Hey there aspiring writers! New week, new Editor’s Pick! If you need some #amwriting inspiration, look no further than today’s pick from HarperTeen’s editorial director Jen Klonsky. Jen breaks down how Jodi Anderson’s vivid and detailed storytelling in her new YA fiction novel Midnight At The Electric helps set scenes masterfully as the book travels back and forth in time. Check out what wisdom Jen has to share, and apply it to your own writing!
Editor’s Pick is an ongoing series where we ask editors to break down the mechanics of what makes the writing in some of our favorite books so amazing, and give tips on how you can apply it to your own work.
Where Am I? Creating a Sense of Place in YA Fiction
by Jennifer Klonsky
Hi, I’m Jen Klonsky, and I’m an Editorial Director here at HarperCollins. This June we are publishing a new YA by Jodi Anderson, who you might know from her Peaches trilogy or her standalone novels Tiger Lily and The Vanishing Season. If you haven’t yet discovered her, I recommend picking up her newest YA, Midnight at the Electric, publishing this June.
Midnight at the Electric features three different young women living in three different times—Kansas in 2065, Oklahoma in 1934, and England in 1919—who will never meet but who each make a difficult choice, and whose fates are entwined (read the book to find out how!).
There are so many aspects of this novel to praise, but one of Jodi’s standout talents is creating a vivid sense of place, which is very important in this novel because Jodi doesn’t tell the story linearly—she moves back and forth through time and through story arcs. Not an easy feat! But because Jodi is a master, her settings help the reader keep the stories straight, and reorient when an arc picks up again.
Right from the start, Jodi sets a visual scene as she introduces the 2065 character, Adri, leaving Miami:
From above, Miami looked as if it was blinking itself awake; the rising sun reflected against the city’s windows. Adri — in fuzzy extra-large pajama pants, her messy black hair pulled back in a rubber band –had pulled over on the shoulder of the Miami bridge because her Theta had blown a circuit board and she needed to fix it. Now, she took in the view one last time: it wasn’t much, but she’d never see it again.
The sky lay low and grey over South Beach. The empty beachfront hotels lay dark, water halfway up their lowest windows. All along the waterfront, buildings stood stark and abandoned. Neighborhood by neighborhood, the ocean had crept into the city, making it look like a kingdom from an old fairy tale, like Atlantis disintegrating into myth. The morning’s mail drones were already buzzing above the waterlogged buildings below, swaying in the heavy winds but staying on course to deliver packages to anyone who was left: the ruggedly independent, the people with nowhere else to go.
Here, the scene is so perfectly set—it’s easy to visualize and though it’s a bleak scene there’s also a beauty to it. It’s also a subtle way to indicate a version of the future that is slowly crumbling in a way that feels, sadly, authentic.
Here is our introduction to Catherine, in Kansas:
The dust came again this morning. It kicked up out of nowhere, looking like a grey cloud rolling across the ground instead of the sky. I was just walking out of the barn with a bucket when I saw it blowing across the northeast edge of the farm, but by then it was too late to get to the house. I had to hold on to the fence not to fall over my own feet, and then all those grains of dirt ran their hands against me and polished me like sandpaper, crawled into my eyes and throat. And then it passed and the sky was that relentless blue again.
Again, Jodi throws you right into the scene with “The dust came again this morning.” The use of the word “came” is unexpected and impactful. “All those grains of dirt ran their hands against me” really set the scene, topped with “crawled into my eyes and throat”… you can feel the setting. And then “the sky was that relentless blue again” indicates that the sun and a blue sky—usually so welcome—are slowly destroying them.
And here, Catherine goes to a local fair in hopes of finding a cure for her sister:
The first thing I saw, approaching the edge of the fair, was the tall, illuminated clock at the center of the grounds, surrounded by booths offering everything from piglet-racing to candy apples to Shoot the Can. Organ music drifted out on the air. I made my way past a billboard painting of a man aiming a cannon upwards. Experience the Wonder of the Rainmaker! it exclaimed. TNT will squeeze RAIN out of the Sky!
Though it was close to midnight, the crowds were still lively. I gaped at one thing after the next, brushing past people devouring the food, chatting and laughing, trying their luck at games of chance. Many were trickling toward the back of the grounds and gathering near a tattered red tent.
I faded into the noisy group as it pressed itself around the tent. A small, simple sign out front announced that this was what I’d come for. This was The Electric.
Can’t you just smell the fair and feel the crowds? The fair really comes to life with every word choice in this passage.
And here is Lenore, discovering a cottage that will become very important in her life:
It’s a stone house – or what’s left of one. And it’s old: stone floors and stone walls, half crumbled in. A collapsed stick roof. I can’t tell how recently, but it’s clearly abandoned now. It’s shrouded in bushes, which is why you and I and Teddy must have missed it all these years on our walks.
I went in, pushing the cobwebs and branches out of my way. There was an old table, half standing, and a bowl and a plate set as if some person years ago had just gotten up and left right before dinner. There was a mantle above the fireplace, still intact, chimney and all.
“Cobwebs” and “an old table, half standing” totally set the scene, and I especially love “a bowl and a plate set as if some person years ago had just gotten up and left”. This abandoned cottage suddenly has tension and is no longer an empty, lifeless space. You just know something vital will happen here.
Each of these scenes provides the reader an atmospheric visual that sets the tone. Jodi manages to add many small details without bogging down the narrative, all of which work together to create a whole picture while allowing the character to rise to the top. Looking further, you can see Jodi’s vision for the future of our coastal cities isn’t overblown, or dramatic; her descriptions of the Dust Bowl are humanized by placing one girl at its center; and the loneliness experiences by Lenore is mirrored in the abandoned cottage but offers a promise of something more. Take a moment to really examine Jodi’s adjectives and word choices—all chosen with care to weave a beautiful tapestry.
Now try your hand at establishing a sense of place. Write a scene four different ways, each with the same girl arriving at a carnival:
- The carnival is completely empty and eerie.
- The carnival is completely empty and inviting.
- The carnival is filled with people and overwhelming.
- The carnival is filled with people and fun.
So much can be conveyed by the way you describe the carnival and how the character reacts to it. Remember to show not tell, a great exercise here as you’ll want to include the character’s emotional responses (it’s easy to tell us how she is feeling—don’t fall into that trap!). Note how the same robust carnival requires a different description whether you want your character to think it’s inviting and fun, or eerie and overwhelming. In all of these cases, try to set a scene that comes to life in the reader’s imagination.
About Midnight At The Electric
Kansas, 2065: Adri has been handpicked to live on Mars. But weeks before launch, she discovers the journal of a girl who lived in her house more than a hundred years ago and is immediately drawn into the mystery surrounding her fate.
Oklahoma, 1934: Amid the fear and uncertainty of the Dust Bowl, Catherine’s family’s situation is growing dire. She must find the courage to sacrifice everything she loves in order to save the one person she loves most.
England, 1919: In the recovery following World War I, Lenore tries to come to terms with her grief for her brother, a fallen British soldier, and plans to sail to America. But can she make it that far?
While their stories span thousands of miles and multiple generations, Lenore, Catherine, and Adri’s fates are entwined in ways both heartbreaking and hopeful. In Jodi Lynn Anderson’s signature haunting, lyrical prose, human connections spark spellbindingly to life, and a bright light shines on the small but crucial moments that determine one’s fate.
What did you write for your prompts?! Share them in the comments below!