Monday, October 7, 2019

Setting the Scene

Driving around my home this time of year is a deep pleasure.
The corn is coming out of the fields, see the picture above, the bit of green left? As soon as that's gone...and it is in some fields, the harvest begins.
It made me think about scene setting.

My new book Aiming for Love just released and this is one of the few times I've actually taken a research trip, specifically got on an airplane and flew to the place my book was going to be.
I'm putting up these pictures because I'm enjoying 'setting the scene' for my home in Nebraska...for you.
This is a bean field but what I enjoy about this picture is the rolling hills stretching as far as the eye can see, covered in soybeans. I know people consider Nebraska a flat state, but honestly, where we live in the bluffs near the Missouri River, it's not flat anywhere. One of the reasons we have beef cattle is because there are so many steep, rocky stretches. Good for grazing but impossible for farming, but lots of farming goes on in the 'friendly' stretches of land, like that in this picture.
When I sent to Durango, January...I got a good dose of winter in that part of the world.
We had a really lovely day in Durango. Inspired by a train trip through the mountains the day before...that didn't go up very high...we rented a car and headed for Silverton with a notion to go all the way to Telluride. You understand I've almost never heard of any of these places before I started setting my book. We're near Mesa Verde...but we managed to pick a time when the GOVERNMENT was shut down and couldn't go there.
But the mountains called to us and we set out, only to discover that as we climbed, the snow began to fall. YIKES. OH YIKES.
I'm not kidding YIKES!
We reached Silverton after a LONG TREACHEROUS RIDE. Winding mountain roads, cliffs lining the road that seemed to drop FOREVER. 
My cowboy driving, knuckles clenched tight on the wheel.
Me with my usual wit and wisdom saying things like, "If we survive this, it's gonna be a great story." (and here I am telling it).
But my heroines, the Nordegren sisters, have to contend with winter in the mountains and it really helped to see it. (I kept telling myself that as we drove!)
We reached Silverton...Telluride was farther and higher and well...we decided to eat and then go back down. When we finally waded through the heavily falling snow to a charming little restaurant,
the waitress told us we needed to get out fast before the roads closed.
OK she may not have said those EXACT words but we got the message!!!
I love, love, love this stretch of land along a highway that stretches south of me. Flat land with crops and up behind them beautiful bluffs, covered with trees. In a few more weeks these trees will be on fire with burning red maples and vivid sunlight colored cottonwoods, burnish oak and walnut, mountain ash covered with bright orange berries, each tree turning on it's fall colors, side by side, making the most beautiful landscape.
Golden rod, the Nebraska state flower, growing in the road ditches. A weed that exists to make us sneeze and make the world more beautiful.
I'm talking about snow in the mountains and using pictures of autumn colors in the bluffs just because I wanted to share these pictures and test my own skill at setting a scene.
The road ditches this year were a particular delight, layers of tall sunflowers and short ones, then the golden rod in front. Soon the Sumac will bloom and it's a stunning bright red.

Sunflowers...they were particularly bright and plentiful this year.
As we made our way down, down, down that mountain from Silverton to Durango...well, it was honestly terrifying and pretty stupid to have gone up there.
We're too old to live a risky life!!!
I swore that off long ago.
Oh, who am I kidding, I swore that off when I was about six.
But we made it down. Here I sit typing as living proof.
And as I wrote my books for this series, I remembered snow so thick you could barely see a dozen feet in front of you.
Snow that comes in feet instead of inches.
Mountain roads with drop offs so sharp, if someone fell off one it's conceivable they could vanish until spring...maybe forever.
These are cattails. 
Sharp, pointing reeds and a heavy, woody spike bearing that soft, furry brown head.
They grow in wetlands and this year ditches have stayed wet most of the time. And as they go to seed in the fall, that fur breaks open as if the insides were swelling, and a puff ball of 'cotton' emerges. After a time this hot dog shaped cotton ball all blows away, seeding next years crop. As soft and pretty as dandelion fluff.

