The importance of the setting in each scene

You have spent time considering the setting of your novel. It could be London, a small beach-side community in Florida, on a distant planet or in the Wild West. You have thought long and hard about this choice.

But now as you get ready to write the scenes that comprise your story, you also need to spend some time considering where these scenes will take place within your setting.

If you have decided to write a story set in a high school, every scene won’t take place in the hall. Just as your crime novel won’t have every scene at the police station. You need to consider where the scenes will take place and develop these places. Just as you develop or know your overall setting, you need to know these sub-settings. You need to know their location as well as a description.

If you are writing about a college, hospital or police station, you need to realize that they all have certain rituals and protocols – almost as if they are a world all their own. Research and a visit to such places can make these places come to life.

But it isn’t enough to pick out these places and know their description. Authors also need to choose the right setting for the story event. Many authors don’t spend a lot of time considering where best to have some of their scenes or go with an obvious choice. But a change of location can change the whole scene. And that change could have the power to make or break a story.

Your character can be driving in the car, eating in a restaurant or relaxing at home. And each of these settings can bring different situations and stressors for your character. The traffic is stop-and-go, their dinner gets burned or the neighbor is having a loud party.

But what if you decided to go with a different setting?

As an author, you need to think about the individual scenes in your novel, and decide the purpose of the setting. Is it to hint at the back story? Set the mood? Foreshadow? Provide tension?

Let’s say it is the beginning of the novel, and you want to establish some characteristics of the protagonist. There are many good personal settings that can reveal truths about your character – their house, their office, their car.

But if you want to add tension to the scene consider locations that might cause stress – the site of a traumatic past event, a location where they might run into their enemy, a place that triggers insecurities.

Also when deciding on locations for scenes, they need to not only fit your story, but they need to fit your character. Maybe your character needs to reflect on some news. Would a walk in the park, a ride on the bus or sitting in a noisy bar suit their personality more?

Many times, authors settle on the first idea that comes to mind. And while this may be a perfectly good, acceptable idea, if they brainstormed and did some “what if” type thinking, they might settle on something that will make their setting amazing.

Fictional vs Real Settings: How to choose  

Last week, I wrote a list of questions that can help you determine the setting of your novel. One of the first questions was do you want a real or fictional setting.

There are good reasons to go with either option as well as negatives for each one. So how do you choose which one is best?

Every situation, every story is different and will have different setting demands. Some stories only work in a fictional setting (think Lord of the Rings, the Wizard of Oz, Star Wars). And some benefit from real-world settings. And then there are some – such as romance – that could work in either location.

Here are some of the pros and cons of using fictional and real settings.

Fictional Settings

Pros –

  • You get to create a whole new city/country/world. Everything is the way you want it. You pick customs, government, the local law enforcement, where the hospital is located as well as where the forests, mountains and beaches are located.
  • If you are creating your own world, no one can tell you that your society is wrong. It is your creation and yours alone. If you want two moons or for people to live in pods, it is all up to your imagination.

Cons –

  • Creating your own city or world can be time consuming. You are starting with a blank canvas, and you need to fully develop your setting for your characters to work and live in it. The type of city or world you create will determine the reactions and behavior of your characters. Fully developing your city/world includes making a map of the area so you are consistent on where everything is located, and how long it takes to travel to those places.
  • There is no immediate connection with your reader. When you mention Las Vegas or the Grand Canyon, readers can visualize the place. In your fictional world, you will need to add more descriptions to make this place come alive for the reader and be believable.

Real Settings

Pros –

  • There is typically less research when using a real location as your setting. This is especially true if you write about a place you know well. You know how it smells, how the morning air feels, how the people move and talk. You will know the layout of the city. You won’t have to research the setting as you know it and hopefully that knowledge will come out in your writing.
  • Readers already know some of these places so you can spend less time establishing your setting. When you mention the Manhattan skyline or the Washington monument, people will know what you are talking about.
  • The history, folklore and local stories can be woven into your story and give it authenticity.

