Thursday, May 31, 2012

The May Westside Writers Schmooze talks Location, Location, Location!

On May 9th, twenty-seven Schmoozers gathered for a discussion on the importance of setting and location at our longtime Schmooze home, the Fairview Branch of the Santa Monica Public Library.

“And what a lovely location the Fairview Branch of the Santa Monica Public Library is for our Schmooze!” co-coordinator Karol feels compelled to interject, as she remembers the previous two or three meeting spots, which were not nearly as comfy and accommodating.

After some announcements – registration for both the SCBWI Summer Conference and SCBWI LA County Working Writers Retreat  are open and filling up! (wait list only for the retreat) – we had a brief recap of Schmoozers’ favorite moments from last month’s SCBWI LA County’s Writer’s Days, which included lots of inspiring speeches and, even better, super-inspiring intensives. Kudos to our bro, (former Schmooze co-coordinator) Lee Wind and the wonderful Sarah Laurence for pulling off a home run on their first at-bat.

Most excitingly – some congratulations were in order:  Our own (co-coordinator) Charlie Cohen and Lupe Fernandez placed in the Writer’s Day contest!  Way to represent, guys!

“Why thank you, Karol,” says Charlie, “I know I speak for Lupe as well when I say WE WUZ ROBBED!!  We shoulda got first place… or BETTER!  Uh, that is… it was so wonderful just to be recognized.”

 During this month’s intros, Schmoozers were invited to mention a setting or location that is of  particular importance in their own manuscripts.  This resulted in a globe-hopping demonstration of the diversity of our group (or at least the diversity of where we’ve set our stories), with books set in Kenya, Hiroshima, the Bahamas, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Texas.  We also had some fun fantasy and fictional settings, including a book that takes place underwater (!) and one in a cool, fictitious town in Oregon. 

One Schmoozer humorously reported that the setting of his book is a crappy, “low rent” fantasy world.  This really excited Charlie as he actually lives in one of those (emotionally anyway).

Ultimately, a wise Schmoozer summed things up beautifully by noting that often the locations we use are amalgams of all the places we’ve lived. To wit, Karol mentioned that her personal familiarity with Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia enabled her to really bring her novel about a young girl who hangs out at a major league baseball stadium to life.

Additionally, longtime Schmoozer Sara Wilson Etienne is on record saying that the very beginnings of her debut novel Harbinger stemmed from her wanting to set a story in the unique location of the college she attended.

Charlie recalled Sara’s advice years earlier to collect pictures of locations that look like your story’s setting and put them on your walls.  He also spoke of trying to find facsimiles of his imagined worlds in real life.  While working on a supernatural story set in Texas, he spent a lot of time biking in the dried out parts of Griffith Park and the Santa Monica mountains.  

One windy day, he was stopped short by a loud ominous, howling sound.  It turned out to be the wind vibrating the high power lines but, for Charlie, it was the thing he’d been waiting for.  That eerie moment really set the tone for his imagined town and his story.  “What a happy accident,” as a certain Mr. Pincus might say.  But of course, Charlie being Charlie, he had to fess up that he then became so enamored of his location, he forgot to populate it with real, breathing characters.  Charlie just can’t abide happy endings. 

So as not to depress everyone even further, Karol quickly opened the floor to a general discussion of location.  She began by focusing on books that are dependent on the cities in which they’re set.  And where better to start but with In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak who, sadly, had just passed away.  Charlie talked about how the book could only have taken place in New York City – albeit a fairly bizarre version of the Big Apple.  Charlie also shared a lovely tribute to Sendak printed in the New York Times.  (Read it HERE.)  Our community of children’s book writers and illustrators had lost a real treasure, and we made sure to take a moment to honor his brilliance.

Other examples of city-specific books included the New York-set Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, Los Angeles-specific stories by CecilCastellucci (Boy Proof, Beige,) and Francesca Lia Block (Weetzie Bat books, among others), the hardscrabble Hard Pan in The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron and the early days of Philadelphia where Laurie Halse Anderson sets much of her historical middle grade fiction.

We then noted that many children’s books feature That Very Special Place – a location that is not only special to the book’s characters but represents an unfamiliar place which stands to captivate young readers.  The barn in Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White) is a prime example of a setting that becomes special to both Wilbur the pig and the readers of this classic.

Brian Selznick had made great use of special locations in his genre-busting novel-picture book hybrids, using a Paris train station of the 1930s for The Invention of Hugo Cabaret and New York’s American Museum of Natural History in Wonderstruck. In Hugo, Selznick treats readers not only to the hustle and bustle of the train station’s public places, but also to the fascinating “behind the scenes” areas within the walls, where Hugo travels, unseen, tending to the station clocks. Many Schmoozers noted that this was one of the great values of location: taking readers somewhere they’ve never been.

Brian Selznick wove this curiosity, 
a historic panorama of New York City 
from the 1964 World’s Fair, into his 
novel Wonderstruck.

