laura resau interview (part 1 of 3): setting

I am so-very-excited to share these next few posts with you. A few months ago I read:

The writing and the story wrapped around my heart, and I found myself thinking about it long after I closed the cover. I wanted to know more about Laura Resau’s craft and her process. So I checked out her website and blog and finally had enough courage to request an interview. Fortunately she graciously agreed.

I was struck by the way the setting felt so real. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’ve never been to Mazunte, Mexico because after reading The Jade Notebook, I feel like I’ve lived there, right alongside the characters. This made me start thinking about the importance of setting and wondering how I can make it come alive like Laura does.

So I asked:

Will you talk a little about the influence of setting on your decisions as a writer? What kinds of notebook or early work do you do in order to gather the setting details for your books? Do you have a specific strategy or advice for teachers to help students develop rich settings?

Check out Laura’s awesome response. Not only does she give us insight into her own process, but she also lays out a several minilesson ideas I can envision using with a variety of grade levels. Not only that, but Laura’s advice has been tumbling around my mind, becoming part of my writing life. I find myself trying to write stronger setting in my notebook because of her response.

I love writing setting! It’s one of the first elements that comes to me when I get a story idea— the place, mood, ambience. Most of my books are set in other countries—Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and France—all places where I’ve either lived or traveled. When I’m abroad, I carry spiral notebooks around with me and jot down notes about the people and places I encounter. I deliberately use all five senses in my notebook descriptions. Not only does this help ground me in the present moment, but it’s also good practice. When I’m actually writing stories, I’m already in the habit of incorporating all five senses. Vivid settings are particularly important when writing about cultures that are unfamiliar to most readers. Even for familiar settings, however, I’ve found that multi-sensory descriptions really make the story come alive for readers and pull them in.

As far as strategies for teachers, here are some things I do in my workshops with kids and teens:

First, we talk about how to write vivid settings. I usually give some examples from my own books, and the kids analyze what exactly I did in my writing to create the setting. With my guidance, the students come up with this advice:

1) Use all five senses. I tell the kids that during the revision stage, I go through and make sure I’ve used most of the five senses in every single scene.

2) Be specific. For example, instead of using a vague description like “dirty,” use specific details that show this— like a shirt covered with grease stains, or chocolate sauce, or mud.

3) Use interesting imagery. I encourage kids to explore metaphors and similes. Usually, the kids have  already read one of my books, and they’ve already picked out examples of figurative language with their teachers. My book What the Moon Saw (grades 5-8) is a favorite of teachers since it’s packed with metaphors, and tends to inspire kids to use figurative language in their own creative writing.

Here are some activities I do to let the students practice this advice. (Note that I always model the activity first, eliciting responses from the entire group to make sure they get it):

1) To practice using all five senses, I hand out magazine photos of settings (beach, jungle, city, etc) and ask the kids to imagine how the scene smells, tastes, looks, sounds, and feels. They jot down their notes, and then write a setting description using all five senses and giving specific, interesting details. (Often, the kids end up beginning a story that they’re eager to continue.)

2) To practice using metaphors and similes, I give the kids a series of six or seven prompts and give them two minutes to jot down responses to each prompt (I use a little hourglass for drama.) I also hand out magazine pictures of interesting-looking people or have the students imagine a character from a story they’re already working on. Some of my prompts: If this person were an animal, what would he be? If this person were a kind of weather, what would she be? What does this person smell like? How is this person different on the inside from how she appears on the outside? You could easily adapt this activity to setting: If the landscape were a kind of clothing, what would it be? If the weather were an emotion, what would it be? If the sunset were a kind of fruit, what would it be? If the town were a dessert food, what would it be? If the surroundings were a kind of animal, what would it be?

Aren’t you just itching to write? Go ahead, crack open your notebook and give it a whirl. I’m willing to bet you’ll find something useful. A new way of thinking about your place, an example to use with students, an image you’re really proud of. Then check back soon, because upcoming inspiration from Laura includes insider-information about her writing space and the way she weaves several plot threads together to make the story come together with depth and beauty.

As always, feel free to leave a comment. My guess is Laura will be around to check out your thoughts.

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  1. Thank you for this post. The more blogs I read this summer about quick 2 min. writing and the value of helping students get their ideas on paper I am really trying to think how to incorporate that authentically into my workshop in the fall.

  2. Giving specific examples, like in #2 is a good way to start working with metaphor, & then hope the students break out into new territory from their own lives. This is terrific, Ruth, with helpful ideas from Laura. Thanks to both of you!

  3. Hi Ruth!
    This is Michelle from Warsaw. I have a blog where I teach and encourage teen writers. I love this post! I plan on sharing this with my teens. I really look forward to your interviews. Thanks to Laura, too. I look forward to the rest of the interview questions on how to write setting. I personally struggle with this part of a novel. I enjoy the dialogue and the beats, but feel my settings are stilted. I'm sure Laura will help.
    Random Writing Rants