Setting and Placeholders

Sooner or later, I need pictures of my settings. This can be difficult because I’m making stuff up, so I end up doing really sloppy photoshop work. As with all the collages I use, the setting pictures aren’t art work, they’re brainstorming exercises (while I’m working on them) and touchstones (while I’m writing.) The best thing about them is the process: searching for things that feel like the setting (instead of look like the setting), thinking about what the picture needs, the details that my characters would see, the way the environment around it looks . . . all of that helps me get past “It’s a bar on a rainy cobblestone street.”

The book got far enough this week that I really needed the exterior of Hell Bar.

So here’s what I knew:
• It was in an old part of Deville, built in the 1800s.
• It was formerly Mammon’s townhouse.
• It’s original front windows were large and heavily paned.
• It was two stories, except then I realized after an image search that there weren’t many two story townhouses in the nineteenth centure so now it’s three which works better anyway.
• It was divided into the bar and Sandy’s diner.
• Mr. Shen’s Chinese take-out is on the other side of the bar.
• The street is cobblestone.
• The streetlights are reproduction.

So first I had to find a basic street photo from the 19th century. I went with this one:

This had a lot of things going for it. The street and sky were mostly empty. It had big windows in front. There was a storefront next to it that could be Mr. Shen’s. The only things I did to this image were to blank into a solid color the street, the sky, and the two big front windows. Drawbacks: the bay windows which were not part of the images I’d already done for Nick’s apartment, and the third story. But the third story actually solved a problem I had (where are Dag and Rab sleeping?) and I can fudge the bay windows in my brain, so I was good to go.

Then there were the details like shop signs and windowpanes. Again, this is not an art work, I’m not trying to fool anybody, I just needed an idea of what it would look like. Also I learned that the door to Sandy’s diner is actually double doors, the original front entrance to the house, and that the bar door is a retrofitted side window.

The next pass took out the sky entirely and added a cobblestone street and streetlights:

And then all I had to do was find a good moody sky to put behind everything:

And from much earlier last year, here’s the front room of Nick’s apartment over the bar (imagine that front window is a bay because I am):

These are, of course, terrible photo-shops, but they’re great placeholders for Nita’s book.

And now, back to writing.

APOLOGY: Because I am only half awake, I hit “publish” before this post was done which means that anybody on an e-mail subscription got half a post. REALLY SORRY ABOUT THAT.

38 thoughts on “Setting and Placeholders

  1. Absolutely love the fact they’re ‘terrible Photoshops’: this is a real inspiration for what I could do with digital collaging – which I’ve never played with because I have all kinds of ambitious things I’d like to do with my photographs, and the learning curve involved in producing artwork I’d be happy with has just been impossible to face. But I should really start playing with this for my fiction project (unless I’ll get pulled into putting my creative energy there rather than writing).

    February is playtime.

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  2. These are more than good enough to do the job. I remember a romance novel with a protagonist who had a fantasy author mother who had died in uncertain circumstances in whose first book, the river in the story did not flow correctly. In the second and third books the author mother had got it correct because she’d been to the place she’d based the story around. That was suitably rambling.

    As a teacher not trying hard to draw that well inspires my little ones to try. There is no “I can’t” in my class if the teacher is willing to do a terrible job and show them how to attempt something.

    That said, I never bothered with photoshop or similar because I never had a free copy. What’s out there that is good enough and that I don’t have to pay for yet?

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      1. Gimp is free, very, very powerful, and a really very hard row to how, learning-wise. Not sure I would recommend it for little ones. I have been using it myself for a number of years and in spite of my grad degree in computer science and having taught a variety of programming languages, I still find it unwieldy (did my dissertation in LaTex and found that a breeze, as a comparison).

        Not sure what else is out there that’s free. How old are we talking here? I could check my usual sources…

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        1. Yeah, I couldn’t manage Gimp, but then I didn’t try very hard. I found Acorn and never looked back. Acorn and Curio pretty much do everything I need graphics and mindmapping software to do, and I haven’t really studied either program.

          I assumed Sure Thing was asking for herself, not for the kids, and she wanted something free, so . . . Gimp.

          There must be an easy graphics program for kids out there. I started with MacPaint which was super simple but I think that’s gone now. Well, it was thirty years ago.

