Sunday, February 13, 2011

Writing the Natural Way: Drawing on What You Know

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I knew early on in The Healing Wars series that I wanted it to be set in a tropical locale. This was an easy choice for me, because I grew up in South Florida, and I was quite familiar with heat and humidity. It was also a setting I hadn’t seen much of in the fantasy worlds I’d read. And you know what they say, “Write what you know.” The nature of my childhood played a large role in my fantasy world.

Although South Florida isn’t an island, it is mostly surrounded by water, and had lots of canals, so it was easy to imagine myself in my book’s city of Geveg. It might have been inspired by Venice, but when I pictured the canals, I pictured the Las Olas area in Fort Lauderdale. The white, curving bridges over the water, the palm trees, the balmy ocean breezes. The way the boats thumped against the docks and the wood creaked. Water and boats have always been a part of my life, so setting a world there made it even more real to me. Which hopefully made it real to readers.

I knew what it was like to have a friend live right across the canal, but you had to travel half a mile just to get to them. Unless, of course, you had a dinghy to cross the canal with, and your mom would let you do it. It wasn’t the same type of hardship my protagonist, Nya, faces, but it was enough to make me think about how navigation might affect her in the story. It also helped me figure out the dangers of her world, because seeing the stubbly ridges of an alligator in the canal out back wasn’t unusual.

My childhood also helped me picture day-to-day life in Geveg. As an island city, fishing is a critical part of their economy. My house was on a canal that connected to the ocean. We had a boat docked out back, and my family went fishing on a regular basis: up at 4am, shuffle out to the boat, be on the ocean by sunrise and watch the sun come up over the water. Then we’d fish all day, take some breaks to dive in and cool ourselves off, and head home. Cleaning the boat and unloading the fishing gear usually fell on me (I was the youngest), so unloading fishing boats was a job I could easily have Nya do.

I don’t think anyone would look at Geveg and think, “hey, that’s Florida,” but I’d like to think readers feel a sense of the heat and the stickiness of the humidity. They believe that distinctive growl and splash of something dangerous in the water. They feel the relief when night falls and the temperature drops even a few degrees. All the things that I grew up with, and later used to imagine a world with a similar tropical climate.

Write what you know. And then take it someplace new.

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at Walden 3.0.


  1. Good advice! My MC's home is very similar to where I live, too... just at the edge of a large forested area, though he has mountains that aren't anywhere near me in real life. The fauna is sort of the same, too, as is the flora - I've just played with the names (enough to make it foreign, not so much that you wouldn't recognise it).

  2. Awesome post, as always! I'm doing this at the moment, drawing from personal experience in a way I haven't done before, and I think it's the best I've ever written. It's those little details you can put into something that makes all the difference, I think.

  3. Oh, I love this post. And I was just thinking the other day how "tropical" is not a setting we see much of in fantasy - this is food for thought! Thank you. :)

  4. Good post. True, if a writer is drawing from personal experience the words are more honest. Easier to believe...for the reader and the author.


  5. Great post. :) I loved reading the descriptions of your home growing up. To me, Florida is very exotic.

  6. I grew up and live on the east coast of Ireland, so the sea has always been there. I can't imagine what it's like not seeing the sea every day. That's probably among the reasons I choose port cities like New York and London for my settings.

  7. Tessa: Sounds good!

    Wen: I think they make a big difference. It really adds that sense of realism.

    Rick: Most welcome! I find I'm really drawn to extreme weather. Really cold or hot, bad weather, etc.

    Nikki: And it makes it easier on the author! Al those details to draw from.

    Chicory: You must live somewhere cold then :)

    Paul: That sounds beautiful: I miss being close to the ocean.

  8. I lived briefly in Manchester and one of the things I missed most was the smell of the sea air.

  9. I love that smell! I have to rely on candles for now. You have me longing for a beach vacation ;)

  10. One thing we don't have is a lot of good beeches, funnily enough. Not like you get in the US, anyway. Ours tend to me grassier, where you go to walk along with a bag of chips or an ice cream.

    Now I want chips... :-S

  11. That sounds so lovely. And I want chips now too.