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DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: How to generate more writing ideas than you can handle (expats, you have an advantage!)

Diary of an Expat Writer
It’s been much too long since we’ve heard from Shannon Young, an American expat in Hong Kong who recently achieved her dream of becoming a full-time writerThose who have been following her diary from the beginning won’t be surprised to learn that she’s been extremely productive in the interim. About to finish her five-book fantasy adventure series and begin the next, she shares some proven methods of generating story ideas.

Dear Displaced Diary,

Forgive me for letting so much time pass since my last entry. As you can probably guess from my previous entries, I’ve been busy! Nearly a year ago—on April 1, 2016—I published the first book, Duel of Fire, in my second fantasy series, called Steel and Fire. It’s a five-book series, whereas my first series, Seabound. was a trilogy. As the title suggests, I’ve been writing an adventure series; the Seabound books are dystopian fantasy. Also, from the start, the Steel and Fire novels have done much better than my first set, which I hope can be taken as a measure of my success as a budding writer.

The last time I wrote you, I was about to finish Book Three in Steel and Fire. I’d also set myself the goal of launching Book Four by the end of 2016: achieved! Then in January I wrote the rough draft of the fifth and final Steel and Fire novel.

As I wrap up this series and gear up for the next, I thought it might be an opportune moment to tell you about how I get my writing ideas—something we haven’t really gone over before.

Here are my four main techniques for generating story lines:

1) Draw on life experience to build a new world.

As a science fiction and fantasy author, I am challenged over and over again to build a world that is different to everyday reality.

Expats like you and me have a serious advantage. We have literally transplanted ourselves into a new world already. Viewing people, customs, vocabulary, clothing, and architecture as a newcomer or outsider already puts us in the mindset for developing a compelling world for our stories.

The more you work with a world, the more you can push the boundaries beyond what you already know about it. It’s not so much creating a world as it is excavating one—an idea I lifted directly from Stephen King’s On Writing. As King says, it’s easier to expand upon and discover ideas than to think them up cold. Build outward from an initial concept, and the ideas almost write themselves.

In my dystopian Seabound series, for example, I chose a post-apocalyptic ocean setting and developed my ideas from there. I gave the characters entire vocabularies that revolve around nautical terms. All of my similes had to be relatable for people who have lived on the ocean for sixteen years. “Salt” and “rust” became swear words. I created an oil rig that is a central meeting place, versus a market.

2) Don’t forget about the story—and the power of contrast in telling it.

As anyone who’s written fantasy will know, it’s easy to get so bogged down in the details of a world that you forget about the actual story. Travel writers know this, too: it’s not enough to describe a cool place. You have to take your readers on a journey through it.

One way to come up with a story idea is to set up an inherent contrast. Two characters from different social classes fall in love. A by-the-book detective has to work with a rogue. A normal girl teams up with a paranormal being/secret agent/feisty old woman to defeat a bad guy. Use the built-in tension of contrasting characters to help figure out what your conflict should be. Again, starting with the seed of an idea and building outward is easier than thinking up a whole story from scratch.

3) Read other books for inspiration.

Another way to think up story ideas is to seek inspiration in other books. You shouldn’t copy another author’s ideas, but reading an engaging story can be a great way to get the juices flowing in your own mind. For example, you might be sitting by the fire enjoying the school antics of Harry Potter when—BAM!—you think to yourself: what would it be like if the whole thing took place at a boarding school in space? There’s your idea. Bonus points if you can bring an old idea into a new setting— think Firefly’s country western in space or iZombie’s murder mystery series with a zombie sleuth.

You can also get fiction ideas from reading non-fiction. You might be enjoying the latest expat memoir about your soon-to-be adopted home when it occurs to you things could get really interesting if someone got murdered or an EMP destroyed the electrical grid in the middle of the expat author’s adventures. Don’t be afraid to take someone else’s plot and add a new twist. Just run with it!

4) Live with a cold idea for a while, until it heats up.