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          1. Yeah, I thought about Paint (Mac and otherwise) but am sure they are gone… although if SureThing has a Windows system, I think Paint is actually still there as part of the OS (under “accessories”), now that I think of it…

            Just googled “free drawing software” and got a bunch of “professional quality” like gimp, which are none of ’em beginners level but there’s one called Krita (krita.org) which says it’s for beginners as well… found it on a couple of other sites with decent reviews, so might be worth a try.

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        2. If Sure Thing does mean for the kids, mine have had some success with Google Drawings, which is free and web-based (and we use G Suite for other class stuff). I also like canva.com for creating illuminated poems/six-word-memoirs/social-media graphics.

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        3. I think I’m the only one that prefers GIMP to Photoshop. Probably because I had to teach myself and now I’m ossified in “it’s supposed to be this way.”

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  3. I haven’t used Gimp, but my husband, who believes his computer is trying to kill him, was able to design a book cover. Plus, if kids have had exposure to technology (not sure about your class, Sure Thing), they may pick things up faster than we can.

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  4. Oh – and I am thrilled to see a “how I visualize” post. These are always fascinating and inspiring. Thanks, Jenny.

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  5. Really cool. I have no image compositing skills at all except in PowerPoint, and that’s mostly businessy monkey stuff like layering photos and text boxes.

    Bay windows – I love ’em. There is so much potential for catching just a (tantalizing or terrifying) glimpse of what the neighbors are up to.

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  6. Oh, lordy, no street trees? Atmospheric, and make a place look lived-in. They make me breathe. I hold in my breath when I look at that scene. Makes me anxious. If that’s what you’re going for — even still. Give Nick some second-story tree greenery to overlook.

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  7. Thanks for the imaging, Jenny! I had pictured the bar completely differently, so I’m happy to see how this area is supposed to look. But it’s interesting to realize that for me, at least, the bar could also work as a black concrete windowless modernist structure with metal accents and trim…

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    1. Well, it’s a dive bar, so modernist is probably pushing it; dive bars are not generally known for clean lines. And the street is cobblestones, so the building is probably old (but not necessarily). And there are archways throughout, also not modernist.
      The real problem is that the first look is Nita’s and she’s lived there all her life so she’s not going to look at the building and think, “Hmmm, nineteenth century.” So I’ll have to figure out a better way to nail “old.”

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    2. I was doing that, too. Grungy dark concrete brick at the corner of an alley. I’d assumed that the tacky neon flames would be visible from the front, too, somehow.

      That being said, most bars (and restaurants for that matter) have a back door for deliveries in my experience. I’m having trouble picturing it with this building somehow.

      These are, of course, my problems, not yours, though the fact that they are occurring to more than just me might suggest some change in wording somewhere.

      As far as fitting it into the narrative, would Button be useful? Nita instructing her to go to Old Town, or Button commenting that she didn’t expect to find a bar or diner in an old townhouse could work. Button’s new to town, so she might ask questions.

      So if Nita used to play in the bar, which belonged to her grandfather, and the townhouse was Mammon’s, does that mean Nita’s related to Mammon, or is there a gap between the two histories?

      Thanks for the details. It’s like a sneak peek behind the scenes, and quite interesting!

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      1. There’s an alley behind the buildings.
        The problem with Button asking questions about the building is that she wouldn’t. There’s a dead body in front of it and she’s a cop on her first crime scene with a new partner she doesn’t trust. She’s not going to be interested in the architecture.
        They’re already at the scene, so Nita’s not telling her to go anywhere; moving the beginning back to Nita giving her directions is not a strong opening.
        Old townhouses are often repurposed into retail when a city shifts, so the “I didn’t expect a bar in a townhouse” bit wouldn’t work.
        Mammon built the townhouse in the 1800’s. Then his descendants sold off some of his real estate and the house passed through several hands before Nita’s grandpa bought the building and turned the ground floor into a bar. I can put something in about “the 19th century building,” but I think that’s clunky. Something about “the oldest part of Deville” might work.

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  8. Yup. For me.

    Our school system does not have Computer literacy as a K to 4 curriculum requirement. That would mean buying millions of computers and securing against theft.

    Apparently there isn’t enough funding to go around. But our parliamentarians have so many perks:-(

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    1. Meanwhile, our local state primary school has an iPad on my daughter’s Year 5 stationery list which is very hard on a lot of families. It’s ‘optional’. Sort of. On the bright side it means my kids are whizzes and I think a lot of this image manipulation stuff is easier on touch screen apps than proper computer software. I’ll ask my eight year what they use and get back to you (if I remember – it’s still school holidays here, so I’m feeling a bit frazzled).