Cons –

  • You have to know the place you are writing about well especially if it is a popular place like New York or Las Vegas. If you get something wrong about where something is located, or how long it takes to travel from one place to another, then those readers who know this place will be irritated, and these inaccuracies will chip away at your novel’s authenticity. If you are writing about a well-known real place, no amount of research on the Internet will replace actually going to the location.
  • Using a real place in a fantasy setting can actually sometimes make it harder for the reader to believe what is happening. They doubt things that contradict what they believe to be true. In this case, a pure fantasy world actually might work better.

And no one said you can’t do a little of both. You can set your novel in a real city but have your protagonist live on a fictional street or subdivision. Or you can start in a real place like London and ended up at a fictional magical school. You just need to pick a setting in whatever location will work best for your story.

Today’s Featured Author – Michael Bolan

Today, I welcome author Michael Bolan to my blog. His latest book, The Stone Bridge, the gripping conclusion to the Devil’s Bible Series, was released in November. You can purchase The Stone Bridge on Amazon.


What or who inspired you to start writing?

Irish people seldom answer a question directly. So for me, there were two beginnings. The first was when my brother came to visit me in Prague, bringing my nephews. I had to scramble to come up with an itinerary that was suitable for two teenagers. We had dinner one evening in a medieval restaurant, complete with firebreathers, pipers, dueling swordsmen and buxom wenches. The restaurant was called the King of Brabant and my elder nephew asked why. I then began to make up a story that blended real history with devices from books that I loved with ideas of my own. I kept it going for five days, ad-libbing as I went. It wasn’t until a few months later, when I was visiting my wife’s parents that the writing began. We had a minor (?) argument which resulted in her telling me to “just go and write a book or something”. So I stormed off to the dining table, opened my laptop and wrote 11,000 words in one sitting – by far my most productive day ever.

Please tell us about your current release.

The Stone Bridge is the final volume of the Devil’s Bible Series, which follows the final four years of the Thirty Years War, 1645-1648. Chronologically, the story is accurate, following the battles and intrigue that led to the end of the war. In terms of characters, there’s a mix of real and imaginary, with a few dramatic liberties taken. One of the most surprising things I discovered in my research was that the armies of the time were made up of many nationalities, so you could have Scots fighting for the Bavarians against Scots fighting for the Swedes. Mercenaries came from all over the world, so I cast some of my mercenaries as Fianna – semi-mythical warriors from Ireland, bringing a fantasy element into the story.

Do you outline your books or just start writing?

The Devil’s Bible just happened, which was simultaneously good and bad. I never once suffered from writer’s block during the process – the ideas just flew onto the page. The downside was that the final book needed a fundamental rewrite (11 of 20 chapters) because the loose ends just wouldn’t tie up. It cost me at least six months of writing and editing to fix this, which, given that I have released three books in two years, was a major delay. My next series, (working title Gods & Fighting Men), is being more carefully outlined and planned, although not to an excessive degree…

Did the story turn out the way you planned from the beginning? If not, what change happened that you didn’t expect?

The best laid plans of mice and men gang oft agley. They certainly did with the Devil’s Bible Series. Actually, the book itself is supposed to be cursed, so it’s little wonder that things went off course. First up, it was supposed to be a book. Not three. I was over 100,000 words into the story before I checked how long a book should actually be. To my chagrin, I realized I had gone way over the suggested word limit and was only halfway through the tale I wanted to tell. The other thing that still annoys me is when my characters do their own things. I’ve had characters change sides, suffer horrendous injuries, even pluck out their own eyes – all without my say-so. It seems that the lunatics have taken over the asylum…

Have you started your next project? If so, can you share a little bit about your next book?

