Friday, October 17, 2014

AUTHENTIC SETTINGS A CHALLENGE IN SFR

Hard to get a "real feel" for a place you can't get to.


One of the huge advantages of writing the kind of “hearth and home” science fiction romance I do is that I can send my hero and heroine to real places here on Earth.  That “grounds” my settings in a way that is impossible to do when I put them on a spaceship or alien planet.  I work hard to give my alien settings substance, but there’s just nothing like actually being there to give a scene authenticity.

I envy the RWA Kiss of Death (romantic suspense) chapter members their field trips at the national conference.  They always visit the coolest places in search of gritty realism for their novels—FBI headquarters, forensic labs, police shooting ranges.  Fellow 2012 Golden Heart® Firebird Heather Ashby, who writes military romance, is a U.S. Navy vet herself and still finds her way onto every ship she can to keep a sense of place.  Some people live in small towns—and write about small towns.  Some people know everything there is to know about New York City, and their novels reflect that intimate knowledge of the streets, back alleys and sky-high buildings of that city.

Those of us who write SFR tend to be science and space geeks from early childhood.  We seek out any opportunity, slim though it may be, to stand close to something, uh, space-y.  Field trips to an observatory, to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum or, if we’re lucky, to see a launch at Cape Canaveral bring squeals of delight.  But you have to admit, we have greater challenges finding a way to immerse ourselves in setting details for planets that exist only in our minds.

That’s why, in a way, I “cheat” by setting parts of my stories here on Earth.  (That’s true of the first two of my Interstellar Rescue series, at least.  The third book, Fools Rush In, is set entirely in space.)  It helps me as a writer, but I think it also helps the reader relate to the story.  If some of the places are familiar, then a reader new to SFR might have an easier time accepting the introduction of more alien places and ideas.  Of course, my ulterior motive is to hook these new readers and draw them in.  If they like the first two books in my series, then I’m hoping they’ll follow me into the more alien territory of the third book.

Meanwhile, outside forces are working independently to help me out.  Recently I discovered a website devoted to the history and culture of towns and counties along U.S. 219 through the Appalachians of West Virginia and southern Maryland (traveling219.com).  That highway is the back road my hero and heroine Ethan and Asia are forced to take to avoid the black ops kidnappers who are searching for them in Unchained Memory.  Now you can click on the link, and follow the route, learning about the history of the area as you read about places like Marlinton, where my lovers are holed up in a motel, or Elkins, toward the end of the route.

As my characters continue north, they enter the Adirondacks, specifically headed for a place called Big Moose Lake.  Yes, it really exists.  I’ve been there, as part of a road trip I took to follow their route.  I stayed at a bed and breakfast on the lake (in the book, they stay at his family lake house), in an area known for summer vacation homes. 

I had come up with both the route north and the location of the lake house simply by looking at a map.  I knew West Virginia, having family in the area, but the Adirondacks were new to me.  All I had to go on there was a long-ago trip to my husband’s family place in upstate New York.  Luckily I have a good mind for the details of setting and an even better imagination for using them.  When I got to Big Moose, it was as if I’d been there before.  All I can hope now is that my readers feel the same way.

The journey for Ethan and Asia begins in Nashville, Tennessee, where I grew up and still have both friends and roots.  Nashville is the starting place for the hero and heroine in my second novel, Trouble in Mind, too.  It just goes to show that even if we’re writing science fiction romance about aliens and spaceships and faraway planets, we’re still grounded in our own experience.  It helps if we can make that experience as rich and real for our readers as possible.

Cheers, Donna






7 comments:

  1. I don't disagree with your observations about making a setting accessible. :) Yet when I read contemplations about challenges like worldbuilding and SFR's hybrid nature, I immediately start to question to what extent the genre's marketing challenges are playing a role. Some SFR settings are more immersive than others, but on the whole the worldbuilding for this genre isn't a total fail. In other words, I'm not sure worldbuilding challenges are what's keeping readers from discovering or liking SFR.

    Science fiction is booming in film and television, so who exactly is having trouble suspending their disbelief about alien worlds? I'm not sure we can safely assume that romance readers don't watch SF, either. Maybe in the past, but recently? Not as much.

    I like the idea of SFR offering readers a variety of settings (even within a series, like yours will offer). If some take off more than others (assuming the buzz is organic and not paid for), then we'll have more feedback about which settings resonate!

    >in a way, I “cheat” by setting parts of my stories here on Earth.

    Is it really "cheating," though, when near-future, Mundane, and contemporary settings are bona fide science fiction settings/subgenres and have been for some time? Those settings can certainly lessen the learning curve for readers new to SF/SFR, but I'm not sure it's cheating. Being strategic, maybe? :)

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    1. I don't think it's cheating (and just because it's an Earth setting doesn't necessarily make it easier to write or any more familiar to the readers - I can testify to this having written something on Earth but set somewhere I've never been and know nothing about, with a rich, distinctive culture and setting of its own), but if readers aren't drawn to SFR even if it has a familiar setting, then it's not the world-building that keeps them away. So therefore it must be the SFelements, so how do we get around that aspect?

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  2. I've come here a bit late, but just wanted to chime in by saying I LOVE Science Fiction Romance and, by definition, I like to read stories that take place in a science fiction setting such as different planets, space ships, etc. I actually get turned off an SFR story if it has science fiction elements but is entirely or mostly set on Earth. It's all about escapism for me and I feel that if well-developed science fiction world building is not present, the story may as well be a contemporary romance.

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    1. Merry, you've summed up my feelings actually. I really want to be taken out of my world when I read.

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  3. Donna is having "transporter difficulties" right now, so asked me to post her response to your comments. Here you go:

    OzMerry and Pippa, I agree that most of us read SFR to somehow escape this world and be shown another. But just because the bulk of a story is set on Earth and has familiar elements doesn't mean it doesn't provide the same opportunities for reshaping the world we know and viewing it with an alternate lens. I loved the old TWILIGHT ZONE series because some elements of the stories seemed so "normal", yet what went on within those parameters was so twisted! The X-FILES and FRINGE followed in the same mold. That's what I hope to create with my series-- a whole new world within the one that seems so familiar.

    Pippa, I don't know if people will embrace that format. I'm not aiming to capture the contemporary romance crowd, but I AM hoping for the paranormal or romantic suspense crowd. I think it would require just a small shift in their thinking to allow for the universe I'm working in. Once they've opened up to aliens here on Earth, maybe they'll be willing to jump on a starship and seek them out elsewhere.

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    1. I'm purposely playing up the paranormal aspects of A'yen's Legacy and going after those readers. But it's also something I'm comfortable doing, partly because I'm one of those readers.There is quite a bit of crossover between the two already, it's just a matter of getting the paranormal reader to realize it and purposely seek those elements out.

      Not every SFR has a natural reach into the paranormal world. For those that do, it's a marketing strategy that shouldn't be overlooked. Paranormal readers are voracious, like other romance readers, and very open to new spins on things and new interpretations of the world around us.

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  4. >I AM hoping for the paranormal or romantic suspense crowd.

    Yeah, but still not seeing much sign of that happening.

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