I come up with my very best ideas while I’m working on other projects; but what happens when you have a general idea of what you want to write about, and you’re not sure how to move forward? How do you get more specific ideas on which to build a story? My favorite method is to walk around with the idea for a while. It helps if you can give yourself some parameters, such as “I want to write about a murder in the city where I live.” Don’t think too hard about it; just go about your daily life occasionally remembering that you’re looking for a particular story line. You may find that you see or overhear something that connects with the question in your head and hits you straight between the eyes with a great story idea!

This method works for problems within stories as well. Often the necessary solutions will come to you when you least expect them, but only after you give yourself an initial question to mull over. (This is why getting ideas in the shower is common among writers.) Don’t forget to keep a notebook handy so you can capture those ideas the moment they arrive.

Okay, your turn!

In closing, I’d like to pose a question to the readers of this diary entry. What are your tried-and-true methods of coming up with story ideas? Do you usually start out knowing what you’re going to write or discover it along the way?

Happy writing in either case!

And thank you, Displaced Diary, for your continuing encouragement!

Yours,

Shannon Young
AKA Jordan Rivet
www.shannonyoungwriter.com
www.jordanrivet.com

* * *

Shannon, it’s great to have you back at the Displaced Nation, and once again, I’m impressed by your ability to convey so many helpful ideas for the rest of us would-be book writers. You are what the Japanese side of myself would call a sensei, a compliment rarely bestowed on one so young! ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: Taking time off to look backwards on how far I’ve come…and forwards to the next goals

Diary of an Expat Writer
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from American expat in Hong Kong and aspiring writer Shannon Young. She actually gave herself a break this summer—and as soon as she came back at it, pieces started falling into place…

Dear Displaced Diary,

Did you have a nice summer? Mine was a great mix of family time and travel. Highlights included hanging out with my adorable nephew in Arizona, visiting my grandparents in Oregon, catching up with old friends in New York City, and riding a moped around Bermuda with my husband.

After the intensive work of the previous six months, it was a much-needed chance to clear my head and remember how to be a human being again.

As I shared at the start of the year, I needed to kick into high gear in the first part of 2016 or else start searching for a new day job.

As a consequence, I barely looked up from my computer for six months, during which I wrote and launched the first two books in my new YA Steel of Fire fantasy series, within six weeks of each other.

After the intensity of the winter and spring, the summer break gave me a chance to step back and take stock of how far I’ve come along the journey into a writing career.

From travel writer…to fantasy author

I started my career writing about Hong Kong. I envisioned myself as a travel writer because that seemed like the natural path for an American girl abroad. But the more I’ve written, the more it has become clear that my interests and skills are better suited for fantasy and science fiction. Those early projects were important practice for the kind of work I’m doing now.

It’s common for writers to draw inspiration from the world around them even if they’re not travel writers. I’m sure you expats know what I’m talking about. You encounter a natural wonder or a style of clothing or a cadence of speech. It works its way into your brain, whether you write it down in that moment or not. Eventually it comes back. It may not be in the same form. You change it to align with the needs of your story world, or you remember it a bit differently than it was in reality. In fiction, you get to write from the inspiration rather than describing exactly what you saw—and that’s what makes it so much fun.

Living abroad has helped me to write fantasy because I get to see so many different places and meet people from all over the world, even if none of them wield magic or ride dragons (so far). It has also helped me look at the place I came from with fresh eyes.

MAGICAL HONG KONG: Inspiration for fantasy writing?

MAGICAL HONG KONG: Inspiration for Shannon’s swashbuckling fantasies?

From teacher in Arizona…to writer in Hong Kong

While I was in the States, I took a few days to finish the second draft of Dance of Steel, which will be the third book in my five-book Steel and Fire series. I completed the draft on my 28th birthday in my favorite coffee shop in my hometown, Gilbert, Arizona. I used to spend hours grading essays at that very coffee shop during my first year as a teacher.

At the time I was applying for jobs in Hong Kong, both at schools and with publishers, and it hadn’t even occurred to me to try writing books.

