Teachers Write 7/18/13 Thursday Quick-Write with Erin Dionne

Good morning, writers!

Your Thursday Quick-Write today is courtesy of my friend & fellow mystery lover, Erin Dionne. Erin lives outside of Boston, where she writes, reads, teaches, and juggles family life. Her latest book, Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking (Dial Books) is a race-against-the-clock adventure set in Boston.

Erin has two young kids, so she writes most of her books in her local coffee shop or local library. She’s also an associate professor of Liberal Arts at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Massachusetts. When she’s not writing or teaching, she’s having dance parties with her kids, spending time with her husband, or managing the expectations of their disgruntled family dog.


 Often, setting gets overlooked when we’re drafting and revising. It becomes a “backdrop” on which our characters perform. In reality, our surroundings influence us in many ways each day—consider everything from the weather, to how comfortable the furniture is where you work or live, to ambient sound (lawn mowers, traffic, etc). In my latest novel, Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking (Dial Books, 2013), the city of Boston becomes a character that Moxie and her best friend explore.

For this quick write, I am asking you to take away your characters and focus only on setting. Let’s see what you can pull from your setting to influence your story. Here goes:

  1. Choose a significant moment in your story (could be a climactic scene, could be the beginning…whatever feels important to you right now).
  2. Open a fresh page/document/etc, and just describe where this scene is taking place. Really dig into the details: what type of floor is in this space? How clean/dirty is it? What’s on the walls? What’s out the window? What noises do you hear (even in a room devoid of people, there are sounds—hums of electronics, clicking/ticking clocks, whoosh of heating/ac/fans)? If your characters are outside, address similar elements: what is the weather like? Wind conditions? Sun? Is this an industrial area? Woods? Is there litter? Graffiti? What does it say? Do you hear birds? Other animals? Planes? Sounds coming from other houses/teepees/hobbit holes? Don’t forget smells! Fresh cut grass, musky swamps, microwaved burritos or the tuna sandwich in the next cubicle. Your goal is to be as detailed as possible. Write in full sentences, lists, whatever works for you (you can draw a chart for all 5 senses and fill it in, if that helps).
  3. Now, when you’ve gotten every last detail down, review what you have. Identify 3-5 elements of setting that you did not incorporate in your existing scene but might influence your characters. What are they? Is the smell of that sandwich making your pregnant protag nauseous while she talks to her boss about a raise? Does your main character really regret not putting on sunscreen this morning? Is the incessant ticking of the heirloom clock in the living room adding to a character’s insomnia?

Hopefully, you’ve discovered some ways setting can expand and reinforce what’s going on in your story.

Have fun! I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

Note from Kate: Feel free to share in the comments if you’d like!  We’ll draw a random commenter to win a signed hardcover of Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking (Dial, 2013).

43 Replies on “Teachers Write 7/18/13 Thursday Quick-Write with Erin Dionne

  1. The water laps rhythmically against the aged wooden pier. The waves echo as they gently push against the boat launch.
    The breeze is warm and humid as it brushes the water. It is a slight relief from the surrounding muggy air but it brings along a fishy odor.
    Across the lake there are tree-covered hills, lush and emerald green with a light mist hovering over the hills in the distance. There is an old white farmhouse and barn tucked into the hills, with farmland running right up to the river’s edge where it intermingles with the lake waters.
    Around the curve of the land past the old white farmhouse is the Wisconsin River with glistening white sandbars and rugged bluffs that swallows nest in.
    There is only one boat on the entire lake at this moment, its motor muffled by the distance between us. A fish leaping for its insect breakfast it splashes as it re-enters the water. The only other sound is bird song and the waves rippling to the shore.

    1. I love the verbs that you’re using here: “laps”, “echo”,”tucked”,”Leaping” –so vivid; they bring this to life. Great job!

  2. The drone of the fan masks the sound of the tv. The dog is asleep curled up on the loveseat. She twitches – must be dreaming, but makes no sound. Sometimes she whimpers. But not now.
    The morning news is on the TV. Weather, yesterday’s events, time to check out the traffic.
    Quiet, peaceful.
    The smell of coffee lets me know that the brewing cycle is done. Anticipation of that first cup . . .
    The near silence of the morning . . . . peace and quiet is broken by the sound of the alarm. Moments stolen and treasured before the day begins.

    1. This is how I feel each morning, minus the dog, before I go to work. It is the calm before the storm. A moment that I cherish as maybe does your character

  3. As he walked, Daniel thought about how lucky he was to live in one of the most beautiful places in the mountains. There was so much to see and do. There was the occasional black bear to be avoided, the wild rabbits to chase and the crawdads to catch in the streams. The beauty was endless. Each season brought something new. The spring brought flowers, and birds, while the summer evening skies sparkled with the lights of fireflies. Fall was the paint on nature’s canvas, turning the leaves a rainbow of colors, and winter snow drifted down from the mountains dusting the trees like diamonds. The morning sun chased away the dark skies turning them from a golden yellow into the most vibrant blue imaginable, creating shafts of light that filtered through everything leaving a halo around whatever it touched. The fog rolled in over the valley settling in the trees, rising upward like smoke. The evening sky turned a gold tinted blue, changing to rose and then a deep purple, as the sun slid behind the mountains. He didn’t fear the dark, he never had. That was why he was always in trouble. His parents had always wanted him home before dark and he usually came in right after the sun had gone down. He would stay outside until that last minute, when the sun slid home. His parents had always threatened to punish him, then gave him his dinner, and sent him to bed early. He didn’t know what the big deal was, since there really wasn’t anything to fear. Why was his parents always in such a hurry to get him into the house?