I have found myself wondering what happens next; what my characters (those that survive) do after the earth-shattering events of the trilogy. It’s not like you can just go back to normal life when you are the richest man on the planet, or married to a demi-god and transported to a parallel world slightly out of sync with our own. My next series follows the Fianna warriors and my heroine as they deal with the problem of reuniting the faery realm with our world. While there will still be a strong element of history and politics in this tale, it’s much more of a fantasy than the first series. I don’t want to give too much away (especially as I haven’t even finished the planning), but I’m excited. It’s going to be awesome.

What was the most difficult thing/ scene to write in this story?

I had two challenges with the Devil’s Bible. The first was the way that history ran. 1645 was a year of battles and change, as was 1648, so they were well laid out for me already, whereas not much happened in 1646 and 1647. That’s a simplistic way to look at things, but peace negotiations and trade deals aren’t all that exciting… So I sent my characters off on a quest to keep them busy until the history sped up again. The other challenge I had was with my bad guys. I really don’t like the main evil character – he makes me feel dirty. It’s not that he’s inherently evil: he’s a distillation of how nasty people can be – sociopathic, psychopathic, sadistic and perverted, while maintaining a sense that he is right and everyone else is wrong. I had to write him in short bursts, and I was always in a bad mood after those chapters.

Do you have an all time favorite book?

I have a gazillion favourite books, for different reasons, but the most important book for me isn’t viewed as a classic, except to a very small niche. I was a precocious reader, devouring Lord of the Rings, etc. as a young child. And then I went through the most middle-class teenage rebellion in history – I stopped reading – I think just to annoy my parents. From a handful of books a week to nothing, I simply didn’t read anymore. After a year, my mother made me a deal – any book I wanted to read, she would buy. I was in the local bookstore and saw Raymond Feist’s Magician. After admiring the cover art, and reading the blurb on the back, I asked if she would buy it. She did, I read it, and the rest is history. I recently read the final book of the series that Feist set in that world, thirty years after setting out on that journey.

What book are you reading right now?

I’m reading the coolest series at the moment – The Desolate Empire series by Christina Ochs. Christina is the funkiest author I know – she writes in the back of the cab while her husband drives a long-distance truck. Her series is also based on the Thirty Years War (that’s how we got to know one another) but takes the whole period and rewrites it as a realistic fantasy, changing the names of the countries, noblemen, etc. but covering what actually happened. I have almost finished Valley of the Shadow, the second of her planned six books in the series, and I’m hooked.

If you could meet two authors, who would you pick and why?

People are talking about how many famous people died in 2016 – David Bowie, Prince, Castro, Zsa Zsa Gabor – but I’m most saddened by the loss of Umberto Eco. His mind was like the Garden of Eden, capable of taking the smallest of ideas and growing from it an entire ecosystem, a beautiful jungle of words that twist and captivate. I loved his stories, but most of all I would want to ask him about an essay he wrote, called How to Travel with a Salmon. You see, I have done the same, flying from Vancouver to Ireland in the company of a dead fish…

From the living, it would have to be Neil Gaiman. The man is immense: prolific, varied, crazy. His ideas are as close to creation as I have ever experienced and he remains grounded. Or at least as grounded as anyone can or should be. I can only imagine that a conversation with him would not end up where one might think…

Book Blurb

stone-bridge1The Rapture continues to wreak havoc across Europe in its quest to acquire the elemental Seals, the only thing preventing the Devil’s Bible from purging the world in fire. Brought to Prague by the Fianna, the Seals’ only protection lies in the secrecy that shrouds them.

Reinald, leader of the Rapture, enlists the world’s greatest minds to free the Devil’s Bible from the depths of Prague Castle, where it has languished under lock and key for centuries. Meanwhile, the plans of the Four Horsemen unfold, wreaking havoc and misery across the entire continent.

Not content with forcing his siblings from their ancestral home, Reinald sends a vast army to harry and persecute them, forcing them to flee ever eastwards. Taking shelter with their friends, Willem, Leo and Isabella commit to one last act of bravery, making a final stand to defend the city of Prague.

