Writing Where You Know: Visiting Your Settings

Contemplating Rouen Cathedral, a major
landmark in one of my projects.
The setting is often one of my favorite characters in a book, when written well. I love an atmospheric setting that has a certain mood, or when an author drops setting tidbits in that, at first, seem subtle or even unnecessary, but that serve to draw me further into the story and make me feel, not only like I’m there with the characters, but that I have some inside knowledge into the place the characters’ story is unraveling. A great setting can make a good book become one that I will praise to the skies.

When I was putting the final touches on Nobody But Us, I decided to drive the route Will and Zoe, my main characters, drove in the final stretches of the story. These are characters for whom “place” has complications. For whom “home” isn’t easy to point to. Whose every glance is an assessment: is this where we stop? Is this our new salvation? I had been to most of the other setting in the book, but this section was important to me. It was gratifying to see this place that had become so familiar in my mind, and yet was unknown. I searched for details: if a certain gas station was really as remote as I thought, where along the road a car could veer out onto the desert when so many places were protected by roadside ditches, how the desert was a mix of gravel and boulder and just a little sand, the shapes and thickness of scrub brush.

More recently, I spent this summer in Europe. My current project takes place in France and, like with Nobody But Us, I’d already visited several of the settings. I could draw from my experiences to make those places richer and more intimate for my reader. Rouen, however, was one I hadn’t yet got to. It holds a special place for my characters, so I knew I needed to go. My time in Rouen was not only personally enjoyable, but I discovered things that will make my story truer. Even though it’s an old city, the damage it took during WWI means it was rebuilt and looks more modern than I’d expected. The church dedicated to Joan of Arc looks different in person than in pictures. Lunchtime sights and smells were different than I’d imagined. I don’t think never visiting Rouen would detract from the story, but I definitely believe that being there improves it.

The difference between Google Street View and being there is in the details, and it’s the details that bring the setting the life. It’s the air—the scent and sounds—in a cathedral. It’s knowing the way the sunrise is washed against the sky in the desert, or how it feels to drive for a long time on a straight road that becomes a wet-textured mirage in the distance. It’s feeling the temperature of morning on my skin, and how by midday all semblance of coolness has faded into dry heat. These are details I want to share with my readers, and details I want other writers to share with me. Let me in on the secrets of your setting, let me dive in to the busy and beautiful story that surrounds and cushions your main plot.

Now I know how that air smells, what
it sounds like, how it feels.
A good setting becomes great when it invites me in. It’s that elegant style that both tells me everything I need to know while, at the same time, assuming that I already know everything. Because I belong, I’m one of the insiders. A deft writing hand knows this and trusts me to pick up setting clues. I know how people talk in small towns, and that’s why it makes sense when a character raises an eyebrow at the mention of a specific name. I know how busy a city can be, so that’s why I emphasize when a character becomes overwhelmed by too much noise, too fast a pace.

Even fictional settings can get a dose of depth and wonder from real-life counterparts. I think about Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha series and how her Russian-influenced world is rich with challenging landscapes, furs and folklore—all part of the setting. So even if you can’t drive or fly to your setting, dig deep into the world you have created with maps (even scribbles, if you’re not an artist), inspiration boards, menus and fashion. Create pinpoint locations that hold something special: a crossroads, a tree with crooked limbs, a wind that only blows east one day a year.

But if you can drive or fly to your setting? Try to make it work. It’s a delightful thing to know the exact places your characters have walked. It’s gratifying to be able to convey those very particular details to your reader.

Happy travels!

~Kristin H.

Field Trip Friday: September 12, 2014


- Sarah Dessen shares her journey back to writing after giving up on a work in progress.

- From Janice Hardy's archives, a great post on discovering your secondary characters' "front stories."

- Rebecca Makkai has suggestions for MFA courses that are actually useful, including "Meditation Strategies for Computer Crashes," "Introduction to Despair," and "Pretending You’re Talking to Terry Gross When You’re Alone in the Car."


- A Pew study finds millennials read more than their elders.

- Mother Jones looks at Facebook "most influential books" posts and determines that "almost all" of them were written for children; Facebook Data Science has a more in-depth look. (latter via Molly O'Neill)

- Stacked rounds up the latest crop of paperback cover redesigns.

- Buzzfeed recommends reads based on your high school favorites.

- The Texas Book Festival has announced this year's lineup.

- Teen Vogue lists the best YA books to read this fall.

- Nothing says lesbians like... hands? The Compulsive Reader shares a baffling cover trend.

- Farewell to YA Fusion, and good luck with your next projects, ladies!


- The NYT is "revamping" its bestseller lists. It's not as exciting as it sounds.

- Crime author Karin Slaughter is battling the IRS and writers should be watching closely. (via Michael Bourret)

- Publishing people may be nice, but they're still in business -- and so are you, so don't forget it, says Kameron Hurley.

