Friday, February 24, 2012

Setting, Setting and More Setting. Part III

Hello patient readers.  This is the third installment of the series on Setting.  Today we will discuss distinct methods of introducing readers to the Setting of your story.  We've already discussed the why of Setting.  We've also considered using the five senses to introduce the reader to our place and time.  Now we will pull out a few tools that can be used in comparing our proposed Setting to things the reader is already familiar with.


Similes, the first cousins of metaphors (we will discuss these next) are such tools.  When one uses AS or Like to compare one thing, event, or experience to another this is simile.

The teacher moved like a lion among the sheep as he entered the classroom.

Thick as pea soup the fog stole all detail from the landscape.

 When he laughed, his belly shook like a bowl full of jelly.

Consider the following passage from Ken Follett's The Hammer of Eden

As the light strengthened, they could distinguish the dark shapes of cranes, and giant earthmoving machines below them, silent and still like sleeping giants.

Effective.  We see the great machines clearly because we know about giants and in this case the machines are inactive, because they are 'sleeping'.

Simile is direct.  Grab an desired image, compare it in your Setting to something the reader can readily recognize, and viola you have made them see a part of your Setting.  This simple comparison may be crude and basic but it works, because the reader probably uses simile in his own everyday speech, especially teenagers.

You are like so so gross, dude.


 Metaphors walk softly and subtly where similes at times can club us senseless.  In a simile AS and LIKE are used to compare two things.  In metaphor we simply state one thing IS another.

Winston Churchill, the proud English lion, led his country through the war.

The woman was a harpy spitting curses into the wind.

Clarence, an Eiffel Tower of a sax player, commanded attention whenever he took a solo.

In each case, our character we wanted to describe, became for a clarifying moment the things we needed them to become.

Personally, I prefer metaphors.  They're elegant.  In the lie they tell (Winston Churchill isn't really a lion any more than Clarence Clemens was the Eiffel Tower), they reveal a greater truth. By saying something IS something else we are claiming qualities, definable qualities belong to the thing we want the reader to see in his or her mind's eye.

Here is a piece from Alex Hailey's Roots

...a great beating of wings filled the air and a vast living carpet of seafowl - hundreds of thousands of them, in every color of the rainbow - rose and filled the sky.

Hailey's image would have probably worked just as effectively if he hadn't assigned a quantity to the number of birds.  A 'Carpet of Seafowl' would have done the trick.  That's the beauty of metaphor.

How about this one from almost every Sunday hymnal:

A Mighty Fortress is our God.   Martin Luther was asking us to picture God as a refuge of great stone walls, a place where all can be safe.


Next we will take a short walk in the land of analogies.  A is to B as C is to D.  Analogies are detailed comparisons.

A simple analogy might be 'Card is to deck as month is to year.'

Here's another.  The bayou was to me as hot water cornbread was to mama.

Akin to simile, this passage from William's When Kambia Elaine Flew in From Neptune, does so much for the Setting with a few words.  We know something about the narrator as well as mama.  More subtly we know the world we're about to explore (deep south, maybe Mississippi, maybe Louisiana).  It's a world of bayous and cornbread and folks who call their mothers mama.

Analogies link two things together by one characteristic they share and by homing in on that characteristic illuminate that solitary essence.

These three: Simile, Metaphor, and Analogy are the first line of comparison.  Easy to use and remember.


Slightly more esoteric are Allusions.  We describe something by calling to mind something else, but that something else must be recognizable, preferably famous.  Woe be the writer if he alludes to something and the reader has no idea what he's talking about.  If we use allusions we shouldn't be forming a club that only select members can get in.  Our allusion should be broad enough to include everyone you visualize reading your story.

Here we have the opening of Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Call me Jonah.  My parents did, or nearly did.  They called me John.

This opening passage refers to the opening sentence of Moby Dick.  Call me Ishmael.

What I envision Vonnegut was up to was evoking that mystical feeling that was connected to the hunting of the great white whale, the hopelessness, the grandeur.

'Things are going to happen in this story that are similar to the things that happened in Moby Dick'  

He even used the word Jonah, a name connected to whales in the Bible.  But first and foremost I think Vonnegut was hoping that the vast majority of folks reading Cat's Cradle had actually read Moby Dick.