As each nation commits its final resources into the conflict, all roads lead to the Stone Bridge that divides Prague, where the Sons of Brabant and their Fianna allies will face the ultimate test of their strength.

About the Author

michael-bolanIt took Michael Bolan over two decades of running in the corporate ratrace to realize that all he actually did was tell stories.

There was no Damascene revelation for Bolan which caused him to pen his first work of fiction, “The Sons of Brabant”. An avid reader, he simply felt that he could do as good a job as many of the authors he read and decided to put his money where his mouth was.

Living and working in many countries left him with smatterings of a dozen languages and their stories, and his love for history focused his ideas on the Thirty Years War, the most destructive conflict that the continent has ever seen.

Now living in Prague (again), Michael brings alive the twisted alleys of the 17th century and recreates the brooding darkness of a fractured Europe, where no-one was entirely sure who was fighting whom.

Michael writes while liberally soused in gin, a testament to Franz de le Boë, who was mixing oil of juniper with neat spirit while the thirty Years War raged around him.

You can find out more about Michael on his website or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

You can purchase The Stone Bridge on Amazon.


Novel writing: More on creating your system of magic

Last week, I wrote about the Rules of Magic. These are pretty simple: Limit magic or give it a cost and stick to the rules. Basically, magic can’t be the answer to everything, and once you set up your system of magic you need to stick with it.

But today I want to go into some of the details of things you might want to consider while you are building your magical system.

Where Magic Comes From

Image of opened magic book with magic lights

Image of opened magic book with magic lights

One of the first steps to creating your system of magic is to decide the source of magic. By knowing this, you can easily set limits for the magic based upon the type of magic. Below I listed a couple of possible sources for magic.

Energy – Magic could be similar to heat, magnetism, electricity or movement. It could be from astral radiation, human emotion or energy fields in the ground. Perhaps your wizard pulls their power from the plants or animals/people around them.

Limitations on this type of magic come easily. We know it takes a lot of energy to move a big rock verses a small one. We can easily imagine it requires more magical energy too. The larger the action, the more magic or magical energy required.

Higher Beings – Perhaps the magic comes from gods or other powerful beings. Then the deity can either perform the magic on the mage’s behalf or perform it through the mage. Perhaps the gods do not have to do what the mage wants or there are several gods and you either prayer to a different one or perhaps only to “your” god. Of course with this you need to set limits on what can be done as you won’t want the divine ones answering every prayer and bringing back loved ones who have perished.

Objects – perhaps the magic comes from holding/wearing a certain item such as a scepter or amulet. Or maybe the exposure to particular spices, plants or another item embeds that person with magic.

Shifts in reality – Maybe your character can move outside reality or somehow bend it to their purpose. Or perhaps they are shifting through a parallel world.

Accessing magic

You have to have more than just a source of the magic. Your spell caster/magician/wizard must have some way to control or wield the magic to accomplish their goal.

Thoughts – Characters use their mind or thoughts to direct spells.

Communication – Whether it is saying magic words or writing them down, spells can be verbal or through some other form of communication, including a prayer to a deity, hand movements or drawing magical symbols.

Recipes/rituals – Maybe in addition to speaking some words, your spell caster/magician/wizard needs to mix up a potion or follow a series of moves.

Objects – Magic may only be accessed through a magical item such as a wand that either channels a wizard’s power, or it could be as simple as wearing a magical amulet that controls/directs the magic.

Explaining Magic to your Readers

Now once you have your magical system devised, you should know everything about it. You know how it works and what limitations it has. But nothing says you need to tell your readers everything. Just like when you create a well-rounded character with his/her own back story, you don’t have to let the readers know everything.

You should, however, give them the basics, or they may be wondering “Why can’t he…”

The easiest way to do this is to have someone who doesn’t know about magic asking questions. A dialogue about magic would be far more interesting than a few paragraphs containing an information dump.

But remember that as you let your reader know about magic you cannot withhold a critical rule/ability of your magic system until it conveniently gets your characters out of a plot jam. This will only annoy your readers and reflect poorly on your writing.