It was fun to mark my progress in a place where I could see how far I’d traveled, both physically and in my career as a writer.

MARK OF PROGRESS: From the coffee shops of Arizona to the Starbucks of Hong Kong

MARK OF PROGRESS: No longer grading papers in an Arizona coffee shop, Shannon is drafting fantasy novels in a Starbucks in Hong Kong.

From vacation mode…back to the grind

I’m writing a five-book series, so I’m always thinking about where my story is going. A long project requires stamina and a steady course, but sometimes moving out of your usual routine can help to get the creative juices flowing again. Having already planned to finish the final draft of Dance of Steel upon my return to Hong Kong after a month off, I was already thinking about what would happen in the next book.

My husband and I took a meandering road trip through Oregon and California before catching our flight to New York. Whenever it was my turn to drive, I’d pass the time on the road thinking through what would happen in the fourth book. I’d write notes in the evenings, but it was helpful to let the story unfold like a movie as I drove. It made me appreciate how much writing you can do when you’re not actually writing. You have to let those ideas develop and see if they really have legs. (Not to worry, I didn’t crash into anything!)

Once we were back in Hong Kong, I hit the ground running to make my editor deadline for the final draft of Dance of Steel. After a month away from the computer, I spent about 100 hours at Starbucks over the course of 12 days.

Hong Kong cooperated by being furiously rainy and dreary for all 12 days.

At 136,145 words, Dance of Steel has ended up being my longest book by 40,000 words.

It was a great way to get back into my routine—and it warned me to budget more time for each draft now that my books are getting longer. Finishing a book is a always a marathon, but I need to continue to work on my pacing.

From aspiring…to official full-time author!

The good news is, six years after I left Arizona, I’m officially making a living as a writer(!!). The month of May was the tipping point, when I published the second book in my Steel and Fire series, Duel of Fire, and my sales began to take off. This series has done exponentially better than my previous (Seabound) fantasy series.

Dance of Steel is the sixth novel I have published under my Jordan Rivet pen name. In the four months since, I’ve met or exceeded my previous day-job income.

And one more exciting piece of news: I signed with a literary agent to represent the auxiliary rights to the series and have now secured a three-book audio deal!

I will have to keep working hard and publishing often to maintain this momentum, but for now, it’s an exciting milestone to celebrate.

steel-and-fire-series_sept-2016

Onwards and upwards…

It’s good to be back at work after the time off. I’m now 80,000 words into the fourth book in the series (not counting thousands of words of notes).

My goal is to finish in time for a Christmas or New Year launch. I’m also working on getting out to writing and social events more often and establishing a sustainable working pace that allows me to put out a book every three or four months.

I’m in this for the long haul now. I want to keep learning, stay excited about the process, and make each book better than the last one:

Thank you, my dear Displaced Diary, for all your help and encouragement along the way!

Yours,

Shannon Young
AKA Jordan Rivet
www.shannonyoungwriter.com
www.jordanrivet.com

* * *

Shannon, I was watching an interview with the playwright Edward Albee, aired to commemorate his death earlier in the month, and he said that whenever he was writing a play, he would “see and hear” the characters in his mind and wait for them to tell him where his story was going. Your road-trip method sounds a little like his! Thanks once again for sharing your latest news. It’s uplifting! ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: 11 Expat- and Travel-themed Books to Expand Our Horizons in 2016

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is back with her personal picks for expat- and travel-themed books to watch for in 2016.

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

It’s been quite a long time since I last wrote to you here. Since my last column we’ve started 2016, celebrated the beginning of the Year of the Monkey, written and revised our new year’s resolutions, and (hopefully) read some really great books!

As part of my own (ever-evolving) New Year’s resolutions I signed up for the Goodreads Reading Challenge. It’s currently showing that I’m 22 books behind schedule for my overly optimistic goal of 300 books this year—but, hey, it wouldn’t be a challenge if it was easy, right?