Allusion is definitely tricky.  With none of the other literary comparison devices do we run such a risk of falling flat on our faces.  We tell a joke and nobody gets the punch line. You can almost picture a reader scratching her head and saying, "Huh?"


Personification is referencing non-human items with human characteristics.

Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings; the sun for sorrow will not show its head.

This literary device describes the Setting of this scene wonderfully.  The narrator is definitely bummed.  How do we know?  Even the sun is sorrowful.  In fact it will not show its head.

Here is another literary device that your reader has used herself, maybe even today.

The wind bit into me.  I was slapped by a wave.  That rocky road ice cream in the freezer is calling my name.

Since all of our readers are human with human characteristics, they are immediately in tune with personification.

Let clouds smile down on your hero.  Let the fruit trees in the Spring sing a song of rebirth.  What the heck, let the buttons on a fat man's shirt rejoice when they no longer have to hold in his belly.

With the inclusion of Personification and Allusion we have put 5 more tools in our Setting Kit.  These are by no means the only tools we will bring to bear on Setting, but they are the last ones we will talk about today.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Setting: One More Time Please.

This is the second part of a dicussion - albeit one-sided - on the definition, worth, and structure of Setting.  In the previous posting, I discussed the idea of setting.  We looked at the most basic definition: A description of time and place.  We went into personalizing Setting with how it affected our main character.  We also briefly discussed the old saw about Setting being an actual character of stories.  Which leads us naturally to ask:

If we don't offer a Setting for our stories are we actualy leaving out a necessary character?  I'd love to hear other people's opinion on this.

Today, however, we are going to sidestep this discussion (mainly because I believe that most readers and writers would agree that Setting is indeed desirable).  We are going to do this version of the Timewarp Dance ('slide to the left') by simply approaching the problem from the backside. 

Simply, why not Setting?

If the story can be enhanced by Setting, it seems reasonable that a writer should employ it. Or to put it another way, if Setting is one more tool that a writer can employ to set the TONE of his/her story why not grab hold of this tool and hammer away.

Soooooo, what we're going to look at today is not the philosophy of Setting but the pragmatic application of same.  How best does one utilize Setting to make a story better?

Let us begin (and actually spend all of our time in this offering) with sensory perception.  Assume we are at a stage in our story we want to give the reader a taste of the Setting (it doesn't have to be at the beginning, although it often is).  One good way to engage the reader is to engage their senses; sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. 

The smell of our father's cigarette - we are thrust into the world of a child perched on a parent's lap

The taste of salt on our lips as we stand at the ocean's edge - we stand with an abandonesd pregnant teenager as she watches her lover's sailing ship disappear over the horizon. 

The clammy feel of a dishonest person's handshake - we are introduced to the man who wants to marry our only daughter.

That first glimpse of a field of poppies as we crest a hillside - Dorothy and company on the way to the Emerald City.

The piercing shriek of the siren in a prison - we are immediately part of the clamor and chaos of a prison riot.

Weather, which has long been a vehicle for introducing Setting can be conveyed strategically with how it falls on the senses.  The feel of thunder in in our bones, the chill of a spring rain at a funeral, the taste of a snowflake on the tongue. And since weather has been used since the beginning of writing to convey the Tone of a narrative, this use of the senses personalizes a perhaps overused cliche (a dark and stormy night) into an effective tool to pull even a reluctant reader into our story.

Consider how Stephen King, in The Shining utilizes weather and our senses--the feel of the bitter cold, the stark white of the deepening snow--to pull us into the madness of the caretaker.

Perhaps no modern author, in my opinion, uses weather and the senses (and also just stark description) better than George R R Martin in his fantasy series that begins with A Game of Thrones.  We are whipped by the frigid wind, monsters come out of the hoary frost to devour and drive men to cowardice, we are invited to feel fur against the napes of our necks as we pull our cloaks tight about us, wolves howl in the forest.  And all the while we are reminded again and again "Winter is Coming"

Just how much your reader will put up with by way of sensory description certainly depends on your genre.  If you are a literary writer, your reader will allow you long passages of languid sensory description, so they can roll headlong into the magic of your words--taste them on their tongue, if you will.

Consider this passage from the literary classic House of Breath by Goyen:

A fragile, melodious Oriental language blew in on the wind like the odor of a flower and we saw the string of smoke from a gypsy camp somewhere in the woods...

