Today’s challenge is inspired by Lara Johnson’s recent post about settings, and where my own novel is taking me–straight into the underbelly of 19th century New York. And by underbelly I mean a notorious neighborhood rife with prostitution, murders and poverty.
What comes to mind when you hear the word brothel? A cliche of some sort, right? Due to a domino-like series of events, my main character, the vigorously moral Henri Blanchard, will find himself inside a brothel on his first day in New York. The place needs to seem real, or the scenes set there will feel like cliches, and too much tension will drop away.
So how will my particular den of iniquity be different from those portrayed in fiction and movies? The answer has two parts: the specific details I choose as the writer (and how I use them) and how Henri interprets his surroundings from his narrow perspective. So here’s your challenge:
PART 1: Think about your setting. Take a small, manageable piece of it, the protagonist’s home, for instance. From your perspective as the writer–an omniscient god manipulating every piece of the manuscript–what makes that home different from any other place, especially your own residence? What’s the building’s history? Who used to live there? What does the carpet smell like? You get the idea. Whether you’re examining a house, or a park, or a neighborhood in a particular city, write down some specific questions and then figure out the answers. If you’re into, say, your fifth draft, you might know the answers. Or maybe you’ll learn something surprising.
PART 2: This is the really fun part. Ask the same questions, but this time answer them from your protagonist’s perspective. If you’re writing a memoir, try this exercise from different moments in time, such as responding to the same set questions as yourself at age 10, and then again at your current age. Then compare the answers and see what you’ve learned about your setting–and your protagonist. This exercise might also get you thinking about point of view.
Feel free to leave a comment about what you’ve discovered! If you have an idea for a future Writing Challenge, e-mail me at laurastanfill at hotmail dot com. If I use your idea, I’ll credit you and link the post back to your website or blog.