A closeup of a bean field ready for harvest. They are green bushes as they grow.
But in the fall, all the leaves are shed leaving a single stock with soybean pods clinging, waiting for a combine to come and rip through them.
Soybeans are in so many things. Soy sauce, but soy oil, if you check labels, is almost everywhere. It's also a near perfect animal feed. And the hulls holding the beans and the chaff inside the hull, can be collected and sold as soy hulls. It's a major component of our cow's diet. A big truck comes loaded with soy hulls, they are full of nutrition and roughage that helps make their bellies work better.

Setting the scene.
It's tricky because you don't want to linger overly long. That gets boring and a reader will often set the book down during a long stretch of scene description.
Setting the scene..just like all other aspects of the writer's craft...needs to be done just right. Enough but not too much.
Selecting the words with skill. Adding, cutting, revising, painting pictures with words.

Tell me about your work in progress.
Describe the scene, whether it's a pretty drawing room, a rugged mountain pass, a small town bakery, a day care, a hospital ward from the 1920s.
What words do you choose?
Leave a comment to get your name in a drawing for a signed copy of
Josephine Nordegren is one of three sisters who grew up nearly wild in southwestern Colorado. She has the archery skills of Robin Hood and the curiosity of the Little Mermaid, fascinated by but locked away from the forbidden outside world--a world she's been raised to believe killed her parents. When David Warden, a rancher, brings in a herd much too close to the girls' secret home, her older sister especially is frightened, but Jo is too interested to stay away.

David's parents follow soon on his heels, escaping bandits at their ranch. David's father is wounded and needs shelter. Josephine and her sisters have the only cabin on the mountain. Do they risk stepping into the world to help those in need? Or do they remain separated but safe in the peaks of Hope Mountain?


  1. Mary, what a beautiful post! I love setting scenes... and using the setting to round out the story. Longer books give us a really fun opportunity to do that. Wonderfully done! (Look at that, I'm being so stinkin' nice to you!!!! And it's farm season. WHAT????)

    1. I'm sure it's just a passing fancy, Ruthy. You'll find your true snarky self soon. I trust you!!! And thank you.

  2. As an avid reader I enjoyed reading about scene setting. Thank you for sharing your experience. Have a blessed day.

    1. Hi Lucy. I know as a reader myself, the scene can really pull me more deeply into a story. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Mary, this is a good post and nice to see you last week. BTW, what was that flat red thing you were giving away in the book room? Is it a place mat? I took one but am unsure what to do with it. I did understand the hairbrush last year, how do you think of these things?
    Please put my name in the drawing.
    I love Colorado! We lived out there for four years while my husband was in Bible college. We lived in Colorado Springs for a year, then in a little town called Fountain a few miles out of the Springs. We tended to spend our free time in Cripple Creek and Victor. I have never seen mountains like the ones in Colorado, and remember I'm from New Hampshire and we have the White Mountains. But the ones in Colorado are jaw-dropping.
    I DO like setting scenes and right now I've got two things going, a possible Christmas novella for next year's Pelican collection and the sequel to my YET UNSOLD Genesis winner. The novella takes place on the plains in 1849, so I'm using some of the research I did for the Oregon Trail story, and the longer book takes place in a fictional small town in the NH mountains, so I've had fun with that. The New England stuff is easy for me, the prairie stuff stretches me a bit.
    I had my first library talk this past Wednesday and it went reasonably well. A guy challenged the Christianity in my book but I think I handled him okay. Still, it was a baptism by fire. Good prep for the next one, I guess.
    May be back later,

    1. Kaybee, way to go on the public speaking. That takes all my courage!!!
      The red thing is a cutting board. It's actually extremely handy. I got one from my insurance guy a year ago and we use it ALL THE TIME!!
      I probably should stop using things that require and explanation, but it's so much more FUN than PENS.
      I love the mix of projects you've got going. It makes me smile. Switching contemporary to historical and prairie to east coast mountains, to Oregon that stretches a writer and we always get better when we stretch.
      It was wonderful seeing you, too.