Goyen blends his sensory images to bring us into this scene.  Language has an odor and is likened to song.  Immediately we are given the sight of a tendril of smoke and because we in the realm of the olfactory we can almost smell the tang of it.  Once thrust into this languid world of smoke and flowers, Goyen goes on for paragraphs delighting us with his images and his language.

I was tempted to compare this literary passage, as Rodelle does in his wonderful text on Setting, with something that uses the senses to build suspense, but I think instead I will finish with another sensory feast--or perhaps two.  Suspense will just have to wait.

The smell of the sea grew in intensity as the last glimpse of Ireland fell into the mist.  The rich odor of the Irish coast, a fragrance of turf smoke and soil, dropped away.  Catherwood by Youman

Is that delightful or what?

She could taste the sugar-sprinkled beignets from the Cafe DuMonde before the plane even touched down on the runway.  

I don't know about you but New Orleans has never been closer.

And with that, I'll whisper a barely heard adieu.


My Interview with Geezer-lit Master Mike Befeler

Today I'm fortunate to have with me Mike Befeler, author of the Paul Jacobson mystery series: Retirement Homes Are Murder, Living With Your Kids Is Murder, Senior Moments Are Murder.    

1.  Once again Paul Jacobson in Senior Moments are Murder has caught a gaggle of killers.  What inspired you to set this latest mystery in Venice, California and feature the art world and the homeless?  Also, Paul gets married in this offering, why did you get the old geezer hitched?
Bob, you're full of good questions. Our daughter lives in Venice Beach, California, so we have been out on numerous trips to visit her. We stayed several times at a motel with a room overlooking the Venice Beach plaza, and I spent hours watching all the people in every imaginable costume walk by. If you've never been to Venice Beach, it's something that should be experienced at least once in a lifetime. I was inspired by the beach scene, the mix of people including a lot of street and homeless people and the active art community. There is one street, Abbot Kinney Boulevard, that is lined with art dealers. And then there are the canals which cover a small four block section. All of these came together as a perfect setting for a murder mystery. Paul proposed to Marion in book two so this is the next step in their relationship. The wedding also provides a great situation for Paul to get in trouble.

2.  Tell us about Paul Jacobson, your geriatric sleuth?
Paul is in his mid-eighties and has short-term memory loss. In spite of not being able to remember the day before he becomes an amateur sleuth and even has a romance with a young chick in her seventies. His form of short-term memory loss is very specific: he still retains a photographic memory during the day, but overnight everything that's happened to him in the recent past goes poof. He doesn't have Alzheimer's but vascular dementia. Other than this one little problem, Paul is an active and  vital senior. He takes a walk almost every day, has a great sense of humor and loves his family and friends. He is a dead body magnet, so to avoid the Jessica Fletcher Syndrome, I more him around to different locations so he doesn't decimate the population in any one locale.

3. Besides Paul, who do you consider your most memorable/unusual character?
Paul's granddaughter Jennifer is a key member of the supporting cast and helps Paul solve mysteries. One of my favorite reviews is from Kirkus Review who states, "It's hard to beat a team that includes a wisecracking old fart and a straight-talking young sprout." That's Paul and Jennifer. Marion, his romantic interest, and then wife is key. A character that reappears in some of the series is Henry Palmer. Henry has Asperger's, insults Paul all the time and provides a foil for Paul to play against.

4. Can you tell your readers a little about Mike Befeler and why he became a mystery writer?
At the age of 56 I made a conscious decision that I wanted to pursue fiction writing as something creative to retire into. Six years later after the publication of my first Paul Jacobson Geezer-lit Mystery, I was able to retire into fiction writing. I spent 39 years in the computer hi-tech world and now am a speaker and writer. When I started, I wrote short stories and then bridged into novel length material. Mysteries intrigue me because I like the aspect of posing a puzzle and then solving it. My first published novel, Retirement Homes Are Murder, didn't even start as a mystery. It was going to be a relationship story about three men and three women in a retirement community. At the same time I was writing a collection of short stories that had either the victim or the perpetrator being an older person. The two ideas merged, and Retirement Homes Are Murder was born.

