend or nemesis often carts me off to some far off world to see what trouble she can get me into.

    Columbus started off in Spain and landed in the new world.

    Maybe your readers will be carted off to a "lost world" where they can be gobbled up by a tyrannosaurus named Rex.

    As you prepare to write your novel, name the place, describe the place. Be able to tell your reader what he or she is seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling: "Ouch! Who left this needle on the chair? Are you watching that pot? It's about to boil over and we got kids on the floor."

    Boston was a hellishly cold place in January. People walked the streets so bundled up they could hardly recognize each other. They moved fast, nodding to acquaintances as they passed, not stopping because their noses where already frozen and they needed a warm place and a bowl of hot soup. The church bells sounded across the Commons, louder because of the chilling temperature. Jake pulled his collar up and thought how cold it must be on the St. Charles. He sniffed and mumbled, "What ever is coming out of Harry’s place I’ll be eating in another minute. Smells like Indian Pudding."

    As you describe your place, tell your reader about transportation, landmarks, what they can see in the distance, commerce, churches, schools, whatever makes the location live.

    Now don’t write long narrations about the place. You can get away with a paragraph like the one about Boston above, but generally you should not be in too big a hurry to describe a place, just let it seep in as you write.

    Going further, who lives here? Are they German, French, Lilliputians, Zombies, etc? How did they get here and when? What do they do? What goes on in your place at night? What activities are important? Do they have a parade? When? Why?

    Pick up all the odds and ends you need to make your story real even if it is not.

  5. Can pictures help you in your writing?

    A picture of a western town in 1905 will help you better describe the town in 1889 before there were any pictures of the town. A photograph of Boston in winter might help in the above example.

    Are you an artist? Even if you are not, make some sketches of your place. If it is a town, label the streets, mark the court house and the church and the haberdashery, etc. When your characters move around the town, know exactly were they are and where they are going. If they are out in the desert, what are the landmarks and where do the trails lead?

    Can’t you smell the sage brush, the cows, the perfume, the flowers, the smoke from the factory?

    Hey, is the sun in your eyes? Is the wind blowing? Did you just pull your sweater off because of the heat? Did the chiggers bite you? Are they driving you crazy? Did you slosh your last bottle of booze on your feet to kill the little beggars?

    What, you have a boil that is about to burst but you have to stay in that saddle?

Well, I think we are ready for the next step -- developing objects in your novel. "Well, that’s a nice brace of pistols you got there!"


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