Lately, I’ve been reviving a failed NaNo story in hopes of finding a path forward. The story didn’t fail because the idea was terrible, at least, it hasn’t yet. It failed because I didn’t get much written down and blew the challenge deadline.
Why? I didn’t know where to put my characters. I had sketched out several that I thought had potential to be interesting. I had backstories and plots on top of plots ready to go, but I was obsessed with setting the narrative in a city I had never seen.
I still am.
For months, I struggled with this dilemma. Let’s be honest here, it was a lot of months. Years. I got bogged down for years. I was drawing on my media background for this particular tale, and I couldn’t figure out how to make it believable. The story had to occur in New York or D.C. It just had to. The fact that I had never visited one and hadn’t seen the other since early childhood made no difference. I needed a big media town.
I thought about fictional suburbs. They were too far from the action. I thought about changing the timeline and creating a futuristic world. That didn’t jibe with the sense of immediacy and urgency I wanted to convey. And I thought about calling old friends in both cities and asking if I could come crash on their couches for a few weeks.
Turns out that last one is expensive. Damn you, student loans.
Could I turn to the Midwest? Not really, flyover states weren’t exactly my field of expertise either. Could I move it closer to home? Not without a massive plot overhaul. Could I at least check out the airport on my next layover? Nope, our plane got rerouted to a different city. I was stuck, stuck, stuck.
I put the story away and began drafting new ones. Ones with settings that were less problematic. They had issues of their own, but at least I knew what and where I was talking about.
But the idea stayed with me, so much so that it began interfering with other stories: Don’t give this character that job; save it for later. Don’t use this backstory. Don’t exploit that major life moment. You know you’ll want those things for THAT STORY.
I was hoarding story elements for a novel I was no longer writing. Yeah, that made a lot of sense. I needed to change something, pronto.
Here are four ways I could have tackled my setting problem:
1. Book a plane ticket and go already. Spend several days wandering one or more candidate cities, soaking in the atmosphere and doing all the touristy things. Bonus points to me if there’s a friendly visit, a conference or a writing retreat involved. Helloooooo, credit cards.
2. Spike the plot. Slash the whole thing and revise it all to force-fit events into a location in which I already feel comfortable. Of course, that rather defeats the point.
3. Adjust my moment in time. Make it historical. Make it futuristic. Make it dystopian. If NYC is a crater and an alien is president, it doesn’t much matter if I mention the wrong neighborhood, right?p>
4. Search for a compromise. Can I go West Coast instead of East? Maybe. Such a move would still require changes, but perhaps that would be better than starting from scratch. Can I push my way through a first draft with heavy research? Possibly, but it’s not my preferred method.
5. Sit on it. Save some pennies, write other things, and come back to it when I have money and time to invest in it again. Or not. There’s no shortage of story ideas out there.
After a long time at No. 5, I’m ready to dust this one off and take a closer look at it again. Maybe we’ll try No. 4 this go-round.
Have you struggled with an unbelievable story setting? How did you resolve it?