Monday, February 20, 2012

Setting, Lies, and Photographs

This week on the blog we're talking about a sometimes overlooked topic: setting. If writing a book was like hosting a dinner, "setting" sometimes feels like the appetizer you forgot to put out and then remembered halfway through dessert. But setting can really make or break a book: I can still taste the popcorn from the circus in THE NIGHT CIRCUS, feel the salty wind from THE SCORPIO RACES, and feel the claustrophobic spaceship from ACROSS THE UNIVERSE.

My YA Gothic thriller, THE MADMAN'S DAUGHTER, takes place in three settings: London in 1894, a wooden tall ship, and an unnamed tropical island. I've never been to any of these places (especially not in 1894). So how does one write about a place one's never been?

Lie! (aka, use your imagination)

I'm banking on the hope that none of you have ever been in 1890s London either. But lying only takes it so far. To create a realistic feel, I had to put in hours and hours of research and visiting similar places, like this ship from the 1700s I found at the North Carolina Outer Banks.

The reenactors aboard didn't quite know what to make of my questions: If you had to hide a llama on board, where would you put it? Did the crew play Backgammon? If there was no fresh water and everyone only drank beer, was everyone just drunk all the time?

The bulk of my book takes place on a fictional tropical island, and since it doesn't exist, I haven't been there. So I had to imagine it from photos and guidebooks and my own memories. When I was sixteen--the age of my protagonist--I spent a year in Costa Rica as an exchange student. For various reasons I didn't actually have to attend school, so I spent my time exploring rain forests, hanging out with hippies on the beach, riding horses in the surf, and climbing volcanoes. That was more than a few years ago, but it certainly made an impact. The funny part was, I didn't even think about using my time in Costa Rica as inspiration until I'd written the first draft. Reading back through it, I suddenly remembered the sights and smells of Costa Rica and realized that whether knowing it or not, I had pulled upon my own experience to create the setting.

16-year-old Megan not realizing that one day, many years later, she'll use this memory to write a blog post on setting.

I also personally think islands make some of the best settings. LOST was a big inspiration for this book, and in fact I pitched it to my agent as a 19th century LOST. There is so much you can do with an island as a microcosm of a society--and in my book's case, a society gone very, very wrong.


Megan Shepherd is a young adult writer living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Her debut book, THE MADMAN'S DAUGHTER, will be published in early 2013 by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins as the first in a three-book Gothic thriller series. She is represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary. Visit Megan at her website, on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.


  1. I love LOST!! I can't wait to read your book, Megan!

  2. I was a huge LOST fan too. And the trip to Costa Rica sounded cool. No school?! How'd you swing that? :)

  3. Great post, Megan! I can't wait to read your book either, and I am SO jealous that you've been to Costa Rica. It's a dream destination of mine!

  4. It's amazing how past experiences creep into one's writing, isn't it? Your Costa Rica trip sounds like the perfect memory to draw upon for your island setting. Thanks for sharing a small taste of the novel's locale!

  5. Thanks, guys! The year in Costa Rica was wonderful. Part of the time I was there it was their summer break, and the rest of the time I was based in a town that didn't accept foreign exchange students. It gave me a whole new way of looking at things.

    And, this was the only photo I could find where I wasn't wearing hideous high-wasted jean shorts, Tevas, or lumberjack flannel. Ah, the 90s.

  6. I've been on that same ship! I learned a lot about sailing on the Outer Banks, but you should try getting up to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut if you ever get a chance.

  7. Megan forgot to mention, we're headed to London to do a little on site research next month. One of the perks of her job! (This is her husband/butler.)

  8. New follower to your site! Great post. I love the Costa Rica makes for a wonderful vacation!

  9. Megan, I still miss LOST sooo much, I can't wait for your book! Thanks for the excellent post, too.

  10. I think islands are great settings as well, but I have to confess that I'm impartial. I'm from the Caribbean. Costa Rica has always been a place I'd like to visit one day. Looking forward to reading more about your book :-)

  11. Great post, Megan. I agree about islands, I have a future book that is set on a Scottish-based island. There's something so COOL about being surrounded by water. Just look at Wicker Man (the old folky version, of course) and Lord of the Flies (book mostly)!

    Can't wait to read the Madman's Daughter.


  12. I've always wondered that, too - re: sailors drinking beer all the time. Certainly helps explain all that damn singing...