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 7.33.56 PM
Now, usually in this column I talk about books I’ve already read, but this month I’d like to highlight some that I haven’t. There are, of course, lots of intriguing books coming out this year—more than I can cover adequately in one column! But, of the expat- or international-themed books coming out in 2016 that caught my eye, I’ve chosen 11 to feature in this post, one for each month left in 2016. Take a look!

* * *

Beginning with…a Thriller and a Mystery

CambodiaNoir_cover_300x200Cambodia Noir, by Nick Seeley (March 15, 2016)
The debut novel from an American journalist who has been working out of the Middle East and Southeast Asia, Cambodia Noir is a thriller that I’ve had on my to-be-read list ever since I first heard about it. The plot: A young American woman who is working as an intern at a local paper in Phnom Penh, June Saito, disappears. Her sister hires a retired photojournalist with first-hand knowledge of the corrupt, dissolute ways of the Cambodian capital, to look for her. Author Nick Seeley got his start as a foreign correspondent in Phnom Penh. He’s been hailed as a “fresh voice” exploring the depths of the Far East’s underworld.


InspectorSinghInvestigates_cover_300x200Inspector Singh Investigates: A Frightfully English Execution, by Shamini Flint (April 7, 2016)
Always the fan of international crime fiction, I’m excited that one of my favorite series—a series of charming crime novels featuring the portly, lovable Sikh policeman Inspector Singh—is getting a new addition this year. Author Shamini Flint is sending Singh to Britain Diary of a Tennis Prodigy_cover_300x200in the seventh book in her series. Each book provides not only a puzzle for the reader to solve but also a close-up look at the locations where the books are set. This is the Inspector’s first time out of Asia, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he discovers in the UK.

And, a special note for readers with kids: on January 1 Flint, who is a Singapore-based Malaysian, published a middle-grade book, Diary of a Tennis Prodigy, with illustrator Sally Heinrich (Sally formerly lived in Singapore and Malaysia but is now based in Adelaide, Australia).

And Now Let’s Add Three Travel Memoirs…

No Baggage_cover_300x200No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering, by Clara Bensen (January 5, 2016)
I love memoirs that read like novels, as I’m hoping this one will! Recovering from a quarter-life meltdown, 25-year-old Bensen signs up for an online dating account, and to her surprise, ends up meeting Jeff, a university professor who proposes they take a three-week experimental trip spanning eight countries, with no plans or baggage. Her story resonates with the adventurer in me—I can’t wait to take a look.


Little Dribbling_cover_300x200The Road to Little Dribbling, by Bill Bryson (January 19, 2016)
It may already be old news to anyone who’s been in a bookstore recently—or read our Displaced Dispatch!—but the world’s favorite traveler, humor writer and expat, Bill Bryson, has a new travelogue out. It’s another of his road-trip books. (I much prefer these to his other writings such as A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home—they started out great, but I ended up leaving them unfinished…) Bryson made a journey through Britain 20 years ago, which was forever immortalized in his bestselling classic, Notes from a Small Island. In Little Dribbling, he follows the “Bryson line” from bottom to top of his adopted home country. I’m looking forward to being in his company again.


In Other Words_cover_300x200In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri (and translations by Ann Goldstein) (February 9, 2016)
As a London-born Indian-American, world-class novelist Jhumpa Lahiri excels at writing in English—yet has long harbored a passion for the Italian language. Not wanting to miss out, she moved her family to Rome to immerse herself and quickly reached a point where she was writing only in Italian. She kept a journal in Italian that has evolved into this dual-language memoir. As an expat who’s now tried to learn three foreign languages while abroad, I’m curious to see how Lahiri’s experiences match up to my own. (The critics would apparently like to see her go back to English!)

…Along with Two Works of Literary Fiction and a Harlequin Romance

WhatBelongstoYou_cover_300x200What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell (January 19, 2016)
An American professor working in Sofia, Bulgaria, hooks up with a male prostitute in a public toilet and slowly becomes more involved than he anticipated. Reviewers cite Greenwell’s lyrical prose as reason alone for picking up his debut novel, but I’m interested in seeing how this young writer—who himself once worked as an expat English teacher in Bulgaria—depicts the city and the relationships between locals and foreigners. (This book, too, was mentioned in a recent Displaced Dispatch.)