5. What are you working on right now?
Write now I'm in edit mode on my first historical mystery. With a group of friends I hike in the summer and snowshoe in the winter, and we have covered nearly all the publicly available sections of the Switzerland Trail, a railroad that ran in the foothills above Boulder at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. I've done a lot of research on the history of the railroad and have set a mystery in 1919 titled, Murder on the Switzerland Trail.

6.  What writers have influenced (or are influencing) your writing?
John Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday have been a major influence. Although not mysteries, I love the quirky characters in Monterrey, California, right before and right after WWII. That has inspired me to write quirky characters.

7.  Any advice for aspiring writers?
Yes. Two things are required: start and keep going. I meet so many people who tell me they have an idea for a novel. Ideas are great but they don't mean anything until you start writing them down. In the writing world perserverance is a must. Very few authors are successful at the outset. And writing is full of rejection. You have to keep at it no matter what. When I started, I sent short stories to magazines and anthologies, and I'm happy to report that on my 112th submission, I sold my first short story. My experience isn't that unusual. James Lee Burke's The Lost Get-Back Boogie tied me at 111 rejections. The year it was finally published, it was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize, which was won by Larry McMurtey for Lonesome Dove. Famous western author Louis L'Amour received over 350 rejections for over 200 stories before he sold his first and then went on to sell tens of millions of copies of his books. So don't give up. Keep going.

8.  Where can we get you books (Retirement Homes Are Murder, Living With You Children Is Murder, Senior Moments Are Murder)?
They are available through,, or can be ordered through most book stores. The first two are available in hardcover, large print, audio book and e-book editions, and Senior Moments Are Murder is currently available in hardcover and large print.

9. Please list your website, Facebook Page, Twitter Address, and any blogs you want us to know about.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Interview with DeAnna Knippling

Today I'm interviewing DeAnna Knippling, who along with being a certified genius, a prolific writer, and a just all around fine human being, was instrumental in getting my recent novel to print.  Because of her busy schedule, I was lucky DeAnna could find time to let me ply her with my questions. 

1.  I noticed you use different names (DE Kenyon and your own name DeAnna
 Knippling) for different literary pieces.  What's the story there?

De Kenyon is my pen name for kids. While I'm convinced that kids can handle a lot more than most adults think they do, I do write some things in my adult stories that just aren't for kids.  Plus I do write a bit more blah blah blah in my adult work, which I make a serious effort to avoid in my stuff for kids.  I'm writing for kids who don't like to read more than anything else, so I don't dare slow down and get too "poetic."

2.  I've always had a problem with moldy things, so I found your tale, The
Vengeance Quilt particularly spine tingling.  What was your inspiration in
 writing a story about satanic mold?

I agree that mold is bad.  The water tank in the story came from the farm I grew up on.  The tank had long, green strings of algae crowding through it and all kinds of mold all over everything, the wood, the dirt surrounding it, and even some of the plants nearby.  I hated going anywhere near it, but if you wanted to sneak out of the garden and into the cattle pens, that was the way to go, so we went past it while going on all kinds of adventures, as kids.  Until I wrote the story, though, I had no idea it had stuck in my head so strongly.

3.  I thought I could hear whispers of the 'The Pancake Man' and more recently 'The Smelly Cheese Man' in your tale of the demon zombie sushi man (50 foot no less).  Was I just imagining that or was your short story a homage to these children's tales?

Well, homages have to be on purpose, and I didn't mean it, so I suppose it's just lucky coincidence. The story actually came from a brainstorming session I had with my daughter (9 at the time) while we were eating sushi.  I had to tone it down; in the original version, many people are eaten in disgusting and violent ways (fortunately, the sushi chefs there are used to us), and I figured I'd be giving people enough nightmares with just the idea that sushi would be getting up and running around.  I have people (adults) who track me down on Twitter just to tell me that they've always been scared of sushi but that it was a good story.  Cathartic, maybe?  I hope I haven't scarred anyone for life. 

4. At what age did you start writing?  Do you remember your first completed story?

I wanted to be Crystal Gayle when I was younger and treated the whole storytelling thing as a lark that I would do to keep my cousins and brother entertained.  It wasn't until one of my teachers in ninth grade decided I was meant to be a writer that I finished a story, which I can't remember now, because she wanted to send me to writer camp and I had to submit a story to do it.  I was aghast:  how was I supposed to know how to write before they taught me?  It makes more sense now, though, and I'm glad she did.  I wrote poetry at the time.  Short stories?  Pfft.  It wasn't until after college that I realized my poems were turning into short stories, so I gave up the fight and switched over to fiction.  Plus, I hated to *read* most it was kind of hypocritical to continue to write it.