Why use Magic

Now I love magic but if the magic in your story doesn’t do anything to further the plot or characters, it is not worth having in your novel. In the end remember that your story is about characters and not the magic.

Here are four questions to consider before adding magic to your story.

1.) Does your magic affect your character?

2.) Does magic cause conflict?

3.) Would your story be the same without magic?

4.) Would the characters be the same without magic?

And when answering these questions, it isn’t just that magic affects your story but how much. If you can do without magic, it is best to take it out. It has to have a purpose before you include it.

The best systems of magic are those tied to your characters or plot. If you want to really see what your characters are made of, briefly take away their magic and see how they manage.

To learn more about writing about magic, check out my other posts on magic: Rules of Magic, Magic & the Gods, Magical Duels, Innate vs Learned Magic and Believable Magic.

World Building: The Rules of Magic

When I was a child, I always thought it would be interesting to have magical powers. You could levitate a snack to you or close the door without even getting up. You could keep someone from grabbing you or perhaps start a fire with just a thought. But not once when I was thinking of these magical powers did I consider that there would be a limit to what could be done.

However, if you are writing a story, whether it is a fantasy, romance or horror, with magic in it, you need to spend some time developing a believable system of magic. Magic needs limits or consequences. Without these, whoever wields magic would win. There would be no conflict to your story or in other words, no story. And without a story, you have no readers.

Since magic is often a big part of a fantasy novel (the genre I write), I have written about it numerous times – Creating Believable Magic, Innate versus Learned Magic, Magical Duels, and Gods & Magic. But looking back over what I have written, I realize there was more to address so I have written a 2-part post about Magic.

Part One – The Rules of Magic

rules-of-magicBefore you begin writing, you should know everything about your magical system. You need to know the ins and outs of what type of magic your characters use or will run into. You need to know what they can’t do and what happens when they use magic. But as you develop that magical system, you need to remember the Rules of Magic.

Rules of Magic

1.) Limit Magic/Give Magic a Cost

2.) Keep to the Rules

Limit Magic/Give Magic a Cost

Magic needs limits. If magic is all-powerful, then a wave of a wand or a simple incantation would solve every problem. Your story would have no conflict. How do you have magic and conflict? It is simple – give a limit to what magic can accomplish or give it a cost so that it isn’t used freely.

Limiting magic is easy. The possibilities are endless – magic could require a specific set of actions/knowledge, magic only works for those with access to certain items, the strength of the magic is based upon the location of the source, or magic can only be used for certain purposes.

Now there is nothing to say that magic can’t be commonplace and everyone in your story can wield some form of magic. But there still needs to be rules to what they can and cannot do or the magic has no real purpose in the story and could be left out.

You also may want your characters to have to pay a price when they use magic. If magic is effortless, it doesn’t feel real. When you run away from a bear, you use energy. When you drive your car, you use fuel. Everything comes at cost and so should magic. Maybe they have to make a deal to give up something (first born) or offer a blood sacrifice. Or perhaps using magic makes them age or takes away days/years of their lives or at the very least drains them temporarily of power. Again, the possibilities are endless.

Keep to the Rules

Once you design the rules of magic in your world, you need to stay true to them. You cannot decide to change the rules just because you want to. You cannot create surprise magic out of the blue to save your characters. Yes, that might mean difficult choices have to be made and consequences accepted. But keeping to the rules will make your story believable and increase your credibility with the reader.

Now nothing says you can’t have a “chosen” one who is extra special or more gifted than others. But even he should not be able to break every rule. If you want them to stand out from the masses, allow them to break only one rule of your magic system. And you should make absolutely certain that the exceptional case is declared early and perhaps repeated several times. (Such as the prophecy of the chosen’s one’s coming.)

And this wraps up my two rules for creating a magical system. Of course, there is so much more to be decided – where magic comes from, how your characters access it, how to explain the magic to your readers and whether you even need magic in your story. I will cover all of that next week.