  4. Oh Mary, you and your cowboy were BRAVE souls to drive up to Silverton in winter and in the snow. I loved your descriptions and reading about the trees changing color made me wish I could come visit and see those brilliant shades of red and orange. Aspen trees dot our neighborhood, and I'm still waiting for their bright yellow to peek out.

    Okay, here's part of a scene in my WIP: This might be a little long because there's also dialogue in it...

    She pushed off the rock. “Here I am, working up my courage to share my heart with you, and I discover you’ve contacted an adoption agency?” She flung her hands outward. “What am I supposed to do with that?”
    Two gulls chased each other nearby, squawking as if in a lover’s quarrel.
    She beelined toward the ocean.
    The wet sand morphed his footsteps into soft thuds.
    She quickened her pace. Anything to escape this . . . this confirmation that she was indeed a failure.
    “Jenae, wait.”
    She whirled on him, causing him to nearly bump into her. “Did you even consider what it might feel like to hear, ‘By the way, I contacted an adoption agency. They have a child for us?’
    She spun and hurried toward the water.
    And this was why she’d had trouble sharing her heart. Her feet touched the froth of a retreating wave, the water grainy against her skin.
    “Babe.” He tugged her arm, turning her toward him.
    She averted her gaze, looked toward the rocks where they’d been sitting.
    “Would you let me explain?”
    She crossed her arms, giving him her best, “this-had-better-be-good” look.
    “I’m not trying to adopt without you.”
    She raised her eyebrows.
    “Would you stop? Yes. I should have consulted you first.”
    Darn straight he should have.
    “I wanted to get information so that, when—if—we do decide about adopting, I would know the way forward. To make things as easy for you as I could.”
    Her emotion receded, ebbing and tossing like a seashell caught in a current. The wind stilled, and for a moment, she could almost hear her mom’s words, “Invite Shane into the pain.”
    Jenae filled her lungs. “Do you want to know what my mom and I talked about?” She studied the fine grains of sand dotting her red toenail polish.

    1. Okay, that was REALLY long. Sorry!

    2. Jeanne, that was excellent. I loved the line--her emotions receded, ebbing and tossing like a seashell....this is a terrific way to use the scene to reflect her feelings.

    3. One thing you did great that reminded me of one thing I strive to do, is use the five senses. The gulls squawking--I can hear that. Add the ocean roar and the smell of salt water.

    4. Lovely Jeanne. I want to read more!

  5. I know that I don't always do well in setting scenes. I love dialogue and tend to skimp on narrative and such. And my WIP is set in there Midwest so your settings look a lot like mine but are definitely much better! Thanks for the post, Mary!

    1. Glynis, this is a weakness of mine, too. Setting the scene. I am also bad at clothing descriptions. I tend to put my heroines in one outfit...they often only own one or two, and never mention them, much less the cowboys who generally wear clothes so similar everyday I forget to even mention it.
      Maybe that's okay in a western, but I am in bad habits I think.

  6. How pretty! That bean field is nifty looking. Makes me wonder what all could be hidden in it.

    I love when settings create a certain mood in a story. Or when they become a character of sorts themselves. So I try to personify different elements. The WIP I'm on now is in 1940's New York City. Haven't focused too much on the familiar landmarks, since NYC is rather a popular setting. I'm using a lot of darkness, shadows, fog and smoke to create a film noir feel--hopefully.

    1. Samantha I love that and, you're right. So much if familiar that you don't need to describe it in detail. It's one of the tricks of the modern age that most people know what the NYC skyline looks like, the Eiffel tower, a redwood tree. So to linger overly on description is slowing the book down for now purpose. It sounds like you're focusing JUST RIGHT!

  7. Hi Mary :

    I really enjoyed your writing here in this post. Sparkling descriptions are a reward for reading in themselves.

    I have a few questions:

    1. is that corn 'cow corn' or 'people corn'?
    2. is that Sumac poison?
    3. what tribe is the woman on the cover?
    4. you wrote a book set in the Grand Canyon where an artist was painting the old west. Had you not been there before you wrote that book? That book had great descriptions.


    1. Vince, I had been to the Grand Canyon before but FOREVER ago. I was expecting my first child...who is now FORTY!!! I did tons of research in books and online for Deep Trouble. I loved that book.
      They sometimes call it poison Sumac but I think it's poison like poison ivy. So it'd make you itch. Of course I wouldn't know about eating it!!!
      That is cow corn. People corn is very unique and not grown much around here.
      The woman isn't a tribe, though when I was trying to figure out how people cut off from stores would live, I was soon thinking of how Native folks survived and putting my characters in moccasins buckskin.

  8. Love all the photos, Mary. But I still can't understand why you were so afraid on the Million Dollar Highway. It was just a little snow storm. You have those in Nebraska, right? Just kidding. I'm creeped out driving that stretch of road even when the weather is good.

    1. MINDY!!! I know snow and ice driving! I think it was the CLIFFS that were one thing too many!!!

  9. Thank you for your post, it was really cool how you took a research trip for this book. It was really interesting to see all the work you put into researching for your books.

    1. Angeline so so so often my 'research trips' are all done online. But My Cowboy wanted to go to the Midwest Stockshow in Denver, he goes every years but always with other men friends/cattlemen. Well none could go this year so I got invited.
      So I said, "If we're that close, I want to go to Durango. You fly home, I'll make a side trip.
      He said, "I'll go with you."
      And it happened.

  10. Love your scene setting, Mary! I especially liked your descriptions of the fall trees. Sunlight colored. Gonna have to tuck that one away! :)

    Glad you survived Durango, et al.

    And San Antonio.

    1. Surviving travel is always wonderful for me. I like being home!

  11. So cool. I personally love how you paint pictures with your words. Your books are so special. I just finshed the sereis: High Sierra Sweethearts. Oh my goodness, I so loved the characters and where they live. Thank you. I will review shortly. Taking care of husband right now. In and out of the hospital. The Lord is awesome.
    Anyway, our 42 year old house still has his first ever windows when he went up. He has protected us and let us see out to the wonderful world around us for many years. But his window sealings started breaking down years ago and so letting in the weather. His sliding glass door was really effected. Poor guy. So this summer we were able to replace all his windows in the back of the house with brand new ones. He is feeling so much better now. The wood around the windows is sanded to a soft touch. Now I am ready to stain this wood to a lovely shade of brown. Our house is now able to protect us well and let us see the wonders of our Lord outside. We than him.
    quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

    1. Lori I love your way of making the house a person, a HE. Around where I live a 42 year old house is still considered new!

  12. Lovely photos, Mary! The area looks beautiful with rolling hills and fields ready for harvest. I didn't know corn was harvested when the stalk turned completely brown. Call me a city girl for sure!

    Oh my, snow on the high slopes. So relieved you made it back safely! I wouldn't enjoy the sharp drop offs, especially with winter driving conditions.

    Great descriptions! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Debby, the corn needs to turn brown but that's just a visual clue. We also test it for moisture. Nearby places that buy corn dock the price per percentage too high. And maybe of our neighbors have drying bins. They pick it earlier then dry it to the desired...I believe 15% moisture.

  13. Oh wow! I've been on one of those roads in Colorado near Silverton where the road hugs the edge of a cliff. We were in a mini-van with a travel trailer hooked on the back. I was terrified! Descriptions are NOT my forte and I struggle with painting the scene. I did try to incorporate more setting in my current WIP. I'll be brave and share the beginning of my WIP...a medieval...hence the castle. :)

    Ian McGowan spurred his horse up the hill until he reached its crest. The cool spring wind pushing clouds in from the north cooled the sweat on his brow. Whitfield castle, his inheritance, stood before him. Gray stone jutted above the tree line, tall walls surrounding the keep within. The forest thinned to the west of the castle, and he spotted a stream snaking its way on the eastern side. The sun sank low beyond the walls, giving them only a short while until dusk.