TheHighMountainsofPortugal_cover_300x200The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel (February 2, 2016)
Going over this years’ publishers lists, I’m now looking forward to reading a book by an author whose last book I despised. My friends were all gushing over Yann Martel’s 2002 novel Life of Pi; but, while it has an admittedly awesome premise, the story left me cold. But I’m excited to check out the chronically traveling Canadian author’s next book, which is set in Portugal and intertwines the century-spanning stories of a young man reading an old journal, a mystery-loving pathologist, and a Canadian diplomat. I’m planning a trip to Lisbon later this year, and hope to read this book before I go.


UndertheSpanishStairs_cover_300x200Under the Spanish Stars, by Alli Sinclair (February 1, 2016)
I’m pleased to report that former expat Alli Sinclair—my friend and former co-blogger from Novel Adventurers—has published her second romantic mystery novel this month. (Congratulations, Alli!) The action takes place in her native Australia and also in Spain. The plot: an Australian woman travels to her grandmother’s homeland of Andalucía to unravel a family mystery. She ends up meeting a passionate flamenco guitarist and learns her grandmother’s past is not what she imagined.

Finally, to Top Things Off, How About a Couple of YA Books?

I don’t read a lot of young adult books, but descriptions of two novels I saw reviewed recently stuck with me. Funnily enough, both books’ titles start with “Up”—maybe it’s the implied optimism that caught me? We could use a bit of cheer in our displaced world…

Up from the Sea_cover_300x200Up from the Sea, by Leza Lowitz (January 12, 2016)
This is a novel in verse. It tells the story of a Japanese teenager, Kai, whose coastal village is obliterated by the March 2011 tsunami, after which he is offered a trip to New York to meet children who had been affected by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The trip also provides an opportunity for him to go in search of his estranged American father. Author Leza Lowitz is an American expat writer and translator living in Tokyo, where she also runs a popular yoga studio. Her favorite themes to explore in her writing include the idea of place, displacement and what “home” means to expatriate women.


UPtothisPointe_cover_300x200Up to this Pointe, by Jennifer Longo (January 19, 2016)
I’m always fascinated by stories of Antarctica so have my eye on this book about a teenage girl who aspires to be a professional ballerina but, when her grand plan goes awry, sets out on an expedition to McMurdo Station (the U.S. Antarctic research center) in the footsteps of her relative and explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Notably, Seattle-based author Jennifer Longo wanted to be a ballerina until she finally had to admit that her talent for writing exceeded her talent for dance. Like me, she harbors an obsessive love of Antarctica. I admire the way she has woven these two themes together!

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, what do you think? What are you looking forward to reading this year? Any much-anticipated displaced reads that should be added to my list?

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Columnist JJ Marsh bids farewell with generous book giveaway

JJ Marsh hands over the Location Locution reins to Lorraine Mace, who will start next month.

JJ Marsh hands over the Location Locution reins to Lorraine Mace, who will start next month.

JJ Marsh first graced the shores of the Displaced Nation two years ago. Growing up a Third Culture Kid in Africa and the Middle East, and now an expat in Switzerland, she was an immediate fit. For two years we have benefited from her love of language and place, and now, as she takes her leave from this column (though not from the Displaced Nation), she does something that makes us love her even more: hand picks a successor and offers a chance to win a set of SEVEN books from Triskele, the acclaimed writers’ collective she helped to found. Thank you, JJ!

—ML Awanohara

Two years after joining Displaced Nation with the Location, Locution column, it’s time for me to say goodbye.

It’s been a terrific experience and I’ve learnt so much from my interviewees, not to mention discovering wonderful books and unexplored places. Heartfelt thanks to ML Awanohara and the Displaced Nation team for taking a risk on me.