5.  You are known for being prolific.  What is your writing schedule like?

I'm currently in my personal penalty box; I have to get the stuff I've already written edited and self-published before I get to write new stuff, except I get to take a break in March for a class, and of course I sneak in some short stories because I get nightmares if I don't write new stuff.  When Stephen King was like, "I'm done writing forever!!!" after he finished Dark Tower, I could sympathize, and when he started writing again, I could sympathize with that, too.

My routine is, "get child dropped off, do all outstanding freelance work, then write until I have to do something else in one-hour bursts:  write an hour, take ten minutes off, write another hour, etc.  I set the oven timer, which makes me feel like I'm a witch of some kind.  "Get your writing done or in the oven you go!"  Often I vary this routine by doing my writing first and the freelance stuff later.  I find that blowing off the thing I least want to do for as long as possible makes me more productive:  I work on what I want to work on (productive), and then I have a tight deadline for the things I don't want to work on (also productive).0
6.  What are you currently working on?

I'm editing a SF tale of aliens and blue beer (Alien Blue) for self-publishing.  Just as I didn't particularly want to listen to detailed explanations of how to brew beer over a cube wall when I was working out at Schriever with a bunch of engineers, Bill Trout doesn't particularly want to hide an alien in his small town, because it's a pain.  But I wrote the book, so he has to save the world using fast talk and beer.  So it goes.

After that, I'll get the next book in my kids' series out (The Exotics), and then after that probably Slaughterhouse Jane, a tale of some very unkind fairies in 1890 South Dakota.  I have enough backlog to put me through to June [grumble grumble].

7.  Who are your favorite authors and who would you say most influenced (or is even now influencing) your writing?

Lewis Carroll is my favorite author, but I'm a big fan of Jorge Luis Borges, too.  I like stories that are philosophical puzzles as much as anything else, and that's what I've always wanted to write.  But they're both dead, and I read compulsively, so I also like Terry Pratchett, Steven Brust, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams and more...I find that I'm reading a lot of manga of late and that One Piece is a big inspiration for my kids' stuff.  It's weird, violent, and all about never giving up and fighting off bullies; I can stand behind that.  Plus my daughter is reading it at the same time.  So nice :)

8.  Where can folks learn more about your books?

At a secret warehouse in the middle of nowhere (South Dakota), packed up in a stairless sub-sub basement in a crate marked "Beware the Leopard."  Or at, which is my own small press.

I have a scad of other places, too:
DeAnna is at, @dknippling, and at DeAnna Knippling on Facebook.
De is at, @writerde, and the Facebook fan page for De Kenyon.
Wonderland Press is at, @wonderlandpress, and the Facebook fan page for Wonderland Press.
Deanna please give the addresses of all your blogs, your website, Facebook,Twitter, etc.

Freezing Her Butt Off

I was a birthday gathering last night when A good friend showed me this story.  I thought the whole world would enjoy it especially considering how it turned out,  ENJOY!!!!!!!!