Publishing a book: Part 2 – Self-publishing

Last week, I wrote about publishing a book through a traditional publishing house. This week, I wanted to discuss going the self-publishing route.

There are many benefits to be self-published. You have complete control over what you publish and when. You retain all rights to your book, and you receive 100 percent of the profit. The main drawback is that you have to do all the work and pay for any expenses yourself.

You have several options when it comes to self-publishing. You can opt to publish just an electronic copy of your book (an e-book), or you can actually print a physical copy or you can do both. Let’s look quickly at the options for physically printing a book.


In this option, you pay for all the services to print your book but own the book and receive the profits. You are in charge of distribution. This is best for the hobbyist or those who just have a goal of seeing their work in print. (Hence the reason it is often referred to as a vanity press.)


While similar to a vanity press, a subsidy publisher contributes toward the cost of editing, distribution, warehousing and marketing of the book. Typically, the author pays for the printing and binding of the book and will receive royalties.

Print on Demand

This is a good option for someone with a limited audience. You use your own money to produce the book and then have a company (such as Amazon’s Createspace) print them one at a time as they are ordered. The plus is that you don’t have any books that you need to store.


You pay to produce, market and warehouse your books.

With all of these methods, the majority of the work and expense of publishing falls on the author’s shoulders. And as hard as it is to find a traditional publisher, it can be equally hard to find physical retail location that want showcase your new novel.

But often with today’s technology, many readers no longer buy physical copies of books. Many readers now have e-readers so authors need to determine whether they even need physical copies of their books to sell.

And this leads us to the last section in this three-part series on publishing a book – e-book publishing. Next week I will go over the steps to publishing your e-book.

Publishing a book: Part 1 – traditional publishing house

Last week, I wrote the steps for writing a novel. This week I wanted to address what to do with that completed novel.

So you have completed your novel and are ready to publish it. What do you need to do now?

Alternatively, if you are planning to write a non-fiction book, you may want to look for a publisher ahead of time. Why spend the time writing the book if no one wants yet another book on pregnancy, exercise or whatever topic you pick? But if you have a non-fiction book with a fresh angle, you may find a publisher who encourages you to write.

When looking into publishing you have two options – go the traditional route of finding a publishing house (or an agent and then a publishing house) or the decision to self-publish.

Because these are two totally different routes, I will address them separately. First let’s look at traditional publishing.

Traditional publishing is where a company buys the rights to an author’s manuscript. Usually, an agent representing the author, negotiates a deal with the book publisher for the publisher to print and distribute the book.

The first step would be to research the publishing company or agent to make sure they publish the type of book that you are writing. You can also find out the guidelines to contacting them on their website.

If you hire an agent, they will use their contacts and knowledge of the publishing world to match your writing with a publishing house. Or you can contact the publishing house directly though you will probably have a better success if you have an agent.

Fiction Books

Once your book is complete, you will send a query letter, a sample of your writing and a synopsis to the publisher per their requirements. It doesn’t help your case to send more than what is required.

Non-Fiction Books  

You need to submit a book proposal that includes the proposed chapters and a sample of your writing. You would need to explain your expertise in the area.

Remember that both agents and publishing houses receive thousands of query letters and manuscripts each year. Some may send back a stock rejection letter but there are quite a few that won’t respond at all.

If you are lucky enough to get a contract from a publisher, they will then have their in-house editors work with you to refine your writing. They will be in charge of the marketing, distribution and warehousing of your book.

The benefit of traditional publishing is no out-of-pocket expense to the author. The publisher will make their money from the sale of the book. But the chance of getting published traditionally is hard and time consuming. You can send out many query letters, and months or years later you can be no closer to getting published. Many famous authors were rejected many times before finally became published.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to go the traditional road and be published by a major publishing house. But that is a hard road so many authors choose to self-publish their own work. I will address the steps of self-publishing next week.