Sprouting Ideas by Sharon Dean

Hello, all. Please welcome author Sharon Dean to the blog. Sharon is visiting in support of her newest novel, Calderwood Cove, her third Deborah Strong mystery. And it’s set in one of my favorite places–Maine!

About the book

When Deborah Strong accepts an invitation for a reunion with high school friends who will all be turning fifty, she anticipates a lovely Fourth of July weekend in Maine. Her friend Brenda’s summer house is rustic and beautiful, but from the moment Deborah arrives, something seems wrong. Old rivalries flare between Brenda and Rachel, and Krista plays the role of peacekeeper the way she did thirty years earlier.

Soon, a murder disturbs the quiet of the summer homes that dot the isolated cove. Deborah’s suspicions follow her like the Maine landscape—plenty of sunshine, plenty of fog, and plenty of evening mosquitoes that, like the questions now plaguing their reunion, arrive like the sparks of fireworks. Where is Brenda’s husband? Where have her caretaker and cook gone? Who is the thin young man who keeps appearing? Is one of them a murderer? Or could it be the old woman who lives across the street; her son, who runs an oyster farm in the face of global warming; or the poet-tenant who lives in her apartment? Deborah even suspects each of the friends she grew up with. Her idyllic summer retreat has turned as deadly as contaminated shellfish.

Take it away, Sharon!

Springtime means flowers and vegetables sprouting in our gardens. It’s also a season when ideas often germinate for our writing. But ideas can sprout anywhere––in a coffee shop or bar with an overheard conversation, in a line at the grocery store where a tabloid heading catches our attention, in a library where the title of a novel or a line of poetry inspires a plot, in a park where a homeless man wearing a firefighter’s helmet talks to the trees.

Some writers start from plot, others from dialogue or character or setting. For most of us, these come together as we compose. But where does the novel begin? I used to tell students in my introduction to college writing classes that they could write the first paragraph last. “How can you know what you think until you see what you say?” was a mantra that circulated among writing instructors.

Now seven novels in, with two more in my publisher’s pipeline, I could amend that mantra. “How can I know where my characters are going until I know where my characters are.” I realize that I always begin with a sense of place––a campsite along Mississippi’s Natchez Trace, a porch on an island hotel that dates to the nineteenth century or a porch on a New England farmhouse that had been on The Underground Railroad, a cemetery, a village library or one on a university campus.

These places all spring from my sense of nostalgia, but out of that sense springs a novel that has little to do with my past. I don’t write science fiction or historical fiction unless 1970 counts as history. I write what I know and the imagining gets embedded as my characters move through the places I know.

A writer I know cautioned against beginning with setting. It’s too static, he said. But opening scenes that begin with setting don’t have to be static. My characters emerge alone from a tent, talk on porches or in front of a gravestone, or are surprised by something at a library. The prologue to my first novel, Tour de Trace  invokes a mockingbird rising into the fog against the grass wet from an evening’s rain. The mockingbird and its surroundings are part of the setting. So, too, is the hawk that swoops down and kills. Setting, action, not a human character in sight.

Setting looms in the opening to my newest novel, Calderwood Cove––a chilly wind off the Atlantic, the smell of salt air, a hedge of perfectly deadheaded roses, a mailbox with the Calderwood crest painted on it, a red x and a visor with its helmet down making the crest look threatening.

“How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Seeing what I’ve written in this blog, I’ve thought more about how writers use setting. They may foreground it or keep it in the background, but people exist in places, whether those places are real or imagined. Hemingway’s “Hill Like White Elephants,” a story that is constructed almost whole of dialogue, opens with a long paragraph that sets the scene in a train station with a bar behind a beaded curtain and a table where a couple sit in the only bit of shade. The parallel lines of the train tracks suggest what is to come––the couple’s parallel responses to their relationship and the woman’s pregnancy. Hemingway doesn’t have to tell us anything. The setting, as it were, sets us up.

I’ve written novels set in spring, in summer, in fall, in winter because all those seasons inspire me. I create where I lived for most of life even as I write from the West that I’m learning to call home. Whatever the season, whatever the place, setting is the seed that sprouts into my ideas.