 Her First Date
If you didn't see this on the Tonight show, I hope you're sitting down when you read it.
This is probably the funniest date story ever, first date or not!!! 
We have all had bad dates but this takes the cake.
Jay Leno went into the audience to find the most embarrassing first date that a woman ever had. The winner described her worst first date experience.
There was absolutely no question as to why her tale took the prize!
She said it was midwinter...Snowing and quite cold... and the guy had taken her skiing in the mountains outside Salt Lake City, Utah .
It was a  day trip (no overnight). They were strangers, after all, and had never met before. The outing was fun but relatively uneventful until they were headed home late that afternoon.
They were driving back down the mountain, when she gradually began to realize that she should not have had that extra latte. ! ! They were about an hour away from  anywhere with a rest room and in the middle of nowhere! Her companion suggested she try to hold it, which she did for a while. Unfortunately, because of the heavy snow and slow going, there came a point here she told him that he had better stop and let her go beside the road, or it would be the front seat of his car.
They stopped and she quickly crawled out beside the car,yanked her pants down and started. In the deep snow she didn't have good footing, so she let her butt rest against the rear fender to steady herself. Her companion stood on the side of the car watching for traffic and indeed was a real gentleman and refrained from peeking. All she could think about was the relief she felt despite the rather embarrassing nature of the situation.
Upon finishing however, she soon became aware of another sensation. As she bent to pull up her pants, the young lady discovered her buttocks were firmly glued against the car's fender. Thoughts of tongues frozen to poles immediately came to mind as she attempted to disengage her flesh from the icy metal.. It was quickly apparent that she had a brand new problem, due to the extreme cold. Horrified by her plight and yet aware of the humor of the moment, she answered her date's concerns about' what is taking so long' with a reply that indeed, she was 'freezing her butt off' and in need of some assistance!  He came around the car as she tried to cover herself with her sweater and then, as she looked imploringly into his eyes, he burst out laughing. She too, got the giggles and when they finally managed to compose themselves, they assessed her dilemma. Obviously, as hysterical as the situation was, they also were faced with a real problem.
Both agreed it would take something hot to free her chilly cheeks from the grip of the icy metal! Thinking about what had gotten her into the predicament in the first place, both quickly realized that there was only one way to get her free. So, as she looked the other way, her first time date proceeded to unzip his pants and pee her butt off the fender.    As the audience screamed in laughter, she took the Tonight Show prize hands down. Or perhaps that should be 'pants  down'. And you thought your first date was embarrassing. Jay Leno's comment...   'This gives a whole new meaning to being pissed  off.'
Oh and how did the first date turn out? He became her husband and was sitting next to her on the Leno show.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

DeAnna Knippling Interviews ME!!