- Is August a good month to query? Janet Reid has the answer.

- Paula Yoo encourages authors to think outside the box when it comes to marketing.


- 5 million Gmail passwords were stolen this week.

- How to make your phone stop "ducking."

- The internet was abuzz with news that Jack the Ripper had finally been identified, but the Smithsonian is here with a reality check.

- Mallory Ortberg has an alternate list of "media industry disrupters."

- Tumblr, Netflix, and more staged internet slowdowns to support net neutrality.

- Zoe Quinn infiltrated 4Chan's #gamergate planning; both the New Yorker and the Telegraph did profiles on her.

- An Wisconsin school district is adopting a new policy allowing trans students to choose their own restrooms and locker rooms. (via Kelly Jensen)


"99 Red Balloons" played on...  red balloons. (via Preeti Chhibber)

YAH's Lee Bross Sells Her Debut NA!

We're so excited to share the news of YAH blogger Lee Bross's (writing as L.E. Bross) first New Adult sale. Congratulations, Lee! This one sounds deliciously steamy...
via http://www.clipartbest.com/

September 10, 2014
Digital: Fiction: New Adult 
Lee Bross writing as L.E. Bross's WISH RIGHT NOW, in which a spoiled rich girl's antics land her on community service detail, where she meets a jaded, hostile guy who calls her out on her snobby ways, and soon their angry exchanges become something else entirely, to Elana Cohen at Pocket Star, for publication in 2015, by Mandy Hubbard at D4EO Literary Agency (world).

The History of Young Adult Literature: An Essay By Kristin Otts (Insert Long Pretentious Subtitle Here)

“Young Adult” is a phrase we throw around a lot on this blog. We like young adults in the sense that we like teenagers, and we like “young adult” in the sense that we like the genre which caters to teenagers. That said, the idea of YA as a genre has not been around forever. There was a time when you either a.) wrote for children, or b.) you wrote for adults; and anything in between was likely assigned as mandatory school reading, but it wasn’t given a shiny new title and a Printz award. 

John Newbery
This was a curious thing to me. In the last ten years, YA has become an explosive force in the literary world. While other genres and booksellers have felt the weight of the recession, the YA industry is still booming, with bestsellers and teen movie adaptations coming out of our ears. But when did this all begin? How did we go from having no books for teenagers to having a thriving universe of teen books? 

I’m so glad you asked.

Before there was a genre called “young adult,” there was John Newbery. He was a publisher in England in the 1700s. He produced several adult books, but over time he became interested in selling children’s books - which was, at  that time, a relatively nonexistent market. However, his first book - brightly colored, full of proverbs, songs, and stories - was well-received. Newbery created an entire business based on what children wanted, rather than what their parents wanted for them; and this was a huge part of his success. He is now known as “The Father of Children’s Literature.” 

Fast forward to 1921. Children’s books are sold commercially, and are no longer novelties as they were in Newbery’s day. The Children’s Library Association, founded in 1901, is a force within the American Libraries Association - providing all sorts of awesome library services to kids in the 20th century. And so, being the wonderful organization that they are, the Children’s Library Association (Now the Association of Library Service to Children) instituted the Newbery award as the highest honor given to the best books in children’s publishing. This was the first children’s award in the world. 

Fast forward again to 1957. After more than a decade of discussion and re-organizations, the ALA divided their Association of Young People’s Librarians to include one branch for children’s books and one branch for young adult services. The then-titled Young Adult Services Division spent a good deal of its time trying to define what exactly the YASD would do. It was complicated. That’s all I can tell you. I
One of John Newbery's books

In 1992, the YASD changed its name to the one we now recognize today: The Young Adult Library Services  Association (YALSA).

The first executive secretary for the YALSA, who also managed the children’s division for Association of Young People’s Librarians, was Mildred L. Batchelder. In 1966, her name eventually became the title of the second children’s literature award to ever be instated - the Batchelder Award is “given to the most outstanding children’s book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States.”  The Batchelder Award represents Mildred’s lifelong work to build bridges between books and readers, as well as people of different cultures and beliefs.

Fast forward again to the 1990s. The YALSA is a butt-kicking division of the ALA, raising the standards for YA books all over the literary world. One of the most engaged members is a high school librarian and teacher from Topeka named Michael Printz. He actively pleads with writers to create books for teenagers, as he encourages his own students to become writers who wrote for teenagers. He invites authors to come and speak at high schools and creates programs to foster this practice. He is a mover and a shaker in the realm of YA literature.

Michael L. Printz
Fast forward. The year 2000. Printz died at the age of 59 in 1996; but in the last four years, YALSA has been alight with the passion Michael Printz left them. 2000 is the year the YA community honors a great teacher and visionary with an award - the Michael L. Printz award, the first young adult award in the history of literature. And 2000 is the year the YA market really begins to make a name for itself in the publishing industry. 

