‘Setting’ it all up

April 7th 2013

I’m nearly half-way through the first draft of my work-in-progress and so far, I’m pretty pleased with how my characters are shaping up — except for one. My setting. The novel is set in Key West, Florida, and right now she isn’t looking so good. Granted, I’m rushing through the second act in order to meet my word goal for Camp Nano (and to just get the first draft written so I can revise). But I intended for Key West to be as much of a character as any of the actual people in the novel. Unfortunately, she seems one-dimensional right now.

Anyone who has ever been to Key West (and I have, truly) can tell you that the island is unlike any part of mainland Florida. In Key West, old Victorian mansions have pitched roofs, intricate lattice work, worn wood siding in muted pastels, and double balconies that run the length of the homes. Banyan trees encroach on sidewalks, their massive roots lifting up the pavement. When you walk around Old Town, you have to sidestep fallen palm fronds and wild roosters. It’s sub-tropical with humidity so thick, you swear you could take an ax to it. It’s also one of the ten most haunted cities in the U.S., perfect for a YA novel about a ghost.

And although I’ve been there and have the photos to prove it, I wonder if I’ll be able to fully flesh out the city during revisions. Will I be able to communicate to the reader just how hot Key West is in early autumn? Will I be able to describe the sounds of electric cars and scooters well enough to make it seem real? And how will I ever fully describe Fantasy Fest — the costumes, debauchery, nudity — when I’ve never seen it in person? Will internet research be enough? Believe me, I’d love to go back to Key West to do real-life research, but two small kids and a furlough brought on by sequestration make that trip highly improbable.

So I ask you, fellow writers, have you ever written (or are you currently writing) a book with an unfamiliar setting? And if so, how are you bringing that setting to life? And what made you pick that particular place?

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