[A bright light shines directly in author Robert Spiller's face as the mystery Radical Equations is shoved into the spotlight] We haff questions for you…iff you know vat iss gud for you, you vill answer dem truthfully…
1. When you are working out the who-dunnit side of your Bonnie Pinkwater stories, do you use any tricks to keep track of all your clues and red herrings?  Do you have to get someone else to check them for you?  How soon do you give enough clues for the reader to work out the whole tale, usually?
First comes the basic plot: Who will die first, how that scene will be couched. Because each book features a particular mathematician, this drives not only some internal scenes but the title as well. Then comes the outline (which has all the clues and vague references where they will be revealed). This part is hand-written and is fluid and likely to be altered as time goes on. The outline also includes the tentative names of the characters: victims, suspects, sidekick (changes every book). As the clues are catalogued, so also are the red herrings, although these guys will be added to as the book progresses. The outline will only have about half the needed scenes (usually about 66). As I write the book additional scenes introduce themselves in various sections of the manuscript. Usually these include the one or two subplots that are necessary to make the story more than just the solving of the crime. In Radical Equations this was Bonnie’s relationship with the witch Rhiannon and her problems with her lover Armen Callahan. And if things all work out, the reader gets the last crucial clue at the same time as Bonnie. I have to confess, I don’t really have any tricks, but I have folks keeping me honest. I have been lucky enough to be part of some fantastic critique groups.
2.Did you use the puzzle at the heart of Radical Equations to inspire either the crime or the solution?  If not, do you use any mathematical or logical techniques to work out who your villain should be?  How do you pick out your villains?
Here’s the deal (I’ll get to the Bridges of Konigsberg problem [the central math problem fromRadical Equations--ed.] in a second), every Bonnie Pinkwater novel contains a famous—at least in math circles—mathematician. There may be some mathematics used to solve the crime but in truth it is the mathematician who is connected somehow to the crime. In all four of the Bonnie Pinkwater mysteries (The Witch of AgnesiA Calculated DemiseIrrational Numbers, and Radical Equations) the life of the mathematician helps Bonnie have an AHA moment. As for The Bridges of Konigsberg problem, that did double duty. It connected to the mathematician (who is in turn connected to the crime) but it also was key to the subplot involving a handicapped student.
[Which I thought was perfectly awesome--ed.]
3. Have you ever considered writing a pick-your-own-path book like the Choose Your Own Adventure series using math?  Get the answer right and live…get the answer wrong and it’s crocodiles for you!  In fact, do you have plans to write books for kids? You’re obviously interested in teens and what happens to them, with your math-teaching background and with the excellent characters you add to your books.
As for a Choose Your Own Adventure activity book, what a great idea. There is software out there that keeps feeding a person increasingly harder problems as they keep getting more and more problems correct. So, a person could encounter the first math problem–at, say, The Crossroads of Broken Hearts: Get it right and go onto Adventure A; Get it wrong, Adventure B awaits. As reader/players continue, their adventure is further modified by the answers they give. You’re a genius, Knippling!!
[And so modest, too--ed.]
I have a YA series and a YA fantasy that have yet to see the light of day. I have faith they will, but for now, my next project is the fifth Bonnie Pinkwater book.
4. I know you’ve probably answered this question a thousand times, but…who is the inspiration for Bonnie, and how did you come to write about her specifically?  It seems like you have a lot of incidents with teacher who come into conflict with administration in your books–do you and/or your muse for Bonnie find it cathartic to play those conflicts out in fiction?
My inspiration for Bonnie is a very special math teacher (now retired) who I had the pleasure of working with for 18 years out in Ellicott (the model for East Plains, the town in all my mysteries). She was not only brilliant with a phenomenal memory (which was sometimes a pain in the butt), but had a lot of the quirks that Bonnie has. As for administrator problems, I was more trouble to them than they ever were to me. Every year, in all the places I’ve worked, administrators covered my butt after I would say or do something that would have them shaking their heads. I never had to work with anyone like East Plains’ Superintendent Divine (a.k.a. the divine pain in the ass).
5. What is the best thing that’s come out of writing the Bonnie Pinkwater books?  What’s your favorite fan story?
The fans are my favorite thing. I love getting e-mail from people who love Bonnie as much as I do. My favorite fan story is about a fan from Australia. He read The Witch of Agnesi and wrote me telling me how much it tickled him and how he wanted to read the rest of the series, but was having trouble getting the books in Australia. He and I corresponded for a bit and worked out how he could get the books. What makes this story unique wasn’t the fact he was from Down Under. It was his name, Robert Spiller. What was even more wacky was that like my wife, his wife was also named Barbara. I’m still friends with Robb Spiller.
6. What are you working on now?
The fifth Bonnie Pinkwater mystery, Napier’s Bones. When East Plains High School is excavating for a new baseball field, a twenty-five-year-old skeleton is unearthed, who is connected with an unsolved murder dating back to Bonnie’s first year of teaching. By the way, Napier’s Bones is a math toy used to teach children their times tables. You can buy them online or make them yourself from popcicle sticks.
7. I have to say thank you for solving a math puzzle that troubled me since childhood (my father is both a mathematician and a practical joker with a very straight face).  Where can your fans find you to get a) more puzzles and b) ask you for solutions to the math difficulties in their lives, just as an example, while being teased by the mathematically-inclined practical jokers in their lives?
As for more math puzzlers, every Friday, on my Facebook page there is a new math puzzle—solution on Monday. I invite all your readers to go visit my page and go nuts. This is also a perfect place to ask any math problem that crosses your mind. I would be so jazzed if folks would visit my page and pose a problem for me, or just unburden their difficulties. If they would like to pose a problem for consideration for a weekly puzzler, I would have to be able to solve it and judge its difficulty. However, here is a famous problem (The Towers of Hanoi) I’m considering posting in the coming weeks. Your readers can have a preview.
Consider the child’s toy that is composed of a vertical post with different sized concentric rings stacked on it (usually different colors with biggest ring at the bottom and the rings get smaller as they go up). Picture also that there are three such posts, with the other two empty. The trick is to move all the rings, one at a time, from the post that holds the rings to one of the other posts. There’s only one rule. You can move any ring you want but can never place a ring on top of a smaller ring.
Further consider the following: If you have only one ring, then it takes only one move. Pick up the ring, move it to another post. 1 move.
Two rings: Move the top smallest ring to an empty post, move the bigger second ring to the other empty post, move the smallest ring on top of the bigger one – 3 moves.
Naturally, the problem gets a whole more complicated with the more rings you have. Here’s the question: How many moves would it take displace 5 rings? How about 10?
DeAnna, have your dad work on this one with you.
[I don't know...I'm waiting for a solution like, "No matter how many rings, it takes seventeen moves" or something like that.  Leg puller!--ed.]
One more thing. Periodically I give hints to the math problem, along with other gems of wit and wisdom on my blog:

Friday, February 3, 2012

How Important is Setting in a Novel?