Which brings us back to the present: bestsellers like Hunger Games, Twilight, and Divergent earning articles in the Huffington Post and CNN, heated discussions on diversity and LGBQT literature, and more book-to-movie adaptations than I would have thought possible. How do you feel about the journey of YA literature? Are you surprised at how recent this phenomenon is? 

*Note: This article contains rather cursory research. If I have made any mistakes, or if you have more accurate information, please share in the comments! Thanks!

YAH Cover Reveal: WATCH THE SKY by Kirsten Hubbard

YA Highway's cover reveals are my favorite. Revealing my own cover on YA Highway? MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE!

I am absurdly, ridiculously, dancing-on-my-own thrilled to share the cover for my third book and middle grade debut, WATCH THE SKY, which will be published by Disney-Hyperion on April 7th, 2015. Here it is!

BE STILL MY HEART. Seriously, I am obsessed. The moment I saw it, I instantly teared up. In an airport on my way to Wyoming. People stared.

On top of being utterly stunning, it's just so significant, from the ominous star-swirled sky, to the shadowy field, to the wooden house -- in the book, the kids construct tiny houses in a game they call Worldbuilding -- to each tiny object inside it. WATCH THE SKY is a story for kids, but not only for kids, and I think the cover has appeal for almost all age groups. What do you guys think??

More about WATCH THE SKY!
The signs are everywhere, Jory’s stepfather, Caleb, says. Red leaves in the springtime. Pages torn from a library book. All the fish in an aquarium facing the same way. A cracked egg with twin yolks. Everywhere and anywhere. And because of them, Jory’s life is far from ordinary. He must follow a very specific set of rules: don’t trust anyone outside the family, have your work boots at the ready just in case, and always, always watch out for the signs. The end is coming, and they must be prepared.

School is Jory’s only escape from Caleb’s tight grasp. With the help of new friends, he begins to explore a world beyond his family’s farm. Then Caleb notifies the family that the time has come for final preparations: digging in their backyard canyon at night. Every night.

As the hole gets deeper, so does Jory’s doubt about whether Caleb’s prophecy is true. When the real reason for their digging becomes clear, Jory must choose between living his own life or following behind Caleb, shutting his eyes to the bright world he’s just begun to see.

Road Trip Wednesday

This week's topic: What are you reading right now?

Participate via comments, your own blog, tumblr, twitter (hashtag #roadtripwednesday), anywhere you'd like!

Cover Reveal and Giveaway: PLAYLIST FOR THE DEAD by Michelle Falkoff

Today we are excited to share the cover of Michelle Falkoff's contemporary debut PLAYLIST FOR THE DEAD (January 27, 2015, HarperTeen), which sounds fabulous. Michelle is also giving away a signed ARC! See below for details!

The Cover:

The Book:
Here's what Sam knows: There was a party. There was a fight. The next morning, his best friend, Hayden, was dead. And all he left Sam was a playlist of songs, and a suicide note: For Sam—listen and you'll understand.

 As he listens to song after song, Sam tries to face up to what happened the night Hayden killed himself. But it's only by taking out his earbuds and opening his eyes to the people around him that he will finally be able to piece together his best friend’s story. And maybe have a chance to change his own.
Add it on Goodreads
Preorder it here.

Michelle's thoughts:

When my editor told me she was about to send over a possible cover, I will admit to being a little bit terrified.  I had no idea what I wanted it to look like, but there were all sorts of things I didn’t want, though I knew that wasn’t the right mindset to have (pessimism is bad!).  But when she told me the company that designed the cover also makes concert posters for musicians, many of whom were featured in the book (like my all-time favorites, The Decemberists), I stopped worrying.  And when I finally clicked on the image, I was beyond thrilled.  I love that it’s simple and bold, and I’m a huge fan of the wordplay in the tagline (another reason my editor is amazing).  I couldn’t be happier with it.

The Giveaway:

Michelle is generously giving away a signed ARC of PLAYLIST FOR THE DEAD (US and Canada only, please). Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Author:

photo by Oliver Klink
After living on both coasts, Michelle Falkoff has most recently traded Iowa winters for Chicago winters, which may not have been the most effective life strategy, though so far she’s been really happy in Chicago.  She recently heard an old friend describe her interests to a new friend as involving poker and beef jerky, which is not entirely inaccurate, though that list should also include chocolate.  She loves em dashes, semicolons, parentheticals, and the serial comma, but when she teaches writing to first-year law students (her day job) she often tells them that if they need more than one comma, their sentences are too long. Trying to stick to the word limits in Twitter is killing her, but she’s trying: @michellefalkoff.