I’m going to hand over to a fresh face, with her own unique flair. From June, Location, Locution will be in the expert hands of inveterate creative and nomad, Lorraine Mace. I asked Lorraine to introduce herself to you next month by providing her own answers to the Location, Locution questions.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a goodbye present. As international creatives, I know you enjoy exploring books that make a feature of place.

My colleagues and I at Triskele Books have created a box set of books to transport you across time and place, from 3rd century Syria to futuristic Wales. A Time & A Place contains seven award-winning novels that have in common the theme of this column: location, locution.

Come on a journey.
We’ll take you to another place.
And tell you a story.

And as my farewell gift to Displaced Nation readers, I have one free copy (ebook only) to give away. You can win by adding a comment in the box below. In no more than 50 words, where and when in the world would you like to go, and why?

JJ Marsh's farewell giveaway

JJ Marsh’s farewell giveaway

The winner will be announced in next month’s Location, Locution.

* * *

Where would you like to be taken?

1) Modern-day Anglesey on the trail of a psychopath
Crimson Shore, by Gillian Hamer (Contemporary crime)
“Hamer does for Anglesey what Rankin does to Edinburgh, what Dexter did to Oxford”

2) Post-apocalyptic Wales, surviving with a rat pack
Rats, by JW Hicks (YA)
“An absolute treat for fans of SF, dystopian, and YA novels, but I would recommend it to anyone who loves a great story brilliantly told.”

3) Contemporary Zurich, where everyone has a secret
Behind Closed Doors, by JJ Marsh (European crime)
“Warning: once you start this book you may not be able to put it down, and you may find yourself talking to it.”

4) WWII France to resist occupation and fall in love
Wolfsangel, by Liza Perrat (Historical fiction)
“Fascinating, forceful and extremely well researched… will thrill historical fiction fans.”

5) Ancient Palmyra to fight alongside a warrior queen
The Rise of Zenobia, by JD Smith (Historical fiction)
“Packed to the hilt with tension and adventure, it kept me spellbound.”

6) Charleville, France, and the poetic voyage of a manuscript
Delirium – The Rimbaud Delusion, by Barbara Scott-Emmett (Literary fiction)
“Beautifully plotted and written, this absorbing, enchanting novel is one of the best books I have read this year.”

7) Coventry – a 1980s crucible of racial tensions
Ghost Town, by Catriona Troth (Literary fiction)
“Unique and brilliant… not just a compelling read, but also a learning experience.”

JJ Marsh and her  fellow Triskelites.

JJ Marsh and her fellow Triskelites.

Can’t wait to get the set? It’s available for a limited period at the special offer price of $9.99/£7.99. Don’t miss this box of delights. Who knows what you’ll discover?

Or, to reiterate, you can try your luck at winning a FREE copy (ebook only) by adding a comment in the box below:

In no more than 50 words, where and when in the world would you like to go, and why?

Goodbye, thank you for reading the column and I wish you all excellent journeys.

Jill

* * *

Happy trails to you as well, Jill! I noticed you said in a recent interview: “My definition of literary genius is writing about places you want to visit.” May that become the Displaced Nation’s new mantra! Readers and JJ fans, let’s all bid JJ a fond farewell by answering the question: In no more than 50 words, where and when in the world would you like to go, and why? (Seven books, wow! That’s your summer reading…)

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she has been writing a European crime series set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs. She recently produced the fourth book in the series: Cold Pressed, which takes place on a luxury cruise bound for Santorini.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Canadian writer Lee Strauss uses busy, multicultural Dresden as setting for romance

Location Locution_LeeStrauss

LOCATION, LOCUTION: JJ Marsh (left) talks to author Lee Strauss about the craft of setting contemporary romance novels in foreign locations.

In “Location, Locution” expat crime series writer JJ Marsh chats with fellow displaced fiction writers about their methods of portraying place in their works. Her guest today is contemporary romance and speculative fiction writer Lee Strauss. Born near Chicago to Canadian parents, Lee might have grown up a California girl had it not been for Vietnam, which caused her parents to retreat back to Canada. At age 22, she married Norm Strauss, a Canadian folk rock musician—and signed up for a life of adventure. They have traveled extensively overseas and live part-time in Germany.