For the next few weeks I'd like to post answers (hopefully a lot of answers) to this question, while putting in my own two cents.  This initial entry is going to tackle the most basic question (so basic in fact that if I don't feel it is adequately addressed, either in this post or in messages and comments received, I'm going to run at it again).

Here goes:  Just what heck is Setting?

The quick answer is that it is a description of place, and perhaps of time - a lay of the land if you will.

Here is one of the most famous Settings in all of literature: East of Eden.  Here's how Steinbeck opens his classic.

The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.  It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls into Monteray Bay.

We might fault Steinbeck for Telling rather than Showing but he lets us know two things right up front.

1.  Here's where I'm going to place my story.
2.  This important place will affect the characters throughout.

In this example, Setting is pure description.  What do the surroundings look like?

Before we go even another step let's get the old saw about Setting out on the table.  If you write you've heard it a hundred times.  We can't really address the subject of Setting without stating it.

Setting, if done correctly, becomes a character unto itself. 

If you let this statement perculate around in your brain, you are drawn into an inescapable conclusion, especially if you agree with it.  Setting might just be a little bit more than a description.  Setting might come precariously close to what many readers call 'The Tone of the Novel'. 

Steinbeck's initial setting doesn't quite set the tone.  We can't tell if the novel will be lighthearted, gloomy, mysterious, silly, or a hundred other Settings that strive to set a pervasive tone throughout a novel.  We don't even get a sense as to the voice of the piece, who will tell us this tale set in Salinas, and what we can expect from this narrator.  But let's be fair.  Steinbeck didn't just write one paragraph.  If you read further into the opening you'll see he draws us into his Setting by personalizing it immediately through a congenial character.

Before I lay down this quote, I need to give credit to a wonderful writing teacher, Ron Rozelle, who I will borrow from liberally whenever his words are more clear than my own.

And now back to Steinbeck:

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers.  I remember where a toad might live and what time birds awaken in the summer - and what trees and seasons smelled like - how people looked and walked ...

This is a whole new ballgame.  In two additional sentences we find out a lot through the Setting. 

First of all, this is a place of childhood wonder.  Toads.  Trees.  Not just flowers, but secret flowers.  Awakening birds.  Grasses.  Seasons and their smells.  And people, the way they looked and walked.  Our narrator liked, maybe loved this place.

More subtle, we are invited to like this place as well.  After just four sentences, I wanted to know what kind of story would be set in this Salinas.  I wanted to go there.  I wanted to touch those grasses, hold that toad, smell those secret flowers.

Lastly, and not so subtley, Steinbeck invites us to use our senses.  Sights. Smells. Sounds.

A tone is being masterfully set, and we have four hundred plus pages to go.

Let's move away from Steinbeck for a bit and re-ask our basic question.  What the heck is this thing called Setting?  So far it is Description, and it'sTone.  It is the backdrop against which a tale is to be told. Truth is though, I'm getting a feeling it might be even more.

Forgive me a moment to play Devil's advocate, but is Setting necessary?  The kneejerk response is, "You bet it is, Buster.  Without Setting, the reader doesn't have the necessary details to connect to the story."  A reasonable response, but  I wonder.  Can literature, exquisite literature, be so well executed that it transcends Setting?  Such as, could Harper Lee's wonderful tale of  nobility and prejudice, be set in someplace other than the South at the time of the Depression and still affect us so powerfully? 

Again, we might be tempted to give the automatic response of "Hell No!!!", but then again I wonder.  Every year, in my home town, Shakespeare is performed with diverse Settings that differ from the original.  I am still enthralled with the words, the drama, regardless of the frame they are set in.  It might be argued that even these have Setting, just different ones.  And that's true.

I'm going to quit here, leaving a ton of unanswered questions.  I haven't even really answered the initial question of what Setting is yet, but I think we're a little closer.  It appears I will have to touch on this subject again.  What I'm hoping for are responses that will allow clearer minds than mine to chime in, tell me their take on Setting.  I would even invite someone letting me know that I'm full of beans.

I'll leave you with a quote from Ron Rozelle:

Good writing is not entirely dependent upon Setting.  And bad writing sometimes is.