Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 12)

This entry is part 12 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Time and Place

At heart, I am a worldbuilder and in writing this is where I tend to get bogged down. I love playing with all the little details of my imaginary places, even the settings that are not fantastic but merely depictions of the mundane.

As I write these lines, the book of the moment for me is Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr. It came out a few years back but I am just getting around to reading it. They mystery is excellent, but what intrigues me most about this story (and its predecessor The Alienist) is Carr’s fantastic rendition of New York City circa 1900. It’s as detailed as any fantasy novel and just as immersive. I feel like I am there. I feel like I can smell the horse dung on the streets and the pervasive smoke. Really, it’s fantastic stuff.

When I’m building out a world of my own, I tend to stall because I fret about the details of how certain things came to be, little things like oh, the way a light switch works and why. You can see how this gets me off track. In fact, I am now three paragraphs into this section and I think I could go on easily for 2-3,000 words.

Maass begins this chapter by noting that there are two general schools of thought:

Many novelist seem to think of setting as something outside of their story. It is necessary, but it is a bother. It has to be included, yet ought to be dealt with as efficiently as possible. After all, who wants to read pages and pages of description?

Just as many novelists seem to feel that setting is one of their novel’s most important elements. They open their works with establishing passages that set the mood and thereafter catalog the surroundings in every scene.

Overlooking the redundancy in that last sentence (or was it put there on purpose for the careful reader as a sign that overdoing description can be redundant? See how the literary “mind” works? By the way, I put mind in quotes because I really wanted to put in neurosis…), I’m sure I fall into the first category.

There is nothing I like less than a novel without context. Human beings do not exist separately from their environment and their surroundings. Even the most alien and sterile of environments, say airports or corporate cube farms, leave deep impressions on our thoughts and actions. Without context, most novels lie flat and dead.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *