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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Good Place to Start: Setting

By Cynthia Light Brown

Our theme for January is A Good Place to Start.  For stories, most people would agree that character is where you start, and what needs to drive your story. I agree with that too, but not always. For some stories, setting is what drives the story. And even when that isn’t true, setting can deeply affect your story, shaping it in ways you might not expect. For those of you who aren’t focused on setting, it might help you get unstuck, or deliver a plot twist, or change the tone in a way you want, or just spice things up.

Spend some time daydreaming about your setting. Then use a little technology to help you. If you think you’re not geeky enough for technology to help you with setting, here’s a test: Do you find this photograph beautiful, fascinating, and compelling?
Van Gogh from Space

This image isn’t just gorgeous; it's from a real place on Earth, taken by the Landsat satellites. In July, 1972, the U.S. launched the first Landsat, a satellite that surveys Earth from 900 km (560 miles). There are now two Landsat satellites that orbit the Earth around the north and south poles. One of them passes directly overhead every 18 days, continuously taking pictures in the visible and infrared portions of the electromagnetic light spectrum. 
One of the best things about Landsat is that all of the data and images from 40 years is free and available to the public.

You can watch as Landsat passes over the Earth, capturing the place we call home in all of its 30m x 30m medium-resolution glory:

View Landsat in action 

Or you can view some of the best Landsat pictures ever, tweaked and false-color-enhanced by real geeks:

View some cool Landsat Photos

A clogged Artery?
No Virginia, this isn't lightning
Ribbon of Life
Or you can download Google Earth, take a tutorial, and visit places around the Earth. Google Earth uses Landsat photos, and is working hard to incorporate the photos going back all 40 years, so you can also view a place as it changes through time.

Exploring Landsat and Google Earth is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in a place up close and personal, or from afar. Here are some ideas:
·   Are you writing a fantasy? The Earth has many weird and wonderful places that can inspire settings. Visit Antarctica, or Greenland, or the Red Sea, or Tibet, or Ethiopia, or the Atlas mountains of Morocco or…
·   Writing a sci-fi? Visit Mars on Google Earth to get in the mood.
·   Writing a story in Paris but haven’t visited there in 5 years? Visit it virtually.
·   Use the street view map in Google Earth to get up close and personal.
·   Get high up in Google Earth or Landsat viewers to get a feel for the VERY big setting.
·   Go back in time on Google Earth. In the toolbar at the top, you can go back in time and see how a place has changed.
·   Take one of the tutorials on Google Earth. In the lower left is a panel called Layers. At the top of the panel is an arrow called “Earth Gallery.” Click on it; it will take you to all sorts of maps and photos and tutorials, from maps of earthquakes and how the Earth looks at night, to maps of postal codes or the Lewis and Clark expedition. I love the tutorial about Arctic terns, who migrate from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back every year, following food sources. Maybe your story needs a human culture that has an extreme migratory path to follow food.
·   Ready to start a new story or novel? Maybe you need a plot twist? Spend an hour or two or three just cruising around the world in Google Earth, or maybe delving through the trove of best Landsat photos. Something will spark an idea. Look at the photo below and let your mind wander...

Anyone up for writing a scary story?
So now, go back and guess where on Earth each of these photos was taken, or perhaps what the landforms are. Then go to NASA and find out more. If you want to see more gorgeous pictures, go Here; it also has a link to NASA's Picture a Day.

Have fun!


  1. Beautiful pictures! My family loves Google Earth but I've never thought it could be a tool for writing. Thanks for this post!

  2. What a great idea, Cynthia. How many times have I used Google Earth? Many, yet never while thinking as a writer. That will change.

  3. Great post, Cynthia! Thanks for sharing all of the creative ways to use technology to inspire setting.

  4. Interesting, as always, post, Cynthia. I might just wander down the streets of my childhood this afternoon.

  5. Dawn and Dave, I'm sort of the same way; I've loved Google Earth for a long time, but never thought to use it for writing before. Marcy and Fran, happy wandering and being a geek!