Louis Sachar’s Holes introduces readers to the dismal Camp Green Lake with the short but telling statement that opens the book:  “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”   Fans of the book know that the lack of a lake is but the beginning of the long list of unfair things at Camp Green Lake.  In Holes, the unjust camp is the perfect setting for the unjust situation in which protagonist Stanley Yelnats finds himself. 

A sinister school is another oft and effectively-used location for many great kids books, places like the Holbrook Academy from Etienne’s Harbinger, Crunchem Hall Primary School from Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Spence Academy from Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, and the corrupt Catholic prep school from Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War.

Of course, all schools aren’t sinister.  Some are downright magical, like Hogwarts.  (J.K. Rowling has often said that the real subject of her books was boarding school.)  Try to imagine the Harry Potter series without Hogwarts, and you’ll get a sense of how important setting is – and how great books tend to have great settings.

And when it comes to fantasy – from Narnia to Middle-Earth to Oz to Whoville, setting is almost always an integral part of the story. 

Some books utilize starkly different locales within the same story, which further illuminate character and plot.  Consider the difference between the bleak existence in District 12 vs. the gaudy glitz of the Capitol vs. the treacherous arena where the Hunger Games are played.

After all the talk of fun and fantastical settings, some Schmoozers fretted that their books mainly took place at the homes of their characters, but their fears were quickly put to rest.  Home is where kids find themselves most of the time – but these places can also have plenty of magic to them.  Karol gave the example of the lovely latest middle grade novel by Joanne Rocklin, One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street.  It tells the story of a group of kids, all from the same block, who collectively experience trepidation when an orange cone shows up beside the empty lot where they’ve played their whole lives.  The novel is told through multiple points-of-view, as the kids reveal truths about themselves and slowly unravel the mystery of the orange cone.  When it’s discovered that a beloved tree is in jeopardy, the kids band together to save it.  Here, the setting is completely commonplace – an average block, in an average town – but it’s completely special to the characters and, thanks to Rocklin’s wonderful writing, to the readers as well.

And here’s a bit of Schmooze trivia:  Joanne Rocklin, formerly of the Los Angeles area, was the person who gave our monthly meeting its name.  She was among the early SCBWI pioneers who started our Schmooze, with the meetings being held in the game room of the condo building where she lived at the time.  Joanne got a kick out of hearing folks unfamiliar with Yiddish stumbling when they tried to pronounce the word “schmooze” (it was a much lesser-known term at the time).

Knowing that Joanne is a writer who believes setting is of the utmost importance in books, Karol e-mailed Joanne to get her input on this topic.

Here’s what Joanne had to say:

“Setting affects everything:  dialogue, characters, actions and motivations, plot.  I sort of think of ‘time’ as part of setting, too, i.e. time period.  And once you have your setting, a good place to start thinking about your book, by the way, you get ideas for the story/plot itself.   For example:  I'm starting a new book (starting is the hardest part of the process – so many choices!) and I chose Oakland's rural hills, which have a lot of horse trails.  Not sure why; just because.  I began there.  Then I read something about the equestrian history of the area, and decided to set it in the 50's.  Which made me think of the polio epidemic.  Which made me think of the therapeutic use of can see how the setting gives ideas.  I believe that ‘details’ are vital to make your work come alive, and once you have your setting, the details are there.  So many manuscripts I've read for kids are kind of ‘blah’ and sound the same, because the beginning authors aren't thinking of settings they really know, or researching the ones they don't.”

With our time waning, we decided to finish with an exercise:  Make a map of your character’s street or another special location in your book.  If you missed the Schmooze, go ahead and try this exercise.  What you will come up with may surprise you!

Bummed you missed out on all the fun?  Then be sure to join us for out next Schmooze – HOW WE LEARNED TO STOP FRETTING AND LOVE THE REWRITE – on Wednesday, June 13th.  All Schmoozer’s in attendance are invited to share a before-and-after example of a paragraph or passage from your own work that has benefited from revision.

And here's a last little Sendak fun before we sign off....

Keep passing the open windows,
Charlie & Karol


  1. What a rich recap! Thanks for gleaning the most interesting and relevant parts of the schmooze, and for the additional info.

    Of course it is no substitute for being there . . . but a very useful reference to my own notes.

  2. WONDERFUL, WONDERFUL! And wow, TWENTY-SEVEN schmoozers! Congratulations. This is such a terrific recap Karol. Talk about setting. I felt as if I was in the room with all of you. xxoo Yay, L.A.!

    1. 27 is actually a bit on the small side for us. When we had our guest speaker back in December, we had nearly 40!

  3. Charlie and I were so robbed, I am going to eat this post.
    Blog Monster

  4. This is a delicious (and hilarious as usual) recap--with so many great examples mentioned! I put One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street on hold at the library as I was reading this, before I even got to the part about Joanne Rocklin being an original Schmoozer and having sent advice for this topic! That's astounding--and outstanding.

    On the subject of Writer's Day (congrats, Charlie and Lupe!!), I'd like to mention that my photos of that event can be found at In case anyone wants to peek in or relive the magic.