Readers: Do you have a preference for a particular season or a particular place? How much do you like setting in what you read or want to use it in what you write?

About Sharon

Sharon Dean

Sharon L. Dean grew up in Massachusetts where she was immersed in the literature of New England. She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of New Hampshire, a state she lived and taught in before moving to Oregon. Although she has given up writing scholarly books that require footnotes, she incorporates much of her academic research as background in her mysteries. She is the author of three Susan Warner mysteries and of a literary novel titled Leaving Freedom. Her Deborah Strong mysteries include The Barn, The Wicked Bible, and Calderwood Cove. Dean continues to write about New England while she is discovering the beauty of the West.

30 Thoughts

  1. Your action setup without a character in sight is inspiring, Sharon! I like to treat setting with the same care as a primary character. My goal is simple: make the fictional setting a place readers learn about and visit.

    1. The place helps me think up the character. Without a good character, the danger is that the place is static. I worry about that.

  2. Love all seasons because each one has it’s own beauty to bring to the table. I’ve always loved the mountains so that setting in a story is dear to me, but I also love to explore and visit other places – either in person or through the pages of a book. To me, I think the setting or the backdrop of a story is essential to make where the story is taking place becomes real to the reader. It’s a way of experiencing the characters five senses through the written words of the author.
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  3. Setting is really helpful to me in imagining the whole story. I prefer country settings near the ocean or lakes/mountains.

  4. Wonderful post about the importance of setting, Sharon, which as you know, I share. I can see, feel, hear, and almost touch the places you describe. As for my favorite place and time of year, it would be the Berkshires in June, which I lovingly try to bring to life in Shuntoll Road. But August in the Berkshires isn’t so bad either despite the heat, and it’s the setting for my new book, Wolf Bog. Best of luck with Calderwood Cove!

  5. Welcome, Sharon! Setting is a wonderful tool. I like all settings in all seasons, especially if they become part of the story.

  6. Welcome to the blog! I love to read about all different places and season. Sprinkling all that in is my preference unless the writing is truly magical.

  7. I wrote about a fictional Massachusetts town in short pieces over the course of more than 25 years, so when I started a mystery novel, set in a nearby fiction town, the location was a very important starting point. I am trying, though, not to make the descriptions of the town slow down the opening chapter. One of the main characters is new to the town, so exploring it through her perspective helps.

  8. Welcome, Sharon. Setting is very important to me. It’s another character. I need to be able to walk next to the protagonist throughout the story to really appreciate it. If I can’t see where we are, I can’t get into the story.

  9. I agree. I need to see my character in a specific place. I like to create houses for them, many drawn from my memory of various houses I know.

  10. Hi Sharon, I cannot wait to read this book!

    Setting is a fabulous way to counterpoint a character, or become a character. In areas of extreme climate, the setting can serve as a source of conflict. My favorite seasons – whatever is opposite the current season. When I lived in Florida I would buy armfuls of books with winter covers to help offset the steamy summer days! Here in Maine, summer covers have their attraction during our snowy and icy winters.

    1. The cover of Calderwood Cove is from a photo I took in Maine a few years ago. But I always am a sucker for snowstorms and snow angels.

  11. As a reader, I can tell you there is no hard and fast rule about the opening. Good authors can make any opening work for them to pull us into the story.

  12. Hi, no I don’t have a preference for different seasons, I love them all, but it is the setting that makes it more special, I love it when an author writes and even describes the smells of which I also am able to smell it or see it. Have a great weekend and stay safe.

  13. The setting is VERY important in all of the stories that I read! Additionally, I strongly prefer to have a protagonist that I like than one that is unlikable. There can be a lot of other characters that are unlikable, but not the protagonist!

  14. Fabulous cover! I enjoy reading any season. The setting does play a small roll in the book, but the characters are the front runners. Thank you for sharing. God bless you.

    1. Yes, High Pines Creative and Encircle Publications create great covers. For this one, they used a photo I took when I was in Maine last year.

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