    1. This drew me right in and I want to read more about Daniel. Love those nature descriptions!

      1. Daniel is always in trouble for coming in late. He works hard to get home on time from his friends house. A condition that must be met for him to be allowed to go to the county fair. He is the victim of a hit and run.

  4. I have been struggling with this very thing in my WIP. My characters have run away and are hiding in a shed. I have decisions to make about this shed. Is it wood or tin? What is in there? What sounds surround them? Are they comfortable or frightened? I often see abandoned sheds on pieces of property and am tempted to stop and go in. Here’s a snippet.

    The door is covered with vines. Harmony and I pull and tug to loosen them. Finally we reach the door. A wooden handle is drawn across the door. I lift it out of its cradle and peel the door open. I halfway expect some night creature to scurry out, but all is quiet.
    Flashlight time. With the light, I scan the inside. The floor is wooden with weeds growing up between the slats. There are shelves stacked on one side holding rusty yard tools. There is a distinct smell of gas. I see an old gas can in the corner. I think I could put it outside in the bushes and maybe that would get rid of the smell. The tin roof echoes with the sound of cypress branches swishing across. I don’t think I’d like to be in here during a storm.

    1. We have an old shed by our cottage and you have captured it very well. You are welcome anytime to stop and go in our shed. : )

        1. There are lots of spider webs and it is an old outhouse, so under one of the shelves is a board with a hole in it. : ) Hydrangea bushes on either side of the door almost block the door and the door hangs at a crazy angle so it is hard to latch the ancient door clasp which is a metal loop that another metal piece goes over and a padlock hooks onto it. How’s that?

    2. ooh, nice! Great details. I think those specifics that you’re searching for might come from what the shed will be used for. Is this a clubhouse for them? A hideout? Somewhere they’re not supposed to be? If they’re going to turn it into a clubhouse, maybe give it a more “homey” material–wood.

  5. The flipped light switch produced that dull, thud-clunk that only gym lights can produce before they begin to ebb slowly to life. Heavy footsteps disappeared behind the final scrape-whomp of the distant, groaning, locker-room door. The still shadowy outlines of banners and pep posters, ghosts of encouragement, sagged above what was soon to be the first evening, of a first official weigh-in, of a first match. A churning stomach knew that my first invigorated mob of cheering or booing onlookers would witness a mind-numbing display of mat-pounded flesh, half Nelsons, and hopeful escape moves, which would end in agony or exhilaration. Suddenly, an envelope of loneliness and fear settled on the glinting floor between the gym door and locker-room door, questioning such an early arrival.

    1. Instantly made me think of all the matches where It seemed I wrestled in the stands as my sons grappled with their opponents on the mats. Such a hard sport to watch as a parent. But, exhilarating when they are the victor, especially if they pin them.

  6. Wow- I really liked this prompt! This one really opened my eyes to the connection between the character and the setting.

    I am so impressed with all the descriptions above. I can really visualize all of them.

    I only have time for recording my notes at the moment…on the 3 elements that seem to drive the character:

    1- Dad carried his favorite lawn chair to the fishing hole. The aluminum is light enough for him to still carry despite his age, and the frayed fabric edges show the many times he and I have come down here to fish and spend the afternoon together. Oh, by the way, I get the stump next to the river. We only have the one chair.

    2- Dad\’s strong hands and calloused fingers are still able to the thread the line, while mine, at 12, fumble. It\’s hard to handle the fishing line when my bent elbows are tucked in too tight to my body. I I noticed how stiff my shoulders were even before my Dad recognized how tense I was.

    3- I sit at the edge of the river, on the soft, rotting stump, digging my toes into the muddy silt, then washing them in the fresh water. My shoes are already wet and muddy because I didn\’t think about the walk back. Dad noticed though and this was the time we talked about the messy, muddy path I was on in my life.

    Thanks, Erin, for the great prompt today! (My daughter looked at Montserrat for college. She didn\’t end up going there, but I remember beautiful campus and the quaint town of Beverly! What a lovely setting you work in 🙂 )

    1. Andrea! So glad you liked the prompt. You made some great notes here. I love the detail about the stump and washing toes in the water. Maybe add a phrase or two about how the fishing line feels.
      (And thanks for the Montserrat shoutout!)

    2. Here’s what I like: the favorite chair (wondering why…does it help the fishing/is it lucky?) the frayed edges — who doesn’t see that on folding chairs?! And the parallel between youthful, nimble unskilled hands vs old, gnarled but wise hands…are we really talking about the hands here? Can’t tell, does the kid like fishing with dad? Is this a chore? oooh. This makes me want to know more!