—ML Awanohara

Lee Strauss is the author of the Minstrel Series, a collection of contemporary romance novels set in the singer/songwriter world, taking place in Germany and England; the Perception Series, a trilogy of young adult dystopian novels; and several works of YA historical fiction. Under the alter ego of Elle Strauss, she writes fanciful younger adult stories about time travel, mermaids and fairies.

Lee is the married mother of four grown children, three boys and a girl. Because of her husband’s job as an indie folk musician, she has traveled to twelve European countries, Mexico, fourteen states, and six Canadian provinces. Currently, the couple divide its time between Kelowna, a town in British Columbia’s temperate Okanangan Valley, and Dresden, Germany. When not writing or reading Lee likes to cycle, hike and do yoga. She enjoys travel (but not jet lag :0), soy lattes, red wine and dark chocolate.

Now let’s talk to Lee about how she has woven European settings into several of her books.

* * *

Which came first, story or location?

It was a simultaneous decision. My singer-songwriter husband and I spent some time brainstorming on how we could merge our two worlds, indie publishing collaborating with indie music artists, and the idea for the Minstrel Series was born. (Each of the books has accompanying music.) The first two books, Sun & Moon and Flesh & Bone, are song titles of music used in the books. We live part of the year in Dresden, Germany, and I just knew that the books had to be set there, right in our neighbourhood.

Minstrel Series Set in Dresden

Cover art from first two books of the Minstrel Series; (middle) view of Dresden’s historical center, from the same spot where Canaletto made his famous painting.

I’ve also written a WW2 historical novel called Playing with Matches, about a group of boys growing up in Hitler Youth. The story takes place in Passau and Nuremberg. Traveling to both cities made a huge difference in getting the setting and ambiance right.

Playing with Matches Collage

Clockwise, left to right: Cover art; Nuremberg citiscape; view of Veste Oberhaus, a 13th-century fortress in Paussau, in lower Bavaria, Germany.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

Nothing like living in the middle of it! The street and building in Dresden where we lived are featured in great detail in Sun & Moon and Flesh & Bone. Many readers comment on how they feel like they visited Germany while reading my books.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

All three. I share a lot of Dresden images on Tumblr, including not just landscape but also food and the local culture.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?

Here’s a passage from the Minstrel Series, describing a scene in Dresden:

Katja stood in one of the cutaways on the old stone bridge over the River Elbe that joined the Altstadt with the Neustadt, the old city with the new.

She shivered despite her winter jacket and the scarf wrapped around her neck and strummed her guitar with fingerless gloves. The limestone dome of the Frauenkirche—the Church of our Lady—peaked out over the city’s ancient, baroque skyline. Like all the buildings in the historic center, it had been completely demolished during the Second World War. The entire city was rebuilt to look much like it had before it was destroyed. In essence, the old town was now the new one, and the new town the old one.

It was majestic and awe-inspiring to look upon.

Most days.

Katja’s guitar case lay open at her feet. She’d thrown in the few cents she’d found under the sofa cushions, hoping to lure other donations.

The cold wind kept people hunched over and moving at a fast pace across the bridge, most with chins tucked down and hands shoved into deep pockets. No one took the time to stop and listen, much less drop money in her case.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?

Spending time living there is the absolute best way. There’s so much you see and learn about a place over time. The second best is to visit in person. After that, talking to people who have lived or visited there along with research and Google Earth.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Maeve Binchy has a wonderful way of pulling the reader deep into Ireland. (My next book in The Minstrel Series will be set in Ireland and Boston, where I’ve lived.) Susan Grafton does the same for Southern California with her Alphabet Mystery series, set in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, based on Santa Barbara.

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Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Lee Strauss and her creative array of fiction works, we encourage you to visit her author site.

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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