Guest Post, Kelly Morris: Where I’m Writing From

I’ve recently realized the importance of my own physical setting as an influence in my writing. When I’m working on a story, I like to write at my desk while drinking a particular type of green tea out of a specific mug. But sometimes I make myself go out and write in a coffee shop or bookstore, if only to remember why I like writing at home (and to reassure myself I am not a completely neurotic and rigid person.) I’m actually writing this blog post from Austin, which is a city I adore. I went to college here, one of my kids was born here, and every time I visit, I’m reminded how a city has a certain vibe and feeling. When I’m in Austin, I can feel the energy here influencing my work, and it goes beyond the fact that many of my stories take place in Austin; it’s more the idea of tapping into a different frame of mind depending on where you are. The weather and traffic and landscape of where you’re living will surely show up in a small way in your own work. How is your mood and perspective influenced by living in the suburbs vs. living in the heart of a city? Living in a populated area like California versus living somewhere more remote like Alaska?

Setting used to be one of my least favorite aspects of a story, both as a writer and a reader. As a character-driven writer, I typically think of characters first, then plot, and finally setting. And when it comes to setting, I’m perfectly happy naming the city the characters live in, describing a few of the city’s quirks, and calling it a day. In other words, it can be tempting to ignore setting completely.

16679751794_290b072b7a_cThere was a time in the not so distant past when I thought that setting was the part of the story that could be neatly excised. Of course I knew there was a difference between a character living on a farmhouse in Kentucky as opposed to a high rise in New York, and of course your characters can’t have an expensive Starbucks habit if they live in the Amazonian rainforest nor can your character spend hours a day tending a garden if he lives in the desert.

But it seemed to me that setting was influential in subtle ways, like how your characters might talk, where they can physically move around in a story, etc.

A few years ago I was working on a short story about a man who runs into his ex-fiancee at the grocery store. I had been struggling with the scene that follows their chance encounter and after staring blankly at my computer screen for awhile, I decided to take my dog for a walk. It was a windy day and as we walked, I watched a trash bag snag in a tree and I noticed how my poor dog was struggling to walk a straight line. A cyclist passed us, and I suddenly imagined my character bike riding over to his ex’s house on a day like this. I could see that he would be going over there to apologize and only later did I see that the setting was a mirror for his own swirl of emotions. It was the setting that helped me find the emotional weight to the scene.

In Nina Munteanu’s on-line article Important Tools of Setting in a Novel: Create Memorable Settings Using Time, Place and Circumstances, she argues that without setting “there is no story.” At first glance this is a bold statement. What about plot? Character? Theme? And yet, Munteanu makes the case that setting is influential because it grounds a scene, advances the plot, and reflects a character’s mood. The setting of your story keeps the characters from simply being a group of talking heads amid a backdrop of nothing. Munteanu writes, “Without setting, characters are simply there, in a vacuum, with no reason to act and most importantly, no reason to care.”

But setting is important, even for us character-driven writers. Maybe I should say, especially for us character-driven writers. I like writing dialogue; it’s one of my strengths. The downside to knowing our strengths as writers is that we can lean too heavily on them. This means I often have scenes in my stories with people just sitting around talking. Remember what we said about not wanting your characters to be talking heads in a vacuum? That’s where setting comes in.

So if you’ve been hesitant to give setting a big role in your work (setting-phobicthat’s a word, right?) don’t panic. There’s a way to incorporate setting into your work without compromising your own aesthetic. And just because I have a better appreciation for setting now doesn’t mean that I’m a convert who now knows fifty ways to describe a busy Austin street. But it’s helped me to appreciate why that street sometimes needs a description.

Kelly’s website



Guest Post, Bucky Miller: A Clinic for Seeing

If a patron of the Teepee Motel in Wharton, Texas looks out from their room and across the county highway that passes through town, they will first notice a boxy, unassuming metal building, just the type David Byrne once described as the unnoticed realization of “the dream that modern architects had at the beginning of [the 20th] century.” Bolted to the beige façade, in large black letters, is the word museum. Venturing inside, curious tourists will realize that they have found the 20th Century Technology Museum, a wunderkammer chronology of a hundred years in engineering and commerce. Radios, early cellular phones, and boxy computers abound, but two of the main attractions—in one instance literally serving as the sign for the museum—are homemade airplanes. Both look kind of funky—a little beat up, with parts not quite like what one would hope from an aircraft—and indeed, a quick check of the didactics will inform the patron that each of these planes failed to ever take flight. Presented as a “tribute to the ingenuity of great 20th century men,” the planes are suspended above the viewer’s head, fixed by wires and poles into the gradual ascent they never achieved. One is piloted, incidentally, by a plush Snoopy.

bucky miller photograph
“Photograph,” Bucky Miller, 2014

Museums are like photographs, or maybe it is vice-versa. Each can be an adventure in verisimilitude and each has a tendency to tousle our relationship with some sort of history. I began photographing inside museums because I got lost.

I moved to Austin in the late summer of 2014 and soon found it difficult to make pictures there. The city has a particular way of presenting itself—there is something in a self-conscious attempt at “keeping weird” that casts an unwanted veneer upon the pictures, pictures that should be weird on their own merit, damn it! And even though I had moved from Phoenix, I found Austin hot to be an exotic and terrible type of hot. Stymied, I decided that I would find activities to occupy myself while I chipped away at the problem of photographing this new place. An artist I’d heard of was giving a lecture at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, three hours away.

The Amon Carter is not on Amon Carter Boulevard. It’s about a half hour away from there. Had I known, I would have made it to the lecture on time. Not knowing, I got lost at something not quite an airport. Getting lost, I found a museum dedicated to the history of one of the nation’s largest airlines. I keep forgetting the name.

I was giddy. I won’t describe the place because it would deaden what I did there, which was photograph my battery to death and leave euphoric. I finally did make it to the Amon Carter Museum, but I didn’t really care. I ate Thai food and drove home.

After that I started photographing inside as many museums as I could find without aiming to make a body of work about them. They were almost-spaces, a step removed from the “actual world” and built of static objects which, when filtered through the split-second exposure of the photograph, achieved a second, twice-removed state of stillness.

Really I was just doing as a museumgoer does; when I visited an armed forces museum in Austin, the smiling attendant informed me that I wasn’t allowed to touch but that I could “take as many pictures as I liked.” I obliged. But in photographing for the photograph as opposed to the photographed I stepped outside my tourist guise and into an ideal—covert—position as a collector of raw metaphorical data.

Suddenly pictures were everywhere. I discovered the imaginary landscape in my pictures—museum or not—the city that exits only in photographs and expands its borders the more I work. The museums had become a clinic for seeing, even though I was seeing them “wrong.” There was so much work to do.