  7. The sun shone brightly at the track that morning. The heat was already rising and the ruddy lanes were steamy. The ground was still warm from yesterday’s record breaking heat. There were three people already started with their workouts. A stocky, muscular, middle aged shirtless man was methodically working his way in a zigzag pattern up and down the shiny, metallic bleachers. There was a regular banging sound echoing with each footfall. His arms were pumping up and down in a pattern and he blew small puffs of air out of his mouth as he stepped. Machinelike, he seemed unaware of the searing temps or of the blinding reflection of the sun off the steps. On the track an older, elderly woman walked slowly, awkwardly, yet somewhat determinedly. Her wide brimmed straw hat appeared to be guiding her slightly bent frame around the track. She stopped frequently to drink from her water bottle squinting up at the brilliant cloudless sky while gently massaging her right knee. One very fit runner zipped past sweat glistening on his shoulders. The sound of his sneakers tick, tick, tick meeting the track was nearly imperceptible, his gait was so smooth and effortless. He ran with his fists clenched efficiently circling the track lap after lap. Neither the morning athletes nor the traffic on the neighboring highway had any impact on the ducks on the retention pond adjacent to the track. Their cool watery world fit perfectly alongside the recently updated athletic facilities. The maintenance worker walked slowly over to the control panel for the sprinkler systems and seemed to chuckle. The sprinklers slowly sprang to life spraying a watery arc across the grassy infleld landing on the first two lanes of the track.

    1. Oooh! That diabolical maintenance worker! I had been drawn into the “zone” of each character’s workout, and then that guy has to come out a turn on sprinklers. Hmmph!

  8. Wow! Just printed out the first 11 pages of my MS to take on a trip for edits. Now I can try this exercise out on Kate’s time in the ratty old pickup truck. Thanks so much for sharing! …and my math is correct today, but…

  9. The woods stopped abruptly at the ridge line. The ground was suddenly rocky and steep, marked by straggly, untethered roots and fallen branches. Snakes and lizards probably had scraped out holes here, too, but in the darkness, they were hidden by shadows. The cloudless sky was vast, and millions of stars marched across it, cold and distant. Below was the camp, six white tents neatly circling a blazing campfire. Flames leapt and waved, and for a moment a shower of sparks flew high into the night. The wind had brought a thin waft of smoke all the way up here, but the voices of the small forms moving around the fire did not carry. The woods would hide her if she turned back; no one below would know she had been there at all. Once she crossed the ridge line, the decision would be made. There would be no cover on the descent.

    1. I really like the feeling of distance here. I can see the tents and loved the image of “snakes and lizards had scraped out holes here” made me wince (I am no fan of either of those!) as I read it!
      Now I want to know who she is and what is her purpose for the “descent”.

  10. This really got me thinking and I started a long article; here are just a few paragraphs:
    Cozy. Coming from a four bedroom, three bath house, this two bedroom, two bath apartment would never be considered roomy. But it had become a warm and inviting retreat to escape to. The muffled sounds of neighbors reminded me I wasn’t really as alone as I thought. The ancient air conditioner cycled on and off regularly enough so that the place was never really silent.

    I had raced out of normalcy into this new home not quite six months ago. Instead of arguing, I heard the crinkling of packing paper being unwrapped and the shuffling of boxes from one corner to another. My new haven came together slowly at first, one room at a time. It wasn’t until the piles of cardboard were all gone that I could start feeling ‘me’ emerge again. My spirit reawakened in this new abode.

    My history hung from the walls and my story was displayed on the shelves. Turkish carpets softened my footsteps in each room. unusual window treatments went up, meeting my need to individualize what 500 other units had in common. Lamps scattered throughout helped with intimacy.

    The huge windows were a plus. Light flowed in from two sides. My orchids lunged toward the beams and burst into bloom a few months after arrival. I hadn’t had a home with plants in such a long time. The earthiness of the small pots of dirt attracted my nose and I accepted the responsibility of doling out the right amount if water on a regular basis.

  11. Erin,
    So glad you are working with us today. Thanks for this exercise. I am working on a short story for the CT Wrtg. Project that takes place mostly in a barn. Seeing the barn in pieces and small details helps me “step-into” the story.

    The barn.
    There is a hayloft, double bay doors at each end, but once you step in your eyes still have to adjust.
    It’s dark near the sidewalls, the loft affecting the light.
    There is no floor but the ground. It’s nearly swept bare from the scratching of chickens.
    The animals are in another place, this is mostly a barn for hay and equipment, but chickens always wander in.
    A large hayrake fills the space of two former stalls. It needs to be worked on before long.
    There are mice skirting the edges and waiting for silence. The sweet smell of grain mixes with the hay and the dirt. There is light dust when you move.
    Old saddles sit on sawhorses in the corner by the south bay door. Wooden ladders, sickles, two man saws hang on the wall for jobs yet to be done.
    Lines of light come through cracks in the loft floor. It’s golden and swirly, full of pieces of past barn life.
    The beams and stall walls are hewn by hand, slightly bumpy where the plane jumped over a knot in the wood. Bridles are tacked to the walls inside.
    Old metal signs, Coca-cola, Lucky Strikes, and license plates fill the wall near the north bay door.