F-stops and All That

I’ve been wanting to get back into photography for quite awhile, but between work and work and more work I’ve been so creatively drained that’s it’s been a major chore even to finish reading a novel, for crying out loud. Well, no more. I signed up with Shutterstock to do some stock photography work. That was something I considered years ago, but the business model required so much time that I wasn’t able to meet the Big Guys’ specifications (travel, submit hundreds of photos at a time, etc.).

The business model has changed a lot in the last few years, and now there’s something called microstock photography. You don’t have to be a full-time photographer or submit hundreds of images — but of course, you still need to submit good work. By giving myself a “job” I will spend more time with my photography. I haven’t uploaded any images yet as I’m still filling out some paperwork and I need time to go through my portfolio and decide what will make good stock photography. Since I have some background in editorial work I have a bit of an idea what to expect, and I hope that works for me.

Approaching photography with the idea of purposely shooting stock means that I will also spend some time coming up with compositions. I don’t expect to do portraits or events; landscapes, buildings, and things that don’t move are more to my liking. I spent a season at a ski resort in New Hampshire taking photos of skiers and snowboarders, and it was pretty hard to get everyone posed without having them slide down the mountain while I was fiddling around with aperture settings!

So, I’m off to read up about stock photography (and get sidetracked reading about new camera gear and camera bags). I’ll be going to the Maine Astronomy Retreat at the end of July, and I’m hoping to have some more Milky Way photos that maybe I can turn into works of art or at least earn enough to buy myself a cup of coffee. So, I’m off to charge my camera batteries and scout out things around the house that would be interesting subjects for some still life compositions.

Writing about Settings

Setting is the time and place where your story is set. It can be as mundane as a typical suburban neighborhood or as exotic as a foreign country or alien planet. Remember, “exotic” to you might be the mundane to someone else, and vice versa, so you will have to rely on your skills of description to bring the setting alive.

Another term for setting is location, although that is more properly limited to the physical space in which the story is set. But setting involves much more – the time or era when the story is taking place (past, present, future); the passage of time, such as how long a period your story covers (a day, an hour, a character’s entire life); mood and emotion; physical location (for example, deserts, cities, planets, underwater algae farm, Victorian London); geography (the description of the physical location as related to nature – rivers, mountains, etc.); and weather and climate.

Additionally, your setting needs to be populated, otherwise there’s not much of a story. First, consider the people you’re writing about: are they human? It’s not a dumb question, because depending on your story you could be writing about protagonists who are fully human, paranormal creatures such as werecows, or aliens from another planet or dimension.

Use descriptions of the physical landscape (geography) and buildings to help establish your setting. It helps to look at photographs of locations when you’re trying to come up with descriptive text, but don’t forget to use sensory descriptions to make the place come alive in the mind of the reader. The beach may look wonderful, but what does it smell like? Is the breeze strong? Or hot, or cold? What kind of sounds does the protagonist hear at the beach? Does the sand crunch under his sandals, or get into his shoes and give him a blister?

Thursday Writing Prompt No. 140

It’s been some time since I posted a Thursday Writing Prompt. This year has been unfriendly to being productive, but it’s time to climb back into the driver’s seat and get some writing and editing done!

For today’s prompt, do an online search for cocktails and find one with a name that intrigues you. You’ll take that name and use it as a working title for a short story. “Tequilla Sunrise” would work as a prompt, and it already gives you an idea of the setting for your story. It might work well for a travel type of story, or perhaps a romance where a traveler meets that special someone.

“Dark and Stormy” is another name that is highly suggestive, but this time it makes me think of Gothic castles, haunted houses, or wild weather and large waves crashing against a rocky shoreline. Because who cares if it’s dark and stormy and you’re safe in bed in your urban apartment? Well, now … that would be a different setting, wouldn’t it? Write the unexpected!

And a search for weird cocktail names will give you even more inspiration. “Dances with Wenches,” “The Drunken Elf,” “Blue Lagoon,” “Twelve Mile Limit,” and “Green Ghost” are some fun names to start with, and there are more … adult-named beverages out there, too, if that’s your bag.

So, grab a cocktail recipe of your choice and be inspired — with or without the alcohol — that’s your choice. Just don’t blame me if you’re seeing twice as many words on your page as you’re actually writing!

Cleaned My Bookshelves, Discovered Treasure

Today I’ve spent some time rearranging books on my shelves. I purged a few things I don’t want either because I’ve read them and won’t read them again, or because I bought them on sale at a flea market in the hopes they would be useful for some of my history classes and found that they just weren’t specific enough or just not particularly useful for my purposes.

I also had a string of decorative LED lights that I bought from Big Lots and wanted to put on my shelves, so I needed to clear off the accumulated clutter and piles. Piles! Piles of stuff! Stuff in the form of way too many books for the shelf space available; a lot of knick-knacks, including Lego people, fossils, and some very nice mineral specimens; and steno books galore. Is there ever enough paper or art supplies?

Between shuffling books and dusting and sneezing, I came across some notes that I put together for a local writer’s group meeting on how to write atmosphere. And I thought, “Hey, why not turn that material into a blog post?” So in a few of upcoming posts, I’ll talk about some ideas for writing atmosphere, including setting, theme, word choice, and sentence structure. I initially wrote my notes with an emphasis on Gothic atmosphere, but after reading some of Ray Bradbury’s work for the biography and historical/cultural article I wrote for Salem Press’s forthcoming encyclopedia, I would like to expand my vision of what atmosphere is – although I have to tell you that Bradbury’s work has been compared to Gothic literature. For a man who is remembered primarily for his work in science fiction, Bradbury’s oeuvre included a great deal of horror short stories.

So, what is atmosphere in a story, and how does it affect the work? The term “atmosphere” is often used interchangeably with “mood,” but there is a subtle difference. Atmosphere is the external feeling that a place or setting projects to the reader, while mood describes what is happening with the characters in the story. That’s fairly easy to remember, isn’t it? Only the Earth can have an atmosphere, but only people and animals have moods.

Gothic literature was very good in creating atmosphere and relied heavily on tropes such as castles and secret passages. The weather in those Gothic stories was usually stormy, and the topography consisted of difficult landscapes that might include rocky terrain or dangerous cliffs. No flowery meadows! Gothic literature covered included spiritual and psychological topics, too, including religion, dreams, and ghosts.[1]

Creating atmosphere in your writing depends on the setting, theme, word choice, and sentence structure that you use. Your landscape can set the stage, but by using writing techniques such as foreshadowing, you will also develop atmosphere and give your readers an emotional context for your story that will draw them in.

Look out for the next blog post, where I’ll discuss setting. It’s going to be a lot of fun!

[1] For a good introduction to Gothic (fiction and otherwise), see Nick Groom, The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), especially chapter 8, “The Descent into Hell.”