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  9. This was interesting. It wasn’t what I was expecting – somehow it’s warmer and not as grim. But it did make me think about how our own experiences influence the pictures we make in our heads – if I’ve never seen an American 19th century townhouse, I can’t picture it even if you use those words. As a writer, are you trying to get everyone to have the same picture in their heads, or just the same feel. How much would it interfere with the story if the reader was picturing it all wrong?

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    1. The big things are getting the spaces situated.
      That is you know it’s on a cobblestone street, so it’s probably old.
      You know when you go in the bar’s in the back, not to the side.
      You know there’s an archway to the backroom behind the bar.
      You know there’s an upstairs because the boys come down the stairs.
      That’s all you need to see Nick move around behind the bar to hide the bottle, to see Nita move around behind the bar to fix a toddy, to see people go through the archway and escape the situation.
      It’s really like a stage set in that the actors need to move around it, and people have to be able to see that in their heads so that they’re not thrown out of the story trying to figure out how people did that.

      Then the way it looks inside is all PoV characters: Nita sees it as a dive bar from the outside, Nick sees it as a dive bar from the inside–he does a fairly detailed survey of it before he torches the place, the bar is scarred, the stool is an insurance claim waiting to happen, etc.

      But after that, you have to let readers see things the way they want. Reading is a collaborative activity; nobody ever reads the same story because people read different things into the narrative, and that’s good, that’s what makes it personal and valuable.

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  10. I’ve been using Inkscape as a drawing package lately. It’s free and pretty easy to use. Gimp drove me so batty last time I tried it that I haven’t been back to it. That was a few years ago, I hear rumours it’s got easier.

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    1. I think those are just rumors…my latest version appears to just have more bells and whistles…

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  11. Maybe this is why I’m having trouble with book #3 in my new series. I need pictures. Must make a collage. 🙂
    Love your creation. I get a good sense of it now.

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  12. Welp, the entire senior staff at the State Department either quit or just got fired.

    It’s like a bad movie.

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    1. Same on this side of the pond. Someone should tell our lot about story structure: it feels like we’re stumbling into thick fog, led by the blind and dumb.

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    2. Told to resign, as it turns out. Quit with a gun to their heads…

      An inexperienced, (politically) ignorant jerk at the top of State and no one with experience to guide him.

      Little wonder the keepers of the Doomsday clock just moved us 30 seconds closer to doom.

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  13. I picture island towns as having few three story buildings, with two exceptions: if there is a sharp rise from the water so the builders competed for the view or if the purpose of the original building required height. But Deville may not even be along the shore, nor may the demon/original occupants of the island have ever been oriented towards the water. After all, the island remained isolated from the mainland. Curious.

    That said, the setting of the first scenes worked fine for me. Funny, now that you’ve described more, I’ve begun wondering about odd things like the effect of cobblestones on the situation and characters (awful to walk or drive on) and why Mammon would build a townhouse that has two store fronts that open directly onto the street. Curiouser.

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    1. He built a townhouse that wasn’t storefronts. Later people split it into two properties and turned one into a bar and the other into a diner.

      I don’t think there are a lot of tall old buildings on islands, but I’ll defend three stories. My main island experience is Nantucket, and they have at least one old building there that go to three stories, and a lot more if you consider an attic with a dormers three stories.

      And yes, cobblestones are real ankle turners, especially when wet. That keeps cropping up in the back of mind when I go over that part where Nita walks from the car to the bar, drunk, in the icy rain. Seems like she might have more trouble than just zooming across.

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  14. I kinda think some of the details of the setting are more for the sake of the author than the reader, at least as far as absolute accuracy is concerned. I mean, there only needs to be the possibility of a 3 story building on an island — or a haunted English manor in Ohio — for the story to work for me as reader. But when I write, I have to know tons of details that won’t be included in the story.

    The bit about drunks is that their ability to manuever can go either way, which is especially true with your Expectation and Reversal post. Cobblestones that Nita hated as she clumsily crossed them sober could become as easy as sailing over calm waters when she’s drunk. Your choice / her choice. At least, that’s what I think.

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    1. Oh, I agree.
      I think it’s more the importance of significant detail. I don’t want to describe the place so that somebody could draw it, but I do want enough information so they get the mood: just past midnight, old part of town (cobblestones), dive bar . . .

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