    Phillip, his friend and comrade-in-arms, pulled up beside him. “’Tis on the small side.”

    “Aye, but ’tis mine.”

  14. Sherrinda, I love this. Tis on the small side. LOL excellent.

  15. Enjoyed your pictures, Mary. Northeast Nebraska is beautiful with the rolling hills. You are right that it looks nothing like people imagine Nebraska to look. Where I live in south central Nebraska, it does look pretty flat. But I love the fields in summer and the wide open spaces. Your description of your bluffs in the fall make me want to drive up there when the leaves change.

    I've mentioned my WIP before is set in Nebraska during a tornado. You can't get more scene setting than that, I guess. I am really working on getting those scenes just right.

  16. Hi Sandy! Nebraska girl! Go Big Red!!!
    A know Ruthy had a tornado in one of her books but I've never done one. I had a novella where one came close. Maybe that counts. It's in Calico and Cowboys, a novella collection I did for Barbour. I oughta use more tornados!!!!

  17. Hi Mary :

    For a few years we lived on a farm, we rented the farm house, which was surrounded by several hundred acres of cow corn (also called field corn). It was so tough you couldn't eat it. I've just read that 99% of corn is not the kind humans can eat on the cob! The corn is taller and tougher. It is used in meal that animals eat. I do love 'sweet corn' for humans.

    BTW: Is your heroine a white woman who dresses like an indian and not someone captured as a girl by the indians? Did she buy her bow and arrows from indians? I really like Louis L'Amour's mountain set westerns.


    1. She is a white woman raised by her grandparents. Her grandma lost too many loved ones to the dangers of life and when grandpa took her up into the mountains to a remote place, she finally felt safe. There, with one living son from her first marriage, she became a hermit. When her son brought a wife home, grandma extended her fierce need to keep her family secluded to this new daughter in law and the three little girls born to them.
      Then her son and his wife went away to find a life off the mountain over the protests of grandma...leaving the girls behind while they found work and a home. They never returned. Grandma and Grandpa raised the girls, filling their heads with fear of the lowlands.
      Then Grandma died.
      Then Grandpa.
      The girls were still very young and trapped by their fears, but highly skilled, trained by Grandma and Grandpa to survive on the mountaintop. And ten years later, they're still up there, surviving very nicely.
      There are no Indians around but Grandpa knew many skills and taught them all to his granddaughters.
      And then, to their remote mountain home, a cowboy drives a herd of cattle up. A handsome young cowboy who finds a beautiful, skittish, but wildly curious young woman spying on his camp.

      And thus begins our story.

  18. Enjoyed your post Mary, especially the pictures of the story settings. I'm an avid reader and settings/scenes draw me into the story.
    Blessings, Tina

    1. Hi Mrs Tina. It was a fun post for me to write. I know what can be done with words and I so often wish I did more, better, more vivid work.

  19. Wonderful post, Mary! Thank you for sharing the amazing photos. I'm a voracious reader and I love to whisked away to another time/place.

    1. Caryl, I LOVE READERS! :) Thanks for stopping in.

  20. Love your post Mary and Thank you for sharing all the pictures I Love reading post like this and I love your book cover it sounds like a book I would love to read Thank you for the chance to win!


    1. Sarah, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. and there are so many pictures that are in my HEAD but I couldn't get a good snapshot of them. I'm going to try harder to capture on film Autumn in Nebraska. And in words, too.

  21. I love your books and can’t wait to read this one!

  22. Hi Pabby, thanks for stopping in and leaving a comment and thank you for the kind words about my books!!

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